A Journey for Survival: Olive Ridley Turtles at Velas, Maharashtra
Only the fittest of the babies survives the rough sea.
The sun was yet to rise on the horizon when twenty pairs of feet shuffled down the narrow lanes of the sleeping sea-side village. The smell of the burnt wood of the previous evening emanating from dying embers still hung in air. The coconut fronds swayed ever so gently as if to a soft lullaby. Not a soul stirred as we set upon the long path to the beach which was about a kilometre away.
I was at Velas village heading towards the sandy shore in the early morning hours for a glimpse of baby Olive Ridley Sea Turtles with other wildlife enthusiasts. Every year in March and April hundreds of turtle eggs hatch and the tiny babies, with their eyes not yet able to see the big bad world, begin their long struggle for survival.
As I neared the beach—my feet sinking at every step in the dry sand—a sudden flurry of activity caught me off guard. Hurrying along I could see few people setting up a rope barricade close to the sea and a couple of others rushing with cane baskets to what seemed like an enclosed hatching area.
The months of December and January see unique mass nesting known as ‘Arribada’, Spanish for ‘arrival’, where hundreds of female turtles arrive on the same beach to lay their eggs. The female turtles laboriously dig a one and a half foot deep conical pit with their rear flippers and then lay eggs in the freshly dug nest. After covering up the nest of her eggs with the sand the mother turtle returns to the sea. The female Olive Ridley turtles never tend to their young.
About two feet in length, with a weight of 50 kilos, Olive Ridley turtles are the smallest among the sea turtles. Found mostly in the warm waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, the dwindling numbers of these turtles has put them in the vulnerable and endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Named for their olive-coloured heart-shaped carapace, these carnivorous turtles feed on jellyfish, snails, crabs, and fish eggs. They nest in maximum numbers along the coast of Odisha at Gihirmatha. The turtles have gradually begun nesting at Velas and Anjarle beaches as well.
But a few years ago, it was a different story. The ignorant villagers living near the Velas and Anjarle beaches had no knowledge of the dwindling numbers of these turtles. The turtles fell prey to feral dogs, hunting birds, and fishing nets or were accidentally trampled upon at the beach.
The Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra Organisation was formed in 1992 by nature-loving individuals who believe in conserving nature and ecology. They took it upon themselves to educate the villagers and involve them in the conservation of the turtles at Velas and Anjarle. The organisation introduced turtle conservation around 2006.
When I arrived at the enclosure, excited onlookers had already crowded around it. Peeping over the wall of shoulders, I could see several inverted cane baskets. Soon the inverted baskets were removed to reveal the hatchings of the day.
The conservation team came up with a method to create a similar environment for the baby turtles to hatch. Once the female turtles return to the sea, the vigilant villagers guarding the nests from predators dig up similar conical pits farther away from the shore in an enclosed hatchery. Each pit is dug up to retrieve the eggs and the dates are recorded. The turtle’s pit is replicated in the enclosure and the eggs are laid out in the exact manner as found. The pit is once again covered with sand and protected by a cane basket. The dates help in keeping a check during the time of hatching.
To survive the fierce ocean, the newly hatched baby turtles must dig out of the sand pit and crawl to the sea to gain strength in their flippers. The fittest of the babies, if not falling prey to birds and other animals, survives the rough sea.
In Velas, however, the babies hatch in a protected area which is farther from shore and the crawl to the ocean is not possible. Every day the hatched baby turtles are collected and released a few feet away from the sea. The natural instincts instantly kick in and the babies begin to crawl towards the water, leaving a trail of tiny flipper indentations in the wet sand. The waves sweep in to claim the babies closest to the water to deposit them in their natural home.
As the villagers counted all of 80 babies—the highest number of that month—a collective hurrah and claps from the eager visitors celebrated the birth of new life. We all scrambled after the two men taking the baby turtles near the water. Everyone wanted the best view.
One by one the babies were released on the wet sand. With each little step that they made towards the sea, a mixed sense of awe and jubilation filled my heart. The happy faces in the crowd were proof enough that people do care and there is hope for the future of animals.