“Er… she must have already laid her eggs while we weren’t watching…”
I mumbled to my two guests as we watched a magnificent Loggerhead Turtle drag herself back to the Indian Ocean.
I lied. She never got around to laying her eggs and I knew it.
That evening a few weeks ago, I hadn’t planned on leading my first ever ‘turtle tour;’ it just kind of happened. You know that thing a few months ago where I followed my soul and stopped being a safari guide and moved to the beach? That. So there I was on a reflective, lonely beach walk when I spied a Loggerhead Turtle emerging from the surf in the distance.
Coincidentally, earlier that morning I’d sat a ‘turtle exam’ (yeah, it’s an actual thing) required of all the sea turtle guides in iSimangaliso Wetland Park. As a newly qualified turtle guide I knew what to do – in theory. So I stood back. Far far away. And waited.
That’s the problem. I’m the first person to admit that our safari guide training in South Africa is rubbish. That we only become good at what we do through experience and lots of it. And now, I’m back on the bottom rung again, doing something totally new and relying on ‘theory.’ Ouch.
So in theory, I knew that approaching the turtle closer while she was still trekking up the beach to a point above the high tide mark would probably result in her turning right around and heading back to the ocean – especially in daylight when turtles feel extra vulnerable. I also knew that I’d be waiting a long time for her to first dig out a body pit (approximately 45 minutes of flapping around) and then carefully scooping out a deep egg chamber with her back flippers (another 20 minutes or so – turtles don’t do stuff in a hurry), before she’d go into a mysterious, slightly druggy trance that would allow me to approach and enjoy watching her drop her little ping pong ballish eggs into the hole. Another twenty minutes of that, then another half an hour watching her pat the hole down and make a series of ‘decoy holes’ to disguise the original from predators and eventually she’d make her way back down to the surf and I’d be able to watch it all. Whew. That was the plan anyway. I silently committed the next two hours to this turtle and the experience we’d share together.
I didn’t plan on joggers.
While she was still pulling herself up the steep beach, I noticed two runners bouncing down quickly from the north. They clearly hadn’t seen the turtle yet and were running straight for it. So I did the responsible thing and flagged them down. I pointed out the turtle and explained what it was doing and why they shouldn’t run into her and why they should either turn around and run somewhere else, or stick with me – a bonafide turtle guide – and wait to go and see the turtle. They opted to wait. I kind of hoped they wouldn’t.
So after half an hour of awkward conversation in broken English with a turtle digging in the distance, they started to lay on the pressure.
“We can go see now?”
“Uh, no… not yet… you can see she’s still digging.”
More awkward conversation followed as I stared down the turtle, willing her to stop digging. To JUST. STOP. DIGGING. Turtle watching requires a level of patience that I struggle with – especially when there are guests to keep entertained. Who don’t understand English.
“Can we go up now?” They asked.
“No.” I replied.
“How about now?”
“What about now?”
At this point, we all realized that had I not been there, the joggers would have found a turtle on an empty beach, not known what it was, taken selfies with it, probably hugged it and jogged away. Just their luck that they’d run into a teary eared, inexperienced turtle guide.
I can deal with guest pressure. I’ve been a safari guide for years and years and ethics come first.
“Can’t we just go closer to the lion?”
“Can’t we just get this elephant to chase us?”
And here I learned that turtle tours are the same. Guests will push you. And this time, for the first and certainly only time, my patience wavered and I gave in. “Okay,” I conceded. “We’ll go up very slowly and quietly and approach her from the back. If she’s almost done digging, we’ll stay, if not, we’ll move away again.
“So I went in first. All was good. Indeed, she had almost finished with her egg chamber. And according to my turtle exam, I could bring guests over when it was 30-40cms deep – which it was. There’s that damn ‘theory’ again…
I gently motioned the joggers over. But instead of coming in low and quiet, taking the route I’d indicated, they jogged straight over. Joggers, it seems, can’t not jog.
I’ll never forget the look that turtle gave me just then. She raised her head and turned it directly at me. If turtles can swear (and I like to think they at least understand the sentiment) her look definitely said, “F***. You.”
She then abandoned her huge effort and began dragging her exhausted body back to the ocean, where she’d be safe and where she’d most definitely NOT lay her eggs.
“Er… she must have already laid her eggs while we weren’t watching…”
None the wiser, the guests thanked me and jogged off into the sunset. I remained up on that dune and watched the turtle crawl back her sea. She kept looking back as if to ask why I’d done that to her. Stupid pink monster. I felt awful. I cried. A lot. I learned a lesson that I’ll never forget. She could have gone back to the sea for any number of reasons, but this time I knew it was because my actions and lack of experience had left her disturbed. The responsibility was all mine. And it sucked. I sat on that dune for a long time, unable to move. Unable to accept.
I can’t describe what turtles do my soul. It’s delicious. There’s just something about them that grabs at me like nothing else ever has before. I love my turtles. Like, really love them. Like, it’s a crazy, wild love that makes me get up in the morning and convinces me that everything is going to be okay. If turtles can survive for a few hundred million years, surely I can get through the next five. I owe them that. Or something like that. Turtles are my happy. Whatever. They know how to lean back from the edge of existence like nothing else. Every turtle is a survivor. One in a thousand. Literally. All turtles are scarred and chipped and covered in barnacles and have chunks ripped out of their flippers. And they KEEP SWIMMING. You wonder why I fell so hard?
And now I’m learning to be a turtle guide. To share the love. Trying to balance the ethical implications of turtle watching with our desperate ‘need to see.’ We’ve got to remember that turtles can actually be appreciated and admired from a distance. This is one of Earth’s most exciting and ancient animals. Isn’t it enough that you’re sharing a beach with it? Yet, the beauty of turtles is that if you do feel the need to get a little closer, it can be done safely and responsibly, with the right knowledge. That’s where this new job comes in. I’ll admit that there’s a sense of awe that you’ll get from sitting right next to a 600kg turtle that you can’t quite muster when it’s 200 meters down the beach. Sense of awe = duty of care = conservation. Win.
If we couldn’t experience turtles, we wouldn’t be bothered to save them. They’d slip away from us. I’m right here right now because I experienced a hatchling Loggerhead Turtle climbing over my foot last February. Its tiny flipper flicking at my pink nail polish. That was it. The littlest moments have the wildest impact on our lives. And that’s why ‘turtle tours’ are so important. And that’s why I’m going to learn to be a kick-ass turtle guide. It’s probably the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done in this life. And it’s happening now. Wow. Mistakes and all. We’re finding our little spot in the sand, these turtles and me.
Hoofnote: I’ll be diving more into the ethics of turtle tours, but for now I want you to read this by my lovely friends and former safari guests at Travel 4 Wildlife. Love.