On Turtle Watch

Late yesterday afternoon I was one of the lucky ones to witness turtles hatch on a deserted beach off the Kenyan coast on Manda Island, and take their first faltering steps towards the dangerous embrace of the ocean. The Lamu Marine Conservation Trust founded by Carol Korschen, twenty odd years ago, not only facilitates this special experience, but is also doing an incredible job at working with the local community to educate and change ingrained habits and behaviours in a place where turtle meat is considered a delicacy, and their oil, shells and eggs are sought after and enjoyed.

We were a motley crew of tourists that gathered at the Peponi Hotel at Shela beach, and after a brief introduction and explanation of how events would unfold, we clambered into the three boats that would take us to the nesting site on Manda Island. These boats belong to men from the local community, and by involving them this way, they not only benefit financially from the endeavour, but their participation in the project helps to ensure the survival of the species.

Two of the most endangered sea turtles nest in the Lamu archipelago: the Green Turtle and the Hawksbill Turtle. The Green Turtle, a herbivore that lives on sea grasses and algae, is known in Swahili as Ziwa or Kasa Kawaida, and is critically endangered. They are the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles, and although they start their lives as hatchlings of no more than 5 centimetres long, can grow to adults of more than a metre, weighing 136-159kg.

Education stands at the centre of this project, and Famau, who works for the Trust, runs well-designed and successful programmes in the local schools. One of these success stories tells of one of the youngsters who admonished his fisherman father for catching and eating these beautiful creatures. His argument was clearly well-aimed and worded, as his father, instead of rebuking him, were swayed by his convictions. This step may seem small, but change happen one thought, and one choice at a time. Fishermen now take the turtles that get entangled in their fishing nets to the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LamCot) where they get tagged and released.

Our journey took us across the broad channel that separates Lamu and Manda Islands from one another, and after zipping through narrow channels, we made landfall amongst the mangroves. We excitedly sloshed through shallow water and mud in the special shoes we were issued, before making our way uphill through an acacia forest to the only fresh water well on the island and the homestead of another success story.

Here a converted poacher resides with his family, tending to their goats and helping the Trust in their conservation efforts. He still makes his living off these gentle giants, but now to preserve, and not to destroy. He is financially rewarded for every nest he identifies and protects until the hatchlings are ready to emerge.

The last leg of our trek took us over the dunes to Takwa beach where the Indian Ocean breaks in foaming waves. From the nest, a V-shape was drawn on the beach, and while the lines were transformed into little ridges to help guide the hatchlings, we all eagerly took our positions on the outer edges of it with the gentle admonition of “whatever you do, do not touch them”, still ringing in our ears. I held my breath as the digging started and added my voice to the communal “aawh” that exploded from our lips as the first one emerged.

Without hesitation he dashed towards the ocean, every so often pausing to catch his breath and to build up strength. This journey is vital, as it helps to toughen their lungs and muscles, before they have to face the onslaught of the ocean and the myriad dangers it cradles. When he finally reached the surf, after stumbling into every edged footprint that was left when clearing the beach of excess debris, he received a welcoming tumble from the first wave, before the second one sucked him home.

And so the exodus of the last hatchlings of this nest began: a scurried rush for some; slight hesitation for others, but every one of them egged on by us with fluttering hearts and laughter on our lips, as we eagerly captured their progress on film. When the last one finally made it to the ocean, the collective cheer that erupted formed the crescendo for this extraordinary experience.

The odds really are against these little ones, and only one out of every 500-1000 survives to adulthood. This means that none of the hatchlings I watched with awe and a tug at my heart may grow up to come back to this exact same beach eighteen to twenty years from now to lay their eggs. It is a sobering and sad thought, especially after being thoroughly enthralled by their brave dash towards the many dangers they will have to face in order to survive.

We started our return journey walking towards the final bits of colour lingering in the sky, and as the last light gave way to darkness, we made our own dash for home across the water that will hopefully nourish and shelter these little newcomers. It is said that in order to get rid of excess salt water the Green Turtle “cry”, and I wonder if they do not also cry for the destruction of the oceans that they witness on their long, solitary journeys?

*           *           *

# Did you know?

  • The sex of the hatchlings, while determined by the temperature of the sand in the nest, will only become noticeable much later in their lives?
  • 70% of hatchlings can become food for ghost crabs before they’ve even reach the ocean!

## Visit the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust’s website for more information on this special project. You may even want to adopt your own turtle! Not only will you receive a certificate of adoption, but you will also get regular updates as to where your turtle may find itself in the world. They are spirited travellers and you may be surprised at the places they visit.