Sea turtles hurtle to life in the sea

Saturday September 22 2018

sea turtle

A sea turtle hatchling hurtles towards the ocean at Serena Beach Resort and Spa. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG 

SUSAN MUUMBI
By SUSAN MUUMBI
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KARI MUTU
By KARI MUTU
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At 3pm we passed by the hatcheries. There was no activity. An hour later, a call came. “Come over,” the caller said. “The sea turtle eggs have hatched.”

The call was from Tuva Mwahunga, the general manager of the Serena Beach Resort and Spa.

My friend and I hurried over to one of the three hatcheries by the beach, along with several other hotel guests and passers-by.

Seven baby turtles had hatched, and were ready to be released into the ocean.

The site has three 3.5-foot hatcheries made of wood and a light mesh that exposes the nest to normal weather and temperature conditions. The door faces the ocean.

The hatchlings were falling over each other trying to get through the door. We, the spectators, formed a human corridor for them to pass through and then the door was opened. It was a mad rush to the ocean, as the tide was just beginning to come in.

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Over seemingly insurmountable mounds of seaweed and dead leaves, the hatchlings tumbled forward, overturning and getting back upright, pausing every so often to take a break when the effort seemed too much.

One by one the seven made it into the ocean. We cheered each one on, hoping that it would be back in 15 to 50 years to lay its eggs at Shanzu beach on Mombasa’s coastline.

Turtle hatchery at Serena Beach Resort and Spa,
Turtle hatchery at Serena Beach Resort and Spa, Kenya. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG

That was late last month.

“Yesterday we released 61, and 35 the day before,” Mwahunga said.

Over 20 years ago marine ecologists warned that sea turtles were facing extinction within 50 years if action wasn’t taken to conserve them.

This prompted Serena Beach Resort and Spa in Kenya to establish the Sea Turtle Conservation Project in 1993 with the aim of protecting nesting sites on their beach.

“Our objective is also to prevent pollution of the Coast and build overall awareness of sea turtles and the critical role they play in our ecosystem,” he said.

Every year, sea turtles lay their eggs along the Coast of Kenya between March and June and again from October to December. The eggs hatch after two months.

“The fishermen in this area are aware of our conservation efforts. We ask them to let us know when they see a nest. If it is in a safe place, we'll camouflaged, we don’t disturb it. If it is not, we relocate the eggs to our hatchery.

“The consultant naturalist is the one who determines whether the eggs need to be moved — for example, if they are laid below the high tide watermark, on a rocky outcrop or an area with a lot of human activity and poaching,” said Mwahunga.

The most common species are green sea turtles, hawksbill turtles and olive ridley turtles. All three are listed on the International Union of Conservation of Species’ Red List of threatened species as vulnerable to critically endangered.

As newly hatched turtles crawl from the nest to the sea they magnetically imprint the beach location for their future return.

Female turtles come back to the same place they were born. They dig a hole with their back flippers, lay up to 100 soft-shelled eggs, cover the nest with sand and then return to the sea. Turtles do not guard their nests.

Turtles are threatened by ocean habitat destruction, getting caught in fishing nets and their nests sites being vandalised. Some communities believe turtle soup has aphrodisiac benefits for men.

Mwahunga said, “Fishermen who participate in reporting and protecting turtle nests are motivated by monetary rewards, thus increasing their income and benefits to their families. We pay $0.5 per egg.”

Local fishing communities have been trained by a consultant environmentalist and Serena Hotel’s in-house naturalists to monitor and report on the turtle sites.

In 2017, Serena’s sea turtle conservation programme received the Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life below Water award from Ecotourism Kenya.