An evening turtle-tracking safari along Maputaland’s beaches, searching for marine leatherback and loggerhead turtles laying their eggs, or hatchlings emerging from the nest, isn’t your typical game viewing experience. Should you be lucky enough to find a turtle, observing their powerful survival instinct will leave you awed.
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. Check out their website listed below for approved tour operators
Turtle tours can be taken at Cape Vidal, Manzengwenya, Mabibi 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 2 hours before and 2 hours after low tide, meaning tours can last from 2 to 7 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 4×4’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 4 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.
Travel tips & planning info
Who to contact
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Tel: +27 (0)35 590 1633/02
How to get here
Maputaland (also called the Elephant Coast) can be reached by driving on the N12 from Joburg, and the N2 North from Durban. Richards Bay is the closest airport.
Best time to visit
Turtle laying: November to January. Turtle hatching: December to March
Things to do
If you’re a guest at a lodge with a concession, your lodge will arrange transport. Otherwise, you’ll need a vehicle. Alternatively, arrange a transfer with your tour operator.
Length of stay
Up to 7 hours, depending on the tides and your operator.
What to pack
Take a windbreaker or warm jacket. Avoid white or reflective clothing. If going on a community-run tour, an infrared torch or headlamp is useful.
Where to stay
There’s a wide variety of accommodation in St. Lucia and Sodwana Bay.
What to eat
Depending on the tides and your operator, your tour could include a beach dinner or snacks and refreshments.