Graceful and deliberate, sea turtles tend our ocean lagoons and coral reefs, returning to land to lay their eggs. In the South China Sea, Indonesia's 250-island Anambas chain, some distance from this week's tragic earthquake, includes the half-mile-long Durai Island. This island is where most of the region's sea turtles nest -- a practice that could have come to an end.
But thanks in part to the involvement of California scientist and activist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, successful nesting in the Anambas will continue -- as will the turtles' key role in the area's reef and marine systems.
There are at least two species that nest on Anambas' beaches, the hawksbill turtle and the green turtle. Green turtles eat mostly seagrass, migrate long distances, feeding in one location and nesting in another. Hawksbill turtles migrate less and eat primarily sponges on nearby reefs.
Thousands of turtles arrive to the island, largely between July and September. Green and hawksbill turtles nest together, at night, laying a hundred or more eggs in large holes on the beach. Hatchlings emerge two months later -- at night or in the early morning light.
Sea turtles begin to lay eggs when they are 20 years old or more and continue every three years throughout their lives -- usually until 80 years. If a turtle survives incubation and hatches, it still has to travel from the nest to the shoreline and across the reef where fish, birds and other prey wait. Once past the
reef, the young turtle has a chance of survival in the open sea.
In the Anambas, most turtles never hatched. Virtually all the eggs were gathered and sold at the local market within 24 hours. The eggs were then boiled and their contents sucked out of their soft leathery shells. Years of egg harvesting took their toll.
Pak Lahanie is Durai Island's 92-year-old caretaker who has collected turtle eggs for 40 years. The beaches he works are owned in parcels by five men, each received proceeds from the eggs on his section. The population declined during peak season from more than 80 turtles per night to fewer than 20. The island is surrounded by coral reef and has no fresh water.
"We pulled the five owners together; they'd never met as a group.", Nichols explains. "We presented a proposal that would protect the turtles involving a one-time purchase of the rights to the beach and a concession from visitors who may arrive to see the turtles."
The deal was backed by donors, including an area oil company, and was accepted by the owners. "At the end of the meeting, the group was served a hard boiled egg and watched the scene from Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman eats 50 hard boiled chicken eggs in an hour, and wins a bet," Nichols recalls.
In the meantime, Pak Lahanie is happy to use his vast experience to protect sea turtles -- some 250,000 hatchlings will be saved each year.
If you're not in a hurry, watch the 12½ minute un-narrated video that was shown to the Durai Island's owners before their discussion with Nichols began: http://vimeo.com/3649571.
Dan Haifley is the executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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