Leatherback Turtles Nesting in Gabon

As I stroll along the sandy shore, the soft grains of sand shift beneath my toes. The ocean stretches out before my eyes, its surface rippling and glinting in the sunlight. 

The water is warm and inviting and as I wade through the shallow waves, I can feel the rush of the water running over my feet and hear the soothing sound of it flowing over the shoreline.

It's a moment of pure peace and tranquility, a moment that seems to last forever. The world fades away, and all that matters is the gentle roar of the water and the feeling of surrender.

I breathe in the salt air and savor the simple joy of being alive, of feeling the sand and the water beneath me. It's a moment of pure magic, and I am forever grateful for it whenever I can experience it. 

For me, walking on the beach is one of my absolute favorite past times and it's usually very relaxing and calming.

But on December 20, 2022, it wasn't relaxing and calming -- it was exciting and full of anticipation and curiosity and darkness.

I was in Gabon with The Odysseia Collection on a photo adventure.   During the day, I had my tranquil time on the beach with the sun beating on my skin...but now it was night.   10 pm actually and it was time for a new adventure.

Our group was joined by some others staying at the lodge along with 2 naturalists - our goal was to hopefully find  turtles nesting on the beach.  There were 4 species of turtles that used this beach as a nesting spot.   

The white lights from flashlights or other artificial lights can disorient the turtles, so we had to walk with no lights.   There was some ambient light from the sky and occasionally the naturalists would shine their red lights on the beach so we could see any obstacles (like big logs and branches and debris that had washed up).

It was an in-between tide time.   There wasn't much dry sand and there wasn't much hard compacted wet sand to walk on ...so we ended up walking in mushy wet sand - sinking up to our ankles with almost every step.

The night was pleasant and we were walking in silence out of respect for the wildlife.   

I'm not even sure how long or how far we walked but we were getting to the point of wondering if we would ever see a turtle -- and quietly asked -- do we know how often they actually see one?  

We were all quite tired from the long adventurous trip we had already undertaken and were longing for a good nights rest.    

Several of the guests were wondering if it made sense to turn back when we saw a light a little bit further (ok a lot a bit further) down the beach and our naturalist said that the conservationists had spotted a turtle just down there.

So we continued to walk.   Then they had us stop and we waited.   It felt like we were waiting forever.    We had no idea what was going on.   Couldn't see anything or hear anything and then they had us just walk about 10 more feet and there she was!

1 hour and 43 minutes and 2.5 miles to our first turtle -  a leatherback.   The largest of all turtles.   

She was still digging her hole for her eggs and we were not allowed to use our cameras because the light on the back panels (or on the phones) could disorient her.  So we just watched in awe as this magnificent leatherback turtle.

She completely ignored us as she laid her eggs.   At some point, they go into a trance and that's when the volunteers measure her and tag her.  

volunteers measuring the turtle under the red lights


At that point they offered us a chance to touch her.

OHHHH... I REALLY WRESTLED WITH THAT ONE.   I wanted so badly to touch her and feel what her skin and shell felt like but I also believe that we should not interfere with wildlife and just being there and watching her, wasn't that interfering enough?   Does she really not care if all these people touch her?   Can our human touch and human germs somehow effect her?   .... I wrestled with the decision...for awhile and then chose to NOT touch her.   I still wonder what she would have felt like, but I do not regret my decision to override my own desire for hopefully her benefit.

We stayed with her for a short time and once she started covering her nest, they told us we had to go.   She would not leave if we were there and she needed to get back to the ocean.   So we left her to finish her work.

It's really hard to put into words what that short sighting of her meant.    What it felt like.   But we were all invigorated.

the leatherback turtle
black and white of the turtle
one of the guests near the turtle to show her size

As we walked back the way we had come, they had found a second nesting turtle.    I was walking quite slow so by the time I got to her, I didn't get to spend much time before she was burying her nest and once again we had to move on to leave her to her work.

We continued to walk back to the hotel and then saw a third turtle.   This one was coming up from the ocean onto the beach.  Without the red lights on we didn't see her until she was disoriented by all of us and she went back in the water and then back on the beach...we all quickly moved along to let her orientate herself and get to her business of laying eggs.

By now, it was 12:30 the next morning.   Our adventure had lasted 2.5 hours.   The tide was up and we couldn't continue to walk the beach so we had to go up onto the "grass" area and all climb into a buggy to get driven the last .4 miles back to camp.

I had no idea what to expect on this night, December 20, 2022, that started full of anticipation and curiosity and darkness.  The night ended with awe and wonder and a newfound respect and love of turtles.

The pictures and video were all taken with my iPhone.   We were under the guidance of naturalists and researches the entire time.   Because lights can greatly disorient the turtles, the naturalists and researchers were the only ones allowed to have lights.

About the Leatherback Turtle

The leatherback turtle, also known as the lute turtle or leathery turtle, is a truly remarkable species. With a scientific name of Dermochelys coriacea, this turtle is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth heaviest reptile in the world. 

The females can reach up to 6.5 feet long and weigh up to 2000 pounds and the male can grow to 5.5 feet long and 1100 pounds.

One of the primary nesting areas for the leatherback turtle is in Gabon, a country located on the west coast of central Africa. In fact, Gabon is home to the largest leatherback turtle nesting population in the world, with over 6,000 females coming to nest on the country's beaches each year.

Leatherback turtles can migrate long distances and can travel up to 12,000 miles per year.

One of the most interesting things about the leatherback turtle is its ability to inhabit a wide range of environments, from tropical to temperate waters.

Even with this flexibility, the leatherback turtle is listed as a critically endangered species, and conservation efforts are underway to protect these amazing creatures and their nesting areas. 

In Gabon, organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working to conserve and protect the leatherback turtle and its habitat. 

The nesting process for leatherback turtles is quite an impressive feat. Female leatherbacks will come ashore at night to lay their eggs in a nest that they have dug in the sand. Once the eggs are laid, the female will cover the nest with sand and return to the ocean, leaving the eggs to incubate and hatch on their own.

Because the leatherbacks are endangered, the nests are marked and monitored by the volunteers.    They are left mostly undisturbed. If a nest is attacked by a natural predator, the volunteers will remove any surviving eggs and put them into an artificial nest so they can incubate.    If the nest is too close to a lodge, they will fence off the nest with a small fence so as it stays undisturbed until such a time as the turtles are due to hatch.

Unfortunately, one of the major challenges facing the leatherback turtle and the other nesting turtles in Gabon is the issue of pollution and marine debris. Gabon's beaches are often littered with garbage (mostly plastic) that has washed up from the ocean, much of which is from neighboring countries. This garbage can pose a serious threat to the leatherback turtle and other marine life, as it can get tangled in their habitats and even ingested as well as prohibit the turtles from getting up the beach to a safe location for a nest.

Efforts are being made to address this issue in Gabon and work towards cleaner beaches and oceans. For example, the WCS is collaborating with local communities to cleanup the beaches and educate people about the importance of reducing marine debris. 

Another issue for the turtles is the logging industry.    Many logs are transferred over the ocean and so many of the logs fall into the ocean and are washed ashore on the beaches.    At times, the turtles can get "stuck" behind a log and not be able to get around to get back to the ocean.   Many times, the volunteers and locals have to work together to pick up the turtle to move her around the logs.

Where I was staying, in Pongara, the beach was kept clean by the conservation community and by the lodges.   Where tourism isn't so prominent, the beaches are littered with plastic.     This plastic is not coming from Gabon but from neighboring countries and the Congo river basin.


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