The concept of a “turtle walk” was born in Chennai as far back as the early 70s. We have fifty years of unbroken stories of walking on the beach, of which, I have had the good fortune of being associated with more than twenty-seven of them.

My friend and colleague in the turtle walks, Akila, had participated in the walks in the 80s and she says, “I remember when I had first joined the walks, there were barely ten or twelve of us and the whole notion of sea turtles nesting on our beaches was barely known to anyone. In terms of awareness and popularity of these walks, there has been a phenomenal change.”

My first walk was in the year 1998. I still remember that walk and the subsequent walks so vividly. The reason for wanting to put this down is the changes which have transpired during this period- many of them dramatic.

   

Newsworthiness of turtles

The first change was the turtle walks becoming newsworthy with the addition of the supplementary paper to the daily paper. This happened around 2010. There was an article by one student Yashasvini Rajeshwar. This was the first reasonably sized article in a newspaper in more than a decade. Before this, we would announce the start of the season in neighbourhood papers like the Adyar Times, Mylapore Times, Adyar Talk etc. We didn’t even have a website of our own.

With the advent of the supplementary paper, we were being covered several times each season. Initially, we were happy to be newsworthy. But soon we realised that the nature of the supplementary paper was tuned towards light reading. They were not interested in covering the plight of the turtles but only the human story behind the turtle walkers. At one time, we had an offer from a newspaper offering to do a weekly feature on us, the SSTCN. But again, it was not turtles that they wanted to talk about. So, we declined the offer.

For a brief while, I think for about two seasons, we were popular on TV channels too. The walks were being covered regularly by different channels. It was the same story. The glamour behind the whole concept of walking looking for turtle nests at night, in the city of Chennai- was attractive to them. The TV channels and we lost interest in each other pretty fast.

I would like to narrate an incident here. In 2017 an image of a dead turtle covered in oil went viral. There was a minor oil spill in north Chennai and this oil gradually floated south. For a brief while, the beach sand was covered in oil sediment. The crabs and other shore creatures too showed signs of oil on them. The oil spill didn’t seem to have affected the turtles on their nesting significantly. There was no study done to ascertain the impact of the oil spill to our knowledge. This phenomenon passed out of visible existence in a few days. During this time, we were contacted by several news agencies. They already had our sound bite ready. We just had to say that the turtle was killed by the oil spill and talk about how it was hugely distressing. But we were not ready to say this because the more likely explanation was that the turtle already died from drowning and was floating on the surface when oil must have been smeared on it. Each season, scores of dead turtles wash ashore thrown over from fishing nets after they die from drowning. We tried telling the reporters that while the oil spill was unpleasant and did cause damage, the much bigger issue was that of unsustainable and illegal fishing practices and ocean pollution from industries on a larger scale. But they didn’t want to hear this and wanted us to say what would have made a good headline for them. They were very annoyed with us for not complying. We even got a call from a news agency in the US who expected a similar response. Again, the same annoyance when we refused.

To conclude there are frequent articles nowadays, covering some random piece of information about the season. This news often doesn’t give a proper sense of the season. Unfortunately, it gives readers a skewed understanding of the real picture. Our attempts to point out to the fourth estate about their responsibility towards accurate reporting and the justice involved therein have largely fallen on deaf ears with a few brilliant exceptions. The articles by Yasaswini Sampathkumar in the Hidden Compass in 2019 and by  Sharanya Manivannan in the Hindustan Times in 2017 are some noteworthy examples. 

Our vision earlier on and the vapourisation of it

Image: Shantanu

Sea turtles have been nesting on beaches for over 100 million years and have weathered and survived so many changes. It always felt a bit presumptuous of us to interfere in this ancient process but with such damage by the threats caused by human action, we have had to do what we have done. But there was a small hope alive in us that once we create enough awareness among the city folk of Chennai and the city’s administration, we could make the beaches safe for nesting turtles and their nests and we could change the nature of our work.

This meant leaving nice, broad, sandy beaches available, switching off lights during the nesting months, reducing human movement on the beaches at night etc. During the 1990s there were a few stretches of beaches which were quite dark and looked suitable for nesting. We used to call these stretches “ideal beaches” and didn’t remove nests from these stretches after rubbing off all signs of nesting to prevent poachers from taking the nests. We were hoping to make all of Chennai’s beaches ideal for turtle nesting.

This dream and hope were crushed very quickly with the introduction of large mast lights. These mast lights existed only in Elliot’s and in the Marina in the 1990s. Soon such mast lights were added in many other beaches. Later, powerful street lamps were added in the streets running parallel to the beaches and these lights were positioned facing the sea. There were no more dark stretches left. Not only that, the beaches barely had any darkness left. The poor hatchlings have evolved to move towards a brighter horizon, and hatchlings from any nest left behind wouldn’t reach the water anymore.

We appealed to the administration to switch off these lights but each year more lights are added citing the safety of humans. This isn’t an unfounded factor. With each passing year, the number of people hanging out on beaches at night is on the rise. The IT industry with its night work hours is definitely a factor in this increase in the night population on the beach. One must acknowledge here, that there was a government order to switch off mast lights during the hatching period, in the year 2011 and this was followed for one season. But we never managed to get them to do it again. We now also have terrain vehicles which are able to drive over loose shifting beach sand making the beaches dangerous not just for turtles but for any beachgoer.

Our dream went up in smoke!

Enter mobile phones and out goes light signals!

Before the introduction of mobile phones, the turtle walking scouts would signal through torches. A light shined by them meant a nest, which would quicken the pulse of the walkers behind. A flashing light meant a nesting turtle still in the process of nesting. This would get the walkers excited and we would all run to catch sight of her nesting or at least before she crawled back to the sea.

When mobile phones came into the picture, we abandoned light signals. There are still a few old romantics like me whose pulse quickens when they see a torchlight shining towards their direction. It has been no doubt useful to have mobile phones as we can share information with one another, record exact nesting locations and much more useful data. But it was frustrating in the early days when walkers would lose their phones and we would be searching for phones instead of nests. Also, for an oldie like me, I find it both amusing and infuriating when a youngster is messaging or calling someone else on the same walk to enquire how things were in the front end a mere hundred yards away!!!

But I must conclude this issue by saying that we are able to do a far better job of coordinating the turtle walks and going about our jobs in a much more efficient way thanks to this technology.

The Ola/ Uber change to turtle walks

Until the Ola/Uber age, the people signing up for the turtle walks would follow instructions on our website, leave their vehicles (if any) at Besant Nagar, where the walk would end and come to the starting point in Neelangarai by shared auto, public buses, etc. We also had the meeting time at a decent hour like 10.30 pm where people could arrive at the starting point through the above means. And once people landed on the walk, they were stuck with us till the end as their vehicles waited or till public transport became available.

All this changed with the arrival of Ola and Uber and now other apps like Rapido and Namma Yatri.

Now people arrive coolly using these apps and more importantly, they are able to leave at any time of the night from any place by using the app service. This is a very important development as while we start the walks in the same way as earlier, by giving a briefing and starting the walk with a set number of participants, there is no guarantee that any or all of them will be staying the night with us. They may leave at any time- after seeing a nest, or by midpoint or if they are just bored. It is not altogether a surprise anymore to reach Elliot’s and find that we are the only people on the walk with all the public having disappeared through the night. Initially, we were shocked and a bit hurt too with this sort of behaviour but now we have learnt to accept it as one more sociological change brought about through technological development.

One upshot of the Ola/Uber era is that we have shifted the meeting time to much later and subsequently start the walks much later and are therefore able to cover more of the night resulting in better nest collection and fewer wild nests.

An interesting psychological insight

Can you guess on which nights the public ends up walking the whole stretch of beach and staying the entire night?

Is it on a night when we find lots of nests?

Or is it on a night when we see a nesting turtle and people are excited to see more?

Or is it on a night where we have sighted nothing?

If your guess is the last one, you are absolutely right! People don’t like leaving with a sense of failure. They take it personally. They need to have had a successful walk and hence would persist till the end. While sighting a nest makes them feel lucky and excited, when we keep finding nests, they tend to get bored and leave. Even with a nesting turtle, the timing is important. If there is a nesting turtle right at the start of the walk, people tend to assume that this is a normal phenomenon and expect that they will see many more and are not very excited. If they see a nesting turtle at the end of the walk, particularly after no other sighting, then the excitement is high.

Pure psychology, my dear friends.

One small technical help and the huge relief thereof

One can’t emphasise enough the advantage of being able to provide the location of the starting point and that of the hatchery on our website. Finally, the days of having to say “Look for this sign, turn here and there” and all the mess that such instructions can create is over. This is one technology that we are truly grateful for. 

The Instagram era and the mess that it has made of our lives

Honestly, it is this development that has triggered this piece of writing. I have started telling people that we are living in an Instagram era and look out.

Our public engagement has been divided into two parts. One, is the public walks and the other, is the hatchlings’ release. We have always been able to accommodate more people during the release of the hatchlings since it attracts more people as it is at a reasonable hour and children and old people alike can participate. We usually end up with around 1000 people on the walks and with around 2000 people participating in the release of the hatchlings.

But with the advent of Instagram and everyone with a phone fancying themselves as nature photographers, there have been posts of hatchlings being released into the sea. Of course, we explicitly tell people that they can’t post on social media. Last year it was a single post by a lady doctor which went viral and everyone in Chennai was baying to witness the hatchlings getting released.

This year too, the word has gone viral and we are having to deal with hundreds of people each day. This is no small task. Trying to control eager parents with their children and youngsters with their phones while trying to release the hatchlings safely really drains the volunteers out. It is often like mob management. We now have ropes to hold people back and do extreme policing.

We don’t want to close this option for people as it is a sweet experience, particularly for young children to experience. But there are days we wish we could go back to the old days when personal engagement with people was possible and there was a sense of intimacy and affection in the whole process. Now there is only a surge of humanity.

We suspect we may have had up to 10,000 people witnessing hatchlings release this year!

Many of the volunteers have come and continue to come to work with turtles as they are animal lovers. Increasingly this work is becoming a human-centered one. We will either end up losing our volunteers or a new breed of volunteers will arise.

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Author: V Arun