Cape Vidal, South Africa
Leatherback Turtles are the largest turtles in the world. After driving over miles of sand in the darkness, we were finally able to witness one of nature’s amazing miracles.
I didn’t exactly know what to expect as we loaded into the back of a safari truck to search for turtles along the Cape Vidal shoreline in South Africa.
We were warned not to get our hopes up, as finding one of these massive creatures was by no means guaranteed.
But I couldn’t help it.
My excitement increased as we stopped at the edge of the beach to release air from our tires for the sandy off-road adventure about to commence.
Is That a Tractor?
Our guide from EuroZulu Tours sped across the beach in the darkness, expertly maneuvering the truck over a rocky coastline. If we wanted to spot a turtle tonight, we’d have to act fast.
The whole nesting process only lasts 2 hours, you never know when they’ll be out, and there is a lot of beach to cover.
We used a spotlight to search for turtle tracks in the sand as we went. Because Leatherback turtles are so big, they leave tracks that look like they were made by a tractor!
After an hour of driving over sand we eventually discovered a pair of tracks. Unfortunately because there were two different ones, it meant this turtle had already climbed the beach, laid her eggs, and then returned into the sea.
We were too late…
So we continued our search under the stars.
Having Babies Isn’t Easy…
Suddenly we spied a single large track leading up a gently sloping sand dune. Our guide jumped out of the truck and disappeared into the darkness, leaving the rest of us sitting in suspense. Was a sea turtle really up there?
After what seemed like an eternity, he yelled back:
“You’re in luck! We’ve just found the queen of the ocean!”
It was a Leatherback.
We all began marching up the beach towards his voice.
Flashlights were not permitted because sea turtles are very sensitive to bright light most of the time. It can disorient and make them act irrationally, disrupting the egg-laying process.
And frankly they have it hard enough. Only about 10% of the leatherback babies will survive from all the animals that love to eat them. This is one of the reasons why these turtles are critically endangered.
Another factor is humans illegally poaching the eggs for food. Turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.
Quite a Spectacle
We arrived as the massive leatherback turtle finished digging a tidy 2-foot deep hole with her back flippers. This turtle was enormous! At about 6 feet long and around 1500 pounds, she truly looked like a sea monster to me.
Eggs started popping out and bouncing into the bottom of the hole. They’re not hard like other kinds of eggs, but leathery. So they don’t break when they hit each other. A carefully placed flashlight let us enjoy the show without disturbing her.
We watched in awe as she gave birth to over 100 eggs in about 45 minutes. Next she began burying the nest in sand – in an attempt to hide it from predators.
Then She Had a Seizure!
Scientists don’t exactly know why, but when she’s done with the nest, leatherback turtles flop around in place and make lots of noise. Drooling and spitting up sand, it was pretty intense.
At this point we were allowed to take photos, because the turtles no longer react to light in this altered state.
But it’s only a small window of opportunity, because once she finally snaps out of her post egg-laying coma, she still has 50 yards to flop her 1500 pound body back across the beach and into the sea.
Witnessing a leatherback turtle lay eggs in South Africa was one of the coolest wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. :)