If seeing the ancient annual ritual of turtles nesting and hatching is on your “to do” list, now is the time, writes Jill Gowans. As we speak, tiny creatures are breaking through the shells of their eggs, wriggling out, gulping the sea air and scampering in the dark across the sand to the warm sea.

Lying in wait is a phalanx of ghost crabs, who carry off the first turtle hatchlings. Those following close behind manage to slip through and into the water.

There, they are food for reef fish in the shallows and game fish further out until they reach the relative safety beyond the continental shelf.

They feed and flourish on plankton and jellyfish found among floating sea grasses. Still, only one in hundreds will grow to maturity.

Some 12-14 years later, having mated far out to sea, the female leatherback and loggerhead turtles return to these same deserted KwaZulu-Natal beaches, fringed by the tallest forested dunes in the world, to lay their eggs.

Nobody knows for certain how they find their way back, after swimming countless lengths in the Indian Ocean. Some scientists believe the nesting grounds in these titanium-rich sands provide magnetic imprinting on the young.

This is the time to see this ancient annual ritual. The loggerhead turtle nests up to six times from late October to March; the larger leatherback up to ten times. So nesting and hatching are taking place simultaneously right now.

St Lucia-based ecologist Kian Barker is an official turtle tour guide, operating from a temporary seven-bed tented camp at Bhanga Nek near Ezemvelo, KZN Wildlife’s turtle monitoring station.

This is the longest-running project of its kind, whereby students and local community members walk a section of the beach every night, pinpointing nests, measuring adults and counting hatchlings.

SA’s marine turtles, unlike some other populations, are holding their own against the onslaught of long-line fishing (when they are accidently snared), over-development and over-exploitation for food (subsistence and gourmet).

They and their nesting beaches are protected by national and international legislation.

Barker offers the only overnight turtle tour on this 200km stretch of pristine, wild coastline, collecting guests at St Lucia town to drive through the northerly Coastal Forest Reserve of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (the former Greater St Lucia Wetland Park) to the blue ocean and powder-white sands.

There, after a braai, you walk onto the beach and head by torchlight north towards Mozambique. And if you’re treated to a sighting, it is guaranteed to be a moment you’ll never forget.

A leatherback turtle comes through the white-flecked waves, like an amphibious vehicle landing at Dunkirk.

With a slow laborious gait, she moves up to beyond the high-water mark and digs a hole with her rear flippers. Into that the eggs plop until the nest is full; she flattens the entrance and flicks sand around to disguise it from predators like honey badgers, genets and crabs.

Some 75 days later, and the hatchlings will wriggle their way out of the nest and scamper to the sea, beginning the years of wandering before the females are back again.

* For more information on an overnight turtle tour, contact Shakabarker Tours on 035 590 1162 or email info@shakabarker.co.za.

Nick Bates
Web Editor