All it takes is a little bit of walking and talking to help the young Olive Ridleys reach their rightful home in the sea.

“Sun, sand and surf” goes the popular cliché. Last Saturday night, it was twisted around a little bit until we found ourselves with “moon, sand, a little bit of surf and lots of turtles”.

Beach by night

Neelankarai beach was quite a sight late last Saturday night, much to the surprise of many local lorry drivers who slowed down just to have a good look. How often do you see a congregation of about 50 people seeming to have a good chat on the beach at 11:00 p.m.? Not often. But February 13 was an exception. It was no ordinary night. And no, we aren't talking about Valentine's Day. February 13 marked the peak of the Olive Ridley nesting season.

“So what?” you may ask. These fifty individuals had gathered along with two volunteers from Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) Arun and Akila, to help the Olive Ridley turtles with their nesting endeavours in an attempt to increase the number of hatchlings making it to the ocean.

Surviving danger

The facts are mind-boggling. One of the smallest turtles, it has been placed at the ‘threatened' status of the conservation meter. They were slaughtered in hundreds of thousands for their meat and leather, causing a major dent in their global populations. With about a billion turtles in the world at the beginning of the 15th century, they were one of the most numerous species on the planet. Today, after a loss of close to 90 per cent of their population, we see them labeled an ‘endangered species'. Today, only one in every 1000 hatchlings survives. They usually fall prey to dogs, jackals, and sadly, humans.

SSTCN is out to help. With a group of 25 dedicated scouts, the volunteers prowl the beaches every night through the nesting season and later during hatching season, looking for eggs, rescuing them, relocating them to the hatchery and later, releasing them into the sea again.

Though the volunteers assembled at around 11:00 p.m., with a few individuals strolling in late, the actual walk didn't start for a while. The next couple of hours was marked by questions answered by Arun bilingually in Tamil and English, a brief on Olive Ridley turtles and why they are important (in accordance to Gause's law of competitive exclusion, they play important roles in coastal and open ocean ecosystems) and what the plan of action was for the rest of the night. The passion with which he spoke and his ability to quote relevant numerals by heart, definitely impressed his audience. It showed the dedication and belief he had in the cause. By the end of the session, everyone was raring to go.

Going about it

The walk had a few scouts who went ahead of the rest of the group looking out for turtle trails and nests. Once they were spotted, the rest of the group was informed and we got to see two nests on Saturday. The thrill factor of the entire trip is that nothing is assured. You never know what you are going to get. As Arun put it at the start of the walk, “Only two things I can promise you – a good walk and a dead turtle”. True to his word, we got both. The two nests with a total of about 250 eggs between them proved to be just a bonus.

The group assembled that night was very interactive and lively with Arun never having to give a prepared speech. Instead, we spent a comfortable two hours just asking queries, making our voices heard and pledging our time for the cause of the turtles. Amongst the strongest voices we heard were that of Samara, expatriate and avid nature-lover (she gave us a spirited speech on taking ownership of our resources) and Pooja of Dakshina Chitra with her innovative idea of training stray dogs to help the egg hunt.

Less awareness, more action

Though SSTCN is doing a wonderful job with their conservation efforts, they are not looking for too much publicity for fear of drawing the wrong crowd. As Dheeraj, a software professional and regular turtle walker puts it “We don't want too much awareness.”

Saturday's turtle walk was just one of many this season. This programme has been an annual affair for the last couple of decades and is a perfect opportunity for all the adventure-lovers out there. Not only do you get to see the beach like you would never have seen before (no noise, no people, only silence, sand and waves) but this is also the perfect opportunity to do your bit for the environment. Arun commented during the evening that “Quite a few of us know.

But we don't act.” Here is your chance. Start acting…now!

For more information, check out SSTCN's website at http://sstcn.org/

Turtle facts

Turtles are fascinating creatures. They have withstood the test of time and have been around for 110 million years.

The English language has always referred to the turtle as a wise old creature, full of knowledge and experience. Remember Master Oogway of Kung Fu Panda fame?

But even these revered reptiles weren't able to predict the advent of technological change such as electricity. Being programmed as hatchlings to walk towards the brighter surface (originally the light reflecting sea), they now find themselves attracted to the streetlights and flood lights. In simple terms, that spells disaster. That is why the Turtle Walks happen.

Yashasvini is a Std XI student of APL Global School.

Keywords: turtlesSSTCNOlive Ridley