What not to do with a turtle hatchling

Posted on 6 April 2016

Unable to let nature take its course, our columnist does a very, very bad thing.



Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

‘Whatever you do,’ said the guide, ‘don’t touch the baby turtles.’ He turned his torch on each of us in turn, like a suspicious prison guard. He seemed to linger on me longest, as though recognising the kind of reprobate who might make a grab for any small amphibian in the vicinity.

‘Tch,’ I said. He didn’t need to tell me. I’m not some American in Bermuda pants – I know you don’t touch the turtles. Of course I wouldn’t touch the turtles.

Behind us the warm seawater ran up the sand and round our ankles. A bright silver moon ran a broken silver streak across a sea shining like a black mirror. We were on a dark tropical beach in the Indian Ocean and just over there, buried in the low dunes, a clutch of turtle eggs was hatching.

It’s one of the rules of travel that you don’t interfere with the things you travel to see. You don’t scrawl your name on the walls of Greek temples, even in pencil. You don’t hoot to warn the zebra foal about the lion; you don’t take topless selfies in Angkor Wat. I know all that.

Still though, when you see those baby loggerheads come struggling down the sand, freshly hatched and the size of your palm, their tiny flippers flailing like plastic wind-up toys, you’d have to have the heart of a crocodile not to want to help. They’re so small and brave, and the odds against them are so high. There are phalanxes of hungry crabs on the beach, reef sharks waiting in the sea. At sunrise the gulls will swoop and gobble them up. The very few that make it out past the reef will be tumbled by waves and currents, drowned in storms, snared in nets, strangled in discarded plastic. They get a tough break, these little guys struggling towards the silver light glimmering on the obsidian sea, and so few will survive even this first night.

One little straggler went off at a tangent down the beach, parallel with the sea instead of towards it. What a dummy. Look at him – now he’s fallen into a deep tyre-track in the soft sand. Idiot. He’ll never get out of there.

The guide was explaining something or other, his torch turned off so as not to disorient the turtles. Under cover of darkness I bent and picked up the little lost fool and carried him to the water. Helping one weakling survive isn’t so bad, is it? He’s so small and useless. He needs a big brother. Stop struggling, little guy, I’m trying to help you. Stop it! If you keep struggling, I might…

I had made a loose cage with my hands but somehow he forced his way out. His flippers made a whirring sound as he fell. He landed on the hard wet sand with a bad sound that made me sick inside. Turtles aren’t adapted to the land; even less are they adapted to flight.

He lay very still. Please let him just be playing dead.

‘What are you doing over there?’ called the guide.


I poked him with my toe. Get up … go on, wake up. I nudged him into the water and the wave washed him back, upside down against my foot. Oh, move. Please move. Please don’t make me a turtle murderer.

The next wave came and took him away with it. Did I see him revive? Did he move? Was that a flipper movement? Was it? I like to believe so, I try to believe it, because otherwise I have to accept that I think I’m a traveller but I’m really only a tourist like all the others, intruding, interfering, leaving my sticky, sorry fingerprints on the world.

Also read: The turtles of iSimangaliso Wetland Park


Turtle truths: a few wholly random facts

  • Loggerhead sea turtles use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate – although they travel for years at a time, females return to the exact spot of their birth to lay eggs.
  • The seven species of sea turtles that can be found today have been around for 110 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs.
  • The loggerhead’s sex is dictated by the temperature in the nest. Eggs kept at a constant temperature of 32°C become females. Those at 28°C hatch as males.


This column was first featured in the April 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

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