“I wonder where the turtles are now?” my boyfriend asks with a dreamy look in his eye. He’s been asking the same question at least every two hours since this morning, but since it’s impossible to know we merely stare out at the endless blue, as if staring hard enough will give us an answer.
We arrived at Ras Kutani two days ago. We came to explore the stunning Tanzanian coastline about which we had heard so much: to walk on sugar-white beaches; to wallow in aquamarine waters; to hear the humpback whales singing as they passed. But the turtles had come as a delightfully unexpected treat.
The previous evening, lounging on the beach, drinking cocktails and watching the sun set, the camp manager had rushed up to us. “We’ve just heard there’ll be a hatching tomorrow,” he panted. Befuddled by mint, lemon and gin, the crashing of the surf, and the immensity of the great orange orb of the sun, we had turned blank faces towards him.
“The turtles! A nest of them will hatch tomorrow. Come down to the beach after breakfast and you’ll see.”
We were lost that night in other Ras Kutani pleasures: eating fresh crab curries and mango sorbets, skinning dipping in the private plunge pool of our suite under a sky radiant with stars, cuddling up in our palatial bed, listening to the bush babies call and the vervets monkeying around in the forest canopy around us. So when the manager greeted us the next morning and introduced us to our Sea Sense Turtle Tour Guide, Juma, we hadn’t given the events of the morning much thought, never mind begun to guess how much they would affect us.
“Come!” Solomon said. “Let’s go find the nest.”
We found it a short walk along the beach. It was an unremarkable spot in local terms: just pristine white sand, edged by endemic coastal forest, and looking out onto the crystal clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean. It was a good place to be born, one couldn’t help but think that: that it was an auspicious place to start it all.
Turtles have been nesting on Tanzania’s coastline for 150 million years. For uncounted generations, females have been returning to the beaches where they were born to continue the life of their species. In between they make great oceanic crossings, swimming thousands of miles up and down the coast, vulnerable always - and at every stage of their life - to predation. It’s an extraordinary life of adventuring. But this, their first adventure, is the most hazardous of all.
“Their mother crawled ashore 55 days ago and laid her eggs,” Solomon told us. “and they’ve been incubating in there ever since. You see that indentation in the sand? That appeared two days ago. It’s a sign that the little hatchlings are moving around down there, probably struggling to push their way out of their shells, and climb up through the sand. You feel the slight vibration from the nest? That tells us they’ll be out soon.”
He peered down at the nest, and swept aside a few centimetres of sand. Then shouted: “ Look! Here they come!”
As if by magic, one flailing little flipper appeared, began throwing sand all around and emerged like an eruption from the sandy volcano of the nest.
The first hatchling was still for a moment, seemingly awed by its first glimpse of the big wide world, then it began a mad dash to the sea.
No sooner had it set off than the fish eagles swooped in, their sharp eyes having caught the first flash of vulnerable white underbelly. We watched anxiously. Yesterday we had admired the graceful flight of the eagles, their smooth swoops, their effortless kills. Today, they appalled us.
“Go away!” my boyfriend shouted, jumping up and down and shaking his arms at the sky. “Go!”
You can’t watch the fight for life between two creatures, and not take sides. The lunch of the fish eagle, or the death of a turtle? It seemed totally straightforward. Nature watching has this effect: it makes you simple and instinctive; everything happens from the gut. We flapped our arms at the birds and spread out, instinctively encircling the hatchlings. Without human intervention, few turtles make it even as far as the sea, and only one in a thousand survives into adulthood.
Our first pioneer was, however, already half way through his trek to the surf. In his hatchling frenzy, he dashed into dips and troughs, into the great holes of human footprints, upending himself, struggling laboriously up tiny sand hills, or over great boulders that were simply small shells. The eagles circled; a dog lolloped over and was quickly grabbed and leashed. It was impossible not to want to scoop up the tiny like creatures and swim them out to the comparative safety of the deep ocean.
As the first hatchling reached the surf, he was caught, tossed over, then thrown back up the beach. He righted himself and began again, determined towards the sea. Six or seven times he was thrown back until finally a single wave picked him up and whooshed him out beyond the surf into the deeper water where he began swimming. We cheered; it was hard not to. The little male had taken just a few minutes to reach the ocean, and would never again, for the rest of his life, set foot on shore.
Looking back, scattered all up the beach we saw his siblings on their own journeys towards the sea.
The minutes we watched them emerge seemed timeless. 111 baby bundles of the oldest living reptiles left on earth, each determined to overcome the statistics and survive.
Turtles have nested on the beach close to Ras Kutani for as long as human memory. Their parents, grandparents and great grand parents may have been born on this beach, and, if they are lucky enough to survive - their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren may make this same perilous dash to the Indian Ocean from this exact spot. Now, we could only wish them good luck and a life full of turtle blessing: strong currents, plentiful sea grass, good mates, and an unspoilt beach to return to.
If they survived, they would spend years as juveniles floating around in the safety of seaweed rafts far out at sea; years more drifting on oceanic currents, or navigating by the earth’s magnetic fields and swimming thousands of miles on journeys whose purpose we can only guess at. There is so little we understand about this charismatic species, hunted almost to the edge of extinction by fisherman and coastal dwellers, hungry for shells to sell, and soup to eat.
Tanzania is one of the best places in the world to see a hatching, with rookeries scattered all along its gorgeous 900-mile coast. It’s a natural paradise here with the country’s waters full of whales, dolphins and rays, its forests full of bush babies, wild pigs, and civet cats, and its skies full of kingfishers, sunbirds and butterflies. The largest fish in the world lives here; so too do some of the tinniest. Schools of dolphins put on acrobatic displays for passing boats; whale sharks the size of double decker buses cruise along searching for plankton; and at certain times of the year, hundreds of 30-ton humpback whales can be seen making their annual migration from Antarctica to birth in the warm waters of East Africa.
So if you want to see Africa in all her wondrous fertility and fecundity come to Tanzania, come to Ras Kutani. The world’s oldest continent isn’t just about the savannah, the mammals and the ‘Big Five’. It’s about this: the spectacular sea and shore. There are other places in the world to watch turtles hatching, of course - but few that offer such a stunningly untouched natural environment, such charming guides, and such exclusive access. And none that offers a boutique beach retreat quite like Ras Kutani, which, for my money, is pretty much as close to heaven as it is possible to be.
Ras Kutani supports SeaSense with crucial funding for turtle tagging as well as hosting one of the protected nesting sites along this coastline. When female turtles return to lay their eggs on our beach, the same beach they were born on, they are monitored so the nests can be relocated and then protected during their incubation. Only one in 1,000 hatchings survive to maturity but since the programme started, over 4,800 nests have been monitored and more than 359,000 green and hawksbill turtle hatchlings have safely reached the sea to begin their long journey to adulthood. Please visit their website to see how you can support this fantastic organisation.