Turtles get a new lease of life | Sunday Observer
At Galle Face Beach:

Turtles get a new lease of life

The southern tip of the Galle Face Beach was full of gaiety last Wednesday, with a strange activity happening on the beach lead by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN). Delighting children and adults, and all those who laboured day and night, 83 sea-turtle hatchlings started their new life at sea on Wednesday, February 5.

It was the beginning of a new chapter in the SLN’s Turtle Conservation Project. The site was a surprise to many familiar in turtle nesting behaviour. This little stretch of beach is surrounded by hotels and vehicular traffic plying off Galle Road, through day and night. Sea turtles usually look for pristine, quiet beaches swathed in darkness as nesting locations. However, surrounded by lights and noise, a turtle had nested on the beach at the heart of Colombo.

Though sea turtle nesting sites could be found all around the country with major nesting areas on the western, southwestern and southern coasts, it is the first time in many decades that such an incident happened in the heart of Colombo.

The beach being restored to its pristine condition could be a major reason for the incident, believes Navy Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva. Expanding shoreline in its surroundings, ocean current patterns and environment change or rather climate change could also have an effect, he comments.

Since De Silva’s appointment as Commander, the SLN had commenced cleaning of Galle Face Beach with a renewed vigour and were able to rid it of plastic, polythene and other waste collected over a long period of time. The nesting sites are proof that the beach had not only become a pleasant destination for residents and tourists, but also for marine life as well.

Several sea turtle eggs were found at Galle Face Beach a couple of weeks ago, on January 16, to be precise.

“The first batch of eggs was found by coincidence,” says De Silva. It had been another morning as usual, and he was walking on the beach. A sailor digging a pit to bury weeds had found the eggs. “When he showed me the site I knew they had to be protected till they were hatched. So we did the needful,” he explains.

Under the directive of its Commander, the SLN had taken steps to conserve the eggs in-situ, digging a pit a few feet away where the eggs won’t have a chance to be damaged by high-tide. A few days later, as the SLN troops went on to level the sands of the beach, they had found the rest of the eggs, at different places on the same beach. “Nearly 400 eggs were found.We buried them at the same place,” says De Silva. As the eggs are threatened by natural predators such as crows, dogs and rats as well as humans, who could steal them for consumption or selling the Navy had promptly encircled the area, giving the eggs a protected hatchling ground. Proper fencing and solar powered CCTV protects the site day and night.

“It is an important beach,” says De Silva. “Bordered by key hotels and residences, situated in the heart of Colombo and visited by local and foreign tourists. It was important to keep the beach clean and that’s why the Navy involved itself.” The Navy had taken the opportunity of the nesting site to raise public awareness.

Thirty two turtle shells or carapaces surround the ‘hatchery’, erected in two semi circles and facing the bridge on the eastern side. They are 32 in all - twenty four large carapaces in the outer semicircle and six small carapaces forming the inner. Each carapace carries a message on environment protection, painted on the carapace and eye-catching, drawing one to have a second look.

More importantly, the carapaces are a message in themselves of the wanton killing of another gentle giant of the sea, threatened to extinction. The carapaces are those found by Naval patrols from around the country, mainly from the North-Western shores, says Navy Spokesman Isuru Sooriyabandara.

Protecting turtle eggs is not the only turtle protection effort taken by the Navy, with three more conservation projects at Panama, Mirissa and just south of Colombo at Wellawatte, it is carrying out other initiatives around the country. Sri Lanka is blessed with five out of seven known sea turtle species nesting on its shores. The Navy is involved in saving turtles entangled in fishing nets and bringing fishermen who kill or keep turtles, before the law enforcement authorities. Recently, the Navy cracked a racket of a turtle farm near Mannar, where some fishermen had been raising sea-turtles to be sold to hotels and other businesses, and released over 40 turtles, explains Commander De Silva.

The highlight of the turtle protection project at Galle Face was the hatching of eggs. The hatchlings were released to the ocean in the evening, with the participation of interested children and adults present at Galle Face. The 83 hatchlings were from a batch of eggs that they found later, says De Silva. They expect more eggs from other nests to hatch.

The happiness of being surrounded by turtle hatchlings and starry eyed children full of wonder and peels of laughter, releasing them into the ocean, had brought much satisfaction to this keen environment enthusiast. It had strengthened his reserve to conserve the great diversity of fauna and flora, including marine animals for posterity.

“We have a duty to protect our beaches and animals such as turtles, for future generations,” De Silva says. “Turtles are going extinct. When we found the eggs at Galle Face, I just did my duty.”

- VF

Pic: Rukmal Gamage