The howls of wild capuchin monkeys as they feast on mangoes and other fruit may not normally be heard on a popular beach in Trinidad but it’s just one of the changes COVID-19 has brought to the world.
Government’s stay-at-home restrictions included a lockdown of many popular and much-loved beaches or rivers scattered across the islands.
Over the last week, Guardian Media visited the Clifton Hill beach in Point Fortin, Plaisance Park beach in Mayaro, Caura River, Maracas Bay, Chaguaramas beach and Macqueripe beach to see how nature fared without mankind’s often too-heavy footprint.
It was clear that while we missed nature, she was doing better without us. Devoid of any human interference, flora and fauna have thrived.
At Clifton Hill miles of pristine sand can be found with no human garbage to mar the beauty.
Emboldened by the lack of human predators, blue mangrove crabs left the safety of their holes and instead of scurrying, walked lazily along the beach. A pair of birds, sensing a fresh meal, hovered nearby.
But when the crabs sensed our team was getting too close, they skittered back to their muddy homes, disappearing in seconds.
Several feet away, the inspection of a rustling sound revealed a small snake slithering its way into the edge of the mangrove. Perhaps mimicking the blue crab, our photographer chanced one photo of the slithery snake before scampering away.
Smaller black mangrove crabs went about their crab business paying no mind to the two-legged invaders.
Just under 110 kilometres away, across the island, the shoreline of the Mayaro beach seemed like another world.
There was no smooth sand to tread on as the shoreline lay buried under tonnes of sargassum seaweed.
The sargassum first sullied Trinidad’s East Coast and parts of Tobago in these amounts in 2011.
In previous years, the Mayaro/Rio Claro Regional Corporation would launch massive clean-up exercises once the sargassum began to wash up, working tirelessly to clear the piles of seaweed from the shoreline. The sargassum has proven to be more than just an eyesore to Mayaro’s fishing trade, as fishermen have learnt the hard way not to cast nets anywhere near it as those nets have to cut loose once they become weighted with the seaweed.
A small group of King Corbeau patrolled the beach, stopping every few feet to peck inquisitively at the sand.
Even without strict regulations against going to the beach, the Mayaro coastline would be devoid of sea-bathers as the brown wall of seaweed makes it almost impossible to enjoy the cool waters.
Nestled in the Northern Range is another wildly popular nature site—the Caura River. Designated as a national park, Caura has found lifelong fans in the Trinis who enjoy a classic local pastime, the “river lime.”
At the two main areas, Pool 1 and Pool 2, miles of cold, clear water gurgle down, shaded generously by patches of bamboo along the riverbank.
Pre-COVID, on any given day of the week, Caura was a melting pot of crackling firesides, exuberant divers launching themselves from rocks into the water and unfortunately, “sound-clashes” by over-zealous car-enthusiasts.
But during our visit on Tuesday, the only songs that rang out were birdsong and the screams of the cicadas nestled in the trees around the river. Pausing their incessant pecking, woodpeckers perched on tree branches at the entrance to Pool 2 looked warily down at us as we passed below.
The paved paths where cars would usually park were covered in fallen bamboo leaves.
The water seemed even colder and clearer than usual.
But to test that theory meant breaking the Government’s Public Health Ordinance, so the only confirmation came from walking gingerly along the shallow parts of the riverbed. Small fish, surprised out of their tranquillity, scattered before our feet, retreating to the dark nooks they are too often confined to in the river.
One Caura resident, who asked not to be identified, said he could not remember a time in his 50-plus years when the river banks had been so deserted. He said it was a welcome change for the community as river-goers too often leave their garbage behind after their limes.
Just an hour after leaving Caura, our team was standing in the sands of Maracas Bay.
It was Maracas as never seen before, the sand smooth and unmarked by any footprints.
The only sounds were the crashing waves and the high winds.
After ten minutes of taking photos and video along the beach, our team was approached by two police officers. They had gotten a call that a couple were bathing on the beach—an action that could lead to a $50,000 fine and possible jail time—the officers said.
Upon presentation of our media badges and an essential service letter, the good-humoured officers allowed us to continue our work—only warning us not to stay too long on the beach.
Even as we were dusting the sand off our feet to leave, the waters of the Atlantic swept the shoreline, erasing the only evidence of our visit.
On our way back along the North Coast, we stopped as many do, at the Maracas lookout. The various stalls where the delicious chow and other local snacks are usually sold looked dusty and disused-recent relics from a time when we roamed with no COVID-19 worry.
In the west of the island, the boardwalk at Chaguaramas is another well-loved beach.
COVID-19 did more than keep beach-goers away it seemed, as the water looked clear and clean for the first time in years. Almond leaves littered the sand, disturbed only by several large bins still lined with black garbage bags that lay like dead animals on the shore.
A short distance away at Macqueripe Beach, authorities had gone all out to ensure no one breached the barrier from the car park to the beach.
Pieces of scaffolding were linked with wire, creating an impenetrable barricade.
Dancing and feeding on the other side were a group of gorgeous tufted capuchin monkeys.
They swung from tree to tree before our amazed eyes, their tiny hands clutching ripe mangoes.
As we looked on, they seemed to make a sport of picking the fruit nestled high up in the trees, biting it several times before discarding it, then jumping to another tree to continue their hunt.
One furry guy in particular lazily picked up those discarded mangoes, taking his time to eat the flesh completely off it while clinging to the bamboo branches.
Much like a human, he licked the juices of the mango that ran down his hands while peering down at us.
However, after several minutes of our presence, the monkeys stopped their chittering and retreated deep into the bamboo, leaving us alone with the sound of the crashing waves.
Beneath the trees that bracket the bay, the evidence of their feedings- half-eaten mangoes- lay scattered along the grass.
Unlike other nature sites we visited, Macqueripe seemed clear of any human waste.
No noise pollution, animals bolder
As a Forester 1 with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Division, Kishan Ramcharan works every day in the hills of the Northern Range. Home to some of this country’s most magnificent wildlife, the range offers Ramcharan a front-row seat to Mother Nature in all her glory.
From opossums, agouti, iguanas to wild capuchin monkeys, Ramcharan sees in person what most people only see in photographs.
Ramcharan believes the visibility of wildlife is directly linked to the lack of human presence – the animals have gotten braver, he says.
“Usually there are rare sightings of those animals once there are other people around – especially in Caura where there is an influx of visitors there regularly on a daily basis, you tend to hardly sight animals like those. I believe some of the reasons you would rarely see those animals is because of noise pollution, that is one of the main factors that would drive these animals away,” he said.
He said these sightings at a time when the State has mandated citizens to stay at home, prove just how much the presence of people affects the country’s wildlife.
He is advising the public to carry garbage bags to the rivers and beaches so they can take their refuse with them when they leave, to stop lighting fires indiscriminately on the riverbanks and to be quieter in their excursions, so flora and fauna can continue to thrive.
Activists: After COVID, remember climate crisis
While environmentalist and co-founder of IAMovement, Jonathan Barcant says he is happy to know that wildlife is thriving with the absence of people in their habitats, he wants the State to ensure that the environment is a major consideration in the road to recovery from COVID-19.
In an interview on Wednesday, Barcant said IAMovement intends to submit proposals to the Government’s Recovery committee, tasked with charting the way forward for the country post-COVID-19.
“I think it definitely is a show of what can be- in terms of what nature looks like when humans are more respectful or less intrusive- it is very nice to know that wildlife thrives in our forests and it’s nice to see them in their natural environment but I think we need to look beyond wildlife and to the care of these spaces,” Barcant said.
Director of Wildlife and Environmental Protection of Trinidad and Tobago (WEPTT), Kristopher Rattansingh agreed. He said the most important step going forward is ensuring the public creates a “new normal” for interacting with nature.
“We are seeing these effects that are happening and we need to take away from that, that our actions going forward can still affect what is happening, if we go back to things as normal, things will remain the same and we will continue to have the same problems.”
Rattansingh wants the Government to immediately implement the Beverage Container Bill so recycling can become a part of the everyday lives of citizens.