The tuktuk driver careened around holes in the narrow road while dodging stray dogs and other tuktuks doing the same. It seemed like an odd time to do a sales pitch. Then again, sitting precariously in the back seat of Mareesh’s three-wheeled, canopied taxi, I was a very captive audience.
“This week is the first week of turtle season,” Mareesh yelled over an engine seemingly with the same decibel level of a 727. “It lasts for three months. Do you want to see turtles laying eggs?”
Sea Turtle Hatchery Sri Lanka
I knew Sri Lanka had become famous for its conservation efforts to save green sea turtles. I had no idea I was this close to their nesting grounds. I also had no idea that my planned week slothing along Sri Lanka’s gorgeous beaches on its southern coast was the same week the turtles would make their long trek from the sea to the beach and back.
Skeptical, I casually asked how much. He said 1,600 rupees, only about $12. That’s all? To see turtles nesting? A check with my guesthouse in my quaint beach village of Goyambokka confirmed Mareesh’s credibility. So, later that night, we were on the same road heading along the coast. The beach site where the turtles nest is in Rekawa, about 15 kilometers on the other side of Tangalle, the town where more than 500 people died in the 2004 tsunami.
I could tell by the Mareesh’s driving we were late. So could the stray dogs who scattered like bowling pins as he tore around corners.
“Some of them sleep in the middle of the road,” he said. “You have to be careful not to kill them.”
We turned onto a dirt road and tore through a mangrove forest past old men wearing the sarong Hindus wear like tucked-in skirts. I could see little fires in homes where people were eating dinner. Except for one British-owned hotel, the Buckingham Palace, this beach was as desolate as I’ve seen. No wonder turtles come here to nest.
We finally came to a small single-story structure serving as an information center. A stern man in a moustache greeted us — along with about two dozen other tuktuks. We were not alone. This must be legit. I paid the 1,000-rupee fee and a volunteer took me outside, down a path onto the broad beach. The night could not have been more beautiful if Monet painted it. The moon back lit swaying palm trees and flickered off the ocean as its waves casually caressed the sand. We walked for about 10 minutes where, in the dark, I could see the shadows of about 40 tourists and guides.
A pretty, diminutive Sri Lankan in her 20s wearing a Turtle Conservation Project T-shirt gave me a brief description of their operation.
Sea turtles are endangered in Sri Lanka and around the world, but thanks to the Turtle Conservation Project, a non-profit organization started in 1993 to “Make Sri Lankan Seas a Heavenly Habitat For Turtles,” an effort is in place. While tourists are allowed to watch, the grounds are heavily protected. The flash photography is allowed. The turtles lay eggs three times a year but never more than seven times in a lifetime. They lay up to 200 eggs at a time, necessary since only about one baby turtle in 1,000 survives the dogs, birds and sharks who feed on them like Jujubes. Curiously, the mother turtles come to the same spot on the beach every time.
I thanked her profusely and walked another 10 minutes with the mob. Near an outcropping of brush, well away from the tide, three or four male volunteers were pointing to a hole under what looked like a giant rock. I could see inside a glistening white ball. It was an egg, a turtle egg she had just laid. I asked if the turtle was in that hole. It turned out to be one of the dumbest questions of my travel writing career. He pointed straight.
The mother turtle was the rock. I was staring at its huge shell. The turtle stood a meter long. Her powerful back legs dug into the sand. It was motionless. Her eyes sagged. No wonder. How would you like to give birth 200 times standing up?
A few feet away, a group gathered around another turtle. A volunteer shined an infrared light under her. She had a short, fat white tube-like organ hanging down from her a few inches off the ground. Then they came. Little glistening eggs, still shiny from her insides, plopped down on the ground like Glo-Balls off a conveyer belt. Out came one. Then two. Then three. They do this for about two hours until they’ve disgorged up to 200.
The birth process of any mammal is remarkable and in the animal kingdom it’s shocking how everything works in unison. The turtles find the same spot, they dig a hole, the eggs come out. The turtles were expressionless. Few animals in my lifetime have shown less joy than a turtle. Even in the water scuba diving, I’ve noticed they always seem to be escaping something.
But these seemed content in their motherhood. When they finished disgorging eggs that formed a small mountain under them, they used their huge, powerful back flippers to cover the eggs with sand. There they will remain for two months before they hatch and try to stay alive for more than a few minutes. A volunteer showed me a video of the baby turtles making a wild scramble to the sea. Their flippers were bigger than their bodies. They seemed to flop down the beach, kind of like baby penguins. It’s frightening to think that those few minutes are often the only life they will ever know before some seagull picks them up for his evening aperitivo.
Soon the mother turtles dug out of their hole and crawled slowly to the beach. Before reaching the water they stopped. What were they doing? Did they changed their minds? Do they not want to leave their babies?
We all watched intensely. Then the waves started to reach them. Then the waves started to cover them. The water receded and the turtles remained. Finally, a big tide came in, covering the turtles for about 10 seconds.
When the tide returned, so did the turtles. They were gone.
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