De Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Night Watch on Rekawa Beach. LMD. July 2004. Page 175. Volume 10, Issue 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes turtle watching on the beaches of Rekawa
The waves pounded the shoreline in an unrelenting quest to shape and re-shape the sand fringed coastline. Overhead, the stars shone, dimly. Was it because a thin veil of cloud swallowed their light or was my vision subdued, because I was fading in and out of sleep? I was lying on my back, on the beach, with the breeze filling my hair with grains of sand. Occasionally a murmur of a conversation drifted over to me before the wind blew it away out of my acoustic reach.
I was not the only one. Nearly forty people were straddled across the beach in a thin line. Most were lying on their back with wisps of sand across them as the wind tried to merge the sleepers into the shoreline. I was with my family, the Kannangaras and the Jayasekeras. We had arrived around eight in the evening to the Turtle Conservation Project’s (TCP) hut which was a base camp for their activities on the Rekawa beach. In fact, the present turtle watching and conservation program was now being run by a team of local people for whom turtle watching and conservation was a livelihood. A fine example of eco-tourism in its philosophical sense of engaging local people in a sustainable and conservation oriented use of natural resources. The site was still referred to as the TCP site. Only a few tens of meters away was another conservation project administered y the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Both projects seem to receive a steadily increasing number of turtle watching tourists from hotels in Tangalle and Rekawa.
It was clear that our guides were not out to make a fast buck. They were committed to the welfare of the turtles and were not prepared to compromise the nesting success of the turtles merely to show them to tourists and to earn a tip. On arrival, we were given time to look at the information on display in the hut. We were instructed not to use any torches on the beach as this disorients and discourages the turtles from coming ashore to lay their eggs. We were led on to the beach front where we sat back against a curving embankment of sand. As our eye adjusted to the dark, we realized we were not alone. A number of other Sri Lankans and foreigners were huddled in the sand, waiting quietly and expectantly. We were warned that the wait could be long, perhaps another six hours until two in the morning. The children snuggled up to their parents and fell asleep. The waves kept pounding the shore and the wind ruffled everyone’s hair and blew in frail particles of sand.
Finally, the signal came. In the distance, a torchlight flashed on an off. One of the thirteen guides on duty that day had observed a Green Turtle come ashore. It was a kilometer away. We trudged along the soft sand, silently without the use of torches. A full moon sought bravely to cast a pale light through a veil of cloud which muted its brightness. We approached the turtle to within a hundred meters. It was barley visible. A dark shape which was slowly and laboriously moving across the sand. We had to stay back at a safe distance, silently and without the use of light. We had to wait until it began laying its eggs before a close approach was allowed. No chances could be taken until its precious cargo of genetic material for the next generation of turtles were being laid on this deserted beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
How long would that take? Perhaps another hour and a half explained the guide. First the turtle had to excavate a hole. But it was not the hole it would lay its eggs in. It would be a decoy hole to make it harder for predators searching for her eggs. Then it would excavate the nest for its clutch of small, rubbery white eggs.
The turtle laboriously hauled herself over the sand. The turtle watchers retreated into their cocoons of thought or slumber. One of the guides discussed the recent elections. The JVP had been voted in because they could not stomach what they perceived as the corruption of the other parties. What had anyone done for them? Then there was the problem with the foreigners. They were buying up all the land he bemoaned. Soon a Sri Lankan would not have a place from which to enter the beach. I was sure the land owners were happy to sell their land at over a hundred times of what it was, before the foreigners thought it was time to buy land in Sri Lanka. Snatches of conversation on politics and economics, were blown to and fro by the gusting wind. The pounding waves swallowed all conversation before it could reach one end of the straggly line of turtle watchers, from the other end. Some were asleep, some were entombed in thought, some praying that the turtle would begin to dig.
Finally a scrabbling sound of flippers striking sand and vegetation announced that the first hole was being excavated. But we should not move. It would be another forty five minutes at least, before she began the second hole, the real nest. A child claimed that she had seen a shooting star. I grunted an acknowledgement. I was not in the mood for a lesson on astronomy for children. I was in a subdued mood awaiting patiently for the wind to finish burying me in the sand. Perhaps in the morning the local fisher folk will find forty mounds of sand, with a human cocooned inside each one.
A few foreigners with children got up to leave. It is difficult, sympathized one of the guides, to undertake these long vigils with children. But the foreigners were happy. They rewarded the guides generously with a tip. They did not mind that they could not wait to approach the turtle closer. A vigil under the stars, embraced by the soft sand of the Rekawa beach was an experience they would long cherish. The experience had been worth it.
Finally the news was whispered down the line. She had begun the second hole. Egg laying would begin. The circle of life had begun another revolution.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.