With its golden sands and turquoise waters, Mahé in the Seychelles is the perfect island getaway. And it’s not just sun worshippers and snorkellers who think so. The critically endangered hawksbill turtle (so called because of its narrow beak) drops by the southern shores of the largest island in the archipelago to nest, making them an area of great ecological importance.
To ensure the half-shell visitors are properly protected, local conservation group Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS) invites volunteers to help monitor the nesting season from October to February. It’s an unforgettable experience that makes the Seychelles one of the best destinations for the eco-conscious traveller.
“To be responsible travellers, people need to be educated about the natural environment in countries they are visiting, so eco-tourism is very important,” says Vanessa Didon, project leader at MCSS. “Visitors to the Seychelles can assist in conservation work – helping to ensure that pristine environment they are seeking – while also helping in the well-being of locals, who benefit economically.”
Watching the eggs
MCSS volunteers are asked to spend three days a week in south Mahé, monitoring female hawksbill turtles who, every two to five years, return to the place where they were born to nest. The turtles dig a pit in the sand, filling it with 130 to 160 eggs, which hatch in about 60 days. MCSS gathers data on the nesting process and assesses the risk to the animals on the public beaches.
Poaching and human encroachment have caused hawksbill turtle numbers to dwindle to only 25,000 nesting females in the world, so seeing them in Mahé is a rare privilege.
“I have been working with the organisation on the turtle project for over seven years, and have seen many nesting females, but each encounter is like my first,” says Didon. “If one is lucky enough to be able to observe a nesting female throughout the whole process, the respect and protection these animals deserve can be understood and appreciated.”
For MCSS the ultimate goal is to get the nesting beaches declared Temporal/Seasonal Protected Areas. Until that happens it is up to the public to behave sensibly if they happen upon any turtles on the beach.
“Nesting females should be observed at a distance and in a safe viewing zone, which is basically always behind the turtle out of her sight – she will head back to sea if she is approached and feels threatened,” explains Didon, who stresses the far-reaching implications of the species going extinct. “Hawksbill turtles are spongivores, which help to control the growth of sponges on corals.”
Where to see turtles in the Seychelles
For those who can’t join the volunteer programme there are plenty of other opportunities to see turtles in the Seychelles. With green, leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley turtles also frequenting the archipelago, those who plop into the water in scuba or snorkelling gear can’t help but bump into some magnificent sea critters.
Your best bet to see the endangered green turtle – the other species that nests in the archipelago – is at the Aldabra, Cosmoledo, Astove and Farquhar atolls, or off the coast of the Outer Islands. On one of these – the gorgeous Alphonse Island – Blue Safari Seychelles offers snorkelling trips with turtles.
It has also teamed up with the Island Conservation Society (ICS), giving guests a chance to tag along as conservationists monitor tracks, mark hatched nests and ensure that hatchlings make their way to the ocean.
Whatever steps you take to see turtles, it’s vital to remember that you are a guest in their environment and disruption has to be kept to a minimum. “It’s very important that people are educated about the code of conduct when encountering sea turtles,” says Didon. “The Seychelles is blessed with an abundance of species forming an exceptional marine life, each having their role in the ecosystem. That very much includes sea turtles.”