South Africa’s oceans are filled to the brim with extraordinary sea life. While shark diving in South Africa is a big reason why most people come to our shores, while you are exploring the depths, you could also see turtles.
Turtles are the oceans reptiles and have graced the depths for 150 million years. They spend 96% of their lives in the sea and even though they rely on surface air they are accomplished free divers. Female turtles leave the ocean only to lay eggs on the beach, usually the beach from which they were hatched.
These creatures are probably the cutest animals you will encounter while diving and both divers and turtles enjoy swimming together.
There are seven different species of turtle and five of them are found in South African waters. Each turtle species feeds on a different prey, which ensures that they do not need to compete for food or space. Unfortunately turtles are an endangered species and it is mostly the females that are at risk since they have to come ashore to lay eggs. In some countries, turtle meat is still eaten but that is not the only threat to these creatures. Gill nets and pollution along with human ignorance are also impacting the turtle population. There is also a threat to the turtles breeding sites that have a major impact on their survival.
South African Turtles
The Leatherback Turtle is the largest of all the sea turtles. They can weigh up to 900kg and reach a length of 2.5 meters. Their shells are a dark blue/grey colour and mottled, consisting of 7 lateral ridges of pliable shell. They also have very large forearms. Leatherbacks travel on the oceans currents in search of prey. They can dive over 100 meters and stay submerged for up to 35 minutes. They can be found breeding along the Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal coast between November and January, but are generally found all around the South African coastline.
During the breeding season, Leatherback females come ashore on the high tide at night and lay batches of 100 – 200 eggs at a time, over 9-10 days resulting in about 1000 eggs. After about 70 days the young turtles have hatched and head off to the ocean. Of the thousands of hatchlings one in 1000 will reach sexual maturity, which takes 4-5 years. The juveniles feed mostly on jellyfish and grow rapidly.
The Loggerhead Turtle is recognised by its large square head. This turtle has a dark yellow brown shell that has central plates as well as rows of plates on either side on the central ones. The plates do not overlap. These turtles have a slightly hooked bill and claws on each of its limbs.
Loggerhead Turtles keep more inshore making their hunting grounds the reef or rocky estuaries. They have strong jaws that crush their prey which consists of crabs, crayfish, sea urchins and molluscs. Their breeding behaviour is much the same as the Leatherback Turtle.
They get their name from the fat layer that is under their shells; it’s green. Their external colour is a mottled light to dark brown. Green Turtles have a very similar appearance to the Loggerhead Turtle. The most distinctive difference is their shape. The Green Turtle is rounder and flatter with a smoother shell. Another difference is the shape of their bills, the Green Turtle does not have a hooked bill.
Green Turtles are often seen basking on the surface of the ocean since they eat mainly seaweed and sea grass. These turtles lay their eggs on the islands off Mozambique and on other Indian Ocean islands. Sadly, man has hunted this turtle close to extinction.