One of the most magical experiences I have ever done was to release baby turtles into the sea. In Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, my friend, Mark, told me that he had been to the hatchery several times before I got there, and each time they told him that the turtles would be released very soon. Mark wanted me to be there when the babies were released, and he hoped that I wouldn’t miss it.
During the week, we walked down to the hatchery from home, and the guy told us that they would be liberating the babies the following evening.
So, the next day we returned, only to be met by a big group of people. Obviously, the news had spread and they too wanted to witness this spectacle. The guy who runs the hatchery told us about their charges. Some of the larger turtles had been injured by boats or had lost a flipper from being entangled in nets.
The ones that had lost flippers aren’t able to swim straight in the sea and become easy prey, so they are rescued and kept at the hatchery until they are able to be released. The manager told us that he teaches them how to swim and catch food again. He does this by reducing the amount of water in the tank and when the turtle can swim and feed easily, he increases the water level. It continues like that until the turtle can swim and feed in deeper water. Once they have fully recuperated, they are released back into the wild.
I was amazed, not only at his knowledge of sea turtles, but his compassion for wanting to help these beautiful creatures was inspiring. I am never quite sure whether these establishments really do have the animals best interests at heart, or whether it’s just a money making scheme, but I felt differently about this place. They really seemed to want to be help the animals and be involved in the conservation of the species.
In Sri Lanka, people eat turtle eggs, however the hatchery takes on the task of collecting the eggs from the beach or paying the fisherman for them. They are then taken back to the hatchery and it’s here that the babies will begin their lives. The eggs are buried in sand and they incubate until they are ready to hatch. The people working at the hatchery are careful to replicate things as they would be in the wild, so after the eggs are buried, the sand is built up in a conical shape, so when the babies hatch, the sand collapses in on them and the turtles have to scrabble to make their way out into the world.
We made our way to the small beach where loads of others had congregated, waiting for this wonderful spectacle. We noticed a Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) flying overhead. We watched as the kite was attacked by three, considerly, smaller birds, maybe protecting their young perhaps, or trying to get rid of the competition for what was about to happen.
We did think it odd that the kite was there at the exact same time as the turtles were being released. Although, I guess, this is what happens in the wild, predators know when events like this are happening and they congregrate. However, this is the unfortunate thing with human intervention. On one hand, the hatchery works tirelessly in their effort to protect the turtles, but the mere fact that they collect eggs from the beach and release the babies amidst a crowd of tourists must alert predators to what they are doing. Brahminy Kites are intelligent birds, and they use associative learning in the wild where visual and auditory cues help them to search for food.
The guys in charge told everyone that each person could come and take a baby to release. We weren’t expecting that! We thought it would be observing only! We were thrilled, although come to think of it now, the babies may have been a tad scared of these big human forms looming in over them. But, they seemed eager to get on their way, their flippers flapping vigorously. So with cute baby in between gentle fingers, we were told to line up and let them go all at once.
And off they went! They were tiny, but they were so determined to reach the water. The waves had other ideas though, and swept the little ones back to where they had started. But they continued on and, eventually, after much encouragement from the humans, they made it to the sea, and there they began their journey into deeper water and through their long lives.
Suddenly, the Brahminy Kite reappeared, flew overhead, took a swooping dive, and swiped one of the babies up into its beak. We all shouted at it, like that was going to do any good. We thought about what happens in the wild. Only 1 in 1,000 turtles survive to adulthood. There were 50 babies released, so we hoped that the other 49 made it! But, still, one has to wonder, are the humans to blame in this instance?
As our little turtle scampered towards the sea, both Mark and I had tears in our eyes, as did a few others I expect. We almost started full on crying. They were tears of joy though, it was a really emotional experience, setting that tiny creature off on its journey into the big wide expanse of the ocean. And to think, if those babies survive to adulthood, the female of the species, remarkably, returns to the same beach she was born, to lay her eggs. They truly are amazing animals and deserve to be protected. I can only hope that this hatchery really is making a difference.
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Sea Turtle Hatchery, Peraliya-Telwatta, Sri Lanka
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