Guinea Bissau is the largest green turtle nesting sanctuary in Africa. The island of Poilão is tiny, almost insignificant on the map of the Bijagós archipelago of 88 islands, but it has a huge importance in terms of sustainability and global biodiversity. Five of the world’s seven turtle species cross seas and oceans to come here to continue and give meaning to life.
There are hundreds of turtles that arrive here daily, from August to November, and in an area of about two square kilometres, they dig deep holes in the sand where they often lay more than a hundred eggs. The spectacle is magnificent. It lasts beyond these peak spawning periods, and turtles can be seen arriving on this sacred piece of land as early as January.
To witness this unique moment of animal life, you must be accompanied and authorized by IBAP, the Guinean Institute for Biodiversity and Protected Areas, who is responsible for the Natural Park.
Accompanied by a Park Guide, we arrive at daybreak and wait in the darkness of the night with no noise, lights or movement for a shadow to emerge from the seas and slowly climb up the beach. These enormous creatures of marine life calmly look for the best place to leave their eggs and, having decided on the place, begin a beautiful rhythmic dance of their front legs that digs a hole in the sand. Tired with the effort, the turtles remain in a kind of trance while they deposit their eggs in the hole, at the rhythm determined by nature. They then cover the hole so as not to leave any clues for predators that eagerly seek these eggs to feed themselves, such as flounders, crabs or birds. In this process, which can last up to two hours or more, the turtle tries to leave the spawning site intact before venturing out to sea again.
Delighted with this unique moment, we are left with the proof of its passage in the long tracks that it leaves on the sand. But that’s not all. We also have the beauty of the occlusion of the eggs matured by the days and the temperature of the sand that determines the sex of the turtles that are born.
They are small, energetic and full of strength and determination to succeed in life. They are born at night and are guided by the light of the moon to the sea. Some are lost on the way, others die in the water, but there are always those that survive, those that struggle insignificantly against an immense sea where they again become easy prey.
The last time I saw turtles in Poilão was on a beautiful full moon night at the beginning of this year. Believe me; in this troubled time of pandemic, death, fear and anxiety, there is no better antidote or balm than to see a spectacle like this. Seeing wildlife happening ‘in front of us’, on this sacred island in the middle of the Atlantic, makes us forget for a moment that the world is today a dangerous place to dream and live. Poilão and its turtles bring back hope in a better world.
To visit Poilão Island is one of the 10 reasons to visit the best kept secret of West Africa: Guinea-Bissau.