Exploring the Maputaland Sea Turtle Project – South Africa

by Ilana Stein, Johanesburg, South Africa

“Turtle!” The vehicle stopped suddenly, the beams cutting through the salty air ahead of us, and lighting up the telltale tracks – wide as tank markings – of the turtle now at the top of the beach. Without a word, we all piled out the vehicle and scrambled through the darkness towards her.

You may think that level of excitement a little overdone for just a turtle. But let me tell you the story of the extreme north-east coastline of South Africa in the Maputaland Coastal Forest Reserve, where an annual spectacle has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Every summer, hundreds of Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles complete their breeding cycle and emerge from the Indian Ocean to lay their eggs on this stretch of coastline – incredibly most returning to the exact beach on which they themselves hatched! However, turtle numbers seemed to be dwindling, possibly due to over-exploitation of sea turtle products, so in 1963, scientists from the then-Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) under the direction of Dr. George Hughes initiated a project to monitor the number of nesting females per season, and to protect the beaches on which they nest from further disturbance. In 1971, the project was expanded to include collecting data on Loggerhead hatchlings.

Between January and April, hundreds hatch from the nests and make their way down to the sea. By ‘notching’ their shells at this time and ‘reading’ the notches when they return to nest, scientists calculate the age at which they reach sexual maturity. (This is impossible with Leatherbacks, as their carapaces are made of unsegmented living tissue.) In 1997, new satellite tracking technology was implemented to determine the migratory routes of both species after nesting.

Ironically, results of this study show that both turtle populations are in fact increasing – the only populations in the world know to be doing so!

In 1998, funding from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife dwindled significantly, and finances had to be found elsewhere. Donations from the World Wildlife Fund, the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust and Rocktail Bay Lodge contributed vital funds. Rocktail Bay Lodge contributes two services to the turtle project: Wilderness guides from the lodge share nightly patrols with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for monitoring the turtle populations, and the guests that accompany them are treated to an awe-inspiring sight that often results in guests donating funds and ‘adopting’ turtles.

Every night from October to December, at low tide and below the high water mark (so as not to damage the beach too much by impacting the sand and its delicate life forms), intrepid guides drive a 30km stretch of beach to count and tag turtles; every night, no matter the weather. Such commitment is exceedingly rare, given the fact that they’ve already put in a full day’s guiding at the Lodge. Rocktail Bay Lodge guests are welcome to come along and watch this operation in action.

It was 11:30 when we set out, the beginning of low tide. We’d had time for an hour’s snooze after a convivial dinner beneath a Natal Mahogany tree – the stars had disappeared and low, grey clouds began to press down on the air – even in the darkness we could see their grey-blackness surrounded us as we bumped down in an open game drive vehicle to the beach. As the headlights lit the way ahead of us, the sands seemed grey-brown and there were eerie, bright white blobs darting here and there – the ghost crabs living up to their name.

A kilometre along, we came across the first loggerhead. Loggerheads are not as big as Leatherbacks, sort of ‘medium-sized’ – meaning one averages 1 metre in length and weighs only 140kg! – and the shell shape is a cross between a torpedo and a tear-drop. This one was just finishing patting down the sand over her nest and while her large flippers were still carefully arranging the sand so that it was barely discernible from all those predators, Gugu quickly measured her and found that she’d been tagged before. Much excitement as her tag number was BB471 – which means she was tagged in 1999, making her an ‘old lady’ by now and still in excellent condition. (By the way, even these old ladies are incredibly strong – once they start moving, even if you hold on with all your might, they can drag you down to the sea with them!)

On we went, dark sea and foam on left, white ghost crabs all around us, when we saw a large leatherback. Leatherback turtles have elongated, streamlined dark grey or black shells and they average 1.2 to over 2 metres and weigh up to 750kg! We thought this Leatherback was just finishing her nest, but it turned out she was just playing with us, making a false nest to draw off predators, and the real work was just beginning. We piled out the vehicle and made our way, stumbling over the dark sand to her. She chose a site and began painstakingly scraping the sand out with her back flippers. I realised, amazed, that she couldn’t actually see what she was doing – it’s all done by instinct and feel.

Meanwhile, the rain began, and lightning lit up the scene as we rushed to the vehicle for the great Wilderness Safaris ponchos – waterproof on the outside and cosy blanket-like on the inside, with hoods – which turned out to be vital because the rain was coming down in big ploppy drops, which the wind threw at us from all directions. Ignoring all this weather, we gathered in a respectful circle around the leatherback, as Gugu took measurements and tagged her both with a metal tag on the flipper and a microchip. When leatherbacks begin the nesting process they aren’t disturbed by anything, in fact, they go into a trance of a sort and don’t notice any clipping and flashing happening around them.

There we stood, like some kind of weird cult in our hooded cloaks, rain pouring down, lightning flashing; it seemed like the special effects in some sort of haunted house. The rain was forgotten as she finished digging, and we all took turns to kneel down to see her drop the glistening eggs into the hole, our shoes filling with wet sand. She laid about 70 eggs, and then began slowly and with infinite care and patience filling the hole with sand, patting it down firmly. I marvelled at the effort she took with every stroke of her flippers.

Being merely human, we were impatient, but that could have been the fact that it was now pouring buckets. We eventually gave in to the elements. Leaving her to finish off, we stumbled back to the vehicle and turned back for home. There’s nothing like snuggling into a warm dry bed with rain drumming on the roof after a good turtle sighting!
Originally posted in “On Eagles’  Wings” February 28th 2007