After conducting a discover scuba dive from Laka Lodge, I offered my students whether or not they would like to have a walk on the beach. Completely unknown to me, this small decision would lead me to one of the best days of my life. Today, I would like to share with you how I helped 19 tiny turtles, to make their way across their first obstacle in life and enter the oceans.
The Village of Itsamia
In the Comoros, there are two commonly seen types of sea turtles : The Green Sea Turtle and the Hawksbill sea turtle. These two are not only prevelant in the oceans, but the beaches here have become some of their most common nesting sites. Itsamia is the second largest nesting site for Green Turtles in the Indian Ocean. They lay their eggs year round and the 600 occupant village has been a driver in their protection in the last 40 years. Long before the first Marine Park was established in Moheli (in the year 2001), Itsamia inhabitants protected the turtles from being hunted and eaten.
Long before this was an environmental choice, they simply could not stand the stench of turtle and egg carcasses left behind by the hoard of hunters coming from other islands and villages. Since then environmental factors such as gaining a better understanding of the importance of healthy ecosystems, (since primarily all the villages on Moheli depend on fishing) and the benefits of tourism as renewed their vigour for protecting the nesting sites. All year round it is possible to go visit Itsamia and both see an adult female testing, and hundreds of tiny hatchlings emerging from the sand.
Green turtles are one of the largest sea turtles and the only herbivore out of the 7 different species of sea turtle. The name has been given to them due to the green colouring of the cartilage, rather than the common beleif of being named after their shell. They reside mainly in tropical and subtropical waters world wide.
Green Turtles Nesting
Like many other turtles migrate long distances from their feeding sites to their nesting beaches. They have an incredible sense of direction and adult females will return on average every two years once reaching sexual maturity to lay around 115 eggs. This collection of eggs is called a clutch, and the turtles lay beween 2-8 nests a season. The sex of the hatchlings that emerge 60 days later is determined by the temperature of the sand, with higher temperatured 31 degrees celcius or above causing females to be born, while temperatures below 27 degrees causes males to be born. Temperatures inbetween yield a mix of sexes. Scientists worry that due to the climate change and increasing sand temperatures, turtles will be in danger of having inbalanced populations.
While we do not know exactly how come the adult females return to their original nesting sites, some theories suggest turtles sensitive receptors to the earth magnetic field, hatchlings imprinting crucial information about the beach or younger turtles following more experienced older ones to the rookery.
Incubation and Hatching
After an incubation period of 60 days, hatchings battle their way out of the nest to just below the surface until they feel the sand cool down. This generally indicates night time, and that fewer predators will be waiting on the beach for them. During the day, birds gather around to feast on the hatchlings, while at night, crabs are the primary culprits.
Once out of their nest, they use their vision to head directly for the ocean, using the light reflecting on the waves as a marker. This is the reason it is very important not to have other sources of light around, as the hatchlings may become disorientated and run up the beach rather than towards the water. However, even when they make it past the waiting crabs and birds, the ocean is not a safe haven for the 10cm long creatures. Their instinct kicks in and they enter a swimming frenzy, without being able to hold their breath for a long time, they splash along the surface occasionally dipping below, for up to several days. This is all in the hope to get away from the coast, where all the predators primarily are. Once in the open ocean, come the “Lost years”, a period of around 10 years where no body knows where they go. Did you notice you’ve never seen photos of ‘teenage’ turtles?
edit: someone just told me recently that in the new Blue Planet featuring the best human in the world; David Attenborough, they mention that baby turtles find and stay with pieces of drifting material out in the open sea. Using these pieces of flotsam as a temporary home and protection from the elements. These little islands of floating (hopefully not human trash) collect quite extensive little ecosystem with small fish and allow these junior individuals access to food.
Hatchling Emergence at Moheli Island
As we were walking up the beach to explore the ancient mosque and admire the giant baobabs, I came across a tiny shape in the sand. A dead hatchling. It had a small hole in its abdomen, and its head was limply to the side. It was terribly upsetting seeing something so small, with such fragile little fins, with beautiful colouring and delicate patterns on its shell. We dug a hole in the sand and pushed the tiny body inside, if it had never made it to the ocean, let it at least rest in the sand. I wondered if there were more around, however I figured that these had lain here since the previous day, since primarily turtles emerge at nighttime.
One of the local guides however mentioned that it would be a good idea to check out the dunes whether there were any more in the nest. We looked around the beach and found some tiny little, almost indistinguishable tracks. The hatchlings cannot weigh more than 20g, and their indentations in the wet sand were almost invisible. Almost, however by carefully observing the sand we managed to find an area where majority of the tracks converged. Here, Dubu, a local eco guide located the nest and looked within. There had been extremely heavy rains earlier that day, and it appeared that the nest had collapsed in. Several dead hatchlings where in the deep hole, amongst several hardly moving individuals where in a sodden mass of sand. The eco guide started pulling them out and placing them on the beach by the dunes. Once on flat land, they immediately began to propel themselves on the sand towards the ocean.
Their little fins working furiously to push their bodies across the sand. The front two fins rotate circularly, and their windmill like movements help the hatchlings bound down the beach with surprising speed. Their back little fins looked almost disfigured, trailing along behind.
The first seven almost made it to the water, but me and my dive team’s presence were a clear message to the birds. Stay away. We managed to get some truly incredible captures of the first minutes of these turtles journey and wish them luck on the way out.
The stench from the nest was enormous, and I suddenly understood the concerns of the Itsamnia people, but Dubu managed to pull another 12 out of there before finding nothing but empty eggshells. While these happily scampered towards the waves, we counted the dead. Three from the nest ( the fourth one was clearly just playing possum and revived once he had seen the sight of the ocean) and another four from around the beach that the birds had gotten to already.
Over all, by being in the right place at the right time, we managed to see and potentially help 19 individual little turtles to make it into the water. Unfortunately, scientists generally concur that only 1 out of 1000 hatchlings survive to adult hood, so heres hoping that one of the 19 from the beach at Ouenefou have the enormous luck to be in that statistic.
Feeling exhilarated and invigorated, the dive team and I jumped back into our boat and headed towards our island. A decision was made that from now on we will try track all the nesting mothers, assess when they layed their nests, to attempt to witness the miracle of hatchling emergence again. I think I am going to love Comoros.
Rescuing Turtles from Plastic
A mere few days after this exciting event, I was scuba diving on the same beach with a couple of refresher customers. We had just completed a nice calm 15m dive in 29 degree water when while slowly making our way to the beach there was an exclamation!
I looked around, and surely enough, 3 meters ahead of me was the shape of a tiny hatchling about the reach the waves and head out to the unkown. I excitedly threw off my gear and decided to run to the beach to see if I could scare away any birds. What I saw instead was something that made my spine grow cold.
At this point, it was around 10:30 am, and the baking hot sun had been heating up the sand steadily for the past several hours. I with my bare feet felt the heat starting to burn as I look around me at a vision of devastation.
Roughly a dozen hatchlings halfway up the beach. Some feebly moving their fins, some having walking in circles, some attempting to dig themselves back into the sand and many, oh too many completely stationary. It took me a moment to understand and make a decision about what I was going to do.
I knew that its vital for the turtles development and the awakening of their inner organs to make their way from the beach to the ocean, so I did not want to pick them up and simply put them to the safety of the cooler ocean water.
I hesitated between carrying water and dousing the little ones to cool their bodies down, maybe I should make a make shift shade?
14 Dead Hatchlings
The few moments I was pondering were crucial in the survival of these individuals, so I decided to grab the few closest to me and place them on the wet sand nearer the water. Where my students could help cool them down.
I grabbed a few and ran down to the breaking waves, the bodies in my hands were already completely stiff but I did not relent. On my return to the heated part of the beach, I was dismayed to see none of the turtles were moving anymore. I tried to remember the ones who had still been struggling just moments before to give them the best chance of survival.
But it was too late.
All 14 of them had been fried by the sun.
The customers even attempted a little cpr, but considering how my feet were hurting to stand on the sand, the little hatchling bodies had no chance. They had been cooked alive.
I could not help wondering allowed, what had happened that so many of them left the nest so late in the day. There had been no rain to confuse them in terms of dropping temperatures, and clearly a few individuals had made it to the ocean. I started to follow their tracks to the nest and immediately saw the problem.
Piles of garbage
Their tracks came from a wide section of the dunes, many of which had made long detours through the green growth due to the ammount of flipflops, bottles, unknown pieces of plastic, wood and other trash blocking their way. A hypothesis started to form in my mind.
They had all emerged much earlier in the morning, probably still during the night, but because they had so many barriers in their path they got disorientated, trapped and exhausted in the first few 100s cm. We decided to look for the nest incase there were any stragellers left behind.
We looked for over 30 minutes, and simply could not find the nest. The garbage was taking over this section of the beach, and us combing through it was not unearthing the nest.
We found two alive individuals who had been trapped underneath some plastic bottles and hurriedly placed them on the wet sand.
After another 20 minutes of searching we finally found the nest, from which we helped extract another 15 individuals : placed straight onto the cooler wet sand and left to scamper the remaining 20 meters to the ocean.
That gave us the resolve, we need to ensure these beaches are clean so scenes like these do not repeat. Deaths from birds or crabs are acceptable and a part of nature, but death by flipflop…
Is not okay.
A Solution – Plastic Free Fund
I had already started the Plastic Free Fund to help me fund beach clean ups, and now I had a clear mission and vision, the plastic, apart from being an eyesore, truly endangers these already endangered animals. If you want to help keep these turtles safe, please feel free to check out the Plastic Free Fund. As little as a 1$ a month can help make a difference.
Thank you to our wonderful, passionate Laka Lodge customers who vollunteered to help clean the beach and make it that bit safer for the little turtles.