LOGGERHEAD turtles, just like us humans, like to remember the very best beaches.
But the marine reptiles, who are born on the duvet-soft sands of Sal island in Cape Verde, tend to wait a while before making a return visit.
“It’s absolutely extraordinary,” whispers my guide, marine biologist Jordi, as we prowl along Ponta Jelonga beach on the south-east coast of Sal island.
It’s eight in the evening and the sun set an hour ago on this wild, flat Atlantic outpost.
Shaped like a sideview profile of a scarecrow’s head and neck, tiny Sal is sprinkled with pastel-coloured cottages, cobbled lanes and a growing number of resort hotels around its sand-smoothed fringes.
Jordi adds: “The female turtles that are born here will return to Sal island to give birth themselves, but not for another 25 years.”
With nothing but a tiny red torch to illuminate the wide, deserted beach, he spots tractoresque track lines leading from the ocean.
These show that only moments earlier, a loggerhead turtle has clambered out of the water in order to give birth.
Formerly a gourmet delicacy on these Portuguese-speaking islands off the coast of West Africa, it’s been many years since turtle meat (or bife de tartaruga) has been seen on menus in Sal, or any of the other eight inhabited Cape Verdean islands.
Just as well. As Crush the turtle in Finding Nemo might say: “Eating turtles is, like, so not cool, dude!”
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Conservation efforts have seen the number of turtles using the beaches here to lay their eggs surge from barely 10,000 nestings a decade ago to around 200,000 each year.
The previous day, I’d arrived at the Odjo D’Agua hotel in the centre of Santa Maria, a sleepy town of sleeping dogs, frothy bougainvilleas and cafes serving up immense bowls of the Verdean speciality cachupa, a slow-cooked stew of sweet potato and cassava, with fish or pork.
The hotel is a quirky, family-owned charmer with an infinity pool and rooms bedecked in modish red and white deckchair stripes that lead out on to balconies overlooking the spume-flecked ocean, peppered with luridly coloured fishing boats.
The sun sets fast on Cape Verde and that evening, crawling on my hands and knees across the sand with Jordi, we both spot sand flying up into the night.
This is the work of the turtle using her flippers as giant scoops, flinging sand everywhere as she makes a hole deep enough to protect the eggs from predators such as stray.
Approaching her from behind so that we won’t disturb her, the turtle seems to have no idea that I am around 20 inches from the hole where, over thehalf an hour, around 70 glistening white eggs fall gently into the sandy well.
The ocean roars and bellows behind us while stars in the bruise-coloured skies wink and glimmer. It’s a privilege to watch such an intimate act that feels as old as time itself.
Her job complete, the female turtle, now considerably lighter, slowly retreats back into the ocean. Jordi and I watch as our heroic turtle lets herself be carried out by the tide.
The beaches of Sal may be romantic and quiet, but they’re also serving as a maternity ward too.
Jordi tells me as we walk back across the sands: “When these baby turtles hatch, they have a survival rate of one in a thousand, due to the natural predators in the ocean that await them.”
Faced with those kinds of odds, I feel grateful that the worst jeopardy I’m likely to suffer tomorrow is deciding whether to find repose on the sun lounger or in the infinity pool at the Hotel Odjo D’Agua.
Just a short stroll along the sands from my hotel brings me to another highlight of my trip — the freshest fish dishes at beach bar and restaurant Soul Kitchen.
The atmosphere may be relaxed but the food is on another level, with Italian pizzas and pastas complemented by some fantastic fish dishes.
There’s live music every evening in the peak winter season too.
For a glimpse of where the restaurant gets its daily catch, simply stroll along the Santa Maria pier.
Every morning between 10am and noon, fishermen bring their catch in.
Wheelbarrows full of giant tuna, swordfish and razor-like marlin are bartered over by fishermen and restaurant owners.
With its laid-back atmosphere, relaxed beaches and fabulous food, it’s easy to see why those turtles never forget a good place to return to.
GO: Cape Verde
GETTING / STAYING THERE: TUI offers seven nights’ B&B at the Hotel Odjo D’Agua in Santa Maria on Sal, Cape Verde from £902pp including return flights and transfer in May 2024.
TUI also offers evening Turtle Nesting Beach Tours from £31pp.
For more information visit tui.co.uk.
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