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Watch Sea Turtles Nest in KwaZulu-Natal

Watch Sea Turtles Nest in KwaZulu-Natal

This story was first published in the December 2014 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.

Meet the Turtle Man of KZN.

And see loggerhead and leatherback turtles play out a captivating wildlife spectacle on the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Who is the Turtle Man?

Gugu Mathenjwa has been making day and night trips during turtle nesting and hatching season for more than 20 years

Much of Gugu’s data collection is done at night by torchlight. Here he examines turtle hatchlings before releasing them safely into the sea.

If anyone can claim the title of Turtle Man, it’s Gugu Mathenjwa. For over 20 years, every day and night during turtle nesting and hatching season (from mid-October to mid-March), Gugu is on the beaches of Rocktail Bay searching for turtles. When he finds them, and without disturbing their laying, he checks, measures, tags and logs them. Over the years he has amassed a vast body of turtle data for the Maputaland Sea Turtle Project, as well as for use by turtle researchers and conservationists. We’d call him a ‘turtle whisperer’, but he modestly says he just loves what he does.

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Gugu is a local from Mabibi, and has worked for Wilderness Safaris at Rocktail Beach Camp since 1992. So if anyone knows and understands sea turtles, it’s Gugu. Seeing turtles with this jovial and endearing man, with his quick smile and patient, twinkling eyes, is unforgettable. He seems to know them as if they were his children.

From nest to sea

It’s overcast and brooding today, which means it’s turtle weather. On dull days and under cover of night the turtles make their lumbering journey up the sandy beaches and laboriously craft a nest in the sand for their eggs. According to Gugu,
leatherbacks lay 80 to 120 eggs at a time, up to ten times a season, which runs from mid-October to the end of January.

Loggerheads lay 100 to 130 eggs up to four times during summer. Sixty days after the eggs are laid, leatherback hatchlings emerge from the nests. Loggerheads follow at 80 days. To survive, hatchlings need to evade beach predators like ghost crabs, birds, honeybadgers and monitor lizards. Luckily, turtle-egg harvesting and poaching have been virtually eliminated in this area, thanks to good community relations and educational programmes with local communities, which give the turtles a fighting chance.

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Turtle patrol

It’s hot and humid as we head out in the open-top Land Rover with Gugu at the helm, so the late afternoon breeze is welcome. I ask him how many times he’s driven the 30km stretch of beach between Black Rock and Mabibi in search of turtles, and he shakes his head with a smile. “We’d need a calculator to work it out,” he says with a chuckle. We do the maths as we drive. If Gugu had driven it just once a day for the years he has worked at Rocktail Beach Camp, he has completed a total of 8 000 turtle patrols – but we both know it’s likely double that.

Wilderness Safaris has supported the conservation of loggerhead and leatherback turtles in KwaZulu Natal while also offering turtle tours to guests

The trip back into the ocean is slow for loggerheads, which are designed to move in water.

We drive along the beach at low tide, below the high-water mark to minimise compacting the sand at possible nesting sites. As we drive Gugu says, “Look for turtle tracks leading up the beach from the sea. They look a bit like a single, wide tyre track.”

He explains that nesting loggerhead numbers have increased dramatically and more than 1 800 nestings are now seen in a summer, compared to only 400 about 50 years back. What makes this more impressive is that roughly only one hatchling out of every thousand makes it to reproductive adulthood, which is estimated at 9-12 years for leatherbacks and 30-33
years for loggerheads.

Leatherback turtles are not as common in KwaZulu Natal as loggerhead turtles but they also use their flippers to create nests

Leatherback turtles are not seen as often as loggerheads. Both species use their flippers to create a ‘nest’ in the sand in which to lay their eggs.

Leatherback numbers haven’t fared quite as well, but have increased from just five leatherbacks nesting on this coastline in 1965, to more than 100 nests per season now. It’s thought that the high sand temperatures along this coastline produce mostly female leatherbacks, so there is simply a shortage of males around. As with crocodiles, sand temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings: 20-24°C produces male turtles and over 29°C produces females.

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Making tracks

In mid-sentence, Gugu stops talking and points down the beach far ahead of us. “There’s a turtle track. Do you see the drag mark going up the beach?” As we draw closer the track comes into view. “It’s a loggerhead,” he says, identifying it in near darkness. “Leatherbacks have seven ridges running the length of their backs and are dark blue-grey in colour,” he continues, as if thinking aloud. “They’re also the biggest turtles in the ocean and can weigh one ton, and measure three metres in length.

“This is definitely a loggerhead, though, with a smooth shell and paler colour. Can you believe that no matter where they go during their lives, they return to the exact same beach they were born on to lay their eggs? I think that takes GPS use to new heights.”

We stop at the tracks near the ocean and Gugu leads the way on foot, walking slowly as we follow. Before we approach, he needs to see what stage of egg-laying she is in. If she’s in the trance-like state when she is actually dropping the eggs into the hole she has dug, we can approach – otherwise, we need to hang back and not interrupt her.

Lady Luck smiles on us. Mesmerised and completely absorbed in the moment, nobody blinks as we watch the intimate process. Only Gugu has his wits about him, measuring and collecting data with his practised hand. Then the huge turtle closes the nest, flicking sand over her eggs with her flippers. Done, she turns tail and starts the slow journey back to the ocean. She may well be back on the beach in about two weeks, to make a new nest and fill it with eggs, and maybe once or twice more this season.

There was a sense of eternity in what we just saw. Something strangely prehistoric, and yet delicately vulnerable at the same time. “That’s definitely not what you will feel when you come back between January and March and see the hatchlings head for the sea,” jokes Gugu at the comment. “They are in such a hurry and move so fast, you’d be amazed.”

And we will return in steaming February to witness the energetic frenzy of hatchlings scurrying to the ocean to begin their journey to adulthood. Most move by night, but many give in to the urgency and bolt to the ocean by day. Countless hatchlings will emerge, but only one in a thousand will make it back to these beaches to lay eggs of her own.

Once in the ocean baby turtles on the KwaZulu Natal coast have a long journey and many more hurdles to conquer before adulthood

And away he goes, though surviving the journey from the nest on the beach to the ocean us just one of many hurdles before a turtles reaches adulthood.

Turtle Status

Five species of turtle are found in South African waters.

Leatherback turtles

Leatherbacks live along the entire coastline. They dive to more than 100m and stay underwater for 35 minutes. Leatherbacks feed on jellyfish and often ingest plastic bags by mistake. IUCN status: Vulnerable

Loggerhead turtles

Loggerheads have square heads, hooked bills and strong jaws to crush crabs, crayfish and mussels, but they also eat jellyfish. Their shells have five large plates on each side of the central plate. IUCN status: Vulnerable

Green turtles

The green turtle pictured is not usually among the loggerhead and leatherback turtles seen in KwaZulu Natal but Gugu has spotted one in previous years

Green turtles are very rarely seen on the beaches of KZN, but Gugu says one was seen this year – a stroke of luck.

Green turtles have four plates on either side of the central row and are mottled brown in colour. They feed on algae and marine plants and breed in the Mozambique channel. IUCN status: Endangered

Hawksbill turtles

Hawksbills are small with overlapping shell plates and a hooked bill. They feed on corals, sponges and urchins from the seafloor. They breed around Madagascar and Mauritius. IUCN status: Critically Endangered

Olive Ridley turtles

Olive Ridley turtles are the second smallest in the world and seldom weigh even 50kg. They are 60-70cm long and their shell is olive coloured. Northern Madagascar is their closest breeding ground to South Africa. IUCN status: Vulnerable

Where to See Turtles

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