Green Turtle Hatching

wanderdust By wanderdust, 24th Sep 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Africa>Tanzania>Zanzibar

A day trip to see green turtles hatching off Mafia Island.

Green Turtle Conservation Project Mafia Island, Tanzania

It is 8.15 in the morning and I am tearing down the dusty track in Hammadi’s four wheel drive towards the dive centre. I have two new companions: a young Swiss couple who arrived at Butiama last night and who I liked immediately. The two of them are bouncing around in the back as Hammadi tries to teach us the Swahili words for mango (embe), coconut (nesi), pineapple (nanasi) and road (barabara) all very handy for future navigation around Tanzania, I am sure.

We are off to Juani Island to see green turtles hatching. This venture is not one I sought out proactively; I merely nodded my head when invited along but now that I am going I am looking forward to it.

We get in the dhow and travel over the dive sites of the marine park until we reach Juani on the far side. The water is too shallow for the boat to approach the shore, so we each put on a pair of dive boots and wade our way in over the prickly coral and sea urchins underfoot.

An islander who works on the turtle conservation project greets us, and once he has our attention, inhales deeply before launching into what is obviously a rehearsed, introductory speech. The fact that he must have said this speech a million times before does not make it any more comprehensible; something he knows too, because he breaks down in giggles just a few times at his own inability to pronounce the English words and I have to give him credit for even trying. I recognise ‘turtle’ in there somewhere at least four times but everything else is lost on me and I wonder what the Swiss and Italians are making of this, but of course we are all nodding our heads at him as though he is speaking English like a news presenter on the BBC.

Speech completed and none of us any the wiser, we set off on the hour long trek across the island to get to a beach on the far side where the turtles are hatching. This beach, sadly, was where the first dead bodies and ruptured plane parts of the Yemenia Airline disaster in 2009 first washed up on the shore. The passenger jet was carrying 150 people and the sole survivor was a young child who somehow managed a miraculous escape.

Interestingly, Juani also attracts another, less tragic, type of human debris on a massive scale: single,wayward flip flops of all brands, makes and sizes. Three times I am told that if a flip flop is lost anywhere in the world at sea then it will surely wash up on the shores of Juani. You would think this weird, magnetic pull attracting mankind’s rubble and rubbish would make the island look like a tip. But the conservationists have found a productive use for these rubber refugees and the other miscellaneous items that wash up on the shore: they bury them in the turtle’s nests, leaving them partly visible on the sand’s surface to help scare away predators who would all too happily gobble up a nice tasty nest of creamy, yolky eggs.

We walk on a narrow pathway through mangroves, palm trees, cassava and sweet potato plants, and papaya trees laden with green fruit: our multiple pairs of feet settling into a squelching rhythm in the warming water of our dive boots. Dense, bright green plants that produce green beans, a staple food for the Juani locals, blanket the island floor as far as the eye can see. Boaboa trees rise up above this fertile, tangled carpet, their upside down branches hanging like stringy umbrellas in the clear blue sky.

As we pass through, kids run out of the bush to see us and wave and scream ‘jambo’ and ‘bye’ at the top of their lungs: their tiny hands frantically lurching up and down to make sure we see, each one competing for our attention. They are dressed in dusty, bright shorts and t-shirts at least two of which have Brazil written across them in yellow lettering. A two year old girl wanders out of her hut to see what all the fuss is about; her wild hair tamed by pleats and beads, fingers planted firmly in her mouth, wide eyes staring. Soon, we attract quite a following but I have to stop waving back because the terrain underfoot now was, at one time, a coral reef, and I keep tripping up and stubbing my toes.

We arrive just in time on the beach to see about ninety four baby turtles emerging from their eggs.

Allie, I discovered yesterday, is a human encyclopaedia of knowledge on animals and turtles happen to be one of her specialities. She tells me that female green turtles will only ever lay their eggs on the beach on which they themselves were born despite the fact they can travel up to 5000 miles to feeding grounds. Each year after the female turtle reaches maturity she will return to the beach to lay between 70 and 120 eggs at a time and not any spot will necessarily do: sometimes she may go to the effort of digging up to five nests a metre deep before finally settling on one. Yet, despite all this exhausting effort, once the eggs are laid she abandons them, not once looking back over her shoulder as she toddles off down the beach to swim back out to sea.

Protecting the eggs during their 55 day incubation period from the cruelty of nature is, in the case of Juani’s turtles, left to the goodwill of human volunteers. Green turtles have only once percent chance of survival in the wild: only one out of a hundred will actually make it and when you see what these tiny creatures have to go through just to survive day one of life on planet earth, you can see why the odds are so badly stacked against them. As soon as they break free of their eggs, they must immediately get to the water no matter what hurdles and obstacles lay in their path; and there are many.

I watch one tiny turtle in particular navigate his virgin journey down to the water. Any piece of seaweed or rock is like Everest for this thing only a few centimetres long. Three times he topples over onto his back, his four tiny legs paddling the air, white belly up, unable to rectify his balance. Three times I have to right him.

Back up again, he waddles and sways drunkenly towards the water with a gallant determination that defies his miniature size, but his navigation skills are far from perfect and he keeps wandering off course, staggering sideways instead of straight and I have to put out my hand to deter him towards the sea.

By the time he reaches the halfway mark he is visibly flagging, stopping to catch his breath in between the mountains and valleys of sand and objects. I am by now hopelessly emotionally invested in this hapless creature’s future whether I wanted to be or not.

Large birds are circling overhead, threatening and crowing their greedy hunger; crabs too scuttle around anticipating a tasty morsel of meat. Lizards apparently don’t mind a bit of fleshy newborn either according to Allie, although I don’t see any in the vicinity thankfully.

Finally he reaches the water’s edge and his relief at being able to swim instead of walk is palpable: he is genetically much better designed to propel through liquid and I delight in his newfound ease. He ducks his tiny head down under the surface, paddling like mad for a few strokes before coming up again for a gulp of air, but even in this more natural, aquatic environment he still moves slowly.

The thing is, he has about 200 metres more of low water to get through, and when he finally reaches the ocean, he will need to battle the six foot white surf I can see crashing down outside the safety of the shallows and I don’t like his chances one bit. But I must let him proceed with his journey and so I stand in the shallow, lapping, waves watching his head bopping up for air every five or six seconds for as long as I am able to see him, wishing him luck on his brave crusade.

When I can no longer make out his head, I turn back to the others who are standing further up the beach and notice with some apprehension that they are shouting aggressively skywards and waving sarongs in the air; a sign of an unwanted predator. Just as I turn a back around, I see a large bird bombing the water in the very same spot I last saw my tiny, teensy friend.


Conservation Tanzania, Mafia Island, Turtles Mafia Island, Turtles Tanzania, Wildlife Tanzania

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author avatar wanderdust
31 year old on a career break in Africa travelling and volunteering. Articles will focus on personal experience of the above.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
25th Sep 2011 (#)

What an amazing experience to watch the Green Turtles hatching and aid in the trip to the ocean for one little one.

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