Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Turtle Walk to Remember

Walking to Life

Isn't it strange how sometimes you forget about certain life changing experiences until something happens and stirs up that Pensieve? (You guessed it, I love Potter books). While I was in Trissur last week, I paid a visit to my husband’s ancestral home. In its current state of abandon, the house and its grounds are overrun with weeds. We made our way through the thickest, my father-in-law and I, searching for fallen coconuts. The grounds are notoriously dangerous, especially after the rains, and our search took us towards the unused pond. There, on its sandy banks my father-in-law spotted something that looked like a dry coconut husk. It was the shell of a tortoise – hard, grey and empty. I wondered how the animal had died. Did someone kill it for its meat or did it die a natural death at a ripe old age. I know they live to be a 100, sometimes even more. 

Way back in 2008, when I was still living in Chennai, I had gone on a Turtle Walk with some of my colleagues and a bunch of conservationists. I remember the date clearly; it was after 10  pm on February 29th, the leap year day. And it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time, ever since my college buddy Koshy described his walk experience.

Team dinner, group meet and turtles
I was with my team mates Bijoy Bharathan and Jonathan and the three member business reporting gang, Anandan sir, Sangeetha and Chirathan. 

The office cab dropped us off at Neelankarai, where we met Arun, from the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network - a voluntary group, working along the beaches of Chennai, trying to conserve and create awareness about Olive Ridley sea turtles. From stray dogs that feed on them, to greedy fisher folks looking for free omelet eggs, to propellers that mow down the swimming turtles; for these yearly visitors looking for a safe place to lay eggs, enemies were aplenty. The group was making great progress with locals in these areas, but even then they had ahead of them a challenging job. 

At about 11 pm, the group was fully formed - scouts or trained turtle spotters, regular walkers and a few first timers like us. Arun briefed us about what the night might have in store. We were to walk along the coast from Neelankarai beach to Besant Nagar (6.5 km stretch) and the journey was to be completed by 5 am the next morning. We were warned against using harsh lights or taking too loudly, as these might scare away the nesting turtle. “I cannot guarantee that you will see any turtles,” Arun said, making my heart sink.

Soon we set off in groups of six, with flashlights and the faint moon guiding us on. I remember thinking that sea was at its loudest and quickly realizing that this is probable because it was past midnight, and the streets were silent. Soon someone spotted something and we quickened our pace. 

Nesting time
A turtle had come to nest. Sand flew from under her hind legs as she laboriously worked the soil away, digging a pit deep and just right enough for her eggs. We gathered around, but the mother seemed oblivious to the attention that she was getting or she probably just wanted to lay those eggs. Her digging complete, she quickly moved on to the task in hand. We saw the eggs drop, one at a time, in rapid succession. Around 70 of them, I counted. 

While a camera managed to capture most of the action on night mode, the turtle, relived at last, started its next task. Once again sand flew all around, as she used her hind legs to cover up the pit and then used the weight of her body to pat down the sand and camouflage her nesting site. The sound of the waves guided her back to the sea, and in less than an hours, she had come, laid her eggs and vanished into the night. 

The team from the conservation network got down to business. They had to collect the eggs and also check the temperature and depth of the pit to rebuilt a similar one in the hatchery. There the eggs would stay, protected till the day they would hatch. On the way to the hatchery, the scouts spotted another turtle nesting site. The same process was repeated and more eggs bagged. 

Further down the beach, we spotted two dead turtles and a dolphin. I remember thinking that this was my first dolphin sighting as well. The feasting stray dogs stood silent and still until we passed the carcass.

Marching to the sea
Dawn was slowly breaking. I could see the sun as a faint orange line in a distance. We were approaching the fag end of our long walk and I was trailing behind. The magic of day break keeping me away from the walkers. What an exciting night it had turned out to be... but it wasn't over just yet, because the scouts ahead were waving once again. 

A set of eggs in the safe house was hatching. The little ones were crawling out of their egg shells and taking baby steps towards the ocean. The tide, the waves and the magnetic field were all guiding them on, and like troupes returning home from battle, they stomped towards the finish line. I picked one up and like a new born baby she wriggled (and was probably crying loud too). I was afraid that I’d drop her or hurt her, so I gently put her down near the sea, and she paddled away, riding high on the morning waves… a blob in a distance that soon vanished. 

For travelers heading to Chennai, looking for adventures that's outside the guide books, the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network could be a good start. In one single night I had witnessed birth, survival and death. For planning that adventure I have Jonathan to thank. And the dead turtle from last week, for reminding me again about the Circle of Life, that moves us all. 

1 comment:

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