Every year, the wardens and volunteers on Cousin Island Special Reserve in Seychelles behave like anxious parents waiting for the arrival of a newborn. You will observe them walking up and down the beaches peering at the sand and looking with anticipation to the sea. Their anxiety is palpable.
In a sense, they are waiting for newborns. During the Hawksbill turtle nesting season starting in late August, many hatchlings will begin their lives here, the offspring of females on an annual stopover to the island’s beaches they’ve made into their maternities.
These turtles become the charges of the island during this period, from the day the females arrive to nest to the final mad dash to the sea by the hatchlings. And as a female Hawksbill turtle will keep coming to nest where she was born, it’s like keeping the maternity open forever.
Cousin Island Special Reserve is a key site for nesting Hawksbill turtles and has the reputation of having the longest running turtle monitoring program in the world, started in 1972. The Hawksbill nests throughout Seychelles, and the archipelago is home to the largest remaining population in the Western Indian Ocean. This population of turtles experts have said, is one of 12 healthiest populations in the world.
Keeping turtles alive, providing safe nesting areas, and monitoring nesting populations is incredibly important work.
Marine turtles have traveled the seas for millennia. But the worldwide trade in turtles drastically changed their fortunes, reducing their numbers to the extent that all seven species of turtles are now listed on the World Conservation Union’s list of endangered species. Seychelles protects turtles by law since 1994.
Back on the island, the wardens and volunteers patrol the beaches several times a day looking for female hawksbill coming to nest, and recording the behaviors of the turtles – checking to see whether there was laying, nest building, or failures. They also collect other scientific data obtained through metal tags on the flippers bearing a unique identification code. If the female is new and has no tag, a metal tag will be applied to the trailing edge of both front flippers of the turtle.
As the first female is spotted, excitement builds.
“The female will crawl out of the sea, and very slowly drag herself up to the beach to a suitable site. There, she will dig a pit with her flippers in which she lays her eggs,” said Eric Blais, Cousin Island Coordinator.
“Afterwards, she will use her flippers to fill up the chamber with sand, carefully camouflaging it against predators like crabs, and then return to sea.”
But the turtles don’t always lay, Blais explained. A turtle can come up and turn back or can dig a nest and abandon it if it’s unsuitable – for example if there is an obstruction like roots. Obstacles on the way can also inhibit the female’s progress across the beaches to lay eggs.
Once the female emergences slow down, the long wait for hatching begins. Eggs are still in danger of being washed away or eaten by crabs. Once they come out, hatchlings are also a favorite food for ghost crabs, birds, and fish.
No wonder then that hatchlings heading towards the sea are often sent off with as much fanfare as a child leaving home.