The Real Magic of The Red Sea
Buried deep in the Egyptian Red Sea is a major nesting site for green turtles in the Egyptian Red Sea during the months of June to September. This year HEPCA monitored the nesting activity for 10 days during the peak of the season - between the end of July and the beginning of August.
Most of the work with nesting turtles is done at night when the turtles actually come out of the water to lay eggs. The process can last for hours during which you have to wait as quietly as possible but if you are patient you will witness the magic of the event. Marine turtles are not really made for living on the beach, every small step on the sand is a huge effort. If the night is silent you can hear from afar the turtles taking in air and then holding their breath while crawling slowly until the perfect spot is found. And this is when the magic starts:
- Female turtles first dig a body pit (the excavation done before digging the egg chamber) using both their front and rear flippers. This step is fundamental: if the sand composition, the temperature, the humidity or the slope are not right, the turtle will move elsewhere. Also at this point female turtles are very attentive to any movement and noise and will move away if they feel threatened. (http://youtu.be/T95wUXTgcw0)
- Once the female is happy with the location, she will start digging the actual nest using the rear flippers only. The work is carried out in a very meticulous way, one flipper at the time with movements that seem to be a well studied choreography (http://youtu.be/z013c2ZXTtA). This part can take up to one hour and the nest can be as deep as 80 cm. The nest is flask-shaped: there is a long neck which is usually narrower and at the bottom the neck opens up to the chamber that will host the eggs.
- When the nest is ready, the turtle takes a deep breath and starts laying eggs, first one at a time then two, then three (http://youtu.be/dGgROfmIs7o). At this stage the turtle enters a sort of trance and it is possible to silently approach and count how many eggs are being laid. Close up you can also see the tears in her eyes. People used to associate the tears with the pain felt by the animal while laying eggs, in reality the scientific explanation is much easier: turtles need to expel the excess of salt accumulated when drinking and eating and they do that through the salt glands that are located below their eyes similar to many marine birds. Green turtles can lay up to 140-150 eggs at a time although the average is around 100-110 eggs per nest.
- When all the eggs have been laid, the concealment process begins and once again the turtles execute all the movements with unbelievable precision and accuracy. First they will use the rear flippers only, moving the humid sand displaced digging the chamber. It’s like observing an expert baker kneading dough (http://youtu.be/DpBmm_KqCT0).
- Then it is time to excavate the secondary (dummy) body pit. This is when you want to step back as far as possible as the turtle starts throwing sand using all four flippers to cover and thus disguise the actual nest while digging the second pit. The second body pit will end with an escarpment (a sort of cliff into the surrounding sand) (http://youtu.be/f4yk7lKDgQ8). When finished the second pit can be as much as 2 meters away from the nest itself. This acts as a distraction to larger potential predators.
- Finally the turtles will crawl back to sea. By this time they are exhausted, as they have spent a significant amount of time out of the water in a hostile environment. They will stop a few more times to breathe before disappearing silently into the sea (http://youtu.be/heJnbSBa5X8).
This ritual has been the same since marine turtles appeared on Earth 1.5 million years ago. There are some small variations between species (the size and depth of the nest, the favorite spot, the excavation and concealment technique, etc.) but the general steps are the same. Even more astonishing is that turtles do not learn any of this, there is no parental care, no guidance. Everything is written into their genes.
Each green turtle will lay eggs two to five times per season and then take a break for two to four years before nesting again. Eggs will hatch between 50 and 80 days after depending on the temperature, however not all the eggs will hatch. It is said that only 1 out of 1,000 eggs will make it to adult life. Mortality is particularly high for eggs and hatchlings, usually as consequence of natural predators like ghost crabs and birds. In the later life-stages, the greatest enemy to marine turtles is humans! Pollution, bycatch, habitat destruction and targeted harvest are all known mortality causes that have brought marine turtles worldwide to the brink of extinction.
At the end of the 10-night intensive monitoring, figures can be summarized as follow:
- 127 new tracks, 25% of which ended up with egg deposition
- 69 tagged turtles, 3 of which had been recorded and tagged in previous years
- At least 2,235 laid eggs
More detailed scientific outputs will be released in the next few weeks but the best memories of this adventure can hardly be summarized with numbers and figures: the full moon shining high in the sky, the Milky Way and thousands of other stars, the strange cry of the sooty falcon at night, the ghost crabs scuttling up and down on the beach, the smell of the sand after a turtle has laid her eggs, the sun rising behind the mountain while the team sit patiently waiting for a late turtle to finish her nest, the sudden chill breeze, the sound of the waves, seeing the head of a turtle popping out of the water to check the situation, observing a turtle making many holes until she finds the perfect spot, the salty tang to the early morning air…
A huge thank you to all the volunteers that have been working night after night, walking for hours, sitting and observing patiently and silently, with no complaints and to the crew of our boat for helping us out in every way.
For further information on this project, please contact us: email@example.com