It was Boxing Day 2004.
Santha Fernando, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan operating a turtle hatchery at Kosgoda, south of Colombo, heard the sea water rushing through the bushes before he felt it swirling and frothing around his feet and moving up to his knees before receding.
Usually Santha would be on the beach about 300 meters away from the hatchery gathering moss to feed his turtles. That morning a sudden influx of visitors to the hatchery had delayed him.
The sea retreated the way it came, past the coconut trees, bushes, fences, and the houses adjacent to the beach.
“Strange” he thought of this unusual phenomena. It had never happened before.
Then he broke out in a cold sweat. He remembered a dream from about four days before.
Screaming at those around him to head to high ground, he warned of a big and more powerful wave that would return. Placing two rare albino turtles in a bucket, he raced them to safety in a two-storied building about a kilometer away.
Dashing back to grab his two children, he took them to safety in a temple on high ground, shouting all the way at people he met to head to safety on high ground.
What transpired when the second wave struck the coast with devastating effect is history; its victims are still remembered at memorials erected along the island’s southwestern coast. Not very far from the hatchery, a roadside structure at Peraliya silently stands sentinel in testimony to the world’s largest single rail disaster when a train full of passengers was swept off the tracks with 1,270 passengers by the raging sea waters that day.
The victims are remembered annually on Boxing Day. A train will stop at Peraliya at the time the disaster occurred. The driver and train occupants and villagers will participate in a simple ceremony before the train resumes its journey.
Santha, like most affected by the tsunami, has moved on but is thoughtful when mentioning his sister and grandparents whom he lost to the sea that day.
The hatchery has been rebuilt and is popular among visitors, and he gets turtle lovers-cum-conservationists who visit him from abroad to work as volunteers and learn about these long-lived creatures from the sea. Sri Lanka is visited by five of the seven types of turtles, Santha, explains and points out the mounds of sand where he has tagged the eggs of different breeds with their eggs ranging in size from ping-pong balls to tennis balls.
His love for all sentient beings is displayed when he uses a stick to gently move a black scorpion in his path to safety from being trampled on or from stinging visitors.
In several sea water tanks, turtles of different ages and sizes from hatchlings to near cart-wheel size swim about. “Josephine” who is handicapped due to blindness and a 50-year-old mama who has a deep gash on a flipper caused by a fishing net making her spend the last 10 years in the hatchery, “Natalia“ and “Sabrina” respond to Santha’s call to come close to the visitors. He truly seems to be a turtle whisperer.
Now 41, it was not his knowledge of the Leatherbacks, Green turtles, Hawks Bills, Loggerheads, or the Olive Ridley’s that made the author pick up his ears. It was his mention of having previous knowledge of the tsunami.
He became aware of such an occurrence four days before, he explained.
“I saw it in a dream,” he said.
“I saw the sea rushing in, sweeping away houses, animals and people and causing destruction,” he said. He dismissed it merely as a dream, because he was totally unaware of such a thing happening Santha said.
However, when the sea water swirled around his knees and receded that morning, he remembered the dream. He felt it was coming true and that a second more destructive wave would follow. Hence his shouted warnings to the others.
It was pure instinct that led to removing the turtles first before his children, explained Santha. Engaged in rescuing and caring for turtles from the age of nine years, it was more a reflex action, “having spent so much time with them,” he said.
Many ancient myths abound around the world of turtles and tortoises immortalized through time in carvings, cave paintings, and totem poles. In Greek mythology, the messenger of the Gods, Hermes who was fond of the creatures is said to have made his lyre from a tortoise shell.
So, was the dream a warning from the deep or a message subconsciously intercepted by him due to his love and longstanding association with turtles? Santha does not claim to know.
His love for turtles was inherited from his father, 68-year-old Amarasena Fernando, who could be said to be perhaps the first Sri Lankan “turtle” warrior to engage in rescuing turtles and recovering their eggs from being devoured by humans.
Words of an elderly stranger on the Negombo beach to a youthful Amarasena had long started him off on the crusade years ago. Amarasena had followed his advice that turtles, some with a lifespan of about 300 years, should be respected and protected instead of being killed for consumption in the foolish belief of attaining longevity.
Amarasena had started by purchasing turtle eggs at a premium price from people who dug them from the beach to be sold at the market. They were buried in the sand in his garden till the eggs hatched. The tiny hatchlings at the appropriate time would be then freed into the sea at night. He recounted with glee how he rescued about five large turtles by puncturing the wheels of a truck that had been stuck in the sand while transporting the turtles for slaughter.
When the driver of the immobilized truck went for help, young Amarasena had released the turtles.
Amarasena had moved to Kosgoda and pioneered the turtle hatchery in 1960. With not much garden space, turtle eggs were buried in the sand in his kitchen until the hatchlings emerged. Sometimes Santha and his siblings who slept on the floor would be awakened by tiny baby turtles crawling onto their mats at night.
Santha continues his father’s work of buying turtle eggs at a premium, safeguarding them till hatched, and releasing the babies into the sea.
Today, Santha has about 400 turtles in his hatchery in various stages of growing up. He keeps about 20 large grown-up turtles in tanks. Of them, five are handicapped with some being blind and some disabled due to injuries. The rest would be kept for about five years to be released in order to ensure that they would not become victims to predators who pick on most of the baby turtles that annually make their way into the sea. It is estimated that only about one in a 1,000 hatchlings survive up to adulthood.
The love for turtles stopped Santha’s schooling at an early age but not his education. He rattles off information about the different types of turtles, their average lifespan, food, and their predators, and dangers all turtles face from fishing nets to plastic bags.
Starting from an enclosure containing mounds of tabulated sand-covered eggs, visitors are taken around several tanks of sea water which are home to turtles in various stages of growth. Santha appears to know them individually as he explains about them.
“I check the individual hatchlings before releasing them into the sea. There are some who are blind and handicapped. I keep them in a separate tank to care for them,” he explains.
Santha stops and calls out names at each tank, and the turtles respond and swim up to him. Most are named after European visitors who have donated money for the upkeep of the hatchery. There is Kara King and Jane of England. There is “Julia,” an albino who featured in a “turtlenapping” by an unscrupulous man attracted by a large sum of money from a foreigner.
Santha does not encourage touching the turtles. Visitors may be carrying viruses harmful to his charges, as well as the skin products used every day which can also harm the delicate turtles, he explains. However, there is an exception. “You may try to touch this one.”
“It bites,” he warns. He inserts his hand into the water and quickly pulls it out as the turtle lunges and snaps. “It has a temper and fights with others,” he says.
Other tanks are home to a large blind one and another to one who had a flipper injured by a fishing net.
The injured and the blind are cared for and will not be released into the sea as Santha fears they would become victims to predators.
Santha hopes to someday build a turtle hospital in an adjacent block of land. But at the moment it seems a dream to be achieved, for the land alone would cost a massive Rs.30 million.
Meanwhile, Amarasena, who had worked under famed Sri Lankan scientist, the late Cyril Ponnamperuma, has his own theory about the tsunami. It was a case of the alignment of the moon and several stars in the solar system that caused a massive gravitational pull on the Earth which led to it, he claims. Stating that warnings of a major catastrophe (not specifically a tsunami) provided to the media by him about three months prior to the event were disregarded.
He predicts another major disaster in 2030.
All photos © Panduka Senanayake