Did you know?
Leatherback turtles dive deeper and are far larger than any other turtles.
On your turtle-tracking safari, one question your guide cannot answer is how, each year, these creatures navigate thousands of sea miles and return instinctively to the same beaches where they hatched.
Quick-witted nature lovers quip that being female, the turtle’s not afraid to stop and ask for directions, but this nesting ritual is a mystery that still baffles marine scientists.
When going on a turtle tour, choose a licensed operator. There are a number of authorised concessions in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Turtle tours can be taken at Cape Vidal, Manzengwenya (guests of Rocktail Beach Camp only), Mabibi (guests of Thonga Beach Lodge or Mabibi campsite only) and Kosi Bay. The concession at Sodwana Bay, operated by Phinda Private Game Reserve, is open to both lodge and non-lodge guests.
Patience and luck are required when tracking sea turtles. Tours commence in the late afternoon, or after sunset. Operators may only be on the beaches two hours before, and two hours after low tide, meaning tours can last from two to seven hours.
During your turtle safari, you’ll see little other wildlife besides scurrying ghost crabs, and the fleeting shadows of bats and seabirds in the 4x4’s headlights.
Since even a passing lighthouse beam can deter the turtle from leaving the safety of the surf, if your guide spots a turtle mom slogging-it up the beach to a suitable nesting site above the high tide mark, it’s lights off, except for the guide’s torch.
For some guests, this aspect of a turtle tour can be frustrating, as they’re unaccustomed to spending prolonged periods in darkness. Whether the female is exiting the sea, or returning to the ocean, it’s only permissible to illuminate her from behind, preferably using infrared beams.
While she's in the egg-laying 'trance', discreet lighting is allowed. Usually, it’s not possible to take photos because the camera flashes could unsettle the female, and it’s vital she’s not deterred from fulfilling her mission.
Another aspect of a turtle-tracking safari, is seeking out baby turtles as they hatch. It’s an awe-inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking experience watching the tiny turtles make a valiant dash for the ocean, all the while beset by sea birds, predators, and ghost crabs.
It’s believed only four in every 1 000 turtle hatchlings survives to maturity, so whether you’ve observed a female laying eggs, or witnessed the next generation’s heroic bid to reach the sea, you’ve been party to one of Maputaland’s timeless miracles.