Excerpt from the African Icons Book chapter: Biodiversity – iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa
Every sea captain who sailed to the West Indies was expected to bring home a turtle on the return voyage for a feast to his expectant friends.
Alice Morse Earle, American historical writer, 1851 – 1911
Thonga Turtle Dreamland
For centuries sea turtles, especially the green species abundant in the northern waters, was the favourite food of sailors with the soup fetching very high prices among the well-to-do of Europe and elsewhere – hence the opening quote of this chapter. It was so easy to catch turtles when they hauled themselves up onto tropical beaches to dig nests in which to lay their clutches of soft, leathery eggs. It did not take long for them to become among the first creatures of the seas to confront the evolutionary end-game.
But what had the greatest impact on sea turtles was the slave trade: nothing was easier or cheaper than to feed that sad human cargo with turtles and eggs loaded up from all the remote beaches and islands of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
Few people know a shoreline better than avid coastal anglers. In the early 1960s it therefore came as a surprise to senior staff at the Natal Parks Board, (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the conservation authority in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) who themselves were keen fishermen and familiar with the remote northern beaches – to hear that a turtle graveyard had been discovered south of Kosi Bay near the Mozambique border.
No turtle had ever been recorded from the region, and yet clearly they existed and people were eating them. As a result the Parks Board instituted the first turtle monitoring and tagging programme in the summer of 1963/64 along the Maputaland beaches. It has been running ever since, amassing one of the most comprehensive bodies of turtle data in the world.
In recent decades the shoreline and marine margin has been protected as part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a semi-autonomous conservation organisation that protects not only wildlife and natural habitat, but also safeguards the way of life and development of the subsistence Nguni people who live there.
Of the seven species of sea turtle found worldwide, five of them (leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and olive Ridley) are found in the sea off iSimangaliso. Only two, however, the leatherback and the loggerhead, come ashore to lay. Even though their numbers have been increasing slowly over recent decades, turtle futures here as worldwide are by no means bank safe.
Have a look at our video below:
We stayed at Thonga Beach Lodge while photographing and researching this chapter.
Dreams Are Made of This
The good news for turtles and Thonga Beach Lodge is that Dr George Hughes has never really retired and continues to give talks and accompany turtle tours from the lodge in January each year. Turtle tracking is something you do not want to miss if you are planning a summer holiday between November and the beginning of February, when first the turtles and then their hatchlings make an appearance on the Maputaland coast.
The lodge is one of the most attractive, charming and well appointed beach lodges in South Africa. It has 12 thatched chalets set amongst the coastal dune forest and joined by timber walkways. The food too is among, if not the best. A woman from the Argentine asked me what cut of beef we were eating: “It is the best I’ve tasted,” she enthused, from a country that knows an asado from a curanto.
The lodge offers scuba dives as well as snorkeling in the bay, and the sea is wonderfully warm and good for swimming, just about any time. You can also visit the local Tsonga community and learn a lot about living in, off and around nature from your guide.
Thonga Beach Lodge is a great place for just chilling out. You can soak up the sun on the seashore, lie in a recliner at one of two pools, take long walks on the beach or just do nothing but enjoy the privilege of being there.