Sun, sand and sea turtles

Sunset. This is the perfect time to start patrolling the sandy beach. Equipped with a water bottle and a camera, we head into the darkness echoed by crashing waves. Near the high tide mark, we spot unusual animal tracks. A female sea turtle has come ashore to look for a suitable nesting site. She meticulously digs out a tunnel and nesting chamber using her hind flippers. Slowly, the enormous reptile deposits her precious eggs. Not much will deter her from completing her task.  Lying next to a sea turtle and listening to her breathe while she lays her eggs under a starlit sky can only be described as a privilege. Witnessing an event like this is a truly humbling experience. To fully appreciate how special it is to be on that beach, you almost shouldn’t be. There should be no sign of you. Even a whisper could ruin the authenticity of the experience. Once she has deposited about 100 soft-shelled eggs, she covers the nest with sand and hauls her exhausted body back to the ocean. Her work is done.

A nesting loggerhead female

A nesting loggerhead female

Loggerheads and leatherbacks

Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles nest along the sandy beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Despite being threatened globally, these two nesting populations have shown good growth over the last 50 years. This is mainly because the entire nesting area falls within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first declared World Heritage Site, which is protected and managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. It is also the location of the longest continuous sea turtle monitoring program in the world; research was initiated here in the 1960’s. Nesters have been tagged, measured and recorded in a database ever since. This is one of the few locations on earth where these amazing animals can be encountered in the wild in such a remote and beautiful setting. The nesting beach stretches about 170 km from Cape Vidal to the Mozambique border. The best place to see them however, is at Bhanga Nek. This paradise is only accessible by 4×4; anything else would perish in the soft sandy tracks. The windy roads through coastal dunes and forest opens up to a beach so magnificent it will take your breath away.

Bhanga Nek beach

Bhanga Nek beach

Lifecycle

Loggerheads are reef dwellers where they munch on crustaceans and sponges. Adults reach approximately 200 kg in size and they have a distinctly large head. Adult leatherbacks can weigh up to a ton. It is incredible to think that they can reach this immense size on a diet of mostly jellyfish…within approximately 15 years. Yes, only 15 years! Leatherbacks are the only species of sea turtle that does not have a hard shell; instead they have a leather-like carapace with white ridges. Interestingly, sea turtles don’t have sex chromosomes like humans do. During the 2 month incubation period, the sex is determined by the temperature of the nest. Higher average nest temperatures (>28°C) produce mostly female hatchlings (the opposite is true for crocodiles!). Once they have hatched, the hatchlings will emerge together as a group, sharing the workload of digging. They remain just below the surface until nightfall when the sand has cooled down. They then scramble down the beach, dodging ghost crabs and head into the Indian Ocean. These little chaps only weigh about 20g and they have no defence mechanisms so they are an easy meal for large fish, a lurking octopus or sea birds. They follow the major currents for many years until they reach maturity. Then they will return to the same beach where they hatched to breed. Only one or two in a thousand hatchlings survive to maturity.

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I had the privilege of being on a sea turtle research team. Check out the size comparison!

Threats

These ocean wanderers face numerous threats worldwide. Many sea turtles are caught incidentally as bycatch in various types of fisheries. Longline, trawl and purse-seine fishing incidentally catch thousands of sea turtles annually. Although they can hold their breath for up to an hour while sleeping, the stress of being entangled reduces their breath-hold capacity. Furthermore, particularly leatherbacks, mistake plastic pollution for food. Once a plastic bag is ingested, leatherbacks cannot regurgitate it because of the downward pointing spines in their throat which assist with swallowing large jellyfish. They choke and drown or ultimately starve because the plastic cannot be digested. Turtle soup is still consumed in some parts of the world and the shell of the green turtle is traded and sold in markets.

A swimming loggerhead hatchling

A swimming loggerhead hatchling

What you can do to help save sea turtles

 ·         Support legit conservation programmes

·         Reduce your use of plastic and recycle

·         When you buy fish, choose fish that was caught using turtle-friendly methods

·         Pick up litter whenever you visit a beach or join a beach clean-up club

·         Do not purchase any turtle products and report animal trade to the local authorities

 

A Conservation Success Story

Ezemvelo staff have worked very hard over the last 50+ years to monitor and protect the nesting females on these beaches. Development is regulated in the area to protect the pristine coastline and harvesting of eggs and nesters has been largely eliminated. Ezemvelo trains and employs guides and monitors from the local community thus supporting, educating and enriching the lives of the community as a whole. Many years ago, hundreds of sea turtles were killed for meat each summer and their eggs were harvested and sold. Today however, there is great sense of pride within this community and being on the “Turtle Team” is an honour. Throughout this unique experience, every effort must be made to cause as little disturbance to the turtles as possible. Nobody is allowed on the beach at night unless accompanied by a tour guide. Torches are only permitted if using the red light. Photographs are only permitted once the turtle has started laying her eggs (no flash from the front) or is on her way back to the sea. If hatchlings are encountered they are not to be picked up. Respect nature, be 100% present in the moment and savour every second!

A leatherback hatchling making its way to the sea

A leatherback hatchling making its way to the sea

 If you are looking for a unique and humbling experience in a truly “off the beaten track” location, a visit to this beach might just be the perfect fit. Because this area has been protected for so many years, there is very little development so don’t expect beautifully tarred roads, shops or entertainment other than that provided by Mother Nature. One more tip; make peace with having beach sand in your bed, all the time…A