Sunday, September 20, 2015

Live, let live!

Of late, the talkative me has a standard element in my conversation with people - TURTLES. No, not that I have run out of topics; just that they have become closer to my heart. :)

Two and a half years ago, when I landed in Chennai, I googled 'things-to-do' in Chennai. Among the many things that caught my eye was the turtle walks of SSTCN (Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network). I imagined it to be a one night event in the month of January, more on the lines of the publicised marathons people run these days, except that this involved some live Olive Ridley turtles as well. So, every January when I read a newspaper article on the turtle walk by Marina beach, saving turtles caught in fishing nets, I assumed I had missed the walk and had to wait for the next year. After two Januarys of missing it, I resolved to actively track the event so as to attend it in my 3rd January in Chennai. So, I mailed SSTCN expressing my interest in participating in the walk. I was happily welcomed to be a part of them and join their walks on Friday and Saturday nights.

A mother turtle preparing to nest
The Olive Ridley are critically endangered species of sea turtles, which come nesting on the east coast of our country from late December to late March. These reptiles are largely sea creatures and come on land only to nest, which means the male of the species never come ashore; until they (both males and females) are washed ashore dead due to human intervention. The female of the species reaches sexual maturity at the age of 13. The turtles mate near to the shore during the season, and then she comes on land, walking rather clumsily which leaves a characteristic track to lay her eggs. She usually chooses night time to nest as she gets assistance by the high tide to make it ashore with her bulk of eggs. She laboriously digs a 25-30 inches deep, pot shaped nest in the sand using her hind flippers, and then drops her eggs in the nest, which ranges from around 200 at the beginning of the season to around 60 towards the end of the season. As she lays her eggs, she goes into a trance like state, totally unaware of the surroundings. {Anecdote 1}. 

Eggs being laid in the 
sand nest

The sweeping dance to
camouflage the nest
After this, she performs a beautiful thumping dance using her body to fill the nest with sand, followed by a sweeping dance using her flippers to camouflage the area. She takes such pains to do this that her camouflage clearing sometimes can be as wide as 5 feet in diameter to cover a nest of just few inches wide!! She then returns to the sea, leaving the eggs to their fate. The entire process can take more than an hour. 

After a period of 40-45 days (also depending on the temperature of the sand), the young ones, called hatchlings, make their way out of the nest and surface on the beach. Their natural instincts guide them to the brighter horizon of the sea, their home. But due to the human need of safety and beach beautification, strong street lights dot our beaches these days confusing the hatchlings, as a result of which they travel the opposite direction towards land where they can get devoured by land animals or even die due to dehydration.
Probing of nesting area

To prevent this, volunteers of SSTCN walk sections of the beach every night for the entire nesting season and beyond (yes, you read it right - it was not a one night event!), looking out for the characteristic mother turtle tracks - an 'up-track' and a 'down-track' which resembles a huge tyre track. Not an easy job, considering that the beach sand is always uneven. The clearing of the area at the end of an 'up-track' confirms the presence of a nest. There are times when there are only 'false tracks', but no nest at the end of the track as the turtle would have encountered a hurdle in the form of fishing nets or the motherly instincts would not consider the area safe, and hence returned back to the sea without laying eggs. {Anecdote 2}. Once the clearing at the end of the track is found, the sand is probed by a trained volunteer.

Eggs taken out of nest to be
relocated in guarded area
The part of the clearing which gives way easily to the probe gives indication to the location of nest. The sand is then dug and the eggs collected, counted and transferred to a cloth bag. The nest is measured to replicate it in the hatchery, where the eggs are relocated. The hatchery is a guarded, fenced out region of the beach. At the end of the night's walk, at the hatchery a nest is dug using its original dimensions, the eggs are placed inside the nest and then covered with sand. A perforated basket is placed covering the opening of the neck so as to not let the hatchlings walk away unattended. The eggs are of golf ball shape and size, and are soft and pliable, which is why they can sustain the fall when the mother turtle drops her eggs into the deep nests. The eggs have to be relocated within the first 4-5 hours; after which they harden and relocating them after they harden reduces their survival rate drastically.

On few lucky days, I had the great opportunity to see a nesting turtle in the process of laying eggs. That one and a half hour was such a spectacular event that it seemed like I was witnessing a silent orchestra! The way she strains her neck muscles while laying the eggs, the peace I believe I see in her eyes, the way she alternates her right front flipper and left hind flipper and vice versa to do her sweeping dance..every step of the 'performance' is so beautiful! After watching it once, there was no looking back for me.. What was supposed to be a one night walk, became a regular weekend plan and then an addiction!

A wild hatchling being rescued
 from a fishing net
Just when I thought the nesting turtle was the most serene thing I ever saw, I was proved wrong by the hatchlings. Hatchings are the cutest beings I have ever seen, and leading them into the sea is the most wonderful thing I have ever done in my life! These lovely creatures cannot be directly let into the sea. They are made to walk into the waves as this gives them the vital memory of the shore.. for they come back to the same stretch of the beach years later to nest. Isn't that incredible!!! Watching them walk fast, unlike their mother's rather slow gait, and disappear into the sea gives a sense of completion....because that is where they belong. And though their journey has just begun, they have at least started the journey and were not devoured by other beings even before they could know their home, the sea. We stretched our walks beyond the nesting season for the sake of 'wild hatchlings'. These are the hatchlings from those nests that were missed by chance during our routine walks. These are identified by numerous tiny tracks running in circles. A very trained eye is required to spot these tiny footprints in the sand! The tracks often have lead to the roads, meaning the hatchlings were misguided by the street lights :(. Some get entangled in the fishing nets and hours are spent tracing each track and retrieving the hatchlings. Most of them are lost and the few that are found are carefully let back into the sea.

A dead turtle profoundly hurt by
 human intervention
It is estimated that only one out of 1000 hatchlings that reach the sea survive till adulthood. So getting them into the sea is just one of the battles that we have helped them win. They are eaten by bigger creatures in the sea as part of the food cycle. But the hatchlings that do survive these dangers and grow up to become adults, die in mass numbers due to trawlers used for fishing. These trawlers go into the deep sea and scoop the ocean bed. The catch is then pulled for 2-3 kms towards the shore as a result of which the adult turtles, along with other trapped beings, get injured and suffocated thus leading to a slow and painful death. The dead turtles are washed ashore and my initial turtle walks were dotted by the sightings of such carcasses all along. The trawlers have been ordered to not venture into the deep sea and to use a TED (Turtle Excluder Device), which allows the trapped turtles to escape from the fishing nets. However, these orders are largely in print only and are yet to be put to thorough practice.

SSTCN has for 20 years and plus, under able leaderships, worked actively by directly saving the hatchlings and also by bringing changes in the trawler rules, by getting court orders for the beach lights to be switched off during the nesting season and many more. If you are in the east coast and especially in Chennai, do contact local conservation groups like SSTCN to pitch in your bit. Click here for more information.

Ever since my participation in these walks, my perspective about the environment has been altered at large. Somehow I feel that if I have ever achieved something in my life, it is the fact that I did my bit for the hatchlings. This gave me much more satisfaction than anything else I have done in my life. The hatchlings also made me realise that my species is but just one of the element on earth. They taught me to be selfless. People who know me know how much I go out of the way to make someone's birthday very special or make any event a success. Though I don't expect the same treatment in return, I must admit that I do expect gratitude- a simple thank you or a word of appreciation. And here I was, helping the hatchlings live a life - I was doing something good for somebody without expecting anything in return - no money, no recognition, not even a 'thanks' from them. They did not even know I was doing something for them. THIS gave me peace. It is indeed something to know that some of these hatchlings that I let into the sea will come back some decades later to the same shore and I wouldn't even know which one!!

The experience of the turtle walks deeply influenced my way of life. If you think it is all about being vegetarian, then you are wrong. Drinking milk can be backtracked to all those cows being forcefully milked and not allowed to lead a normal life. Eating that healthy broccoli might be good for you, but imagine the hours it had to travel (and consume the fuel!!) to reach the supermarket from where you picked it up. You just added to environmental pollution without your knowledge. Google 'food miles' and you may nearly be shocked. As humans, we may care for the environment and its constituents. But somewhere deep down, we think we are doing a favour on them. It is sadly forgotten that we ACTUALLY don't own the earth to be doing a favour on fellow inhabitants. Replace those expensive orchids at your wedding/function with something that is more locally available. Step out and buy locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits and ditch the canned groceries which have collectively consumed more electricity and fuel than you can imagine. A simple invite for a function can be more thoughtful than a booklet invite which will anyway find it's way to the dustbins of various houses. That new car is good and comfortable, I agree;  but when you have to travel alone, consider taking the public transport. Yes, you worked hard, and you deserve all the luxury your money can provide you,.. but not at the cost of other beings. The rule is to let go of exoticness and instead, THINK LOCAL.

So next season, make time to attend one of the turtle walks. They deeply influenced my life. Hope they do the same to you...

*Anecdote 1: Once, when a turtle was in one such trance state, a volunteer chose to sleep until she laid her eggs and did her routine dance. He woke up to see a headless turtle! A crocodile had come and bit her head off!! Such is her trance!
*Anecdote 2: A mother turtle dug 13 nests over a period of 3 hours and still went back without laying eggs, probably because she did not find it safe!

Cuteness personified - my love!

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up.. One thing you have missed out is how they guide the hatchlings back to sea using torch lights.. :)