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A Special Turtle

It’s another warm evening in the southern hemisphere. The sun has already set and the gentle breeze makes the palm leaves rustle. We are a joyful party from around the world. People with diverse backgrounds who has gathered at one of the most beautiful beaches in the Seychelles.

Sunset at West Beach

We talk about life and share experiences of the past and dreams of the future. In this very moment, we’re all unaware of the four days to come of waiting; the following four days of straddling between despair, anger, hope and love.

​The “Turtle Book”, used for documentation of turtle nests

This night it’s only one track on the long western beach, going from the sea all the way to the bushes of Scaevola on top of the beach. One of the green sea turtles has escaped the water for a while to find a safe place to lay her eggs. We are sitting on the beach, at a safe distance, listening to her digging. She’s really taking her time. We can hear how she digs for a while, then moves to a new spot, only to start over again. The hours pass by and we are speculating in what takes her so long. Maybe it’s her first time or maybe she’s just struggling to find the right spot. A good five hours after we first saw her, she gives up and heads towards the dark ocean again. Very quiet and carefully we approach her on her way back to see whether she is tagged, to take a few measurements of her and to ensure that she’s healthy.​

One single track under the stars, she’s still up there

We immediately realise that something is wrong. Terribly wrong. Her right rear flipper is badly cut. The full width of the flipper is cut all the way to the bone. A piece of the fin hauls in the sand behind her when she slowly moves. She’s completely exhausted after spending the night digging and moving around on the beach. It’s heartrending to see her struggle in the sand. She’s built for swimming in the ocean, not walking on land, and the wounded flipper makes it even harder for her. It takes her a long time to get back into the ocean.

​Examination and documentation of her wounded flipper

Likely, the cut is caused by hunters failing to catch her. It’s too close to the shell, and too clean to be caused by a propeller or by fishing equipment. In several places in the world, among them the Seychelles, green sea turtle is considered a delicacy. Fishermen use all means to try to catch them, despite it’s illegal since many years. This girl is hurt for life. The cut will never heal. All that time and energy spent without her being able to lay the eggs is a true evidence of how cruel man can be to these amazing animals.

​Her right flipper is cut to the bone

A sea turtle uses her rear flipper while digging the nest, and it’s a fair amount of work. First, she makes a body pit, the full size of her body, up to 50 centimetres deep. Secondly, if she’s happy with the body pit, she carefully digs a chamber to protect the eggs from crabs, birds and tide. Nothing is left by chance. Systematically she works her way downwards, one grab at the time, alternately using the left and the right rear flipper. Concurrently, she uses her short tail to sense the walls and to ensure the chamber keeps up to standards. Doing this with only one working flipper is close to impossible. The entire night she’s been digging sand out with the one flipper and unintendedly pushing sand in with the other. To be able to lay her eggs, she must find a way of digging that works for her.

Since she’s not yet tagged, we carry out our work and attach the small tags to her front flippers and take the measurements we need. It’s obvious that the wound is not new, but it’s difficult to say for how long she’s been hurt. If the wound is less than two years old it’s likely that this is the first time she tries to dig with her wounded flipper. The digging has opened the wound. We let her go and silently watch her approach the water. What is there to say? There’s nothing we can do. She makes a last great effort, takes a deep breath and disappears into the dark ocean.​

The Turtle Book and the equipment used for tagging

The following night, when we walk the beach, we spot a single track again. A sea turtle is on the beach. It’s almost at the same location as the one from last night. The conservation team is called in and we sit down on the beach, keeping our distance. We wait. Ange is crawling back and forth in the sand to update us on her progress. She digs for quite a while. Every now and then we hear branches break. Ange comes back, only to let us know that she’s got stuck. She’s locked herself between the Y-formed branches of a fallen tree, one branch above her and one branch beneath her shell. We watch her struggle, hoping that she will come loose by herself. But it’s impossible for her to move forward in this position. Mattias and Ange approach her to try to help. They lift the branch above her. It breaks with a snap. She finally comes loose but it seems as she’s been stressed by the situation and heads directly towards the water again, as quick as a sea turtle can move on land. She couldn’t lay her eggs this night. ​

Ange is looking after her, she’s still digging in the foreground

Not until she’s making her way down the beach we realise that it’s the girl from yesterday. Our poor wounded girl has made another attempt and failed again. Why should this happen to her? She, who fights so hard, spending hours on the beach. Did we do wrong when helping her? Without our help, she would have spent hours or even the entire night trying to come loose. She’s already exhausted and needs no more struggle. Under silence we watch her disappear in the large breaking waves, beguiled in our own thoughts and wonders. It’s time to go back and have some sleep before the alarm goes on again at 4.30 in the morning.

At the break of dawn, the colour of the starlit sky goes from black to dark blue. Just before the sun is about to rise, a beautiful transition from light blue to saturated pink and orange colours cover the eastern sky. It gives us enough light to see that a turtle is already on her way down to the water. It’s our girl again. She’s only had a couple of hours rest during the day and is already giving it a new try. We check her tracks and her digging. It’s confusing. We can’t say for sure whether she’s laid her egg this night. We wish that we had arrived earlier. Then we would have known. Elliot, who has been on the island for 15 years now, believes it’s a nest, bet not even he is certain. We hope that she managed to lay and mark it as a nest with a question mark.​

She goes down the beach after the third attempt, we believe she’s laid her eggs

We don’t go to the beach this night since we too are tired. Instead we go to bed early and set an alarm to five in the morning. We’re back at the beach just before six o’clock. And who is crawling around on top of the beach? It’s our girl again! Apparently, she laid no eggs yesterday. ​

She’s dug herself completely down in the sand

Finally it’s her turn! She has just laid the eggs when we arrive and is now covering the nest with sand. It’s the most extensive work we have witnessed. She’s completely dug herself down in the sand. The only evidence she’s there, except the sand flying in the air, is the occasional waving flipper. The sun rises on the other side of the island and lightens the thick dark air. She keeps going on for more than three hours. And that’s only to cover the nest. She’s probably spend a few hours already to dig the body pit and the chamber. When she finally decides to head down the beach, towards the water, it’s almost broad daylight.

​She throws lots of sand to cover the nest​

​She finally decides it’s time to go back

Only a few more metres to go All her willpower and effort finally pays off. It’s such a release! She has succeeded. My heart goes on double speed. Pure happiness. What a fighter this turtle is!

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