Twenty three years ago I met two young men at the turtle beach. My colleagues and I had been investigating and secretly filming the illegal tortoiseshell trade in Sri Lanka for a British prime-time TV series "Animal Detectives". I was co-producing the seven films as well as running the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the organisation the films were about. It was fair to say I was exhausted.
Tortoiseshell is made from the shells of hawksbill turtles, highly endangered marine turtles which live on coral reefs. We had discovered that, although some of the turtles were killed in Sri Lanka, most of the tortoiseshell was being smuggled in from the Maldives.
Hawksbill turtle dealers trying to sell to EIA undercover team, Male, Maldives, 1994 © Dave Currey / EIA
The young Sri Lankans had offered to show us a turtle laying her eggs on this beautiful deserted beach. We already knew many, probably most, turtle eggs were being illegally collected for food. We wanted some film footage of a wild turtle to balance some of the sadness the film would inevitably portray.
The hours waiting by this beach for a turtle to arrive were probably the first rest I had experienced for many months. The sound of the waves gently lapping the sand and the kind faces of the two men eagerly wanting to show us one of the wonders of Sri Lanka, added to the peace I felt. Eventually we were led out and within minutes shown a huge green turtle who had pulled herself to the back of the beach and was digging a deep hole for her eggs. Red light was used to see her activity, a spectrum that would cause her no disturbance.
Once she was laying we started filming because we were told she went into a kind of trance when nothing would bother her. The ping pong ball sized eggs dropped into the sand before she covered them and made her way back into the Indian Ocean. It is now known that turtles return to the same beach they hatched from, but not until they're mature - around thirty years later.
I returned to that same beach in April. The film we shot in 1994 along with our campaign, had helped persuade the Sri Lankan government to enforce their laws and after considerable work over the next few years by the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP), founded by conservationist Peter Richardson with a team of talented Sri Lankans, I knew it had been difficult to find tortoiseshell in any shops for the last twenty years. Additionally the Maldivian government had brought in new laws to protect their turtles (and dolphins) as a result of our exposure. But I had no idea what had happened to the turtle beach.
Green turtle resting on her way back to the sea in daylight after laying, Great Barrier Reef © Dave Currey
By the time Gary and I arrived, there were about 100 tourists waiting to be taken to see a turtle. Our guide had told the man in charge that I had been there before and made a film many years ago. He came over and introduced himself as Mr Saman. He was clearly extremely knowledgeable and explained that Rekawa beach is patrolled and protected by the local community in a project known as Turtle Watch (Contact Tel: +94 777902915).
"You came here in 1994?" he asked.
"Yes, we filmed a turtle laying."
"I know the film you made, I have a copy."
I was slightly taken aback. "I'm so pleased Rekawa beach has been protected" I replied "you're doing a wonderful job here educating locals and tourists."
He looked at me smiling, paused a moment and said "Well, you started this!"
It is rare to see the long term effects of your work but this was one of those moments. Of course he was flattering me, it was the TCP, not EIA who had worked tirelessly for years with the locals building a community project to protect Rekawa beach, but nonetheless it seemed the film had made a profound difference in Sri Lanka, helping to empower people like Mr Saman to build a future for Sri Lanka's turtles. I later Googled his name and found many scientific papers he had contributed to in the years since my last visit to turtle beach. I wondered, but didn't ask, if he was one of those two young men I had met in 1994.
"No lights, no lights!" he shouted authoritatively as he and his team shepherded us all on to the beach. It is no mean trick to usher 100 strangers in the dark without someone turning their phone torch on. White light disturbs turtles which is one of the causes of their demise; beaches attract hotels and houses whose lights prevent turtles from laying.
Imagine swimming for thirty years, returning to your birth-place to breed, only to be turned away by noise and light.
The team guided small groups to see a turtle laying while the rest of us waited our turn. It wasn't the personal peaceful experience of 1994, but the beach had survived the last 23 years and was now better protected. I was feeling detached from the crowd when Mr Saman asked me to follow him up the beach.
"Can you see her?" he asked. Both Gary and I had to get much closer before we could see through the dark to another turtle pulling herself up the beach.
It was peaceful in the warm sea breeze and I had an overwhelming sense that this man I had met on this dark turtle beach was one of those unsung heroes I had, on occasion in my charmed life, been privileged to meet.
Captive hawksbill turtle at a hatchery being used for selfies © Dave Currey
On our last day travelling we visited a turtle hatchery on the south west coast. There are many of these places, some of them established for decades. Their stated reason for existence is to protect turtles but some of them, definitely the one we visited, are mainly tourist traps.
Turtle eggs, although protected by law, have been collected for food for very many years. The idea of most of these hatcheries is to remove the eggs from the beach, bury them in the sand in their own hatchery, and then release them. However, over the years, the hatcheries have also bought eggs from the locals, creating a new market in turtle eggs.
Most hatcheries keep the newly hatched turtles for days or even two weeks before releasing them into the sea. They explain this is to give them a better chance of survival. However, turtle experts around the world have discovered that hatchlings have enormous energy for the first 24-48 hours - nature's way of giving them the best chance to clear the worst dangers close to shore. Keeping the hatchlings for days weakens them, reducing their chance of survival.
The hatchery we (briefly) visited claimed to keep the hatchlings for two weeks before release. They also had tanks with sub-adult turtles which were used as selfie props.
The hatcheries are all illegal but have considerable local political support.
Concerned by the hatchery we visited I contacted one of Sri Lanka's most eminent turtle scientists and chairman of the Bio Conservation Society. Dr Lalith Ekanayake has recently worked with the Department of Wildlife Conservation to draw up guidelines for hatcheries which will be backed up by an annual permit system with monitoring.
Lalith explained "We have been educating the hatchery owners for a long time and some do release most of the hatchlings after emerging and only keep a few in their tanks for tourism." He explained that the new guidelines will allow a maximum of 20 hatchlings to be kept in tanks at any one time and "if monitored properly it will be easy to see if the conditions of the permit are being met."
The guidelines have already been approved by the Cabinet and are in the hands of the Attorney General to produce the final legal document before the end of the year.
Some of the hatcheries have also responded positively to the suggestion that they protect the nests on the beach for a 250 metre stretch.
So, all going well, and thanks to the efforts of Sri Lankan conservationists, the future seems brighter for turtles in Sri Lanka. I'll definitely be returning to see another turtle dragging herself up the beach as they have done for over 100 million years.
Yes, 100 million years. There's something about a turtle that makes me feel very humble.
Hawksbill turtle © Dave Currey