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On a midnight walk: What Chennai means to the turtles

For 40 years groups of Chennai residents have walked the beaches every night to protect the increasingly fragile Olive Ridley turtles. This year, 150 dead turtles washed ashore. A writer walks the turtle route in search of answers.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2017 13:09 IST
Sharanya Manivannan
The Olive Ridley is a small-sized species of sea turtle, measuring about 2.5 feet in length.
The Olive Ridley is a small-sized species of sea turtle, measuring about 2.5 feet in length.(Peter Van Geit Facebook Page)

Amrita Raghunandan remembers the day of the turtles as being a Sunday. To be precise, it was Sunday, June 27, 1976, when her friends Janine Brégeon and Jean Deloche frantically called her and her husband with a most unusual request.

At the French couple’s Thiruvanmiyur home, some 800 odd metres away from the Bay of Bengal, the famed wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker had left a makeshift hatchery of some 200 or so Olive Ridley turtle eggs—and quite without warning—-they were hatching.

“We put them into tubs and ran,” she says. “We had to get them to the sea as quickly as possible, and there was just no other way. The hatchlings would not have been able to exert themselves for such a distance. It was exhilarating and frightening, to have to ensure their safety as quickly as possible.”

Whitaker not only established the Madras Snake Park (now, Chennai Snake Park Trust), the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, but instated the famed Madras Olive Ridley turtle walks in 1972.

Raghunandan’s memory of a hatching in June indicates that the eggs, which have a 45-day incubation period, were laid as late as mid-May. Today, the season is generally held between January and April. And with each passing year, both turtle sightings and nests have become increasingly scarce. In January, 2017 alone, 150 dead turtles washed ashore, half the entire number found in 2016. Until five years ago, the average was just 10 or 15 a year.

THE SPECIES

The Olive Ridley is a small-sized species of sea turtle, measuring about 2.5 feet in length. Its migratory patterns are limited as compared to other species; it may go as far as Indonesia or Bangladesh, but not beyond. Leatherback sea turtles satellite-tagged in the Andamans last year, by comparison, were found to have journeyed to Antarctica and Australia: It is a testament to their intrepid ways that there are two Tamil words for the leatherbacks – thoni aamai and yelu vari aamai.

This year, 150 dead turtles washed ashore. (SSTCN website)

The Olive Ridley itself is known by several regional variants, including Panguni aamai (after the Tamil month of Panguni which is mid-March to mid-April) and, further south, killi mooku aamai (parrot-nosed turtle). Green turtles have also been observed in the past.

In large part because of schools that allowed it as a special excursion, the turtle walks of Chennai inspired several generations of astonished encounters with nature. While other groups, including the forest department, organise them too, the oldest and most consistent group of turtle walkers is the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN).

Staffed entirely by volunteers, the SSTCN was founded 29 years ago and is now run by Arun Venkatraman, whose other projects include a reforestation project called The Forest Way and the Marudam Farm School, both in Tiruvannamalai.

When the Olive Ridley hatchlings, nurtured by SSTCN, are released into the sea, they are set down a few metres before the waterline. The belief is that as they cross that final stretch on their own -- they are geo-mapping the location into their memories. This has been the way of sea turtles for millions of years.

Little is known about the lives of turtles underwater, but this much has long been understood: Where a turtle hatches is where she comes back to nest, a dozen or so years later. In the nearly three decades of the SSTCN’s work, Venkatraman estimates that 2,50,000 eggs have been transferred from the beaches to the hatcheries, of which 2,00,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea.

This year, the turtles were in the spotlight due to a major oil spill in late January at the Ennore port after two ships collided. A few weeks earlier, during mass protests favouring Jallikattu, which were centred on an occupation of Marina Beach, volunteers expressed concern about how turtles may not choose to nest, owing to human activity, including campfires.

If an Olive Ridley turtle feels discomfort for any reason, rather than lay her eggs onshore she will abort them into the sea.

THE WALKS

Close to midnight on February 17, a public group—larger than expected, it seems— assembled on Neelankarai beach, the starting point of the SSTCN’s turtle walks. This walk spans a 7 km distance northward to Elliots Beach; there are others, including on Marina Beach. Every public walk begins with a discussion: Venkatraman leads a Tamil-comprehending group while SSTCN co-coordinator Akhila Balu concurrently leads one in English.

The turtle walks are open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights during the nesting season, but three or four trained volunteers, often college students, conduct nightly expeditions. (The 1992 nesting season saw an all-female troupe.)

It is a steady influx of volunteers—not vacillating public attention—that has kept SSTCN going. Over the years, over 250 volunteers have conducted almost 3,000 nights of turtle walking (only 24 each year are open to the public). On the Monday night prior, 25 nests were discovered on one such volunteer search, a hopeful but not indicative sign.

“The oil spill grabbed lots of attention, far more than the actual damage. There are other stories.” says Venkatraman, seated on a bench.

For 40 years groups of Chennai residents have walked the beaches every night to protect the increasingly fragile Olive Ridley turtles. (SSTCN website)

An articulate speaker in his late 40s, he is disenchanted on many levels, but remains committed to environmental causes. “The media did not like the answers I gave them: That the dead turtles found were older, and had died from other causes. Necropsies will prove this. Neither the media nor the government liked what I had to say, but then the government would barely acknowledge the oil spill itself.”

At one point during the lengthy midnight briefing, Venkatraman pauses to call attention to the orange half-moon rising in the sky. It is one of the only few moments of beauty the night contains.

Venkatraman says that one of the true causes for the decline in the turtle population is commercial fishing, placing the blame squarely on corporate and governmental actions. Policy is partly the reason—the Modi government’s opening up of highly detrimental deep sea fishing, for example.

Apathy and negligence, not to mention greed, are equally at fault, and large-scale trawling and dredging have caused untold devastation to oceanic ecosystems. Even the Tamil Nadu government’s varied beautification projects – “they want Chennai to be like Shanghai!” – over the years have changed the beachscape, increasing human disturbance and bringing in much artificial light, which tampers with animal patterns. Turtle hatchlings are sensitive, for instance. They gravitate towards light, and as Venkatraman says, “the artificial light is such that there is no longer a difference between walking on full moon and new moon nights”.

The volunteers’ nightly walks are essential as turtle eggs start out soft—they must make a 1.5 feet fall from the mother’s body into the hole she has dug for the nest—but harden within hours. It is crucial that the eggs are transferred from their nests on the beach to one of the two hatcheries on either side of the Adyar River in under nine hours, where their precise conditions in the nest—even the position of every egg—are replicated for safe incubation.

VULNERABLE

Temperature is of utmost importance, for it determines the sex of the turtle (an unusual problem in recent years is a disproportionately greater number of female turtles, which poses breeding challenges in the ocean). The survival rate of foetuses also declines as the weather gets warmer, and requires improvisations such as the use of cooling jute coverings over the hatchery nests in March.

The Olive Ridley itself is known by several regional variants, including Panguni aamai (after the Tamil month of Panguni which is mid-March to mid-April) and, further south, killi mooku aamai (parrot-nosed turtle). (Facebook)

All of this is human intervention, certainly, but equally a response to the tragedies caused by the same. Marine turtles survived millions of years without any such assistance, but are now a vulnerable species. The SSTCN’s work essentially involves moving the eggs away from any danger that comes from being left on the beach: Be it accident, human intent, or feral dogs and other creatures.

The first dead turtle on this walk is encountered at around 2.30 am, lying on its shell close to the shoreline. Around 20 minutes later is one more. These turtles are tagged by volunteers, usually with a rope tied around their necks, to indicate that they are not fresh corpses to be added to the mortality count.

On popular beaches with greater footfall, the city corporation buries them. On smaller beaches, they are left to the elements. The SSTCN does not tag live turtles: Venkatraman believes non-invasive conservation research is what’s needed now. He sees this as a holistic effort, not focused on turtles alone, which is why he calls contrivances such as Turtle Excluder Devices on bottom trawlers a “pointless exercise”. To focus on one species alone is to forget the suffering of the sea at large.

At one point, at the far back of the convoy, Maheshwaran Govender, a young zoologist and one of the SSTCN’s volunteers, pauses to dig in the sand to show me bioluminescent plankton, in this case dinoflagellates. This is to illustrate a story he has shared: As he disturbs the sand, miniscule glimmers appear.

Govender had encountered a turtle on the successful expedition that had taken place a few days prior. A live nesting is a rare sight; usually, what are noted are tracks and agitations in the sand that show that a turtle has moved around, indicating a nest nearby.

As camouflage, turtles throw sand on themselves before settling to nest. Govender and his co-walkers sat behind the turtle that night, and he reached forward to take its measurements for their records. Doing so, he lightly dusted away some sand on the Olive Ridley’s shell, thus disturbing bioluminescent plankton and making them shimmer. “That was very special,” he shares. “The sand on the nesting turtle contained living dinoflagellates. Sea creature upon sea creature.”

A young turtle. (Peter Van Geit Facebook Page)

At around 3 am, the group pauses to rest at Thiruvanmiyur beach, sitting or laying out in the sand. It is at this point that two sweet street dogs (Lota and Luti) join the group. This happens every night during nesting season. Lota and Luti are experienced turtle walkers. They have met the SSTCN at the midway mark for nine years, every night. They accompany the walk up until its denouement at Elliot’s Beach.

At this point, a subgroup breaks away and leaves. I don’t know their reasons, although I am reminded of what Venkatraman said candidly during the briefing: It is a fad of sorts to say that one has participated in a turtle walk. But even from the far back of this group, I cannot help but notice how not a single turtle walker enters the water at any point.

There’s no time to linger. The group is fast-paced and methodical. Walking 7 km on the beach in relative chilliness, treading where the shoreline slopes toward the sea, is strenuous. The public walks are held to raise awareness of ecological issues, and there’s a grimness in Venkatraman’s proclamations that dispels any sense of romance about them. The days of the Madras turtle walk and its thrills seem to be long gone; the Chennai turtle walks held for the public are primarily about raising awareness.

We come across the third dead turtle. And once more, there is nothing to do but to keep walking.

At 4 am, one of the coastal fishing settlements comes to life. Boats are steadily pushed into the water, men carrying nets emerge from their homes and the sound of a motor cuts through the air along with the cries of a rooster. The turtle walkers zigzag around these activities and emerge once more into a swathe of unlit coast. Venkatramanan believes that traditional fishing methods should not be stopped, and that local fishing communities are not responsible for the damage to the ecosystem.

It is the government that has provided each settlement with fibreglass boats and tractors. “Fisher people have different nets for each purpose and understand different seasons. It is neither true that there are no ways nor that there is no knowledge of these ways,” he says. “But the traditional ways of fishing and marine life are equally endangered. Ninety percent of the oceans have been destroyed. Crisis is not coming. We live within the collapse.”

The lore of the fishing community, Chennai’s oldest known settlers, has a place for turtles, revered as Kurma avatar. This form is one of the earliest incarnations of Vishnu, and one that receives no worship within the Brahminical worldview, but which has survived in folk religion. The dolphin too, one of the other creatures that suffers most from modern fishing methods, is revered as “vedansami”, or the hunter god.

An Olive Ridley lays eggs. (SSTCN website)

The last of the dead Olive Ridleys seen on this walk is found as we near Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar, and the end of the turtle walk.

Each of the four has been a tragic sight, but this one’s flippers have been covered with plastic, making it particularly gruesome to see. This seems to have been a method of tagging in the absence of rope, but it’s impossible not to avoid conjuring up the reality of what plastic and other pollutants do to marine life. There have been four dead turtles on this walk, and the only mercy is that none of them was a fresh corpse.

Without fanfare, Lota and Luti go their own way, and the group too disperses. Beyond this point, just past 4.30am, only the coordinators proceed to the hatcheries on either side of the Adyar River. This morning, they proceed empty-handed.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)