Monday 27 May 2013

Turtle race

Part of the beach is fenced off with red and white tape. People have collected on either side, leaving a wedge-shaped strip of sand. In the middle stands an Indonesian man with a microphone and two big blue buckets.

He tells us about sea turtles. About how they lay eggs on these shores, but are threatened, how a nest of eggs has been dug up by villagers and hatched in a nearby hatchery, for protection. Today, the day-old baby turtles will be released. He needs volunteers. Tijms looks up at me, eager. I nudge him, raise your hand. Tijm’s hand shoots up, the man’s eyes rest on him but then move on.

Five kids get handed a baby turtle and release it on the beach to crawl to the big blue sea. They don’t waste time looking around. Unperturbed by the cheering crowd they plough away at the sand with their tiny flippers. Not before long applause sounds as the first one hits the surf. The brave creatures plod on, flapping their flippers, up and down on the gentle waves.

Back at the beach, the man with the microphone is looking for new volunteers. Who knows what type of turtle this is, he asks. A ten-year-old Australian girl knows the answer: hawksbill, and gets to cross the rope. The question what poses the biggest threat to turtles hears many answers. Foxes? Seagulls? Sharks? A Singaporean girl gets it right: humans. And the development of large beach resorts, like this one, I think, but not out loud. That would be hypocrite. We are staying here too.

One last volunteer, the man calls, and I point at Tijm, but an American mother next to us shoves her toddler over the rope before questions can be asked.
The toddler drops his turtle from a height, and the crowd gasps, until after a minute the motionless creature, slowly, hesitantly, stretches his limbs.

We follow the turtles down to the sea. The crowd has spilled over the ropes, following the turtles into the sea, closing off the wedge so the turtles have to swim between feet, dodging camera’s and groping children’s hands.

Normally, only one in a thousand of these tiny creatures will grow to adult size, and life a live that may last over a hundred years. Will these ones have a better chance, having been protected from predators by the crowd on their first, dangerous trek? Or will they start their lives stressed, disoriented, by the noise? Conservation is great, and this whole batch reaches the water safely. Still, it makes me feel uncomfortable, turning what should be a natural, quiet occasion into a circus.

We rush back up the beach where the last batch is being released. Tijm pushes forward and receives the very last, tiny hatchling to be released today. With a big happy smile he sets it on the sand, gently, and we follow it racing down to the sea, overtaking his siblings. Tijm, Linde and Jasmijn cheer, ours is winning! 

Bravely it conquers the surf, paddling legs and Linde's hands. It swims on and on. On the horizon we can still see it’s tiny head bobbing, like a marble floating in the setting sun, on and on it peddles, towards an uncertain and dangerous future.

We wave, and we hope it will be a real winner, and survive the predators, the fisherman, we hope we have not freaked it out too much, and that it will grow old so it can return here, to the beach of Bintan, and lays eggs once more in the golden sand.

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