Sri Lanka's Endangered Sea Turtles

A sea turtle re-enters the water in Sri Lanka.
A sea turtle re-enters the water in Sri Lanka.  John Henderson photos.

Sri Lanka: The First Week of Turtle Season

By John Henderson

unnamed 1A turtle wrapped in fishing line and wrap, a good reason why the turtles are so well protected in Sri Lanka. The southern coast of Sri Lanka bends gradually around the base of the island like the smooth bottom of an egg. It is lined with some of the loveliest, sugary-white sand beaches on the planet. It’s one of the few places where the word “exotic” hasn’t been erased by a five-star hotel.

Eleven years ago it was also the site of death. The 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 people wiped out 35,000 in Sri Lanka, most of them on this coast line.

Yet where I cruised along in a tuktuk, Sri Lanka’s cool three-wheeled taxis, not far from a town where 500 people were dragged to their watery graves, I saw life as few ever see it.

“This week is the first week of turtle season,” yelled my tuktuk driver as he careened around holes in the road, stray dogs and other tuktuks doing the same. “It lasts for three months. Do you want to see turtles laying eggs?”

Normally, I don’t trust cab drivers but I’ve heard stories of the turtle nesting experience changing people’s lives and making women cry.

So for 1,600 rupee (about $12) my driver picked me up at my guesthouse and drove me to Rekawa, about nine miles on the other side of Tangalle, the town where 500 people drowned.

We turned onto a dirt road and careened through a mangrove forest past old men wearing the Hindu sarong. I could see little fires in homes where people were eating.

Baby turtles race for their lives after the hatchings.
Baby turtles race for their lives after the hatchings.
A worker collects the eggs after nesting.
A worker collects the eggs after nesting.

Visiting the Sea Turtles

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. The moon I last saw at the Tangalle bridge reappeared over a cluster of palm trees. It flickered off the ocean which casually lapped against the beach. We walked for about 10 minutes where, in the dark, I could see the shadows of about 40 people.

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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, as well as 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,” effort is there. It starts with these grounds where tourists are allowed to watch but the turtles are heavily protected. Flash photography is not 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, bird and sharks that feed on them like Jujubes. Curiously, the mother turtles come to the same spot on the beach every time.

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 giant rock was the mother turtle. I was staring at its huge shell. The turtle must’ve been five feet 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?

Laying Hundreds of Eggs

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.
Mother Nature, you did it again. The birth process of any mammal goes beyond science and logic. It made me think of the living world in a different, infrared light. The turtles find the same spot, they dig a hole, the eggs come out.

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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 they started to cover them. The water would recede and the turtles would remain. Finally, a big tide came in, covering the turtles for about 10 seconds.

When the tide returned, so did the turtles. They were gone.

John Henderson

John Henderson moved to Rome after retiring from many decades as a reporter in Denver. Read his blog about life as an expat in the Eternal City, Dog Eared Passport, and follow his European adventures.