Both Nathan and I are suckers for sea creatures. From getting excited about spotting the tiniest little nudibranch whilst out on a dive to watching gigantic blue whales breach the surface of the ocean – we love it all.
It makes sense then that when we decided to come to Sri Lanka, a visit to a turtle hatchery was top of my list – I’d seen photos from friends and it sounded magical.
In my head I had imagined dozens of little baby turtles, tottling off down the shoreline, destined for the great blue and a life of freedom. Sounds amazing, right?
I’d almost certainly over-romanticised the experience but in I went, hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for this animal lover. What I left with was anything but.
The Writing Was on the Wall
From the moment I walked into the facility, I knew I’d probably made the wrong choice in visiting.
Dozens and dozens of babies were smooshed into a relatively little round tank and though I didn’t love it, it was easy enough to look past it when we heard that at most they would be there for three days before being released into the wild.
*Keep breathing Sarah, it’s not so bad*
Then we were invited to pick the babies up – again, I reconciled myself – with so many babies in the tank, chances are each one would only be held once before it finds its way to freedom (plus they’re so little, it’s easy to support them whilst holding them for a second or two).
And let’s not forget – they’re crazy cute!
*Okay, this is good*
… but that was where the positives stopped and the feeling of guilt started to set in.
We moved onto the next tank where a single adult turtle swam back and forth, back and forth, along the same far edge of the tank.
Would he ever be returned the the wild? No, were were told – he was being held there to educate visitors.
Would we like to hold him? You can take him out of the water and pose for photos, we were told.
It was at that point that the switch flicked for me.
This poor turtle must be picked up and passed around dozens of times throughout the day and when he’s not being shuttled from tourist to tourist for their next Instagram shot, he’s left pacing back and forth in his far-too-small tank, a sure sign of boredom.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Instagram as much as the next person (check us out if you’re not already!) but no photo should be at the expense of an animal’s wellbeing.
I’m not sure if things actually got worse at that point or if I had just decided that I didn’t want to be there anymore but from then on we saw more fully-grown turtles in tanks that were obviously too small for them and our ‘guide’ who was meant to be giving us a tour of the hatchery disappeared only to return to look over our shoulder. We had hoped that we might have learned more about the work they were doing there, especially considering the 1,000 Sri Lankan Rupees we’d each paid (USD7 per person) for a guided tour but it wasn’t to be.
The feeding tank housed turtles for three hours a day (where unsurprisingly they spent time eating) but with three fully-grown turtles in the tank, there was very little room for movement. Another tank housed one of these gentle giants in a space that was barely twice as wide as him.
Though I know the work they do here generally helps the turtles, we couldn’t help but feel sorry for the adults left behind – what kind of a life is that?
The offer was made to release a baby turtle into the ocean at an additional charge. This was what I’d really come to do but suddenly as we stood there, we just knew we weren’t comfortable handing over any more money (1,500 rupees per turtle) to support this centre.
Photos online had shown dozens of turtles heading out to sea at once, each of them presumedly having a fair shot at survival. The reality of sending two lone babies out into the ocean just didn’t feel the same – it’s a big world out there for two littlies by themselves.
Opened in 1996 to help promote responsible tourism, the turtle hatchery aids conservation by buying the turtle eggs from fisherman. This goes a long way towards discouraging them from selling the eggs…
Each night, when the sun goes down and the turtles have laid their eggs safety, locals dig them back up again. We were told that in the past, men would sell turtle eggs to villagers that would eat them but thanks to the hatcheries buying them at an inflated rate, this is no longer an issue. These eggs are now hatched, allowed to grow for approximately three days before tourists pay to set them free. Thankfully any turtles that are not ‘purchased’ are released after hours by the hatcheries so of course the vast majority do make it into the ocean.
Though hatcheries aim to support turtle conservation, the benefits of their work have not gone unquestioned. By removing and relocated the eggs, the gender of the babies can be affected (as the temperature plays a significant role in the gender outcome of eggs). Allowing the babies to grow in captivity can also be detrimental to their overall chance of survival.
When the turtles hatch in their natural habitat, they head for the sea and swim for 48 hours non-stop, passing areas where most of their predators are. “But when they are hatched in simulated environments, they are put into tanks in which they swim for 48 hours. As a result when they are released into the sea later, they do not have the strength to swim past their predators and hence become easy prey.”
To be honest, both Nathan and I left feeling guilty and disappointed and we’re not the only ones. Our friend Abbi at Spin the Windrose had a heartbreakingly similar experience months after our visit.
I’d love to say things are on the up but that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
Though I don’t doubt that setups like this obviously work positively in their conservation efforts, this felt more like a way to make money off incoming tourists than as a genuine means of turtle protection. For us, it wasn’t so much about the cost of entry as the conditions that the adult turtles were kept in – we would have happily have paid twice the price had it been clear that funds raised were being reinvested into the centre to provide better homes for the turtles.
We visited hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Sri Lanka’s turtles but unfortunately left with a reminder that generally animals are better off left in the wild.
I know some friends have had amazing visits so it’s possible that we were just unfortunate in our choice of hatchery? Maybe our expectations are different? I’m not sure what to make of it but there is one thing I do know…
At least for us, we’ll stick to spotting turtles in their natural habitats.
If you would like to see turtles in the wild, they love riding the waves at Dalawella Beach. We found half a dozen of so directly out from the rope swing.
This post is of course in no way affiliated with anyone and our thoughts are entirely our own. Should you wish to visit (or avoid) this hatchery, it was the Sea Turtle Conservation Project & Hatchery, Koggala that we visited.
Have you been to visit the turtles in Sri Lanka? If so, we’d love to hear of your experience and thoughts!