Turning the turtle

At the edge of the foaming sea, behind the spent waves on the beach, shapes materialize in the night. They are ancient shapes that have appeared countless times over millions of years. They slowly pulse towards the shore, their domed shells barely showing at the surface. Under a waning gibbous moon, scaly flippers strike the sand. Wrinkled necks emerge, stretching beaked heads with unblinking eyes to survey the beach. Like time travellers from some primeval epoch, a great wave of sea turtles has arrived on the land.

Mass nesting: Olive ridley sea turtles arrive to nest on the beaches along India’s East coast (Photo: Bivash Pandav).

The sea turtles are all pregnant females. Impelled by the timeless purpose of reproduction, they have returned seeking their ancient tie with land, where they will leave their eggs. Beached like soldiers off a flotilla, the domed and armoured turtles advance upon the shore. They seem to move as a group, yet each is driven by her individual purpose. They crawl up the beach not far from the village of the fishers. They advance to where the high tide will not reach, to find the right spots for their nests.

One sea turtle is ahead, leading, yet not leading, the group.

Turtle tracks on the sand (Photo: Kartik Shanker).

That she is not the first tonight is still marked clearly on the sand. A row of scythe-like scuff marks leads from and loops back to the sea: a sea turtle had emerged and returned. Perhaps she had found no suitable spot. Perhaps she had decided to return later.

Back to the sea (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

The time is now right and the lead sea turtle trudges ahead. Walking with difficulty on sand, she finds a spot, and begins digging with her flippers. She gives up in a while, moves ahead and digs again. This time the place seems ideal and she locks into old instinctive habit. She digs the jug-shaped nest with her hind flippers, smooths the sides, and lays over a hundred eggs one by one over an hour.

A sea turtle at her nest on the beach (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Job done, she pats down the nest using her flippers and her hard plastron shell beneath, weighted by her body. She swishes the sand around with her flippers to hide the marks and location of the nest.

Finishing touches (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Her eyes brim with salty tears. Her reptilian visage is inscrutable. It is time to head back.

The inscrutable visage (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Normally, she would turn instinctively to the brighter horizon over the ocean, but now there are lights inland, and the land horizon is beguilingly bright, too. She pauses in an inner turmoil.

Lights that illuminate and confuse (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Finally she turns, disturbed and befuddled, heading towards town and village, dogs and roads—towards almost certain death.

Fortunately for her, some help is at hand tonight. Kind arms of volunteers coax her, guide her with friendly lights, even heave her forty kilogram bulk, to turn the turtle around. She is brought to the edge of the surf, where she steps and effortlessly melts away into the waters, heading east. Heading into the ocean, where dawn will soon break the darkness of night.

After seven weeks, from the nests that have escaped poachers and sand mining and beach erosion, little sea turtles emerge by night into their new world. Along with other early terrors of survival—dogs and nets and litter and kites and poachers—the baby turtles, too, face the serious quandary of light.

A hatchling emerges into the light (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Millions of years of evolution have honed and refined their perception of the kind and quality of light over the sea that will lead them back to it. But the light that would guide them is now masked by the glow and shimmer of lights from land. Further up the shore, the lights of the village-become-town and the town-become-city shine and beam. The horizon has a dull artificial glow. The clouds over the land of the people gleam in reflected light.

The faces of the turtle hatchlings are inches above the beach sand. There are sand dunes around and the moon is behind clouds. They are specks on the ground under the great envelope of sky, now blurred by unfamiliar lights. They are all at sea on land. On their very first steps on the surface, the hatchlings face a higher risk than their mothers of turning to the wrong horizon. A turning that is usually fatal.

Hatchlings cluster against a flashlight (Photo: Bivash Pandav).

Lights that show the way for one species, disorienting another. Now, the sea turtle—that great and ancient navigator of the oceans and its currents—is thwarted by the new current that runs at the flip of a switch to light up the horizon.

How difficult is it to give sea turtle mothers and their babies a better chance to live on the ancient shores? Shores where we have obtained only recent privilege to share with them. How difficult is it to dim or obscure the seaward lights for a few weeks during the nesting season? Will individual people living along the coastline oblige to turn down their lights? Or does it need a combined effort as a human society? Together, we could designate lights-out periods, night closures for vehicles on beach roads, and create shades or allow appropriate natural vegetation along the seaward side of towns and cities to hide our lights. Perhaps such collective purpose can only emerge from each person’s consciousness of the problem and motivation towards its solution. The annual tide of turtles on the beach offers a parable then for us, for their great en masse nesting phenomenon is still driven by deep and motivated individual purpose.

Turtles at a nesting beach (Photo: Bivash Pandav).

Further down the beach, sometime later, new shapes arrive from the sea. They are boats returning with the fishers and their catch. The catamarans and skiffs are drawn to higher ground and moored with stout ropes tied to stakes—their stakes are driven into the beach. The nets are hauled and tossed and the fishers walk to their huts. Where their feet strike the moist sand along the edge of the beach, thousands of tiny lights spring up briefly and fade away. These are the lights of tiny one-celled creatures—dinoflagellates—that bring biological luminescence to the seas. They are named Noctiluca scintillans, meaning the night-lights that scintillate. In the night, then, the subtle lights in the footsteps of the fishers flash a different message. On the shores of our planet, the human footprint can be beautiful, too.

The luminous footprint… (Photo courtesy: Phil Hart, CC BY-NC-SA 2.5).

My thanks to Rohan Arthur, Divya Karnad, Divya Mudappa, Bivash Pandav, Kartik Shanker, Kalyan Varma, and Phil Hart for inputs and photographs.