FIFTY-ODD YOUNGSTERS crouched along Elliot’s Beach at Besant Nagar in Chennai, digging into the sand a little after midnight on an unusually chilly Friday in February. A far cry from beach bums looking for serviceable flotsam, they were on a search for turtle eggs to rescue—that night they were set to join a lineage of ‘turtle walkers’.
A group of conservationists began walking along Chennai’s beaches in 1971 to document the status of sea turtles. The Olive Ridley was of particular interest: smallest of the seven species of marine turtles, the reptile is categorised as vulnerable—even though it is the most abundant of sea turtle species, the population has been declining. Olive Ridleys have been found along two beaches in Chennai, the 15-km-long Marina Beach and the kilometre-long Elliot’s Beach. With just 15 nests found in this stretch till mid-February this year, their presence has become depressingly low.
Between November and May—and peaking between January and March—every year, along the 1,076-km-long Tamil Nadu coast, the Olive Ridley nests two or three times, laying 80-150 eggs in each session. While the numbers might seem large, only one in 1,000 hatchlings survives the entire lifecycle. Turtles are creatures of blind instinct: 15-20 years after they are born, these survivors are guided by the earth’s magnetic field to their beach of birth to nest. And they keep returning throughout their long lives, swimming thousands of kilometres.