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The Turtle Watcher



As some of you may know, we are currently working on a series of films under the umbrella heading of “Inspiration”. Each Inspiration film highlights a specific issue, through the eyes of an individual (or small organization) who is involved. The series seeks to create role models, whom others can emulate and learn from. Each film will show how people are benefiting by adopting conservation-based or environmentally sustainable initiatives – benefiting not just in terms of personal wellbeing but financially too.

One of our films centers on a man named Kahindi, “The Turtle Watcher” (see photos of Kahindi below). He is fanatical about saving sea turtles, which as you know are highly endangered, despite playing an important role in the biodiversity of our oceans. Working with the Watamu Turtle Watch, Kahindi’s job takes him from the beach where he monitors the coming ashore of turtles to lay their eggs, to the villages of fishing communities who – thanks to people like Kahindi spreading the word – now hand in turtles inadvertently caught in fishing nets. This means the turtles can be returned to the sea, instead of being killed.

This is the latest filming report sent in from the field by Simon Trevor, head of AEFF’s production team…

The final phase of the filming for our turtle film ended a week ago when Lesley Hannah [Kenyan camerawoman working with AEFF] was able to film a Green Turtle laying her eggs on a beach near Watamu on the Kenya coast.

Close up of the turtle laying her eggs deep in
the nest hole she has dug with her flippers - she
can lay up to 100 eggs in one sitting!

From the start, we felt that this was a vital sequence for the beginning of the film, and we had been waiting for an opportunity to film such an event. It has always struck me as strange that in wildlife documentary making, the beginning of a film is so often the last sequence to be captured on film.

Nesting turtles have been witnessed many times around the world but few East Africans will have seen this amazing event… and it is amazing for many reasons. Turtles look old and they are old! (Surely Stephen Spielberg based his famous ET on a turtle? Just look at that head!)

Turtles have been around for millions of years. In fact, it is said they would have witnessed the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct… so they would have been coming ashore during the hours of darkness to lay their eggs for aeons…

Today in Kenya, as in many parts of the world, turtle nesting sites are becoming crowded out by human activities along the remaining sloping beaches. These secluded areas are vital for the successful hatching of their eggs. We at AEFF hope that this film will help people to understand the role turtles play in the biodiversity of the oceans and make an effort to conserve them.

A female turtle returns to lay her eggs on the same shore where she was born, sometimes many years after the moment that she took that first gigantic step in her life of swimming out to sea as a tiny hatchling. She would have been one out of a thousand siblings to have survived and, in the interim period, would have covered hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of ocean. (Astonishingly, male turtles never return to land after they leave their natal beach.)

Once a turtle returns to her birthplace to lay her eggs, she will come ashore as many as four times, with intervals of ten to fifteen days between each laying. She can deposit as many as one hundred eggs at a time. This knowledge gave us a better chance of being in the right place at the right time to film a nesting turtle but the odds against us were still formidable.

One particular turtle came ashore at 1.30am, but was not spotted until she was already on her way back out to sea. Having spent many exhausting hours searching the beaches over several consecutive nights, Lesley was bitterly disappointed to have missed the turtle coming ashore. But, as the Watamu Turtle Watch ‘watchers’ knew, turtles sometimes come ashore but return to the sea without laying their eggs. This behaviour is known as a “false crawl”. So they all decided to wait and see if she would return again that night somewhere along the same beach…

Lo and behold, at 3.30am the enormous reptile reappeared. She came ashore again and this time she settled down to dig a hole for her eggs. Lesley and the ‘watchers’ were careful not to disturb her while she was busy digging, for with the slightest disturbance at this point, she would desert the nest and her precious eggs would be lost forever.

Filming could not begin until the turtle was actually dropping her rubbery eggs into the cavity she had dug with her flippers. Once she started laying, nothing seemed to bother her, she just carried on laying. Kahindi was able to walk right up to her and check her flippers. Everyone at Watamu Turtle Watch was excited to see a metal tag they had attached to this same turtle five years ago – when she was laying eggs in exactly the same spot! She was the largest turtle they had ever seen and would have weighed in the region of 250 kilos [550 pounds].

Kahindi checks the tag on the turtle's flipper, placed there
when she was laying eggs in exactly the same spot five years ago.

By the time the turtle had laid her eggs and covered the nest it was 8 o’clock in the morning. Fortunately for the turtle, it was a rainy morning so there were no tourists to disturb her on the beach. The only humans who arrived to watch were hotel security guards, no doubt attracted by the “turtle watchers” on the beach so early in the morning. They were amazed and then fascinated by the mother turtle’s behaviour. When our film is finished and is shown on mobile cinemas and on TV, I can imagine how these guards will dine out on how they were actually there when it was being filmed!

8am: the exhausted mother turtle, having covered over her eggs with
sand, leaves the nest and heads back to the ocean...

Just as the turtle laboriously began to haul her huge bulk back towards the ocean, the heavens opened and the rain came down in buckets. Lesley had seen the gathering clouds and had guessed this was going to happen so she had run back down the beach to get an umbrella. And that was how she was able to film the culmination of this amazing event, huddled beneath an umbrella, capturing that magical moment that the mother turtle, her awesome task completed, returned exhausted to the ocean. Well done, Lesley!

When you see the film, readers, as I hope you will, you will now know what went on behind the scenes…

As the turtle heads back to the sea, the rain starts pouring down...

Kahindi watches over her as the mother turtle reaches the waves

And off she goes, beneath the pouring rain, back into the ocean...


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