Along with a handful of other volunteers, I enjoyed a five hour train ride from Kandy, which is inland towards the mountains down to Ambalangoda located on the Southern Coast. We were all up well before the sun as our van to the station picked us up at 4 AM and our train left a bit after 5 AM. We were in second class and were glad to be the origin of the train so we all had seats. The cars filled up along the way to the point of standing room only when we reached our destination. The view was mostly scenic, starting with the virid jungle landscape in the north which gradually morphed into a rocky coastline with rather aggressive waves. Sometimes we passed by bits of civilization, a mix of modernish urban buildings but many more crude structures constructed with clapboard and tin roofs.
The first house at the beach was full, so we were sent to a second house about 5 minutes walk down the road. The room was on the second floor of the house and contained two recently vacated bunks with lots of floorspace and a ceiling fan in the middle. We had two large doors that opened to a balcony that overlooked our front yard. Our bathroom was also larger and mere steps from my bed. Still no hot water, A/C or internet, but a vast improvement from my accommodation in Kandy. I even got a little carried away and went so far as to speculate that my British roommate Claire and I might have the room all to ourselves for the rest of the trip. But then two Chinese girls showed up the next day and took the top bunks, but they were fine.
We started working with the turtles the following Monday morning at 9:30 AM. We're not allowed to wear sunscreen or bugspray or anything that can contaminate the tanks or turtles. My new Aussie friend Kirsty and I arrived a bit early to visit the puppies that were penned up near the turtle compound. Some other volunteers had rescued a few litters from the streets prior to our arrival and had been spending a ton of their own time and money taking care of them, hoping to get them adopted or at least to proper shelters. (Sadly, the project ended up getting shut down and the puppies had to go back on the street. But at least they got a bit of a head start.)
I have never seen so many dog balls in my life. This is why there is a such a problem with stray dogs in Sri Lanka. There is a group that consistently hangs out around the house, the beach and the turtle compound. A couple look decently healthy but there is one that walks with a gimp due to a front paw that broke and never healed properly. And others I've seen around the city are dirty, sick or heartbreakingly emaciated. A lot of trash washes up on the beach because we're pretty close to the Marina and people just throw their trash overboard. I bought some trash bags and gloves in town and fully intend on leading a beach cleanup next week.
Anyways, our first task was to cut raw, sardine-like fish into small chunks to feed the turtles. There 8 living tanks and 2 feeding tanks. Each turtle is transported by hand to the feeding tank in order to keep the main tanks cleaner. I like the stimulate some of the healthier ones by throwing the bait in different parts of the tank so she (90% of our turtles are female) can get some mental and physical exercise. But others need more help. For example, there’s a blind turtle that we have to hold steady and feed with chunks of fish on sticks, or as I prefer to call them, fish-kabobs. If an airy-shelled turtle misses her fish chunk, we sometimes have to push her down so she can eat it off the bottom.
There are a few main reasons that sea turtles end up here. A common problem is that air gets trapped in their shells from getting stranded and dehydrated on the beach and subsequently, they can no longer dive for food. This can be corrected over time with medication but it takes several months. Some of the turtles have also swallowed plastic bags mistaken as jellyfish but the only thing we can do is wait for them to poop it out.
Most of the turtles in the disabled compound are missing a flipper. Or two. Or three, in the case of one unfortunate turtle we call Nugget who has just one lonely back flipper. You can almost always assume a turtle is missing a flipper because it got caught in a fisherman’s net and the fisherman will almost always just cut the turtle’s fin off instead of taking time to properly untangle it or risk damaging his net.
There’s a baby turtle with one eye, one with a crooked jaw, a few with shell damage and last but not least, an ultra rare albino turtle that has a metal grate locked down over her tank because some locals would otherwise steal and/or eat it thinking it has magical powers.
We also regularly clean the tanks and the turtles themselves. This is time consuming, but 100% eco-friendly and sustainable. For the turtles, we take them out of the tanks and onto the sand for a scrub and a rinse using sand, coconut husk and seawater. We remove as much algae as we can and remove any leeches or leech eggs that we find. The tanks are also scrubbed with sand and rinsed with seawater but we use brushes and squeegees instead.
We work the first shift in the morning for a few hours, break for lunch during the heat of the day then go back in the afternoon for a few more hours.
The worst chore is hauling sand out of the surrogate turtle nest area since its the off season. We literally have one shovel and about a dozen plastic or rusty metal buckets that we use to carry sand out of the enclosure and out to the beach. Once all the old sand is out, I’m sure we’ll bring new sand in to replace it.
Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, five are native to or nest in Sri Lanka. We care for four of these including Hawksbills, Green Turtles, Olive Ridley and a couple Loggerhead turtles, because Leatherback turtles are too big to fit in any of the tanks. There are nearly 40 turtles in total. They are all endangered or critically endangered due to several reasons, which can all be traced back to people’s greed, ignorance or apathy. Major threats include the illegal sea turtle shell trade, commercial fishing, marine pollution, poaching for eggs and meat, beach erosion and development, oil spills and invasive species predation.
We had one quick excursion this week: a boat cruise on the Madu River. Our group took up three small motorboats and sputtered around the river and the mangroves. Included in the trip was a fish massage, which at sounds to me like it might be someone slapping you with a dead fish, lol. In reality, you stick your feet in a pool of fish that supposedly suck the dead skin and bacteria off your feet and toes. It was such a weird feeling and I was a bit conflicted from an empathy standpoint. I honestly didn’t notice a difference in my feet and feel like it’s kind of a tourist trap but I can say I did it. On the way back, we stopped at a floating coconut vendor and drank coconut water straight from the source.
Friday night, the girls and I took a couple tuk-tuks to the nearest tourist-y town called Hikkaduwa. We were excited to find a nice hotel with a bar and celebrated with cocktails. Mine was pretty disappointing since I ordered the Caipirinha that was listed on the menu but I watched the guy pour rum into my glass instead of cachaca. I called him out on it and he said they didn’t have any cachaca but I didn’t want to press the issue further and be that obnoxious American even though I got gypped.
We found a beachfront restaurant called Tigri and savored the best dinner we’ve had here in south Sri Lanka. I splurged and got a glass of white wine, a veggie-packed dish called Tigri Kankun and split a dessert all for just under $10 USD. The night time tuk-tuk ride back was exhilarating on the open road between the two towns. If I closed my eyes, it felt like I was flying.
We liked Hikkadua so much that we decided to go back on Saturday, after having to pack up our stuff and move to the first beach house since ours would soon be overrun with Chinese schoolchildren. I bought an awesome tank dress with a creative local design at one of the shops and we had an amazing lunch of burgers and a veggie sandwich for me. Hikkaduwa is the closest place we can find coffee drinks, Western food and wifi. We casually strolled into the hotel pool area and tried to blend in as we set up on some obscure deck chairs, but were quickly approached by an attendant and told we had to pay 1,000 rupees each to use the chairs and the pool for the day as non-hotel guests. We slunk back to the beach and spent some time there in the sun and the surf before heading back to Amabalngoda because Claire had a taxi and subsequent flight to catch that evening.