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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Turtles and So Much More!

It’s 9:30pm, standing on a beach along the ocean, I watch three researchers measuring and tagging under the familiar and friendly glow of red lights. The behemoth of a turtle ignores their efforts, using her large fins to move sand, continuing to bury her eggs. The researchers finish gathering their data and move on, either no longer awed by the majesty before them or simply too busy to gape as there are at least another four turtles in the surrounding kilometer of beachfront tonight.

I, however, have no interest in moving on. I plop down next to Emily-my traveling companion for the holiday- and my new friend Ane, watching the beautiful creature finish her work. Soon she turns and begins her trek back to the Indian Ocean. With a huge body built for swimming and diving, her progress is slow and laborious. The twenty of us rise to follow her journey. Our guide, a local woman from the surrounding Thonga communities, shines her red beam on the turtle as we escort her to the sea. I feel as though we are somehow connected in this unique moment; this turtle and her human companions.

I expect that when she reaches the water, she will disappear quickly into her home, celebrating the weightlessness the ocean provides. Instead, she pauses, resting in the shallowest surf, most likely gathering her energy after dragging her huge body along the sand, digging a deep hole, depositing her clutch of eggs, filling and disguising her nest, then hauling herself back down the beach. For a species that typically weighs a ton, reproduction must be exhausting.

Finally she swims into the surf and her large, dark body disappears. Thrilled with our encounter with this Leatherback-the endangered, largest, and most elusive marine turtle, we continue down the beach. As the tide has turned and there is now hard-packed sand to walk upon, the going is much easier than before. Thirteen-year-old Ane and I marvel at how incredibly lucky we are to have this experience at the same time as I internally reflect on how aware she is for have just become a teenager.

Ane notices a light reflecting off the clouds far out to the East and asks what it is. I excitedly note the nearly full moon rising from behind a band of clouds. Our guide stops us all to watch a loggerhead turtle make her way back to the sea. After the leatherback, this familiar friend looks significantly smaller than before. This is our second loggerhead of the night, as one came from the sea while we let the leatherback dig her nest in peace.

Thirty minutes later, we are back in the SUV, Emily, our guide Ian, Ane’s family, and me. For the first time since picking us up at 4:30am, Ian admits that in four years of doing tours at this beach, sometimes as many as three in a week during peak nesting season, this is only his third time seeing a nesting leatherback turtle. I am blown away! This is why I shelled out more than my monthly Peace Corps stipend for our thirty-six hour adventure with Ian. Ever since reading Carl Safina’s Voyage of a Turtle, I have desperately wanted to see a leatherback. Every time I was sailing in northern Atlantic waters during the summer months, my eyes were trained for the turtle, who warms itself at the surface to make up for the frigid water temperatures. To understand that realizing my dream, even in one of their most active nesting sites in the world, is such a rarity humbles me.

We return to the rustic community camp near Bhanga Nek-one of several in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park- and I continue my reflection on the day. After leaving St Lucia at 4:30am, Ian took us to Rocktail Dive Center. We were brought to a nearly empty beach, with only about fifty locals near the road entry and our small group a few kilometers down the beach. We snorkeled off the dive boat in three places-a shallow 2m reef, a 6m reef, and a deeper spot to enjoy larger fish. While snorkeling we got great moments with three different sea turtles: loggerhead, green, and hawksbill. Ian was ecstatic as he had not actually seen a loggerhead from in the water yet and because he had a unique experience with a large sport fish near the second reef. His enthusiasm and our activities brought back flashes of my previous life sailing and our many incredible marine animal encounters. I love when a guide is jazzed about an experience.

Both the dive center and our camp for the night were down long sandy roads. We temporarily got stuck at one point, but another driver helped us out and Ian let more air out of the tires before the continued. It made me grateful we were experiencing this with a guide as I would have been tense and lost driving these back roads.

The morning after our incredible turtle experience, we headed inland to Tembe Elephant Park. As we drove, Ian pointed out a grove of Raffia Palms-which boasts the world’s largest leaf and is indigenous only to that area. Knowing my bird nerd tendencies, he told us about the Palm Vulture, which is rare as it lives only where there are Raffia Palms. A few minutes after I assumed I would never get to cross that bird off my list, Ian stopped short. There, directly ahead of the car, atop a Raffia Palm was a Palm Vulture!

We spent about four hours in Tembe Elephant Park. As we drove around, we got to see dung beetles rolling their dung balls, which it pretty entertaining. We spent two hours in a hide watching bull elephants cool themselves with water and dirt. In total, we saw five bird species, Elephant, Impala, Nyala, Common Duiker, Red Duiker, Giraffe, Zebra, Waterbuck, Warthog, and the Giant Flattened Dung Beetle in the park, which considering the heat of the day is pretty impressive.

Ian got us back to St Lucia with just enough time for dinner before we headed out on a night safari in the Wetland Park. Our night safari guide clearly loved chameleons, as he hopped out of the car three times to highlight them for us. First he showed us the largest chameleon in the world, the Flapneck Chameleon, followed by babies of the same species, and then the world’s smallest chameleon, the Dwarf Chameleon. We also managed to see Reedbuck, Bushbuck, Bush Babies (Emily’s goal!), Cape Buffalo, Red Duiker, Common Duiker, Waterbuck, Hippo, Genet, Bushpig, and Zebra as well as one new bird, the Watered Tickle.

Our last major animal encounter of St Lucia was fittingly an abundance of hippopotamus. St. Lucia is known for its hippos and has warning signs throughout town about them being out and dangerous at night. Apparently they actually will wander the streets! While we slept through the hippo roaming, we saw close to 100 in the estuary near town on a boat tour. It was incredible to listen to their moans and groans as they lay in the water relaxing during the heat of the day.

Although this trip only comprised a few days of our trip to Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, it was absolutely amazing and I cannot say enough positive things about Ian and Extreme Nature Tours! Thanks for helping me cross something amazing off my life list!

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