It is Green Turtle hatching season on the Mafia Islands off the coast of Tanzania, East Africa and I had the pleasure and privilege of recently seeing these little amphibians starting their long and difficult life journeys. I was in Mafia to revisit the place where my love affair with Tanzania started almost 12 years ago when my wife, Jackie and I helped build Chole Island's community clinic and assisted to train the staff so that they could run it themselves. This project was funded partly funded by the bed night fee levied by Chole Mjini Lodge.
From my base in my exotic, slow paced, low carbon footprint tree house of Chole Mjini, set amongst lush tropical gardens and the ruins of Shirazi trader houses and markets I went by local Mashua (locally made sailing boat) to the outer Island of Juani. Here I met my guide Nassoro who has to be the champion for turtle conservation on the East African Coast. Nassoro has personally protected over 1000 turtle nests from destruction or plunder by local fisherman, who considers adult turtles and their eggs as a delicacy. Nassoro is a volunteer with Sea Sense, a locally established grassroots NGO with the objective of protecting turtles and turtle breeding habitat and the endangered marine mammal, the Dugong, along the Tanzanian coast line. Nassoro's enthusiasm is infectious. As we landed on the coral shores of Juani Island and started the 25 minute walk through the cool, shaded coastal forest, punctuated by ancient and majestic Baobab trees, Nassoro started to explain the importance of his work. East Africa hosts both Hawksbill and Green turtles, the majority being Green turtles. Each adult turtle travels thousands of miles across oceans and eventually returns to the same beach on which they were born to lay their eggs. As they exit the water they traverse the tidal zone and dig deep into the soft sand to lay their precious clutch. They then cover their eggs with loving care and return, exhausted to the ocean to continue their odyssey. In East Africa nesting generally starts in late February and continues to June.
The incubation period for turtle eggs is 55 days so Nassoro patrols several beaches on Juani daily during the nesting season from April to September to identify nests and then carefully disguises them to prevent exploitation. He is also able to financially reward fisherman when they find a nest, which he then disguises and records. After 55 days he carefully monitors the hatching of the baby turtles as if they are his own children. It is the very predictability of this gestation period that allows for a tourism experience as guests are almost guaranteed of seeing the turtles hatch. For this privilege guests contribute a $10 per head fee to SeaSense, helping them continue to pursue their passion for turtle conservation. It is hard to describe the feeling of seeing newly hatched turtles instinctively leaving their nest and struggling down the beach into the surf zone. I was exhilarated and relieved at the same time to see them reach the water, but understood their vulnerability and the perilous nature of their life journey from then on. I was also hopeful that one day, thanks to the dedication and hard work of Nassoro and SeaSense, my children and I could perhaps witness the same turtle coming to lay it's eggs on the same beach. I pondered this prospect as we sailed theMashua with the "Kuzi" wind at our backs towards my heavenly escape at Chole Mjini Lodge.
Rob Barbour, AfrikaAfrika Managing Director