Navy to the rescue!

What more appropriate source of aid for the imperilled turtle than a body of seafarers?

You’re allowed to touch the larger turtles.

You’re allowed to touch the larger turtles.

Apart from providing a semi-permanent berth for the world’s smallest and the Kingdom’s only aircraft carrier, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, and operating a restaurant which serves up some surprisingly tasty seafood dishes (cooked by navy personnel, no less!), the country’s largest naval base in Sattahip, a district of Chon Buri, is also the unlikely home for a sea turtle conservation centre.

Commercial turtle fishery was outlawed in Thailand back in 1947 and since 1950 the Royal Thai Navy has been responsible for the welfare of sea turtles born along the Chon Buri coast and on islands off Sattahip. Of these, Koh Kram boasts the largest turtle hatchery in the country and is the birthplace of some 30,000 of the little critters each year.

A stuffed turtle (left) which met his demise after ingesting plastic bags.

A stuffed turtle (left) which met his demise after ingesting plastic bags.

The Sea Turtle Conservation Centre was set up in 1992 and the navy’s Air and Coastal Defence Command deploys personnel who patrol the shores searching for eggs laid in holes burrowed above the high-water mark, as well as keeping an eye out for poachers and non-human predators that prey on newly born turtles. The nests are located by looking for patches of sand that are softer than their immediate surroundings. The sailors carefully excavate the nests and move the eggs to a secure area where they are kept under controlled condition until they hatch. The hatchlings are given anti-fungal medication and fed until they have reached an optimum size before being released into the ocean when are between three and six months old.

Located right on the beachfront at the naval base, the project’s information centre features a permanent exhibition on turtles and the initiatives being taken to conserve them, as well as a media centre and library. The undisputed highlight of any visit, however, is the nursery where turtles of different age groups – ranging from miniscule ones that have only been alive for a matter of days to specimens of over a metre in length that are just about ready to head out into the open sea – are segregated in pools of varying sizes and depths.

The centre is also home to increasingly endangered species like the green, hawksbill and Ridley’s olive turtle. Swimming around in glorious isolation in a tank of its own I spotted a newly born albino turtle – an incredibly rare occurrence, apparently.

Visitors are allowed to touch the larger turtles – the texture of their shells feels like leather – which surface frequently to breathe. Looking as relaxed as many of the holidaymakers peering at them, the turtles seem to enjoy doing laps in the pool and were not the least bit startled by human contact. You can even feed them with bits of mackerel, but be careful how you position your fingers because, friendly as these amphibians are, if they should accidentally chomp on your hand while biting down on the fish you won’t be getting your severed digits back!

Compared to turtle numbers in other parts of Asia, India and Sri Lanka in particular, the population in the Gulf of Thailand is dwindling fast. There are a number of reasons for this. The Sattahip centre has a couple of stuffed turtles on display, ailing animals which couldn’t be saved. Autopsies revealed their stomachs contained plastic bags, probably consumed after being mistaken for jellyfish, a staple food. Many others get caught in fishing nets and suffocate.

Coming up for air after doing a few laps.

Coming up for air after doing a few laps.

Some fall victim to poachers who, despite strict laws prohibiting such practices, run the risk of prosecution since the price paid for a single turtle might equal the money they’d earn in weeks or even months of catching fish. Turtle shells are used to make various types of ornaments and jewellery. The meat and eggs are served up by unscrupulous restaurateurs to customers who believe that consuming the flesh of such a long-lived animal – the oldest recorded being an Indian specimen that lived to the ripe old age of 250! – will increase their own lifespan. More recently, turtle fat has become much sought after for use in the production of cosmetic products purported to promote youthfulness.

Very few of those turtles that do make it safely to the open seas off Chon Buri choose to hang around in the Gulf of Thailand, apparently. As part of their conservation efforts, personnel at the Sattahip centre attach a GPS microchip to all the animals they release. Results show that many migrate to neighbouring countries, especially the Philippines, proof – if any more were needed – of the dwindling diversity of marine life in our territorial waters. No matter how far they wander, however, when it’s time for them to start a family themselves, females will do their utmost to return to the site of their own birth. Researchers say that from the moment it emerges from its egg, a turtle’s incredibly sensitive sense of smell begins working and it instinctively stores olfactory data about its surroundings to aid its eventual return.

An initiative of Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Thai Navy’s Sea Turtle Conservation Centre is open to the public daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm. While admission is free, the centre depends almost entirely on donations to fund its operations, so any contribution towards caring for the hatchlings, no matter how small, is very welcome. Bangkok Post

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