Nestled between the verdant coastal forests and lapping waves of the Indian ocean is a pristine beach in Watamu – a critical nesting zone for the sea turtle. A couple of pregnant turtles crawl on the beach, dig pits in the sand then proceed to deposit clutches of leathery, ping pong ball sized eggs, cover up the pits and head back to the sea.
A month and a half later, the eggs hatch and young turtles squirm to the surface wiggling out of the sand en masse, while making a desperate dash to the sea. As they flap their way across the beach, debris, pitfalls, crabs, birds and other threats will claim roughly 50% of those who rose from the sand.
For those lucky enough to survive the onslaught on the beach another set of threats await. Once they reach the ocean they begin a 24 hour period of frenzied straight swimming, where they find a whole new host of predators such as various fish, dolphins, sharks and sea birds as they come up to the surface for air. For the next several months they will seek to avoid predators, find food for themselves and not fall to the pressures of challenging weather or unfortunate currents. In this phase roughly 50 % will perish. Ultimately with the passage of years the survivors will grow in size with now the only serious predators being the sharks and the occasional killer whale. They are now able to establish feeding grounds in numerous coastal waters, normally thousands of kilometers away from the beach where they were born. At approximately 2 decades of age the survivors themselves will be old enough to breed and start migrating back to the nesting sites.
During migration a male will mate with as many females as possible to pass on as much of his DNA as he can while a female will store as much sperm as she can because more fertilized eggs mean more offspring which means more survivors. After mating males travel back to the feeding grounds while females travel back to the beach and lay their eggs – continuing the cycle which their very existence heralds. Whats interesting is that the turtles lay their eggs on the exact same beach they were born, just how they find their way to that nesting beach is still unknown.
Of those that began as eggs at that beach in Watamu, less than 10% remain, at least those were the odds prior to significant human interference. The latter half of the 20th century has been marked by catastrophic declines of sea turtles populations throughout the world. Even though sea turtles spend most of their lives in the oceans, they are inextricably tied to the land too because the adult females must return to land to lay their eggs in a sandy beach. Human pressures from beach development to plastic refuse, imprecise fishing techniques and a large black market trade for turtle meat and eggs have upped the ante for sea turtles, causing their survival rate to drop drastically from each nesting cycle.
There are only seven species of the sea turtle left in the planet, and all of these are in the endangered or critically endangered list.5 of the seven species can be found in Watamu ie. the Green turtle, the Hawksbill, the Olive Ridley, the Leatherback and the Loggerhead. The Green turtle, the Hawksbill and Olive ridley turtles all come ashore to nest on Watamu’s beaches, while the Leatherback and Loggerhead use its waters as foraging grounds as well as migratory routes.
Like the rest of the world, turtles in Watamu face a host of challenges that threatens their very existence such as:
- Pollution especially reckless disposal of plastic refuse. Sea turtles and other marine life eat plastics mistaking it for their food items. Plastic can be lethal to the turtles who ingest it – the debris can block their stomachs and starve them, or it can puncture their intestinal systems. Plastic can also release toxins when ingested.
- Imprecise fishing techniques such as ring netting (fishing method commonly used by fishermen in Watamu) have continued to threaten the sustainability of sea turtles in Watamu. Sea turtles are often accidentally captured, injured or killed by fishermen.
- An increase in structures being built on the beach are a major threat to precious turtle nesting sites in Watamu. Nesting turtles depend on dark, quite beaches to reproduce successfully. Turtles must now compete with this structures propping up at the beach. This beach developments obstructs turtles discouraging them from nesting. If a female fails to nest after multiple false crawls, she will resort to less-than-optimal nesting spots or deposit her eggs in the ocean. In the less-than-optimal spot case, the survival outlook for hatch-lings is slim, while eggs deposited at the ocean have essentially gone to waste!
- In Watamu, the local sea turtle population especially the green turtles are threatened as a result of poaching. Turtles face serious poaching problems, including killing nesting females for meat and illegal collection of eggs from the nesting sites. During the nesting season, turtle hunters comb the beaches at night looking for nesting females. Often, they will wait until the female has deposited her eggs to kill her. Then, they take both the eggs and the meat.
A breading adult sea turtle is the very embodiment of a long shot. It is the exception not the rule. It is in a very real sense, a miracle. If they are to survive they will need more help, protection and understanding.