Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The waves are crashing on the beach. The Milky Way lights up the sky. The Moon is nowhere to be seen and darkness is surrounding us. Only the faint light of Mbuko’s torch casts a red hue on the slopes of the sand dunes to our left. To our right, the foam of the waves breaking on the beach leave a whitish hue. Mbuko is walking confidently through the soft sand analysing every track he comes across. He freezes as he shines his light on an oval shape sticking out which we follow with our gaze. A ghost crab is firmly grabbing a newly hatched loggerhead turtle. The tiny reptile, no more than 5-centimetre long (2 inches) is still alive. We silently observe how the crab runs to its hole in the sand dragging its bloody prey. We scan the surroundings in search for more loggerhead hatchlings. We spot another new-born, already trapped in a crab’s hole. This is the destiny of the vast majority of turtle hatchlings. If the spectacle of turtles laying eggs and hatchlings running to the ocean at night is magical, it is also a cruel scene, during which human intervention is uncaught for. We silently walk back to the desolated Thonga Beach Lodge where we started from, on foot, an hour earlier, the only lodge for miles along this protected beach of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the northernmost corner of South Africa.
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The birds are calling, the cicadas are crepitating and branches of trees are shaken by vervet monkeys making their way through the coastal forest. The sky is orange and the sun is already warm as it rises from the Indian Ocean at this early hour. As I just woke up, I am sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee on the wooden deck of my luxurious rondavel, reflecting on last night’s outing. If the few hatchlings we saw were condemned, we spotted many turtle nests along the shore: loggerheads and also the massive nests of the giant leatherbacks, the largest of all turtles, reaching up to 860 kilograms and migrating across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I am wondering how many hatchlings made it to the ocean overnight. Statistically, only two out of 1,000 hatchlings reach nesting maturity at about 15 to 25 years of age. If the nest is not found by a honey badger, nor poached to use the eggs for traditional Zulu medicine, the hatchlings have to battle through the wall of crabs to reach the wash zone and enter the 26-degree Celsius water (79 degrees Fahrenheit). Then, they have to reach the Agulhas current that flows as close as three kilometres (less than two miles) from shore during the nesting season. The current provides food for the young turtles consisting of upper-surface animals (and unfortunately micro plastics), and transports them, between five and nine kilometres per hour (3 to 5. 5mph).
We are about to experience this current during a drift dive on the reef. This will give us a better idea of the predation the hatchlings face once in the water.
After gearing up at the Marine Centre of the Thonga Beach Lodge, we are holding on firmly in the RIB boat as it is piercing through the waves to reach our dive site: the Yellowfin Reef. It is only a couple of kilometres from shore (slightly more than a mile) and the engine is soon stopped. We clearly see the thatched roofs of the lodge’s rondavels amidst the coastal forest as we are going through our safety briefing before rolling into the ocean.
If only loggerheads and leatherbacks come to nest along the coast of Maputaland, all sea turtle species can be found in the South African waters, and our expectations are high.
We are greeted by honeycomb moray eels and follow the current to explore the abundance of life that the colourful reef hosts. Bright nudibranchs hug the rocks. A massive potato bass changes colours as we approach, to warn and impress us. A stonefish goes almost unnoticed, so well camouflaged. Triggerfish defend their nests, and couples of clownfish do not dare leaving their protective anemone. The silhouette of a ragged-tooth shark is guessed in the distance. And suddenly it disappears as fast as it appeared: a glimpse of a majestic loggerhead turtle. Shy, she may be waiting for the protection of the night to come onshore and lay her eggs. She may have been in these waters for several weeks already as female loggerheads lay about four clutches a season: during mating, the male turtle impregnates the female with enough sperm to last sometimes for several seasons, and the female can store and release the sperm when required to fertilize a batch of ova. It is the same principle for leatherbacks that can come to shore up to ten times a nesting season, to also lay an average of 100 eggs each time. This immense effort can make a turtle lose up to a fourth of its body weight throughout the nesting season. Minutes later, a playful green turtle comes to greet us as we are getting low on air.
At breakfast, we discuss our dive with Smethe, the head guide of the lodge. Last night, after we came back from our walk on the beach, he drove about forty kilometres (25 miles) north with guests in one of the lodge’s Land Rovers to find three leatherbacks laying eggs. If driving along the coast increases the chances of spotting turtles, it is very special to simply walk on the beach and look for tracks to the sound of the ocean. We will try again tonight!
After resting from the dive by the beach between snorkelling sessions in the rock pool and a nourishing lunch on the wooden deck overlooking the ocean, we are now enjoying sundowners at Lake Sibaya, a short drive inland from the Thonga Beach Lodge. Pied kingfishers keep hovering and plunging into the crystal-clear waters of South Africa’s largest fresh water lake, often coming back up with a small tilapia. A purple heron, cattle egrets and white breasted cormorants fly low above the lake, sandpipers search the ground, while a rare rosy-throated longclaw amazes the birdwatchers who let their gin & tonic down to grab their binoculars. In the distance, the ears and nostrils of a few hippos come up regularly. Cattle is grazing the nutritious grass along the shore. A few women from the nearby Mabibi community dot the banks of the lake, picking reeds to weave baskets. About a thousand people live in this peaceful village between the Indian Ocean and Lake Sibaya. The Thonga Beach Lodge is the only source of work with about 55 employees on the payroll, and a few indirect jobs, making the whole village live. The Isibindi group that manages this luxurious lodge as well as two others in South Africa (the Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge and the Kosi Forest Lodge) also contributes to the school via the Isibindi Foundation, funded by levies paid by its guests. Its most recent achievement in Mabibi was to repaint the school and rebuild its roof, on top of the school material it provides on a yearly basis to compensate for the many short-comings of the South African educational system.
The sky is orange, and the sun is disappearing below the horizon. No one is to be seen anymore along the banks of the lake and we are driving away, as the hippos will be out of the water soon, grazing all night.
As we are finishing another delicious candlelit dinner on the beach back at the lodge, our turtle guide Mbuko comes to greet us. It is time to walk the beach again.
We know what to look for, and we walk side by side, focused on tracks and black spots on the white wash zone searching for hatchlings and carapaces of adult turtles coming to nest. Our chances are high: the nesting season lasts from November to March, and with about 55 to 65 days for the eggs to hatch, January and February offer good probabilities of seeing not only the laying of eggs but also the hatching.
As Mbuko explains more about these survivors of one of the most ancient reptilian orders that have been swimming the oceans for at least 100 million years, his passion and respect for these prehistoric animals shine through. He gathered a lot of knowledge when working for the South African turtle research and conservation that has focused on these two species since the 1960’s. He pauses. He shines his light on the top of a dune. The ghost carb is startled and drops his prey to run away. We get closer. It is a hatchling! As it gets back on its belly, the carapace patterns are obvious: seven longitudinal lines. It is a leatherback! With 90 percent of nests being loggerheads’ on the beaches of Maputaland, we feel extremely lucky. The tiny leatherback hatchling seems to have recovered its orientation fast and starts heading for the ocean, frantically swinging its front flippers on the soft sand. The slope of the dune and beach help it find its way, as well as the white crest of the waves and the stars reflected on the surface of the ocean. As it is making progress, we follow the tracks of the crab to a hole in the ground. With last night’s experience, I dread finding other hatchlings in crab holes… I look down. Two leatherback hatchlings are battling up to exit their nest. They are probably the last ones: most hatchlings run for the sea at the same moment, but for the very first and very last ones. Being so few, their chances to escape predators are quite slim. However, these may be lucky: if we are not interfering, our presence clearly deters crabs from approaching. It takes long minutes for the hatchlings to make it out of their nest in what seems to be an exhausting climb. Once on the beach, they run to the ocean, going down and up the canyons in the sand that have been left by our footprints. The tiny size of the tracks of the hatchlings contrasts with the 2-meter (6 feet) wide track of the female leatherbacks that we spotted earlier along the beach, going up and then down after digging a monumental nest to confuse predators about the exact location of her precious eggs.
The hatchlings progress slightly faster on the hard sand they have just reached. Suddenly, in what seems like a tsunami for the baby turtle, a wave crashes onto it and the hatchling disappears into the ocean. Its siblings follow shortly, and we observe this precious moment, speechless: only a few are lucky enough to attend to this moving moment of a turtle hatchling reaching the ocean.
They need to swim fast to avoid sharks and cuttlefish, and they need to eat as much as they can (mostly members of the jellyfish family for the leatherbacks), as every centimetre of growth reduces the number of predators able to eat them. With time, their soft shell will harden and its trailing edges of the scutes grow into hard, sharp spines able to deter most pelagic predators. If they get lucky, and avoid encounters with large predators, longline fisheries, and plastic wastes, one of these may be back in about 15 to 25 years to lay her eggs on that same beach.
For centuries, sea turtles have been considered an easy source of proteins by humans who used to kill them after they laid eggs and harvest the latter. With seafaring, sailors marked the nesting beaches that they considered a supply area while the carapace have been sought after by the affluent classes. Thanks to an important global conservation effort, turtles are now protected but poaching is still common. If thanks to the conservation efforts by the South African authorities, their IUCN status is “only” vulnerable, many of their subpopulations such as in the Pacific and Southwest Atlantic are critically endangered. Nesting beaches in South Africa are closely monitored, and today, the danger lays in the ocean where long-line fishing has become a death trap for the turtles, not even mentioning the deadly plastics…
- To fully unwind and to experience the beach lodge to the fullest make sure to book a minimum of two to three nights at the Thonga Beach Lodge.
- Sodwana Bay is South Africa’s hotspot for reef diving. More than a dozen dive centres operate from the village dotted by simple accommodation, including the largest one, Coral Divers. It gets very, very crowded especially during the holidays. For a more exclusive experience on an untouched reef, the Marine Centre of the Thonga Beach Lodge is ideal.
- You can get PADI-certified at the Marine Centre of the Thonga Beach Lodge.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!