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THE TURTLES OF ISIMANGALISO

Posted on Monday, 19th Jan 2015

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in December 1999 in recognition of its outstanding natural beauty and unique diversity. Annually, between the months of November and March, the endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles drag themselves out of the Indian Ocean to lay their eggs at the base of the sand dunes. Often hailed as a ‘bucket-list’ experience, the attraction of witnessing nesting turtles has proven to be one of the highlights of most visitors’ trips to the park.

Both loggerhead and leatherback turtles nest during summertime, generally at night. The female emerges from the surf and rests in the wash zone, looking out for danger. Then she moves above the high water mark to find a suitable site to lay her eggs. After 60 to 70 days, the hatchlings emerge to make their way to the sea. Up to 12% may be caught during their beach trek by ghost crabs, thereafter they are preyed upon by many marine predators.

Once the male turtles have entered the ocean they will never again leave, the females however will return with baffling accuracy to the exact same beach where they were hatched. It is estimated that out of every 1000 eggs only one or two hatchlings survive. With less than 100 laying females coming ashore each year, the fate of these critically endangered animals lies in our ability to protect and monitor their population.

These astounding turtles undertake epic journeys, travelling as far as Australia and India between nesting periods. They feed on open ocean invertebrates, mainly jellyfish, which makes them extremely vulnerable to threats such as pollution. (Plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish.)

The gigantic leatherback turtle can weigh up to 700kg. It has a deep, narrow, barrel-shaped shell that is covered with thick, smooth skin like vulcanised rubber. Their flippers are long and clawless, and in the adults the shell and flippers are black, usually scattered with white spots. They are the only living reptiles that are warm-blooded, adapted to conserve heat in cold water. They dive to feed and are able to reach depths of over 350 metres due to their flexible shells, and can stay under the water for almost 40 minutes.

The loggerhead turtle is much smaller than the leatherback turtle. It weighs between 80 and 140 kg. Adults have extremely strong jaws that are able to crush giant clams. In southern Africa they mainly breed along the sandy shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. They come ashore every two to three years to lay about 500 eggs in batches of 100 to 120 every 15 days. This usually takes place at high tide during moonless nights.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority has issued contracts to authorised operators to undertake turtle tours within the park, either by vehicle or on foot. In the St Lucia and Sodwana Bay sections of the park, while community guides are licensed to take visitors on foot patrols from the Kosi Bay area.

iSimangaliso restricts turtle trips to licensed operators who ensure that there is minimum interference with laying turtles, including the avoidance of camera flashes or spotlights while the turtle is moving up and down the beach to lay.

Source: africageographic.com

Posted in Jewels of Southern Africa

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