The turtle wins the race

On the Andaman beaches, Olive Ridley turtles are still hatching post-tsunami. Malini Shankar gives a first-person account

A turtle hatchling after breaking out of the eggshell
A turtle hatchling after breaking out of the eggshell

The Ramnagar beach, near the North Andaman town of Diglipur, is one of the favourite sites of Olive Ridley turtles to lay their eggs. I roughed it out for eight hours on the high sea from Port Blair to Diglipur to assist Tutee in her labour pains. It was almost midnight and the high tide was fast approaching. I didn’t dare to go further. Fear stalks visitors in the Islands after the devastating tsunami.

My friends in Port Blair were amused that I had chosen a pitch black night to assist mother Tutee. But as luck would have it, it was a new moon night and the wildlife camp officers on the beach patrol were of the opinion that mother turtles prefer to lay their eggs on new moon and full moon nights.

However, I was not lucky enough to witness one of the world’s most ancient but most endangered creatures leaving their genetic codes on the sands of time. Nevertheless, I witnessed something even more dramatic — the turtle hatchlings breaking out of their eggshells and instinctively herding themselves seaward.

Turtle nursery at Ramnagar beach in North Andaman
Turtle nursery at Ramnagar beach in North Andaman — Photos by the writer

The Forest Department is apprehensive that the tsunami washed out the nesting sites of the Olive Ridley turtles, who only come to lay eggs. The other turtles — Green Sea, Leatherback, and Hawksbill have specific spots as they are born there. But the Olive Ridleys have ‘sporadic nesting sites’ all over the islands, according to B.C. Choudhary of the Endangered Species Management at the Dehra Dun-based Wildlife Institute of India.

"Post-tsunami, the islands have tilted on an east-west orientation exposing one side of the nesting beach. Only after some years can we be sure if the exposed beaches will turn out to be good nesting sites. The turtles themselves will need a couple of years to realise if they should go elsewhere which we need to monitor for a few years continuously," he says. Indeed, there are new sites for their nesting: Ross Island and Kalipur Bay as can be seen from the monthly statistics.

Post-tsunami the beach patrol officers escorted 26,777 hatchlings to the sea at Ramnagar beach in the winter of 2005-06, one year after the disaster. In the following winter, between December 12, 2006 to January 18, 2007, they had counted in all 5,510 Olive Ridley eggs that were laid in Ramnagar; but the number that were successfully hatched and escorted have not been recorded. In March, 2008 (end of the nesting season), there were 43,320 eggs in the Curtburt Bay, 21,958 eggs hatched and were escorted to the sea successfully in the Ramnagar Beach, 101 hatchlings in Ross Island and 8,885 eggs hatched and were escorted to the sea by the camp officials in Kalipur Bay, according to the Chief Wildlife Warden of the island Administration, Khazan Singh.

That night when I was there, one turtle patrol party went to the left and the other to the right on the beach searching for egg-laying turtles. We waited breathlessly in the company of the sea under the starlit sky. Forty minutes later, the patrollers from the right side announced excitedly that the eggs had started hatching. We started ambling towards the nursery. As we got into the nursery enclosed by cane walls, we had to feel our way through the sands. It was the blinding flashlight that showed us where the cane cradles were fixed to the sand beds ahead of us.

The camp officers sauntered in effortlessly and took us to the cane baskets where a marvellous experience was awaiting us.

The camp officers had obviously worked very hard. They had patrolled for long, lonely hours on the harsh terrain looking for Tutee, or Tiloo, Tamee as they named them and all their sisters on the seashore. They had taken the trouble to patrol these sands, spotted the egg laying turtles in the darkness, marking their times of arrival and departure, number of eggs, date, time, tide level and location of the eggs.

Then they would collect the eggs, along with a bushel of warm sand and bring the delicate cargo to the turtle nursery, dig pits on the sandy shore and place cane baskets open at the bottom around them and mark the legends on each basket.

It was wonderful to witness nature’s eternal cycle of procreation and lesson on survival over there. The young hatchlings struggled but eased themselves out of the ripe eggshells and crawled to the sands. They looked so fragile, so vulnerable, one could hurt them so easily, yet they were so sure what to do. We waited for about a half hour and after the last of the 105 hatchlings broke themselves open, the camp officers started picking up all of them one by one and placing them delicately in cardboard cartons. We counted them, took them to the wet sands of the high tide line and released them there in batches of 10. Till then, the remaining hatchlings remained in a jar of seawater.

Instinctively, they started making a beeline to the sea when they were released from the carton. Their struggle for survival starts the moment they set their nose into the water. In a matter of 15 minutes, the restless hatchlings walked up to the sea. The moment they were engulfed by the waves, it was also a moment of joy and a sadness of parting for us. Silently, we wished them luck in the sea. — TWF