Life lessons from a turtle

Life lessons from a turtle Perhaps the most fascinating animal migration, the sea turtle returns to its birthplace to lay its eggs…
by 24th August 2017

We’re not the only ones with a wanderlust spirit. From the icy waters of Antarctica and the misty rainforests of the Amazon, to the open plains of Kenya and Tanzania and the untouched landscapes of the Great White North, animals big and small seemingly share our infatuation with travel. Every year, millions of wildebeest thunder back and forth across the East African savanna in relentless pursuit of greener pastures. In Zambia, the November sky is filled with millions upon millions of eerie fruit bats. The red crab migration on Christmas Island, with its incomprehensible swarming sea of scarlet, is equally astounding. But perhaps the most fascinating and curious of Mother Nature’s many wildlife migrations is that of the sea turtle.

Did you know that sea turtles instinctively swim thousands of kilometres every year, returning as adults to the exact same beach on which they were born in order to mate and lay their own eggs? With an uncannily accurate internal compass, it is believed that these enormous reptiles actually rely on the Earth’s magnetic fields to guide them back, intuitively, to their original birthplace.

Located off the warm, tropical shores of Zanzibar, the exclusive &Beyond Mnemba Island is a private barefoot beach paradise boasting just ten luxury beach bandas. It is a peaceful and secluded oasis, not only for guests, but also for sea turtles. &Beyond Mnemba is one of only two protected nesting sites in Zanzibar for the endangered green sea turtle.

An arduous life journey

Once turtles reach sexual maturity, both males and females expertly navigate themselves all the way back to their birthplace to mate. When it is time to nest, the males will remain in the water while the females, often assisted by the moonlight, emerge from the ocean alone to lay their precious clutch of eggs.

Sometimes the eggs are laid below the high-tide mark, putting the entire nest at risk of getting completely washed away once the tides roll in. When this happens, our teams have to intervene and delicately relocate the nests and precious cargo to higher ground. And although a turtle’s built-in GPS is innate, female turtles do not possess the mammalian maternal instinct, so the nests are immediately abandoned and the hatchlings are left to fend for themselves, from birth, without any help or guidance from their parents.

Approximately 50 to 60 days later, the tiny hatchlings (a mere 5 cm or 2 inches in length) feistily emerge from the nest on a mission to get themselves across the beach and into the water. Our guests and conservation teams always look forward to watching each clutch of cute baby green turtles escape the nest and brave the long journey all the way to sea. Although surprisingly strong and fiercely determined, the hatchlings face a 90% hatching rate, an estimated 75% survival rate on their trek to the sea and only a 1% chance of actually making it to adulthood. It is therefore no surprise that the females produce such a high number of eggs.

Turtle whisperers

In a completely natural, unassisted hatching, anywhere from 25 to 30% of the hatchlings will be taken out by predators on the beach (birds, crabs, lizards, etc.) before they even make it to the ocean. However, on &Beyond Mnemba and Vamizi Islands, staff and guests ‘escort’ the hatchlings by walking alongside them and warding off any nearby predators to ensure each and every turtle successfully makes it to sea, thereby increasing their potential to reach adulthood if only by a small margin.

Green sea turtles can grow up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length and can weigh over 300 kg (700 lb). Sadly, their conservation status remains endangered and our island teams continue to do whatever they can to help the species escape extinction. Our &Beyond Mnemba turtle monitors have been recording data since 1998 and in those 19 years, well over 60 000 green turtles have been born on the island’s protected beachfront. Each year, an average of 38 nests are laid on Mnemba, with more than 100 hatchlings born per nest; the record-breaking nest had an impressive 149 hatchlings.

Boasting Mozambique’s largest recorded population of green sea turtles and one of East Africa’s longest standing turtle monitoring programmes, &Beyond Vamizi Island is also a significant breeding site for this threatened species.

The conservation teams on both islands patrol the beaches daily to monitor and record any new turtle activity. Each turtle is carefully tagged with a unique number and data regarding their movements and the number of eggs laid is meticulously recorded.

Turtle timings

&Beyond Mnemba Island’s turtle season typically runs from February to July (peaking from April to July); however, that said, layings can occur year round, with hatchlings emerging approximately 55 days later. Further south, on &Beyond Vamizi Island, turtle layings occur year round.

Guests can also witness layings and hatchings in South Africa. Every year between November and January, enormous 700 kg leatherback and loggerhead turtles emerge from the Indian Ocean to lay their eggs at Sodwana Bay near &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.

Image © Paolo Slaviero.

10 Turtle truths

So the next time you are lost and need to rely on your own sense of direction, just be thankful you don’t have to navigate your way back to your exact birthplace without the aid of a map, navigational tool or GPS device.

Faced with adversity from the moment they are born, sea turtles live an admirable and solitary life. Their instincts are second to none and their determination is fierce. We can all take a few pages out of their book, so here are 10 life lessons from a turtle:

  1. Follow your instinct
  2. Swim with the current
  3. Travel at your own pace
  4. Enjoy time alone
  5. Slow and steady wins the race
  6. Don’t give up hope
  7. Keep a hard shell
  8. Come up for air
  9. Never forget where you came from
  10. Spend more time on the beach

Here’s hoping these courageous little creatures can continue to escape the nest, and extinction, and remain a species that will enchant our children and grandchildren for generations to come.