Beach Holiday in Africa: Turtle Tracking at Thonga or White Pearl

beach holiday in Africa - turtle trackingOne of the most special coastal experiences you can have on a beach holiday in Africa is to be able to witness the Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles in the summer months, both as they come inshore to lay their eggs and, later in summer, when those eggs hatch and the baby turtles make a live and death rush for the safety of the ocean before the encircling sea bird predators can kill them. Turtle tracking is best undertaken in either northern KwaZulu Natal in South Africa or southern Mozambique.

No-one knows how the turtles can navigate back through the ocean to choose to lay their eggs on exactly the same beach where they themselves were born. It is one of those remarkable poignant mysteries of nature. I do like one joke which says that being female, the turtle is not afraid to stop and ask for directions, but this nesting ritual continues to baffle marine scientists.

The ‘season’ for turtle tracking begins in November and continues through the summer to February. It is a nocturnal activity as the turtles need to safety of darkness in order to find a suitable nesting place above the high tide mark. The excursions are carefully regulated and are only allowed to on on the beach for two hours prior to low tide and two hours afterwards so timing very much depends on the tides. Thus on some evenings it might be just after dark in the early evening. On other nights it could be as late as the early hours of the morning – it just depends on your dates and the tides.

As the turtles need darkness, if you spot a turtle, the lights will be turned off and you will need to watch silently in the dark light of the moon. Low leve infrared light is permitted but only to shine on the back of the turtle. During the egg-laying trance like state of the turtle, low level lighting is permitted but no photography for fear of disturbing the turtle.

Later in the summer months, you may be lucky to witness the little hatchlings. As on a game drive, this can be a poignant and sometimes heart-wrenching experience as you watch the turtles exhibit their powerful survival instinct pursued both from above by predatory sea birds, but also by the hundreds of ghost crabs which emerge instantly from the surf. As it is estimated that only 4 in 1000 turtles actually survive to full maturity you are watching a truly unique picture of nature at work

The two lodges reviewed early (Thonga Beach Lodge & White Pearl Resorts) differ quite a bit in their approach to turtle tracking so if this is a big attraction for you, take note… Thonga has one of the few official permits to conduct turtle tracking drives along the beach by 4×4 vehicle in search of the turtles.  This is a huge plus because it means that you can travel further in search of the turtles. But they are only allowed out for a specific period of time so there is a chance that you may not be successful but generally the turtles are spotted, sometimes only 15 mins into the excursion and sometimes much later. However because it involves a vehicle and takes a considerable time, the turtle tracking experience is at an extra cost. In contrast White Pearl conducts turtle tracking walks from the lodge on a complimentary basis in season. However given that you can only cover a fairly small area on foot, your chances of seeing the turtles are much less.

So if you are really keen on turtle tracking, then I would opt for Thonga Beach Lodge whereas if you would like the option to perhaps see a turtle but only if the tides are right and you are lucky, then White Pearl offers a good compromise.

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...

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