Sea turtles laying eggs in South Africa is not very well known. However, this natural phenomenon can be experienced on the east coast of South Africa. Depending on when in the season you visit you could witness the females laying eggs, hatchlings making their way to the sea or both. When I visited this area I was fortunate enough to see adult sea turtles and hundreds of hatchlings.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the best place to experience this natural phenomenon. This nature reserve protects a large part of the coastline in the east of South Africa. This is the place where female sea turtles lay their eggs. Park rangers work together with the local population to protect the animals. This excursion is one the best things to do and see when you visit this area of South Africa.
Tracks in the sand
The wide track of an adult
When a turtle comes ashore to lay her eggs, a wide trail is visible as she crawls and slides her belly across the sand. The track runs from the waterside to the dunes. You may see turtles swimming in the waves, making their way to their nesting grounds, so you should keep an eye in the waves. On one of my turtle safaris I noticed a dark spot in the water and it turned out to be a female on her way to the beach to lay eggs.
Dozens of tracks of young turtles
The hatchlings are so tiny that you might not notice them crawling across the beach. With their small flippers, they leave traces, which is not always easy to see. But, once you know what to look out for, you will notice them. They are almost works of art, the way these tiny creatures make their way to the ocean.
If you see tracks close to the waterfront, you might be too late as they might have just entered the water. The best view you can have is when the youngsters are about to leave the nest.
Various tours are offered to experience this phenomenon. I have done different tours; on foot and with an off-road vehicle. I can recommend both as they give you a different experience.
On foot along the beach
A guided tour on foot is offered in various places. I did the tour at Kosi Bay. As you walk along the beach, the guide searches for tracks with a flashlight. He searches mostly in the dunes as that is the place where the turtles lay their eggs. You follow the guide at a small distance so he has a clear view around him.
As soon as the guide finds something he will signal with his flashlight so everyone knows he has found something. At that point, you can light your own flashlight so you can move closer without stepping onto something. For sure your heart will jump when you see the first turtle. It is an amazing sight.
This tour is very personal and before you know it you roam the beaches for easily one and a half hours. The gratification is tremendous after the long search when you find a turtle. During my tour, I have seen hundreds of young turtles crawling across the beach. A wonderful sight, where you literally see them take off in the wide ocean.
Offroad guided tour
On Thonga Beach Lodge it is allowed to drive a jeep on the beach as long as you have the right license for it. And of course the right car, a 4×4 jeep. There are guided tours where you go with a guide in a 4×4 jeep and roam the beaches for turtles.
A local guide escorts you around and tells you what is and is not allowed. Using the headlights is convenient as the lights can cover larger parts of the beach. Easy to see tracks and even turtles. Once something is spotted the guide drives you closeby for a better look.
The advantage of a guided tour by jeep is that you can cover more ground than on foot. I drove for 12 kilometres in just one night. Covering more ground increases also the likelihood you will spot turtles.
Different species of sea turtles:
Different species of sea turtles come to this area to lay their eggs. Most special is the leatherback turtle. It is the largest sea turtle in the world. This species is getting more endangered due to fishing and poaching of their eggs. This is illegal in South Africa.
The loggerhead turtle is one of the largest sea turtles. Females visit the beach of this area of South Africa to lay their eggs. After two months, the eggs hatch and the youngsters find their way into the ocean.
The green turtle is endangered as in the past this species was used to boil soup onboard ships. In the past years, the population has been growing which is a good sign. However, compared to the other two species this turtle will come in much smaller numbers to the beach to lay eggs.
Supporting sea turtles
You are not allowed to pick up turtles and bring them to the water. Turtles need to find their way on their own support so they become strong, according to the park ranger that guided my tour.
But as a tourist, you can support in different ways. For example, the money you pay for doing a guided tour goes directly back to the protection of the turtles. Also, people also scare the largest predator: crabs. Which gives the youngster a bigger chance to reach the ocean after hatching.
I noticed on a crab catching a young turtle en route to the ocean. As I approached the crab, he got scared and let the young turtle go. He made it to the water and could swim away. I followed the turtle on the beach, just to see what other obstacles he might run into. And to enjoy this natural phenomenon.
Protection of the turtles
Sea turtles are endangered. For all sorts of reasons like fishing and egg poaching. But also predators such as crabs, foxes and various types of birds prey on these creatures. Partly for that reason, most eggs hatch during the night. The young turtles can then easily the moonlight as it guides them to the ocean. During a tour, you are allowed to use a flashlight to guide the youngsters when you stand between them and the waterside.
It is not allowed to touch the animals. Also, it is not allowed to take pictures when the female turtle is making the nest to lay her eggs. Once she is in the process of layering her eggs, you can watch this from behind. A park ranger will be there to make sure everyone follows the rules.
Best time to do the sea turtle tour
If you want to witness the sea turtles laying eggs, you can best go between November and February.
The season starts in November when the first animals come ashore to lay their eggs. A few guided tours will be offered. In December more and more guided tours are on offer, which makes it easier to plan.
January, at the end of the month, or early February is the best time to go as the first eggs hatch and the youngsters crawl across the beaches. Also, this is the period that the last female turtles come ashore to lay their last eggs.
I went to this part of South Africa early February, as I wanted to see both the hatching as well as the laying of the egg. I have seen both, on different tours. A real highlight of my trip.