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iSimangaliso welcomes Herbie the loggerhead turtle

iSimangaliso welcomes Herbie the loggerhead turtle

27 Jan 2019

On Tuesday 22 January, the protected waters off iSimangaliso’s Sodwana Bay section became the new home for a rehabilitated adult female loggerhead turtle known as ‘Herbie’. Named after the popular 1970s movie character Herbie (A VW ‘Beetle’ car) for her rounded shell hump, she had been a deeply loved resident at uShaka Sea World in Durban for over 15 years prior to being released into the World Heritage Site where so many of her kind are found.

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There were tears of joy and sadness from her carers at her grand send-off from iSimangaliso’s Nine Mile Beach as Herbie eagerly pulled her 142kg body towards the crystal clear waves, with the gentle singing of storyteller extraordinaire Dr Gcina Mhlophe to serenade her departure. Mhlophe is not only passionate about turtles but feels a deep and ancient connection to them. She has made it her mission to improve awareness and protection of the species through her moving and powerful poetry, books and public speaking in several languages. The group was also honoured to have the company of the renowned turtle conservationist Dr George Hughes.

Herbie is fitted with a satellite transmitter kindly donated by the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, which is fixed to her shell to enable tracking of her progress through the ocean for up to three years, and updates show that she has already started her journey southward. Tags fitted to several other turtles in recent years have provided a tremendous wealth of information to scientists, and enable us to improve conservation efforts to protect these marine animals. The South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) will share regular updates of her whereabouts so that the public can be part of her journey – visit www.saambr.org.za.

Sea turtles are one of iSimangaliso’s most iconic animals, with five of the world’s seven species found in our waters. Both the gigantic, warm blooded leatherback turtle and the smaller loggerhead turtle breed along the sandy shores of iSimangaliso, nesting in the mineral-rich beach sand dunes. Hawksbill and green turtles live on the reefs and sea grass beds as juveniles. The rare olive ridley turtle, the smallest sea turtle in the world at 45kg, enters the waters of iSimangaliso, but it is seldom encountered.

Turtles are critically endangered across all oceans. Turtle populations have declined due to overharvesting for food and turtle shell products. They are vulnerable to oil spills, vehicles driving on the beaches they lay eggs on, predation and nest flooding. Boat propellers often inflict serious wounds. Turtles drown because they become entangled in fishing lines and nets. Discarded plastic bags, bottles and wrappers that end up in the ocean look like the turtles' main prey, jellyfish. If turtles eat them their digestive system becomes blocked and they eventually die.

With all the threats facing turtles, the protection afforded by our Marine Protected Area as well as the efforts of dedicated researchers is critical, and every nest that successfully hatches, a success for the hopeful future of these prehistoric animals.

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Leatherback turtles are critically endangered – meaning they are likely to go extinct soon without radical intervention to halt their demise. To witness this majestic creature laying eggs on iSimangaliso’s shores, and also the first of the next generation hatching on the same night, was a true miracle of nature!

Herbie’s story

Rescued in 2003 from the shark nets off Durban, the young sea turtle (then estimated to be 8 years old) received the loving care of the aquarists at the old aquarium, moving across to the new uShaka Sea World and becoming a firm favourite as part of the existing turtle population. Says Dr Judy Mann, Conservation Strategist for SAAMBR: “As she recovered, grew and adapted beautifully to her safe environment, she became an excellent ambassador for her species, helping to educate hundreds of thousands of visitors. Recently she began to dig nests and lay eggs in the aquarium’s beach at uShaka (albeit infertile as she had no mate), indicating her maturity and readiness for a full, independent life. “

As Herbie is now probably in the region of 24 years old, it is time for her to find a suitable partner and lay fertile eggs in the wild. Loggerheads can live for over 80 years, and now is a good age for breeding. We are all hoping that she continues to add to the future of the species,” says Mann.

Legendary turtle biologist Dr George Hughes joined the release party and expressed his interest in her journey. “There is a strong possibility that she will find a mate at sea and return to these beaches to lay eggs. If that happens, it will not only be a first for South Africa but of significant interest to the global turtle research community,” he said.

And finally, the words of Dr Gcina Mhlophe capture the essence of the experience: “I think the most emotional part was when the box was opened and then she came out, and she actually got excited! When I saw that excitement, I thought – she’s home.”

Find out more about Herbie, SAAMBR and our marine world by visiting www.saambr.org.za. To learn more about iSimangaliso’s turtles and witness this incredible annual ritual, join a licensed operator for a tour. Visit isimangaliso.com/activity/turtle-tours for details.

For more information on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, visit our website at www.isimangaliso.com. Media enquiries should be directed to Debbie Cooper at debbie@isimangaliso.com.