Chamara, Jetwing Yala’s naturalist, who shot the pictures for this week’s blog organises ethical trips for hotel guests to see baby turtles hatching, tells me, “I have seen plastic mineral water bottles from Myanmar, a thousand miles away and so where ever people are they need to throw their rubbish away so it does not further destroy the nature. There are seven different species of sea turtle in the world, of which you can find four varieties on the beach at Jetwing Yala nesting, including the large Leatherback.”
These 190 million year old creatures eat stinging jellyfish (so keeping the beaches safe for swimmers), clean up damaging algae on the reef and, endearingly, look like body-surfers turning over the waves while sitting on top of each other smiling while they mate. Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world for turtle-watching. Nesting at nighttime around December to April, when it is safe from predators and around the full moon usually each month, they lay from 20 to 120 eggs at a time. But nearly all are endangered due to declining numbers of safe nesting areas, people stealing eggs for cooking, killing the females for meat, predatory monitors who see them as a gourmet dinner, stone erosion barriers, the growth of ignorant tourism, a love of turtle ornaments, accidental capture in fishing gear, climate change altering the sex balance, and plastic bags or bottles masquerading as jellyfish.
On average, turtle eggs take 45 to 60 days to hatch depending on the weather and the moon phase, as they are more likely to hatch with more light, which helps them find the sea. Flashlights and camera flashes are very dangerous to them as they become disorientated, which makes them less likely to reach the sea and have less energy to escape their predators and fight through the rough waves.
Climate change, also, affects where the turtles eat, breed and nest. Chamara warns, “I ask everyone not to put the turtles on their hands and take pictures as lotions and insect repellents can be toxic for the new-borns’ skin”. Jetwing, after losing its hotel in the 2004 tsunami, decided to build a replacement behind sand dunes acting as a buffer against the sea. Historically, this area was only used by fishermen before, who traditionally ate turtle eggs and adult turtles flesh and turned their shells into ornaments.
Today, Jetwing Yala’s security guard has stopped all the poachers, showing tourism can be a good thing. Chamara explains, “We are looking after a 1km stretch of beach, cleaning it daily, protecting the wildlife so it can lay eggs in safety and since setting up a hotel operation here we have saved over a hundred nests from being poached.”
It can take 6 to 7 hours for the hatchlings to come out of a nest. The eggs are little bigger than a table tennis ball in all species, except the Leatherback where they are larger. Sri Lankan Sea turtles are now fully protected under international law; so, don’t buy goods incorporating turtle products from anyone, or you will become part of the cycle that may make these beautiful creatures extinct.