Written by: Hagai Zvulun
Anybody who is lucky enough to see a sea turtle in the wild will almost certainly hold a place in their heart for this serene creature. Underwater photographers might even feel a sense of debt to these endearing characters. Few animals, over or under the water, allow you to come so close, and they calmly cope with our attention.
Marine turtles used to be much more common, and in the last few decades we have seen their numbers dwindling throughout their distribution range. Two species of turtles nest in East African waters – the larger green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the smaller hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).
Satellite tagging has shown that they move between various coastal areas to forage, which means that they constantly move in and out of protected habitat, making their conservation challenging. While formally protected throughout their range in East Africa, they are still harvested for their meat, shells and eggs for both human consumption and for decoration.
On a Matembezi sea safari in Tanzania we were able to see them just off the coast and on neighbouring islands at popular snorkelling and diving sights. But perhaps the most exciting way to view turtles is when they are nesting and hatching.
One of the biggest problems that these beautiful animals face is the loss of nesting grounds to over development of coastal resources. It’s a magical moment to view a female dragging her heavy body onto a remote beach at night – losing all the weightlessness and grace that they possess underwater.
There are a few successful projects in Tanzania that protect marine turtle nesting habitats, and in the right season you stand a good chance to see them coming up to nest at night. For example in Juani Island in the Mafia Island Marine Park or on Mnemba Island near Zanzibar you can see turtles nesting in a protected environment.
But an even more touching event is to see the hatching of baby turtles.
After hatching from their eggs, still in the depth of their underground nest, the babies laboriously climb up through the sand and erupt from the nest, looking like black larva.
Between a hundred and two hundred hatchlings make their way towards the awaiting waves, usually resting a few times prior to making it to the shallow water and then swimming out to pelagic water, where they will spend the first phase of their life, not to return until they are themselves fully grown and come to lay their own eggs.
In Tanzania there is a unique spot that is close to our hearts that embodies their struggle, which is called Maziwe Island.
Maziwe is a marine reserve in north Tanzania’s water that protects a rich and varied marine habitat. 80 years ago, Maziwe was an island with a permanent tree cover and it supported a nesting population of green turtles. However, the island lost its tree cover and became a sand bank, inundated by sea water during the high tide every month. The turtle nests on it became water logged during that time and the eggs started to rot.
To tackle this problem, Friends of Maziwe, a non-profit organisation of which Matembezi is a corporate member, has been working on translocating the eggs from Maziwe. Our patrol and relocation team, all drawn locally from Ushongo village, heads out to Maziwe Island daily and, upon identifying a nest, relocates it to our mainland beach site in Ushongo.
Since its inception, the project, which is led by the dedicated and passionate Kerstin Erler, and aided by many other committed colleagues and friends, has enjoyed great success with more than 40,000 new hatchlings returned to the sea.
The project shares a part of its annual donation income with the village of Ushongo, as well as giving a reward to individuals who report turtle nests. These nests in turn are relocated to the project site by our dedicated team. It has been a very gratifying process to see the change of heart in the community with the project’s success. There is now a clear sense of ownership and pride in the community, and many of its members come to see the little turtles hatching.
We can assist guests who wish to visit on the days when nests are expected to hatch – a memorable experience that is a perfect addition to any wildlife safari in Tanzania.
If you would like to assist us in supporting the project, we appreciate any help and you can even adopt a turtle nest through www.friendsofmaziwe.com and get reports on your nest and images of the hatchling from their first day of life.
For more on sea turtles in South Africa, read: Ninja’s of the Deep