The scramble starts instantaneously. Tangled in a horde of siblings, she climbs and claws her way to the top. There, light and air tell her that she’s free to go and up and out she goes. Standing on her brothers and sisters, she scrambles up and out. There, she breaks into a frantic run through the sand, climbing over shells and seaweed until she reaches the water. Once there, she breaks into a top-speed swim through the crashing surf out into the open water.
She has a one in a thousand chance of making it.
Watamu is one of the most important turtle nesting sites in Kenya, and hundreds of green sea turtles lay their nests on the beach each year. Each nest has around a hundred eggs in it. With those success odds, only a handful of adult turtles will come out of each year’s crop of nests on the beach.
Helping the odds are the Watamu Turtle Watch, a nonprofit organization who monitor, record and assist with nesting and hatching turtles, as well as with adult turtles caught accidentally (or not) in nets or injured in various ways. They monitor the nests and assist at the hatching to help the turtles avoide the beach dangers of crabs, seagulls and more. By helping the turtles reach the sea unharmed, they improve their odds of success somewhat. They also help by educating locals and visitors about the turtles – spreading information about these wonderful endangered animals and helping them be valued as more than a meal.
We had the good fortune to witness a hatching just in front of our house. Hundreds of baby turtles came out of a nest just above the high tide mark in the twilight hours and made their way to the Indian Ocean. (The nest had been relocated to the spot by the Turtle Watch. With erosion on the beach, most turtles can’t make it up the meter-high sand cliff that lines much of the beach. The Watch monitors the egg laying turtles and when a clutch gets laid in an area that might become exposed to predators by the surf, they dig up the eggs and put them higher up away from the sea.)
Watching the hatchlings scramble through the sand and the washed-up piles of sea grass, it’s hard not to marvel at the animals furiously making their way to the water. These tiny baby reptiles, with their first exposure to the elements, are programmed to quickly get themselves into the (somewhat) safe environment of the ocean. In the process, they have to avoid obstacles and predators, climb over driftwood and piles of sea grass leaves much larger than themselves, even navigate the pitfalls of beach erosion. This particular bale of turtles had to start with a tumble down a meter-high sheer cliff of sand, a fall over ten times their own length.
It’s a thrill to see creatures start out their life, and a joy to be able to assist in a slight way, protecting them from at least a few predators and helping them survive through their first few meters of life’s journey. What a wonderful start to a beach holiday!