Tales & images from life as me…

Finding Nemo (the turtle)

Green Turtle march 06 P Shepherd
An adult Green Turtle just so you have something to compare the little ones to!

There’s something inherently cute about the word ‘hatchling’, and what’s not to like about a miniature sea turtle? For months I’ve been trying to time my trips to Dar for baby scans to coincide with a turtle nest hatching, but I just couldn’t seem to pull it off… until now!

Authentic Tanzania runs a brilliantly organized trip in partnership with Sea Sense (the turtle champions) and almost half the profits go to Sea Sense for the continued protection of the turtles, their habitats and their nests. (to join the mailing list for notification of hatchings email info@authentictanzania.com).

So I was up at 5am, on a plane from Mwanza by 8, in Dar by 11 and squeezing through the city traffic to meet the Authentic bus by 12.30. I made it by the skin of my teeth and hopped on board with a friendly looking group just as they were heading out towards the ferry that takes us to South Beach.

It was a long and bumpy ride for a pregnant chick who likes the option to pee every hour or so, but I was kept well entertained by plenty of banter from the girls sitting near me in the bus and we were rewarded with arrival at Skippers Haven – a stunning little eco-lodge with fantastic raised sea views… and toilets! We ate our picnic (I hadn’t been that organized and was generously adopted by the rest of the group and fed like a queen) as wales flicked their tales in the distance.

We were so relaxed by this point that we had almost forgotten the purpose of our quest, but luckily our guides were on the clock and knew precisely when the time was right to take a short ride down to the beach where they had been keeping a special eye on the nest that was due to pop today.

A ten minute walk along a curving bay backed by baobab trees and a small fishing village ended in an abrupt halt – one of the girls almost stepped right on the nest, there was no way to know it was there! But by the magic of Sea Sense one of the conservation officers began to dig.

It all happened so quickly after that, as though tiny sleeping dragons had been wakened. First one, then two, then five, then fifty, one hundred… little sand dusted shells erupted out of the ground and, in an awe-inspiring Darwinian rush of instinct, made for the sea as fast as their tiny new flippers could carry them – which is incredibly fast!

little turtles emerging from the packed sand

The Sea Sense staff pour dry sand over them to stimulate them and help them get moving.

Climbing over the sands undulations is no mean feat when you’re that tiny!

I snapped as fast as I could, but with a short focal range for beautiful close-ups they just kept moving out of range and the challenge was on. It was like some insane video game trying to catch a sharp shot as the little ninjas made their escapes!


As I backed up and backed up again, I found myself suddenly at the water’s edge, and so did they. It was such a magical moment to see the salty, frothing waves touch them for the first time and watch them take their first strokes in the environment where they would now spend almost the entirety of the rest of their lives (except for the females who will return to this very beach in adulthood in order to lay their own eggs).

There was something very touching about seeing each little turtle make it to their destined starting point and disappear into the waves. But the very last little one to emerge that day, had us all feeling emotional. Several minutes after all his siblings had run their gauntlet, one final hatchling popped his head above the sand. But it was quickly clear that something wasn’t quite right… only one flipper was working properly. He was a real life Nemo and he had all the charm and personality of the fabulous little clown fish, too. He was determined to make it to the sea, in spite of his disability, and dragged himself over the peaks and troughs of the sand with inspiring tenacity. We were unable to help him for fear of causing further damage and could only cheer him on as he made his slow and painful marathon. But he make it he did, and the ocean rushed suddenly to meet him. Somehow his weak right flipper didn’t seem so damaged under water and we trudged back to the bus with a sense of hope, honoured that we had witnessed such a special moment.

I’m not sure why I glanced up before jumping on the bus, but I did. In doing so I witnessed a large bird of prey, wings spread in silhouette against the bright evening sky… with a hatchling gripped tightly in its beak, little flippers flapping in distress. It was a poignant reminder of the tough odds these little sea turtles face. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will survive to adulthood and with marine debris, climate change and fishing they are in serious danger of extinction. That’s why they need the help of NGOs like Sea Sense and of individuals like you to support the actions being taken to save these beautiful creatures. Visit Sea Sense online or email info@seasense.org for more details of how you can help.


Some amazing sea turtle facts:
• The tiny hatchlings will never meet their parents and spend the first 10-30 years of their life alone at sea.

• Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings are thought to survive to adulthood, against all the odds, and find their way back to the same beach on which they hatched so many years earlier to start the cycle all over again.

• In Tanzania in 2012 the Sea Sense nest monitoring and protection programme ensured that 305 sea turtle nests hatched successfully and that 29, 757 sea turtle hatchlings emerged from their nests and safely reached the sea, which represents a hatching success rate of 77%! Considering the 1 in 1,000 survival rate, it is possible that only 30 of the thousands of sea turtles born in Tanzania last year will reach adulthood.

• Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives at sea, only the females ever come ashore, and that’s just a few times every 2 to 5 years to lay their eggs. This presents a huge challenge to sea turtle researchers – without knowledge of movement patterns and the location of important feeding grounds, it’s difficult to protect sea turtles.

More than half of all green turtle nests laid in Tanzania are laid on Juani Island, Mafia District – and it’s only 9km long!


One response

  1. Geraldine valente

    Lovely article Mel……described it exactly…..I remember it being a happy but sad experience….wanting to help them so badly but knowing you can’t.

    October 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm

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