Labour PainsWeak moonlight was dappling the beach as our curious cluster of tourists watched a giant turtle slowly haul her exhausted body back down to the ocean.
She’d just laid about 100 eggs in a hollow nest scooped out with her flippers. Then she’d scraped away at the heap of displaced sand to cover the eggs again, before rocking her shell from side to side over the disturbed ground to flatten out the tell-tell marks. Now she was slowly heaving herself back towards the safely of the distant water.
It should have been a moving, spiritual sort of moment, except I suddenly got the giggles. I couldn’t help it, because our guide was crouching on the beach in front of the turtle, waving a torch at her to light the way.
I’m sure I saw the turtle rolling her eyes at the indignity of it all. Get that damn flashlight out of my eyes, she was thinking. And I know we were both wondering the same thing: Since turtles have been doing this ritual of egg-laying on the beach for centuries - millennia in fact – why the heck would she need some lad with a torch to light the way?
I asked our earnest young guide, and he told me that turtles follow the brightest light on their journey back to the sea. His torch was brighter than the reflection of moonlight on the water, so it would make certain she didn’t go wrong, he said. Once, several post-pregnancy turtles turned up dazed and confused on the doorstep of the turtle research centre because its lights were blazing so brightly on a moonless evening.
Our meter-long leatherback finally made it to the water, and our group gave a little cheer. Strangely she didn’t seem inclined to swim a lap of honour to thank her appreciative audience.
The whole turtle-watching episode left me rather unsettled, really. I’d always wanted to see this amazing natural phenomenon, where a turtle migrates hundreds of miles back to the beach where she was born to lay eggs of her own. But now it felt too voyeuristic.
The group gathered on the beach at Kosi Bay must have been 45 strong, so we split into three groups to keep our numbers down. But 15 people gawping at one turtle are still highly intrusive, especially when everyone is clustering around flashing their cameras and chatting excitedly.
I was as guilty as anyone, taking pictures and regaling the leader with questions. He told us that a turtle will crawl from the sea to her chosen spot on the beach two or three times in one night, offloading about 100 eggs each time. After that mammoth effort, it may be three or four years before she’s game to breed again.
We didn’t get to watch a turtle scooping out her hole, but that was probably a matter of timing rather than the guides sticking to their rule that disturbing a turtle in that early stage can spook her so much that she just turns around and leaves without depositing her eggs.
Still, we followed tracks in the sand twice more to spot a leatherback and a loggerhead laying their eggs, dropping one soft-shelled lump onto another in a higgledy-piggledy heap of potential life. Sadly most are little ovals of potential death, since very few babies will make it out of the eggs and down to the sea against a barrage of predatory seagulls and rodents hungering to pick them off. If they make it to the ocean, a million other predatory mouths are waiting.
Yet those dangers are one way the guides can justify their presence, since the birds and scavengers stay away when the turtle tots have a human procession to guard them on their journey. Besides, our guide added, local villagers who steal the eggs for food won’t come near when they know that researchers are conducting regular patrols in the 60 days between the laying and the hatching.
That left me in a quandary. Are the intrusive eyes of researchers and tourists justifiable if our presence helps more of these vulnerable creatures stay alive? Or should nature be left alone and mankind just butt out?
Another layer of doubt muddled my guilty brain when we spotted a turtle a couple of hundred meters away, shuddering up the beach towards her ancestral egg-laying home. She’d already seen us, and literally turned tail to head straight back to the water, still burdened down with eggs pressing to be evicted.
I guess there never is much dignity in childbirth.
First published in the Sunday Times.