Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Midnight Turtle Walk

It's that season again! The season when endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles return to the East Indian Coast to nest after their mysterious wanderings at sea, having traveled long distances - even all the way to Australia!

It is a wonder of nature how these gentle creatures remember the beach of their birth. The female returns to it when she is around 12 years old, and lays her eggs in the night, after which she returns to sea, leaving her babies to fend for themselves. They arrive at the beaches of India during nesting season between end-December and March.

What sights they must have seen on their wanderings, and how interesting their stories must be! But sadly, rather than being received with awe and being allowed to follow their ancient tradition in peace, these smallest of the world's sea turtles are facing dangers in many forms as they return to nest.

Fishing trawlers, oil exploration platforms, and development along the beaches are all major dangers that they face. With the trawlers for instance, they get ensnared in the giant nets, and unable to surface for air, they suffocate and die. They are discarded by the trawlers and wash up on shore, dead.

In response, many volunteer groups and researchers have set up night-long vigils, trying to maximize the success of the nesting season. One such groups is the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network or SSTCN.

SSTCN volunteers walk the beaches of Chennai (my hometown) every night during nesting season, keeping a lookout for turtle tracks. They follow the tracks, locate the jar-shaped nests underground and retrieve the eggs within. They take measurements of the nests and re-construct them at a safe hatchery further along the coast and re-bury the eggs there.

Hatchlings emerge after 45 to 60 days, and follow the trail of the moonlight to the sea. Due to lights along roads and homes along the shore now, confused hatchlings head in the opposite direction instead. So volunteers use torches to light their way to the sea.

A couple of years ago, on a visit to India during nesting season, Raghav and I went on a turtle walk with the volunteers of SSTCN, to help collect eggs from nesting sites to relocate to a safe spot in the hatchery. It was incredible and sad in many ways.

I didn't take my camera along, because we would be working with our hands in the sand, and so all the pictures here are from the website of SSTCN.

We were led on this walk by an experienced volunteer named Arun, and were joined by half a dozen other volunteers as well. There was a small group of ~10-year old school kids as well, getting a first-class biology lesson right there on the beach. Their excitement and wonder filled me with hope.

The beach had completely emptied by the time we started our walk close to midnight. I watched the rolling, dark waves pounding a rhythm on the beach and wondered how many turtles were out there, swimming to shore right before my unseeing eyes!

Since we were not using torches and were walking by moonlight, it was very dark. The children had gone very quiet, and the whole group was intent on locating turtle tracks in the sand, as we walked along the beach.

Soon tracks were sighted, and we followed them to a soft spot in the sand. We watched as a volunteer quickly felt around the neck of the jar-like nest and extricated soft, ping-pong ball sized eggs that were quickly transferred to a bag. Once the nest was empty, we walked on.

Soon afterward, the kids started squealing in excitement. I looked in the direction they were pointing and saw two full grown females on the sand. Excited, we ran toward them. The experienced volunteers held back. They knew these were dead. Washed up ashore having met human-made obstacles as they approached the beach. It was the saddest sight ever.

I felt frustrated and deeply disturbed. As we rush headlong towards modernization, we should ensure that we take all the world's creatures with us into the future. Our actions are destroying habitat quality and availability at an alarming rate! We need to do something. Except, I didn't know what to do.

When the next track was sighted, Raghav got to extricate the eggs while I held the torch for him. I sent a prayer into every little egg that we pulled out and willed that baby inside to get a chance in life. That was the best I could do.

Here's a picture of SSTCN volunteers with freshly laid eggs.

After collecting around 240 eggs from 2-3 nests that night, we were at the end of our 7 km walk, and at the hatchery. I helped dig a jar-shaped hole in a corner by the fence, while another volunteer measured it so that it would match the nest from which that group of eggs was taken. After burying the last egg, the kids took their bus home and the rest of the volunteers went to sleep.

Raghav and I were too wired to sleep. We sat at the sea side in the moonlight and contemplated what we had witnessed. We were at a loss for words though, and sat in silence, lost in our own thoughts.

In a couple of months these eggs would hatch, and volunteers would guide the little babies out to sea. The big sea out there with its trawlers and polluted waters seemed too vast and dangerous for the tiny little baby turtles. They seemed just so fragile!

Only one in about 1000 hatchlings survive to adulthood, and we had collected just ~240 eggs! And even those that survive will face more dangers at sea as they make their way back here to nest. Will this beach welcome them when they return?

As the end of the year draws near and we enjoy the Holidays with family and friends, there are Olive Ridley females in the ocean out there, swimming against distant currents, following the magical instinct of their ancestors to the beach of their birth. I pray for their safety this season, and in the years to come.


Anonymous said...

Oh thank you Bindu...another beautiful story about some wonderful creatures. Add my prayers to yours, I will keep our little turtle sisters in my thoughts as they fight against the odds to continue their species. I know it seems so overwhelming at times doesn't it?...but we have to persevere and do any little thing possible to ensure the survival of all species and education is one of the greatest gifts we can give all animals...by educating those around us and especially the children that is how we can make the biggest difference in the lives of all who live upon this planet,...including ours. :)
and you are educating every one of your readers with each of those posts, and you are educating yourselves every time you immerse yourself in an activity such as the egg collecting. You are making a difference.
Namaste Bindu

pink dogwood said...

For many evils out there, there are few good souls like you and the SSTCN volunteers to offset the evil. I hope that the babies that you helped save come back to a cleaner safer beach in 12 years - we can only hope. Great post.

~vagabond~ said...

I had read about this in a magazine some years back but reading about it on your blog gave it so much more of a personal feel. You never know how one small act on our end can make a difference in the survival of another organism. I am glad you did your part in contributing toward their survival. Great post. :)

Mohan said...

I am glad you folks were able to save ~245 lives in one night! Really wish I live close to sea shores to help out :)

Great job my friend.

Vamsee said...

That was a very beautiful post. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea that we had Olive Ridley turtles in India. See....part of our problem is ignorance and the other part is selfishness. We are in such a hurry to become an economic super power that we are loosing track of what is important in life.
I am so glad you volunteered to help out. Appreciating nature and teaching others to do the same is the best way to promote conservation.

Blu said...

Oh dear I am getting tearfull in my old age...that was a magical and moving story.

Shayla said...

Very touching, a worthy project to support. Our actions seldom are dramatic enough to solve everything, but at least you took the action you could to make a difference.

~ ॐ ~ said...

Thank you for this post !!!

I am bookmarking it for later ! Hope to participate sometime in future !!!

thanks again !

ArtSparker said...

Lovely post, there are a few things in life from which one can take undiluted satisfaction, and helping out animals is one of them. The SSTCN sounds like a wonderful organization, also, I might say, there's more than one way of going against the tide.

I've been part of a spontaneous group shepherding a mother duck and her ducklings from a small pond to the large lake she was heading for along a city street. Very satisfying to get them all in the water.

megha punater said...

what a fabulous post,reminds me of the time when i saw these little babies freshly hatched on a beach in tamil nadu.such grand work bindu.keep going :)

Indrani said...

That was very informative. I would like to take my daughters (12 and 8) on such a program. Thanks Bindu for enlightening me on this. Lovely post!

bindu said...

Sweetmango - thanks for the encouraging words. You are right - education, especially of children, is our only hope.

Bhavana - I'm hoping for that too! Thanks.

Vagabond - thanks. You're right - each person's action can seem insignificant, but they do add up.

Mohan - I hope at least a few of these do survive! thanks.

Vamsee - it would be great to go target college kids for education about conservation. The passion is there at that age!

Blu, Shayla - thanks. :)

Om - I hope you get to do it soon!

ArtSparker - it's true that we gain so much in return when we help animals! Your ducklings story sounds very interesting!

Megha - good to see you here again. I'm sure it was some of these that you saw on the TN coast!

Indrani - I hope you and your kids have a great time. :)

Jude said...

Thanks for educating us again on these things.We can only pray, as you said that they will survive and that others will hear their plight and help. Peace and Happiness

Leslie said...

Wow Bindu-What a wonderful thing to have experienced, but also sad too! It's so hard to know about and witness the destruction to our sea and land animals. I applaud the efforts of those who take extraordinary measures to protect these wonderful creatures that God has made.

We are so blessed with all that he has given us and should do all within our power to restore their habitat and make our earth creature friendly as was intended.

Thank you for sharing and God Bless all the animals of our earth, protect them and keep them safe today and always,


Anonymous said...

Hey B!

You planning on an Argentina trip?! Jealous!


meb said...

So busy...can't believe it's been a while since I've been able to get over here. Love your story bindu and appreciate the time you take to tell it. It's sad that we take so many things that God created and trash them like so much garbage. We all need to take time to honor those things we were so fortunate to receive from Him.

Thanks for sharing.

Oh by the way, I took your advice and I'm writing what I'm calling "My book of Memories". It amazes me that starting at my birth and what I was told of those early years are things that my grandchildren would love to know about me.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent post, Bindu. I'm very pleased to see you also have a passion for conservation. The more people you reach to inform them of threatened species, the better the chance that efforts to save them will work.

Karine said...

This is a beautiful post, Bindu. When we lived in Hawaii, I remember the green sea turtles we used to see while snorkeling, and sometimes we would even see them while surfing! I loved them so. They face the exact same dangers. It is so meaningful to do a part, even a small part, to help by actions and educating others. Thank you for your post, and for caring!

3rdEyeMuse said...

you, my friend, are better than the best issue of National Geographic. :)

dolphin said...

beautiful post, i didn't about the creatures before reading this post. thanks for the insight and kudos to your effort

Mridula said...

Bindu I was trying to create a track back from Blogbharti when I left my last comment and hence the garbage in the previous comment. With my Limited tech knowledge don't even know what went wrong!

Beautiful post, I have linked it from Blogbharti too.

Anil P said...

The tests they face to merely survive offers us a perspective of our actions and the damage we're doing to our environs.

It's great to learn of the effort the volunteers are putting in so that the turtles have a fair chance to succeed.

bindu said...

Jude - you are right. We can only hope.

Leslie - thanks. I hope so too!

hey G - yes we are. Looking forward to it! :)

Meb - you are so right! I'm glad you've started your book of memories! :)

Barbara - thanks!

Karine - you lived in Hawaii!! How awesome. What made you move out of there? We did see some sea turtles while snorkeling near Maui too. They are so magnificent.

3rdEyeMuse - that's such a nice compliment! :)

Dolphin - thanks for stopping by!

Mridula - thanks for linking this to blogbharti! That was nice of you. :)

Anil - it's true. We need to do all we can.

namaki said...

This is an interesting reportage abouit those turtles... I have seen big green turtles lay eggs on the caribbean coast of Costa Rica ! it was at might and very impressive ! thank you for this nice reminder ! ;-)

Tragicomix said...

Nice post...I am currently in Bangalore but my coastal hometown of Karaikal (that Pondicherry) sees a fair bit of Ridley nesting too. Leatherback turtles too.

Fishermen have traditionally used Catamarans here, but with the increasing use of Trawlers the numbers of dead-Turtles landing up every morning on the shores has increased bigtime.

The worst is that my town, because of the Trawler/Fisherman-lobby i mentioned is now constructing a Jetty to permanently berth vessels... This in an otherwise pristine stretch of coastline!

And there are no greens around to actually do something - like the SSTCN. Damn good for them. For now, i can only wish for similar groups to come up in my town too.
Cheers on the good work. Nice post too.

Robyn said...

I read this with a lump in my throat. We have the same problem here. Though there is a protected beach for the turtles there are so many dangers especially the trawlers.Thanks for this amazing post, Bindu.

bindu said...

Namaki - I have some friends who have done this in Costa Rica too. I want to do that some time.

Tragicomix - thanks for stopping by. It's really sad to hear about this development in Karaikal. Maybe you could get some interested people together and start a group to have a voice against this! All it takes is the interest. I will be happy to help in any way. :)

Robyn - this is such a global problem. It's really distressing. I hope for the best though ...

Tragicomix said...

thanks bindu - i hear you on that, but the fishing wharf i mentioned is already almost done - with trawlers berthing, oil slicks from their leaky engines and all, sadly.

and though yes you're right - i am given to understand that the plan came up with environmental impact studies and all.
(the pondicherry govt is a shade better than most, i think, in that regard) - but hey it came up anyway.

i am watching the TATA Dhamra port story with interest... that would be colossal in the damage it would cause. greenpeace india has a good campaign going - you'd know that i assume - i mention it for readers that follow me.
cheers and thanks on offering to help.

Lakshmi said...

wonderful story and Ive heard of this through a friend who is into wildlife..came to yr blog through arun's ref..and Im happy i did ..years ago,I have participated in a similar activity off the ECR is Chennai

hitch writer said...

Keep up the good work !!!


Have always wanted to do the turtle walk,maybe this year.