Monday, July 25, 2005

Turtle walking

Perhaps this qualifies as recylcing old bits of writing. But the memory is still strong and I insist.

2004 Chennai

When I first heard that the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles nested right here, bang smack in one of the busiest beaches in Chennai, I was confused. There was no way sea turtles could safely nest on any beach in Chennai.
All my photojournalism assignments inevitably drew me to the beaches here. This was the most interesting part of the city. You have a confusion of markets, lovers, children, joggers, fishermen and hawkers all squeezed into one long strip of sand. A microcosm of life with the backdrop of an endless horizon. Great for the odd photojournalism assignment.

I never could imagine that massive sea turtles like the Olive Ridley actually allowed themselves to be washed onto the Chennai coastline, drag themselves laboriously across the sand, to lay over a hundred eggs at a time. I would never have thought that the nearly extinct species would risk laying their precious eggs in the sea of humanity that had taken over almost every inch of beach.
But they do. They still do clamber across the sand- now peppered with plastic- to lay hundreds of eggs at a time, oblivious to the perils and the dismal survival rate of their hatchlings.

The recent phenomenon of developing the coastline leaves the turtles with no protection against ‘scenic route’ highways and resorts extending right up to the shore. According to the Big Book of Nature Laws, baby turtles are drawn to light (of any kind) as soon as they surface from below the sand. The hatchlings would, in a completely natural world, be drawn to the bright white foam, cresting the waves in the moonlight. But the Big Book of Nature Laws hasn’t been revised for centuries. The hatchlings are still drawn to bright horizons, only this brightness is now the light of the highways. As soon as they hatch, they paddle through the sand (for what would seem like miles in baby turtle steps) in the exact opposite direction, towards what would naturally be their future home. But they never reach. For much of the natural has been taken over by the man-made.

That’s where the SSTCN (Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network) comes in. A noble cause indeed. Providing an impromptu amendment to the laws of nature, to bend the rules just a bit, to help restore the balance. Students walk the East coast every night, tracking the turtles’ trails, digging up the eggs, and relocating the contents of each nest to a hatchery.

The concept is endearing in itself. Walks to save the sea turtle. Students who ask for nothing from those who join them occasionally. Just sincerity and a promise to spread the word.
What is even more endearing is the hatchery itself. A thatch shelter, with a wooden fence. Sand. A single lamp. Sand. That’s all it is. And that’s all it takes. No incubators, no Special Hatchling Guide Lamps, no tools. This is as close to nature and preserving it as you can get. Everywhere you step as soon as you enter the rickety stick enclosure is a turtle nest. With hundreds of eggs resting, nesting inside. To be dug out on their due date. To be delivered back to their Mother nature.

The designated nests are soon pointed out to you and you begin to dig. Soon, your fingers feel something hard, like a small pebble. A warm pebble. The sand feels like someone’s held it in their hand for a long time and then passed it on to you. A hatchling’s head. You dig your finger a little deeper. Another one. The sand gets warmer still. And another pebble. And another. Scoop out the whole area and you unearth a carnival. Wriggly flippered performers that come to life as soon as you pick them up and place them onto an outstretched palm. Two…Ten….Fifty…One hundred. Sleepy babies that come intensely alive as you watch. Blinking their little eyelids awake, eager to flip flop off your hand.

I named almost every turtle I dug out of the sand nest. Flipper, Nemo, Oscar, Tara, Travis, Wordsworth, Geraldine, Chhotu, Motu, Inky, Pinky, Ponky...over fifty names that I can’t recollect. I stroked the sand off the shells and put them gingerly into baskets. And then sentimentally onto the wet sand, where the tide would pull them into the sea. I watched as each one was swept away. I imagined each one somersaulting in the currents flailing their tiny soft flippers to right themselves. It was almost daybreak and every single one of the hatchlings had already disappeared. Maudlin me.

The kids who took on the role of advisors, supervisors, guides and social workers already told me that out of the two hundred or so turtles we would be releasing into the water, we’d be lucky if fifteen survived.

Too bad flash photographs disturb the hatchlings. Too bad I can’t use this as a PJ assignment.
But. Moments like this....
I think I’ll leave this to my Photographic Memory album.