I felt a little embarrassed. There were six of us kneeling on the beach sand, watching a lady give birth in the dreamy light of a full moon.
This lady was two metres long, weighed several hundred kilograms and had a razor sharp beak that could slice my fingers off.
Yet it still seemed a little inappropriate to be peering intimately at her rear. The eggs came plopping out, landing in a deep hole she had dug with her flippers on the remote beach of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site on the north-east coast of South Africa near the town of St Lucia.
The concept of birth – be it of mammal, reptile, insect or plant – is a miraculous thing. The creation of new life is unique to our small planet in a very large universe. There’s a sacredness to it that is hard to deny.
But that didn’t stop us from peering like shameless voyeurs. Plop, plop, plop. A few dozen eggs came tumbling out of the lady’s rear.
She had clearly done this before, and maybe she’d even had homo sapiens staring up her backside before, because she seemed totally non-fussed. Plop, plop, plop. She was on a roll, and the eggs kept plopping. My embarrassment subsided a little.
But then again, why would she care about a few recently-evolved apes like us? Leatherback turtles are probably first on the list of rightful inheritors of the planet. If ever there was an animal that could say: “Piss off, I was here first!” the leatherback turtle is it.
Let’s stack up some numbers: anatomically modern humans have been around for about half a million years. Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) have been around for 100 million years.
They were here before the dinosaurs. They were here before crocodiles. They were here before woolly mammoths. And they were here looong before the skinny legs of an upright ape came tramping along the beaches.
And these ancient mariners which cruise the open oceans have seen it all. Climate change, ice-ages, hot-ages, continental drift and several extinction events, including quite a big one when a huge meteor smashed into earth 65 million years ago, setting everything on fire and wiping out 75% of all species, including the dinosaurs.
Leatherback turtles survived that. They are hardcore.
So I shouldn’t have been embarrassed. The ancestors of our lady turtle had seen things like dinosaurs, meteors and global Armageddon – far scarier things than a group of humans watching her lay eggs. Her ancient genetic wisdom informed her that she had nothing to be worried about.
Or did she?
These living monuments to survival are on their way out. Leatherback turtles are now listed as critically endangered species. That means they are on the verge of extinction. Not because they’re at the end of their natural evolutionary lifespan, but because we’re killing them.
They swallow our plastic bags, thinking they’re jellyfish, then choke and drown.
They are highly sensitive to pollution, and are often hooked and drowned by long-line and net-trawling fishing vessels.
These days there are few untrammeled beaches where they can nest safely. On most nesting beaches, their eggs and hatchlings are destroyed by vehicles, people, dogs and unchecked development.
After 100 million years they’re on their way out, because we’re killing them. Not to eat them, mind you (their flesh is considered too oily and fatty apparently), but because we just don’t really care.
And, like the demise of rhinos, leopards, penguins, bees and vultures (and 50% of all wild animal species) that would be very sad. Besides being here long before us, leatherback turtles are simply marvelous creatures worthy of our utmost respect.
They are one of the largest reptile species. They can live for almost a century. The biggest on record is over 900 kilograms, heavier than some of the biggest crocodiles.
Our turtle guide Sabelo Mngomezulu of Thompson’s Tours estimated that our lady was probably about 400 kilograms, which seems miniscule in comparison, but don’t let that fool you. That’s still the combined weight – and strength – of four very large rugby players.
(Sabelo told us how four turtle researchers, while trying to fit a telemetry unit to a leatherback, were once dragged helplessly along the beach when the turtle started walking back to the sea after nesting).
As I knelt down next to her to take a photo, I noticed her broad back, over a metre wide. (Unlike other turtle species, which have hard shells, Dermochelys coriacea has a leather-like carapace).
Her tracks up the beach were about three metres wide. Her head – including that razor sharp beak – were the size of a large man’s.
They never really sleep and they swim relentlessly, almost non-stop all day, every day, using their hydrodynamic body shape to cruise effortlessly through the rough seas. In just a few months they can cover several thousand kilomeres across the open oceans.
They can hold their breath for up to an hour, diving to more than 1 000 metres below the sea (where it’s pitch black), chasing gigantic jellyfish to gobble up. This is deeper than any other large creature, besides sperm and beaked whales.
They are the fastest reptile, clocking up a swimming speed of 35 km/h. And they are unique in the reptilian world, because they can generate their own body heat. One turtle was found to have a core body temperature of 18 degrees Celsius above the ambient water.
And here’s one lady that won’t get lost without a map. Leatherback females will swim around the world and return to a beach near to where they themselves hatched decades previously. They are supreme navigators with supreme memories. The elephants of the ocean, maybe?
And they seem to have a real affection for iSimangaliso’s 220km of protected beaches on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa. Every year in November and December, about 70 female leatherback turtles emerge to lay their eggs in the sand, then return to the ocean. (Another species of turtle, the loggerhead – Caretta caretta – also lay their eggs on these beaches. Weighing only 100-odd kilograms, it’s much smaller than leatherbacks, but ten times more common).
In January and February hundreds of hatchlings emerge and make their way down to the sea (that’s if a honey badger or water monitor lizard don’t eat the eggs first). As they scramble down the beach from their nest to the ocean, they make easy prey for kelp gulls, ghost grabs and raptors like fish eagles.
If they make it to the sea, they need to contend with the usual suspects like game fish and sharks. If they make it through all these gauntlets, they have to contend with the human factor: fishing, plastic and pollution.
According to research, out of 700 eggs that a female lays annually during several nesting sessions, about 480 hatchlings emerge, and less than one of these will survive to adulthood. So when you see a fully-grown leatherback, like the 400kg lady at our feet, what you’re really seeing is an ultimate survivor, the epitome of genetic refinement.
Visitors to iSimangaliso can sign up for an accredited tour with a licensed guide. Access to the beaches at night is strictly controlled, and it’s one of the reasons why this protected area is considered a prime nesting site globally. The turtles and their nests are safe from humans.
It’s paradise for leatherbacks and the four other species of turtles, and it’s paradise for 3 000 other kinds of animals which are protected in this World Heritage Site. By some estimates, iSimangaliso and its marine protected area has more species of animals than any other nature reserve in Africa.
Its seems inconceivable that this hotspot of biodiversity was almost destroyed just two decades ago, when mining companies wanted to dredge large parts of the shoreline and forested dunes for ilmenite, a mineral that is processed into titanium.
This black sand conducts heat, and although it’s valuable as an industrial and consumer product, it’s vital to the survival of the turtles.
“The ilmenite in the sands is critical,” turtle researcher Dr Ronel Nel told me. “The turtles have no sex chromosomes, so when they hatch in temperatures above 29° Celsius it’s a female and if the temperature is below that, it’s a male. Without the ilmenite’s warmth, most hatchlings would end up as males, effectively dooming the population to extinction.”
There was a public outcry against the mining proposals, and after years of campaigning by conservationists, communities and influential folks like Nelson Mandela, the iSimangaliso World Heritage site was proclaimed, banning mining forever.
The turtles could now lay their eggs in peace, knowing that they wouldn’t be disturbed. Except by some homo sapiens on a turtle tour.
Not that our lady seemed to mind the scrawny apes staring at her backside. After all, why should the wise old dame care about a bunch of evolutionary amateurs like us?
Contact these accredited guides at iSimangaliso for a turtle tour:
Ufudu Tours: +27-082-391-1503 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thompson Tours: +27-035-590-1584 or email@example.com
Shoreline: +27-035-590-1555 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thembile Ngubane: +27-073-228-0934
Simangaliso Mageba: +27-072-725-2738
Shadrack Mathenjwa: +27-082-638-4488
Sthembiso Mthembu: +27-071-154-6623