Turtles!

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“…. The moon’s light cast a silver rippling glow across the ocean as the stars of the Milky Way twinkled impossibly brightly above us. The palm trees swayed gently in the warm tropical wind, while on the horizon the distant lights of cargo ships passed the south coast of Sri Lanka… However our eyes were drawn to a gargantuan dark shadow as it laboriously made its way slowly up to where the sand met the palms…”

Before we came to Sri Lanka we had identified our “big three”. The three animals we absolutely had to see in the wild. We saw the whales in Mirissa and then Elephants in Udawalawe and Arugam Bay and they were incredible experiences which we will never forget, but nothing prepared us for the magic of the turtles.

As we made our way back into Mirissa harbour, we were fortunate enough to see a green turtle close to the surface of the sea before it dove to the depths, but it was in Rekawa where we got our first ‘up close’ experience when we joined the Rekawa Turtle Watch – this can be read about here.

However, it was on the west coast of Sri Lanka, near Bentota, where we really got to learn about the turtles.

From Sinharaja we had taken a tuk tuk down to Galle where we then got on the coastal train up to Bentota. Despite its growing reputation, I think it’s fair to say neither of us fell in love with Bentota. Our little B&B was lovely, as was the restaurant we ate in, but the actual beach and town itself felt a little bit too ‘touristy’ which took away some of the authenticity of the place. However, we had only come to break the journey back to Colombo and most importantly, to visit the turtle sanctuaries in Kosgoda.

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Sadly there are a number of poachers in Sri Lanka who will patrol the beaches under the cover of darkness looking for nests from which they steal the eggs. To try and counter this, the turtle hatcheries pay a rate for the eggs slightly above the black market in the hope that the poachers will sell the eggs to them instead and can be educated in the importance of protecting the species. Once the eggs hatch, they are then drawn by an artificial light to a collection tray to be released back into the sea. The actual conservation merit of these hatcheries is slightly dubious, but we felt it had to be better than them being sold illegally.

Once the turtles hatch they are kept in special tanks until they are three days old.

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The majority of the turtle hatchlings at Kosgoda were Green Turtles, but Sri Lanka is also a nesting ground for the Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley species.

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The Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project also houses and nurses back to the wild mature turtles such as ‘Monica’ who Christina was introduced to above. One of the most harrowing things you will sea is the turtles who have been injured due to mankind – Sadly most of those turtles will never return to the wild and to see the impact humans are having filled us both with anger.

We are both huge believers that animals should not be kept in captivity and should be free in the wild, so it was a huge highlight to be invited back to the hatchery that evening to help release the hatchlings back into the sea. Despite another fiercely hot day, by the time evening arrived storm clouds were gathering over the Indian Ocean and a strong wind was whistling through the palm leaves. Upon arrival we were handed a basket full of little three day old turtles keen to be released into the warm embrace of the sea.

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Ensuring there were no birds or other predators nearby, we released the little turtles one by one and cheered as they made it back to the sea. All being well, the turtles will spend the next 30 – 35 years riding the ocean currents before they hopefully return to the soft white sand of Sri Lanka to lay their own eggs.

There was something poetic about watching these wonderful little creatures clamber over the sand and into the sea… For centuries the call of the ocean has been seen synonymous with freedom and the escape from the shackles of the land… Those little turtles were now free – may they live forever.

Ayubowan.

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