It was a day I had been waiting for since my college days. The year was 1995, a cold December night and I was there at Besant Nagar Beach with a group of teens, most of them doing their graduation and quite a few from schools. I was there for the ‘Turtle Walk’ — a walk along the shore from Besant Nagar Beach to Neelanakarai, to collect the eggs of the Olive Ridley sea turtle.
Of all the sea turtles this species is the smallest and most abundant. However, they are also endangered for reasons like loss of nesting habitats, getting caught in trawlers’ nets, poaching of eggs. The rationale behind the walks in Chennai is different. The Ridleys visit the Chennai shores during the months of December and March to nest. The hatchlings, which come out of the nest in 45 days, are photosensitive (attraction for light) and find their way to the water guided by light from the horizon. Sadly the illumination from houses, streetlamps and beach houses distract these hatchlings and they move towards land instead of the sea, get disoriented and never find their way to the sea. For this reason the volunteers walk along the shore, collect the eggs and translocate them to a hatchery.
Though initiated by Valliapan and Romulus Whitaker in 1971, then carried on by the Madras Snake Park, Forest Department and WWF, the tradition of turtle walk is continued only by youngsters till today.
It was in 1988 that student volunteers established their first hatchery. The group was christened Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) as the majority of them were students.
At my first walk I was lucky to see a nesting turtle, the process of nesting and the translocation of eggs by the volunteers. Witnessing such a great natural phenomenon was a beautiful experience. At the same time I was equally impressed by the job done by these youngsters. They take turns and walk the eight-kilometre stretch, ensuring that at least one team covers the distance every night. Though they enjoy doing this, you would accept that it is not easy to brave the chilly winds, especially during December and January, and the dogs from the fishing hamlets that threaten to go for your calf flesh — luckily, they are only barking dogs.
How many of us are willing to sacrifice our sleep for this kind of chore? While many — even those who live along the shore — are not even aware of the marvel that is happening every year just outside their doorstep or in their backyard, several are not bothered even when told how the lights from their resorts hinder one of nature’s amazing phenomena. And how many parents allow their children to get involved in such an act of altruism?
Several of these yesteryear volunteers are now serving as professional conservationists and scientists protecting and studying marine ecosystems and organisms. They still pursue their passion. They are the torchbearers; the rest of us should follow their footsteps and walk in their path.