Hawksbill turtle nesting occurs during the day in Seychelles. They are thus vulnerable to disturbances. Taking time to understand and appreciate this process can help in conservation and protection.
Turtles are wary when on land
Cousin Island Special Reserve receives hundreds of nesting Hawksbill turtles. It is a key nesting site for this species in the western Indian Ocean. Its monitoring program for turtles began in the 1970s and is one of the longest-running in the world.
Through this program, the Turtle Team made up of Nature Seychelles staff and volunteers, collects data. A monitoring protocol is used to capture information about as many Hawksbill nesting events as possible throughout the season. Before participating in data collection, each member of the team receives training on handling turtles.
“Monitoring is done in such a way as to respect the animal and not cause unnecessary stress,” says Chris Tagg, the Reserve’s conservation manager. “Turtles can be easily distracted by movement and loud noises. These can stress and disorient them, so we limit disturbance. It is important to know what stage of nesting a turtle is in and when to approach for data collection,” he says.
Emerging from the Ocean
Most people enjoy watching turtles emerging from the water. But turtles are vulnerable and exposed on land, and they emerge with caution. They’ll typically scan the beach as they emerge and stop frequently. Any disturbance could send them back to the water. It's advisable to stay out of sight and to be quiet.
Hawksbill turtles do not always move up the beach in a straight line. While searching for the right place, they may take several turns on the beach and will seem to "smell" the sand. When you see one, freeze until she passes.
After selecting a spot, the turtle clears the area with its flippers. Small sand mounds flank it from both sides. During this time, you can smell disturbed sand and soil and hear the flippers hitting her carapace.
Digging the nest hole
Turtles dig nests using their hind flippers. The flippers alternate to scoop up sand, lift it, and deposit it. This continues until the hind flippers can no longer reach loose dirt or sand in the hole. Due to the alternate use of rear flippers, the turtle may appear to be moving from side to side. If you are approaching her, it is best to do so from the back.
When the turtle is satisfied with her nest, she lays 50-230 eggs in sets of 1-5. Minimal movement is observed as they go into a trance-like state. Disturbances are least likely to occur and data collection is done at this time.
Sand is thrown over the nest to camouflage
Covering and camouflaging
When laying is done, the turtle fills the egg chamber with sand using its hind flippers. To conceal the nest site, sand is thrown over it. There will be large quantities of sand sprayed over the turtle's back, behind the turtle, and often over the vegetation.
Once camouflage is complete, the turtle rapidly crawls back towards the water. While it is amazing to see and photograph, it is also best to do so from a distance.
Incubation and hatching
It takes about two months for the eggs to hatch. The hatchlings emerge from the nest, orient themselves, and make a dash for the ocean. Allow them to do so without hindrance to help them remember their natal beach. Upon reaching the water, they frantically swim away, embarking on a new chapter in their lives.