Rocktail’s creatures of the deep

A weary adult turtle making her way back to the ocean (© Rocktail Beach Camp)

A weary adult turtle making her way back to the ocean (© Rocktail Beach Camp)

GUEST POST – Winnie Graham…

A dark shadow appeared from the sea and made its way across the sand. We stopped short in the moonlight to have a better look, and knew we were in luck. The huge creature steadily moving up the beach was a giant leatherback turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs in the sand. 

Rocktail Beach Camp in northern KwaZulu Natal – part of a World Heritage site – is one of the most romantic hideaways in South Africa but its not the newly weds who attract attention. It’s the turtles. Both honeymooners and families go there to see the marine giants. In the winter months it is the whales that draw visitors, in the summer – October to March – it is turtle time. This is when female turtles leave their home in the Indian Ocean to lay their eggs on the beach.

Conditions for spotting turtles were particularly good one recent evening when we set off on a n evening walk. The moon was rising, the tide ebbing. Our guide lead us along the beach, the sand warm beneath our bare feet.

“What’s so special about turtles?” a little girl in our group pouted, her eye on the surf. “Can’t we swim instead?”

“You’ll soon see,” our guide promised.

Then, when the huge shape appeared out the water and strode purposefully across the sand, the child snatched her father’s hand.

It was an intimidating sight.

The leatherback was bigger than the girl and certainly very much heavier. We watched as the huge reptile hollowed out a hole in the sand and started dropping her eggs.

“It’s a strange thing,” our Zulu guide, Mbongeni, said, “but these adult turtles return to the same spot where they were hatched to lay their eggs. And they always come at night when there is less chance of their eggs being foraged. All sorts of birds and animals, even humans, enjoy turtle eggs, some even like eating little turtles.”

Once our leatherback had deposited her eggs in the hole, she scrapped sea sand over them and lumbered back to the ocean. Her duty done, she would never return to see her offspring.

“Who looks after the babies then?” little Jessica asked. “Who will feed her children?”

Our guide was kind. He did not tell her that many of them would never grow up, that they were at risks both on the beach and in the ocean. Their chance of survival depended on reaching deep water – but involved a long walk across the sand and a swim through shallow water. Instead, he mentioned that the hatchlings would emerge in about 60 or 70 days and they would make their bid for the sea under cover of darkness when there was less chance of being gobbled up.

“Baby turtles like eating jelly fish,” he told Jessica. “And they seem to know how to find food without the help of their mother.”

Measurements being taken for research purposes

Measurements being taken for research purposes

By now we were all caught up in the mystery of the leatherbacks’ dangerous lives. Like crocodiles and other reptiles, we learned that the gender of the hatchlings would be determined by the nest’s temperature. Weather conditions would decide whether the clutch of eggs produced male or female turtles.

“The leatherbacks are not the only turtles that return to the beach each summer,” Mbongeni added. “Loggerheads are another species that complete their breeding cycle by returning to the same spot on the coast each summer to lay their eggs.”

The little girl who initially had been more interested in a moonlight dip was now totally intrigued. She wanted to know everything and our knowledgeable guide was only too willing to oblige.

He told us that in 1963, when turtle numbers were dwindling along the KwaZulu Natal coast probably because sea turtle products were in demand, scientists from the then Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) initiated a project to monitor the number of nesting females and to protect their nests…

This project was expanded to including data on hatchlings in 1971. But funding was always in short supply. Fortunately in 1981, donations from the World Wildlife Fund, Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust and Rocktail Bay Lodge ( the predecessor of Rocktail Beach Camp) allowed the project to continue, making it one of the longest running turtle projects in the world.

For the past few years, Rocktail’s guides have shared the nightly patrols and monitoring with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, while part of the annual concession fees paid by Rocktail go toward the wages of the seasonal turtle scouts who guard the turtle nests and help patrol the beaches.

We talked of little else during our stay. Visitors to South Africa’s game parks boast of seeing the “big five”.

Visitors to Rocktail want to see turtles, whales, dolphins and other fascinating marine creatures – and they usually do. The humpback whales that migrate to the area invariably cause a major stir when they appear in the winter months, so had already left when we were there.

A Hawksbill Turtle (© Rocktail Beach Camp)

A Hawksbill Turtle (© Wilderness Safaris)

The marine creatures dominated our visit. However, though the Beach Camp is essentially an ecotourism and conservation destination, and part of the Maputaland Marine Reserve, this does not mean it’s all nature study and not much fun. There are a range of activities to enjoy – and much to learn about the local Mqobela and Mpukane communities and the environment.

Understandably diving is a major attraction, but guests wanting to scuba dive have to come armed with their dive cards and log books. However, they can do a PADI scuba diving course there with a ranges of courses available. Too nervous to venture underwater, I watched enviously as young people donned their wet suits and set off to explore the marine environment.

When they returned hours later I listened as they described face to face encounters with whalesharks, the gentle giants of the ocean, potato bass, shoals of banded snapper, anemone fish and eels. Some literally went “swimming with the dolphins,” some described the pristine reefs, the sponges and corals.

A group of small children disappeared with a guide to go snorkelling in rock pools, a great introduction to the underwater world. Some joined their parents on the beach to build castles of sand and clamber round the rock pools.

There are 17 suites at Rocktail Beach Camp. My tented accommodation was close to the coastal dune forest but I had little opportunity to enjoy the luxurious facilities. While some visitors went horse riding and some quad biking, I visited visited the Gugulesizwe community centre with its traditional beehive hut where guests can stay overnight.

What a grand experience! What better way to learn about a community than to be part of their lifestyle for a brief time.

We watched Zulu dancing and visited a sangoma – another fascinating experience. Guests at Rocktail have every opportunity to experience Zulu culture and lifestyle.

Rocktail Beach Camp is typical of Wilderness Safaris’ philosophy that involves the local community, not only for their financial benefit, but for the enjoyment of their guests. It has received a number of awards for its innovative operating model and has become a partner in the Pro Poor Tourism in Southern Africa project. Along with the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and the communities, the model has evolved with more 2% of the community – some 1500 people – permanently employed either at the camps or through a community-based enterprise offering a range of products and service.

Before I left, I simply had to go walking in the forest, binoculars and Newman’s in hand. Birding there is spectacular – but it takes a keen eye to spot the elusive creatures among the branches. The marine life was easier to spot – but I still managed three “lifers” in the treetops.

words – Winnie Graham / pics – Wilderness safaris


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