It's that time of the year when Olive Ridley hatchlings are guided to their home — the sea

It's like any other evening at the Broken Bridge in Beasant Nagar: clusters of people lost in their private revelries. A group of jeans-clad young men take swigs of beer from amber-coloured bottles and bob their heads to thumping electronic beats from a tweaked music system in a hatchback. At the same time, small groups of people stroll down the bridge to watch the setting sun, which resembles a crimson blotch on a kindergartener's colouring book.

It's like any other evening, but for the squeals of delight in a small enclosed area pockmarked with bottomless bamboo baskets. Removing a basket, Akila Balu gently digs up the sand with a hand. Her fingers probe for Olive Ridley hatchlings. She retrieves a small creature that furiously flaps its tiny flippers. Digging a tunnel under another basket, volunteer Karunakaran lets a swarm of baby Ridleys climb out of their birth bed. They run helter-skelter and he quickly gathers and locks them up within the upturned basket.

It is that time of the year when Olive Ridley hatchlings are sent home. We are at the Besant Nagar hatchery, created and managed along with another at Foreshore Estate by Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN). On the Chennai coast, Olive Ridley hatchlings have surpassed the record of previous years. The two hatcheries have accounted for 10,000 little ones. Akila believes 2,000 more are on the way.

For Akila, a full-timer at SSTCN, and the student-volunteers, the task of helping the new-born Ridleys paddle into the sea is a culmination of a long process that starts in December, when Olive Ridleys begin to come ashore and nest.

Watching a squirming mass of 71 small turtles — not long ago, just small ovals of white retrieved by volunteers on their long nightly trudges along the shore from Neelangarai to Thiruvanmiyur — Akila's eyes speak the language of fulfilment. As the turtles dart in various directions, she says, “It's like babysitting 200 children. If some of them get underneath those covers, chances are you'll never find them. During the hatching season, volunteers visit the hatchery right through the day to keep an eye on the baskets.”

Outside the hatchery — just a cost-effective enclosure made of split bamboo sticks — a gaggle of small children are being devoured by curiosity. When Akila pops out of the hatchery, one boy tells her, “I know the kids are coming out!” For Akila, this is an opportunity to talk about the sea turtles to these impressionable children from Olcott Memorial School and she makes the most of it. It is dark and the task of guiding the Ridleys to the sea without the children trampling on any of them is a challenge. She and Karunakaran cordon off the ‘track' for the turtles — roughly 15 feet wide and 25 feet long — with a line drawn with their feet.

The swarm of 71 baby turtles is let off at the start-line. Each has to just follow its own nose to reach the sea. But these little ones can veer off in different directions, often lured by bright lights. An onlooker-turned-volunteer flashes a torch and leads them to their destination. The turtles make a dash towards the source of light, like fugitives running towards freedom and safety. As a few Ridleys are swept into the sea by a powerful wave, a boy says with a failing heart, “They are going to die!” A teacher corrects him: “No, they are going home! They belong to the sea!”

They are home alright, but the fight for survival is not over. On land, when they are eggs or hatchlings, these creatures face the threat of being eaten by canines and birds. At sea, the tiny Ridleys become food for many sea creatures. “Given this situation, the Olive Ridley's survival rate is one in one thousand,” says Akila, who keeps her fingers crossed every time she bids a batch of young Ridleys goodbye.