Sea turtles have been on this earth for 110 million years, compared to humans’ 200,000. If my math is correct, relating Earth’s 4.6 billion-year existence to a 24-hour clock would have seen sea turtles arriving at around 11:26 pm…and humans arriving at 11:59 and 56 seconds. Yet we’ve been tremendously successful – there are now over seven billion of us. No one knows how many sea turtles there are, because males never come to shore and are hard to keep track of. Although they are listed internationally as “vulnerable”, it’s pretty clear their days on Earth are numbered, if we don’t help.
Olive ridley sea turtles are considered the most abundant type, of seven different varieties of sea turtle. In 2004, it was estimated that two million females came ashore to lay eggs. Four years later, this estimate was only 852,000.
The coast of Chennai, in southwest India, is one place where these amazing animals come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach. An organization called the Tree Foundation, founded by Dr. Supraja Dharini, has done a lot to reduce the mortality rate of these animals, through outreach to local communities and actual intervention by reburying nests in protected locations and ensuring the hatchlings make it safely to the sea.
Sea turtles mate at sea, and the females come ashore to lay a clutch of about 100 eggs. This is where things get dicey. Nesting females are sometimes slaughtered, and while they are in shallow water, they are threatened by fishing nets and boats. Once the eggs hatch and the young turtles make their way to the surface, they become food for all sorts of predators. The hatchlings are drawn toward the reflected light of the sea at night, but in areas where development has taken place near the beach, artificial light draws them in the opposite direction, where they end up on roads, or dying from dehydration. They usually return to the same beach every year to lay their eggs.
Organizations like Tree Foundation protect the eggs in hatcheries so that predators don’t dig them up. When it becomes time to hatch, they will release them on the beach, and volunteers use lights to ensure the turtles know which way to go, as well as keep predators away to ensure the animals can safely reach the sea. We had an opportunity to take part in this activity recently – it’s an amazing experience. The video I made while standing in the water with a light is below, and it may be my most expensive video to date. As I was filming the last little guy, a wave caught me from behind and doused the camera. We’re waiting to hear from the repair shop but the prognosis is not good.
Enjoy the video. You can see the founder of the Tree Foundation, Dr. Dharini, still participating in the release of the hatchlings.