It was a glorious evening. The moon was full, the air was clear. As dusk fell, we released into the Indian Ocean 74 tiny turtles that had emerged the night before in our hatchery. As soon as we put them onto the beach their little flippers began flaying at the sand, desperate to get into the water.
About an hour later, as we were gathering for dinner in the outdoor pavilion, a giant turtle crawled onto our beach to lay her eggs.
What fascinating creatures these are!
So graceful in the water, so ungainly on land. The huge turtle, her shell the size of a bridge table, pulled her heavy body across the sand with her front flippers. About 15 meters from the water’s edge she began the laborious task of digging a nest, until she hit the root of a tree. She moved a few feet away and started over, but once again hit an obstacle: construction rubble that had been buried on the beach.
Exhausted, she dragged herself back into the water. Hopefully, she would find a more accommodating spot on another night after recovering her strength.
And the hatchings? What a thrill to see them swept up in the waves to begin a life that could be 100 years long.
If any female among these 74 survives to maturity, she will return to this very same beach in 15 or 20 years to lay her own eggs. No one knows how these ladies remember and find their way back to their native beach.
But in fact the odds against any one of these hatchlings, male or female, living to that age are long indeed. Experts estimate only one in 1,000 hatchlings will make it.
Nothing has given us greater satisfaction at our boutique hotel than increasing those odds for a few thousand turtles.
We began our turtle project in 2009.
It was then that we witnessed for the first time a turtle laying eggs on our beach. As soon as she left her nest, fishermen dug up and took the eggs. When we asked what was going on, we learned that most eggs are poached and sold in the market as a delicacy.
We decided to do something about it.
We let it be known to our fisher neighbors that we would pay better-than-market prices for fresh eggs. We created a secure space inside our fence and reburied them, careful that the man-made nest be the right depth.
With experience and much reading, we have learned what to do.
When they hatch after 45 to 70 days, we hold them in a shaded tank of seawater with a pump gently circulating the water. After dark, after the crows, seagulls and eagles have roosted for the night and the beach is empty of dogs, we take the hatchlings to the beach and place them on the sand a few meters from the surf.
That first crawl across the sand is vital for imprinting their nativity beach in their mysterious navigation system.
In natural circumstances, as many as half would be picked off as they dash for the sea. For the first few minutes of their journey until they reach the water, our hatchlings are safe from predators. Just getting them safely into the water may increase the survival rate from one in 1,000 to maybe two or three.
Once they’re in the sea, they’re on their own.
Last season we midwifed 1,190 hatchlings. It was a good year.
Much of Sri Lanka’s coastline has nesting beaches for its five species, all of them highly endangered.
But this has led to an ugly phenomenon: commercial turtle hatcheries.
Like us, the hatcheries collect or buy eggs to prevent them from becoming a Sri Lankan breakfast. But they exploit the turtles in their own way.
The hatcheries keep the newborns in tanks for three days, five days, sometimes longer. They charge visitors – often Western tourists – 500 rupees to see them. For a higher fee, the tourists can release them in the evening.
It’s important for the hatchlings to get into the sea as soon after birth as possible. In the first few days they have what’s described as “swimming frenzy.” It’s a frantic effort to get away from the dangers of shore.
The keepers of the hatchlings tell the visitors they are protecting the babies and feeding them to give them strength. I have heard this at every hatchery I have ever made the mistake of visiting.
The exact opposite is true.
The hatcheries also keep adult turtles that they claim are injured. Often their only injury is confinement. These hatcheries are nothing but zoos that keep their captives in tanks no better than circus cages.
There certainly is some serious scientific research on sea turtles in this country, and I believe some hatcheries have legitimate interests in the welfare of turtles and conservation.
But my advice: if you see a big sign on the coastal highway for a turtle hatchery, keep driving.