Watching a Leatherback Turtle Laying Eggs on the Beach

My heart is beating wildly in my chest as the 4×4 flies across the sand. The full moon paints the ocean a pale shade of grey. We are racing over the beach near Cape Vidal, part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, in search of leatherback turtles. It’s December, that time of the year when the females make their way up the beach to lay hundreds of eggs, hoping that about sixty days later, against all odds, at least a few of the hatchlings will survive their solitary trip back to the ocean.

Leatherback turtles are the largest species of turtles and can grow up to almost two metres (six feet) with an average weight of between 250 to 700kg (550 to 1,540 lb)! That is simply immense! No one knows for sure how old they get, but generally their lifespans are considered to be between 30 and 100 years. Just imagine that – a turtle you meet at the beach today could have hatched in 1917 and migrated all across the vast ocean. Think of all the stories it could tell.

Currently, this magnificent creature’s conservation status is at vulnerable.

Suddenly, the vehicle lurches to a stop and our guide turns off the spotlight. My pulse is racing – could it be, are we going to be lucky enough to see a turtle tonight? The guide motions for us to climb out of the 4×4 and we follow him as quietly as a group of deliriously excited nature lovers can be. We hear a strange scratching sound and see sand flying. There she is!

I cannot possibly describe what an incredible sight it is to see such an immense creature up close. We are allowed to go surprisingly near to her, only a few feet away, and watch in awestruck wonder as she goes about the business of digging a hole deep enough to keep her eggs safe.

Unfortunately, this group of camera-happy tourists are too much for the turtle. She endures us for about ten minutes, before she’d had enough and starts making her way back into the ocean, leaving a wide sand print in her wake.

Disappointed, I ask the guide if we had come to close for comfort this time. He nods, but assures me that she would be back another night to try again.

I am left conflicted. I firmly believe that environmental tourism such is this is extremely important for the survival of endangered species. Only by learning about animals, and seeing them up close, can we truly appreciate them and become aware of their plight. Only by knowing about the dangers they face can we become willing to participate in conservation efforts.

But at what point does tourism become too intrusive?

I don’t regret seeing a leatherback turtle trying to lay eggs on a beach for one moment. In fact, it was a major highlight for me and a bucket list item. But I think in this case it could probably have been handled better, keeping a greater distance between the humans and the animal, and ensuring that she was just as comfortable with us as we were with her.

What are your thoughts on environmental tourism? Are you for or against it, and why?

For more posts in the Babymoon 2015 series, click here.

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