Trying to spot the rare and timid turtle

2011-02-07 00:00

IT’S a privilege to view the majestic leatherback and loggerhead turtles nesting on the pristine shores along Isimangaliso Wetland Park’s coastline or witness their hatchlings struggling from their eggs and make their run for the sea.

We were reminded of this by Isimangaliso’s CEO, Andrew Zaloumis, before we set out brimming with anticipation at nightfall in two safari vehicles in search of these ancient and mysterious sea creatures to celebrate World Wetland Day on February 2.

After all, this coastline is the only remaining breeding ground in Africa for these two giant turtle species. The nesting sites of leatherbacks stretch from Maphelane in the south to Mozambique in the north.

Loggerheads are smaller weighing between 80 kg and 140 kg, but leatherbacks can weigh up to 800 kg.

Interestingly, male leatherback turtles never leave the water once they enter it. Only the cumbersome females will crawl back onto land out of necessity to nest in the sand above the high water mark.

Trakking devices attached to the tiny hatchlings have revealed that they travel thousands of kilometres in the ocean within days, says Zaloumis. But the majority fall prey to marine predators and only one or two hatchlings will survive out of 1 000 that make it to sea.

Other turtles that occur at Isimangaliso are the green turtle, hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles.

Zaloumis warned us that turtles are shy and easily disturbed, and their eyes are very light-sensitive so camera flashes must be strictly controlled. Also controlled are the number of vehicles allowed to travel the shores below the high-tide line to minimise damage. Concessionaires taking guests for turtle tours have to abide by strict regulations and are only entitled to operate in their designated zones.

We never doubted that we would see turtles “in action” so to speak after all we were in the best company to discover them and everyone else we’d spoken to told of a recent encounter. But alas, we were to be disappointed.

Within half an hour of setting out our vehicles’ lights were abruptly switched off as their beams caught the tracks of a loggerhead turtle crossing the sand. Moments later our excitement abated as we realised the elusive creature had aborted its mission and returned to the water.

The nesting process usually lasts as long as an hour and 45 minutes.

Zaloumis explained that turtles can retain their eggs for up to three days but thereafter if they have not had an opportunity to lay them, will abort them at sea.

It just wasn’t our night as we continued along the coastline from Cape Vidal to Sodwana Bay, a journey lasting about four hours. We encountered only tracks and deserted nests.

But there were compensations. The long pristine stretch of white sand on a magical starry night, the hordes of ghost crabs scuttling along the water’s edge and a rare sighting of a honey badger foraging along the beach were all reminders that it was indeed a privilege to be part of the experience. There never are any guarantees when it comes to “game” viewing.

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