The turtles constitute the Order Chelonia, which is generally believed to be the sister group of all other living reptiles. The oldest undisputed stem-group turtle, Odonotochelys semitestacea, appears in the fossil record some 220 million years ago.
The name literally means “half-shelled turtle with teeth,” and that’s a pretty good description of what it was. There is no agreement among scientists as to what sort of ancestor they came from, although a favorite candidate is Pareiasaurus, a bison-sized beast that lived over 250 million years ago.
Just as they have for millions of years, the sea turtles still haul out of the ocean and lay their eggs on the beaches of the Gulf of Guinea, although there are fewer and fewer of them each year.
The Ghana Wildlife Society, in collaboration with USAID and the Beyin Beach Resort, sponsors efforts to conserve sea turtles and educate the public about the value of conservation efforts.
The day after the New Year began, I traveled to Beyin accompanied by my wife Yaa, our brother-in-law Solomon, and his son Daniel. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center and made arrangements to go whale-watching the next morning, and then we checked into the resort and made arrangements to go on the sea turtle walk that night. By then it was one o’clock in the afternoon, and we stopped at the restaurant for a late lunch. Something, I know not what, possessed me to order bangers and mash from the British-influenced menu.
After a forty-five minute wait, my repast arrived. The potatoes were pretty good (it is pretty hard to screw up mashed potatoes, after all). The gravy was salty and gelatinous, but again, it’s pretty hard to screw up gravy, especially if it comes out of a can, which I suspect this gravy did.
The sausage was awful. It had a musty, moldering taste, as if someone had thrown floor sweepings into the mix. I ate all of two bites, the second to confirm that the first taste really had been as bad as I thought it was.
With lunch sitting in my belly like a boulder, I set out for a walk along the beach.
I walked westward for one hour, which I figured amounted to about three miles, and then spent another hour walking back. Then I walked eastward with Daniel, for twenty minutes, which I figured amounted to one mile, and we ran back in nine.
By this time I was feeling like my usual self again. That night at dinner I ordered from the appetizer menu (tortilla chips with cheese and salsa) and sometime after nine we stopped at the reading room to meet our guides, two GWS volunteers: Neil, from the UK, and a very personable young woman from Greece, whose name I never did catch, although she repeated it for me several times.
Neil told us we were allowed to take pictures, as long as we didn’t use a flash, and we began walking eastward along the beach. He wore a headband with a red light (turtles are said not to be able to see red, although he himself seemed skeptical of this point) but otherwise we had to navigate by the light of the moon and stars. Fortunately for us the night sky was sparkling clear.
As we walked, Neil mentioned that just the day before he had seen two sperm whales out on the water, news which raised my hopes considerably. He also told me that the GWS had been active in digging up newly laid batches of eggs and transferring them to the grounds of the Beyin Beach Hotel, where they could develop to hatching in relative safety. He added that poachers had been a serious problem in the recent past, taking both eggs and adult turtles. “Is this an anti-poaching patrol?” I asked. He shook his head. He told me the GWS outreach efforts had succeeded in convincing the locals that the sea turtles were of more value to the community alive than dead. “Now when they find a female laying her eggs, they wake me up in the middle of the night so we can go get them.”
We walked eastward for ninety minutes, and then the four of us stopped to rest on a rough-hewn bench. Neil said we had traveled 4.5 kilometers, or 2.7 miles, but I couldn’t help wondering if we hadn’t walked farther. I am used to walking for long distances, but my wife is not, and she looked as if she was having trouble keeping her eyes open.
After a few minutes, we turned around and began heading back. By this time the sky had clouded up, obscuring the moon and the stars that lit our way at the outset of our journey, and I could feel the occasional raindrop falling on my face.
Neil mentioned that newly hatched sea turtles can take anywhere from twenty-five to forty years to reach sexual maturity, and that they are known to live to be at least one hundred, but nobody really knows how long their lifespan is. He added they see very few really large individuals anymore.
Eventually we arrived back where we started. As we checked the nesting boxes on the edge of the resort grounds, our Greek friend explained to us that sex in turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop, so most clutches tend to be either all male or all females. Neil apologized for our failure to locate any sea turtles, but I told him it was okay. “That’s the difference between real life and Disney World,” I told him. “In real life there are no guarantees.”
We arrived back at our cabin after midnight and set the alarm for six AM and collapsed into bed.
It seemed as if no time at all passed before the alarm went off. As I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and sat up groggily, feeling not unlike the proverbial “typical tourist” who tries to cram too much sightseeing in too little time, the owner of the place came knocking at our door and told us that one of the clutches of sea turtle eggs had just hatched. I threw on my sandals and followed him to the beach, where he and an Irish woman volunteering for GWS counted out the newborn babies (92 in all), placed them in a cardboard box, and deposited them on the beach.
One little fellow began walking in the wrong direction, and the volunteer picked him up and began carrying him to the water’s edge, but the owner counseled her to put him down. You’re not doing him a favor by sparing him the trek to the sea, he explained. That’s how they develop their lungs. If you just pick up one of the newly hatched turtles and put him in the water, he will drown.
We watched a the last of the hatchlings arrived at the relative safety of the water. They can live to be a hundred years old, but a hundred years from now, will any of them be left?
Stem-group turtle illustrations via Wikimedia Commons
All other photos by author