“Come quietly,” hissed the man with the flashlight. It was one o’clock on a moonless night and as we stumbled after him in the dark our feet sank in soft sand.
The sight of the huge creature provoked various reactions. Three-year-old-child already over-excited by being out of bed and on the beach so late, let out a piercing shriek of terror as the monster from the deep moved towards him. Abdul Ali, a refugee from landlocked Afghanistan, where the most exotic aquatic creature to be seen is a fresh water crab, launched into a wild jig, whooping enthusiastically. The guide, forgetting, in his fury, to whisper, yelled at us to be quiet.
It takes at least an hour for a turtle, using her strong front flippers, to dig a thirty centimetre deep, circular pit. Sitting in this depression she then, with her back flippers, creates a cylindrical shaft, with sides so smooth it is difficult to believe a precision engineering tool was not used. While engaged in this digging work, however, turtles are easily distracted. Our particular turtle, alarmed by the sudden cacophony of noise turned around and trundled off back to the sea. In the gleam of the torchlight as she turned away I imagined I saw an expression of quiet resignation on her wrinkled leathery face.Consumed with guilt at having interrupted an ancient ritual – pre-dating the extinction of the dinosaurs – we returned to the vehicle to gag child and admonish a sulky Abdul Ali. Our guide, Hamid, after giving us a short, pointed lecture on the need for silence, disappeared on reconnaissance.
Once the egg laying begins, nothing – neither screaming children, nor flashing lights – will disturb the turtle or stop the process. I’d even heard of people standing on a turtle’s enormous hard-shelled back (the creatures can weigh up to 180 kilos while the carapace can measure three and a half feet in length) while she laboured to lay over a hundred, ping pong ball-shaped eggs. After covering the clutch with sand, she makes a dummy depression next to it to confuse predators.
All the while, silent ‘tears’ trickle down her wrinkled, pre-historic face. They are not, of course, real tears but a design of nature which allows sand to be washed from her eyes. Despite this scientific, rather prosaic explanation, however, there seems to be something ineffably sad about the whole business for, after all her efforts, the mother turtle returns to the ocean – never to see her off-spring.
Back in the 1970s the Green Turtles and the smaller Olive Ridley species were on the verge of extinction. Sindh’s Wildlife Management Board established a project to protect the Karachi turtles and their eggs in 1979. Gangs of students can now no longer find the buried eggs – stealing them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties – by following the tell-tale, five foot wide ‘caterpillar’ tracks on the sand. The Wildlife Board employs local people to dig up and re-bury eggs in protected hatching grounds. Karachi bakeries can no longer use turtle eggs as a cheap substitute for poultry eggs and the export of turtle meat to Southeast Asia, particularly Japan, has also been stopped.
Despite the intervention of the turtle conservation project the survival odds are not great. Crabs, crows and stray dogs forage for eggs on the shore, the hatchlings get picked off on their way to the ocean and once there fish and other sea creatures find them tasty. Then there is the danger of fishing nets. The mother swims thousands of miles, digs for hours, pops out 100 ping pong balls – only one of which might survive to become a grown up turtle – a bit more digging then back to the sea for thousands more miles of swimming. Perhaps they are real tears, after all.
As we waited for another turtle to choose a quiet spot I wondered if this, my second attempt to see the egg-laying was also doomed. The first occasion was when friend Firasat obtained his company’s beach hut for a day. A dozen of us, including children, squashed ourselves into a Suzuki van. Wedged in beside us and under our feet were water coolers and thermoses, pots and pans and mysterious cloth-wrapped bundles from which wafted appetising aromas of biryani, chicken korma and still-warm nan bread. There’s none of your cling-film wrapped, soggy tomato sandwiches and a packet of crisps when a Karachi family goes on a picnic.
In the evening, we dined in style by candlelight, which was when the trouble started. Attracted by our candles hundreds of moths – some very big – came swooping out of the dark. Firasat’s sister flapped at them with a towel but when a huge, black, unidentified winged creature whirred past her head she let out a piercing shriek. We blew out the candles. The beach was full of strange night sounds which, despite Firasat’s assurances, unsettled his sister further. “When will the turtles come?” she quavered.
Her school teacher sister, Ferzana, sighed. “Oh, for goodness sake, Shabanna, be patient. They don’t appear before midnight.”
Shabanna checked her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock, now,” she moaned. She suddenly clutched my arm making pitiful squeaking sounds of fright. “Oh, my God, what’s that?”
“Well, hey,” I muttered as I peered in the direction she was staring, “I’m the foreigner here, no good asking me.” Something very large and very tall was loping silently along the beach. Definitely not a turtle.
Firasat soothed her. “It’s only a camel.”
Twenty minutes later, as yet another huge flying beetle sort of thing dive bombed her – deliberately, she maintained – Shabanna, we led her back to the safety of the van and abandoned our turtle watch.
Now, it was looking as if my second attempt to see a turtle was not going to be any more successful. Habib returned. He’d found another turtle further along the beach and was prepared to take us in pairs to see her digging her nest but then, so we would not disturb her – a glare in Abdul Ali’s direction – we should remain in the van until she began to lay the eggs. This might be after one, maybe two hours.
Child, finding himself being led away from the safety of other humans towards the great, dark unknown became almost as hysterical as Shabanna had been with the beetles. Sadly, we decided to give up.
Hamid, though clearly relieved by the decision, took pity on our disappointment. He disappeared again returning after half an hour carrying two buckets from the turtle nursing centre. They contained hundreds of hatchlings, each the size of a ten pence piece. Excitedly, we crowded round. It was clearly the closest we were going to get to the famed, giant turtles on this occasion. Sadly, an exhausted child and fed up Abdul Ali missed them – both were sound asleep.