20 December 2011

The babies of Karachi beach

I never expected my tour in Karachi to present me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it has. It turns out that the beaches of Karachi are among the top seven hatching grounds in the world for green sea turtles, so when we learned that the Sindh Wildlife Department had offered to provide a turtle experience for the consulate staff, I was eager to sign up. I’ve never seen a sea turtle outside of an aquarium or a movie and, although I grew up on the beaches of south Texas, turtles don’t visit there. I’ve seen lots of land turtles, of course, but this is different.

Late one night, a group of us were driven to a secluded beach outside the city to view turtle egg laying. We were told there were no guarantees. It isn’t like the turtles make an appointment to crawl up on the beach to lay their eggs. While this is the busier season for egg, there are nights when no turtles arrive, or they come later than we are allowed to stay.

After reaching our destination, the rather long, bumpy ride getting there quickly faded in memory when the scientist running the facility informed us that this was a special night. Not only was there a mama turtle digging her laying hole right then, but a group of turtle eggs had just hatched and we would be able to see them before they were released to the sea. It was like winning the turtle jackpot, since the hatchlings have to be in the water in less than two hours after hatching.

This facility, part of the Pakistan wildlife conservation effort, has been in operation for 30 years. It was easy to discern that it is run on a shoestring budget, but the commitment of the scientists and facility employees was impressive. We were led into a shell of a building about 50 feet from the water’s edge. It was pitch black, except for the flashlights our hosts carried. Inside, we were shown a PowerPoint presentation about the two types of turtles that come to this beach to lay eggs, and given information about various endangered turtle species around the world, the predators they face—humans are the most dangerous— and the destruction of their habitats by pollution and the spread of dwellings onto their spawning grounds.

To prevent the extinction of these majestic creatures, their newly laid eggs are dug up and transplanted to nurseries where they are protected until they hatch, approximately two months later, from the elements and from poachers—both two- and four-legged. Once the eggs are hatched, their caretakers deliver them to the water’s edge and hope for the best. It is estimated that less than .01 percent of the hatchlings will actually grow to adulthood and complete their natural lifespan of around 100 years.

My group was first introduced to the new hatchlings. Why are all babies cute? That must be some type of universal law, and the hatchlings were no exception. Their tiny flippers were in full motion swimming vigorously in the air and, after we each had the incredible opportunity to hold one and get a very close look, into the sea they went.

Next, we were escorted down to the beach and to the laboring turtle. The only light allowed was one dim flashlight aimed at her growing pile of eggs deposited in the 3-foot deep hole she had dug. While she largely ignored us, we were told that lights would confuse her and she would stop laying and return to the sea, and that would not be good. We stood watching this incredible act of nature until the turtle indicated it was over and began to use her hind flippers to cover the hole.

Four men then gently picked her up and moved her away from the hole so the eggs could be retrieved, but she didn’t seem to notice the ride. Her back flippers just kept scooping sand. She would do that for the next couple of hours until some instinct told her it was enough, and she would then return to the sea. The eggs were carefully removed, measured, weighed and taken to the nursery for reburying, and this amazing experience was over.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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