Under the starlit sky and crescent moon, we headed out to prepare for the human visitors. The stumps and rope were brought out and an enclosure made for the safe passage of the tiny creatures. We were in Velas, a small village in Ratnagiri, which accounts for about 40% of the population of Olive Ridley turtles in Maharashtra. This being the hatching period, the village was holding its annual turtle festival, and I was walking alongside the volunteers.
The Olive Ridleys are an endangered species, with their numbers dwindling each year. Only one in about 1,000 reach adulthood due to a variety of factors – poaching, fishing, pollution, underwater predators among others. Interestingly, the villagers in Velas themselves used to poach the eggs and sell them for a pittance or give them to bulls for strength until the intervention of a Ratnagiri-based NGO, Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra (SNM). The researchers had come to Velas in search of the white bellied sea eagle, instead they stumbled on to the turtle eggs. Soon, they started educating the villagers and roping them in the conservation efforts. Homestays were set up to augment incomes and poachers paid for protection of these creatures instead.
Looking at Velas today, that approach has worked wonders. Almost all houses have turned homestays and villagers are sensitive to the plight of the turtles, shares Mohan Upadhye, who has been spearheading the conservation efforts in Velas for over 14 years. The only difference, he says, is that SNM has moved out and the villagers, along with the forest department, is taking care of the conservation efforts now.
It is Mohan, who is leading the pack of volunteers this morning too. At about 6: 15 am, people start arriving. At 7 sharp, he lifts open the lids and much to our delight we see over 25 hatchlings moving about. They are scooped up, taken to the enclosure and released to begin the journey home. As they are extremely fragile, smaller than your palm, and can’t retreat into their shells, maintaining distance is crucial. That’s the job of the volunteers as the Olive Ridleys leave tiny trails with their flippers, inching ever so slowly but steadily towards the sea. Their each move is cheered by the crowds and a groan erupts when a strong wave sends back the hatchlings.
But where the crowds disperse once the hatchlings can no longer be seen on the periphery, for the little ones the voyage has just begun. Since there is no concept of family or group with sea turtles, the creature has to survive 20 long years before it can be called an adult. Some of them though can last up to 150 years. For the female lot, a journey back home is also in the offing as they prefer to nest on their native beaches. Each nest, I’m told, can have anywhere between 100-150 eggs. Additionally, females can produce offspring once every year or even thrice in an year. In case of latter, the female doesn’t lay eggs for the next two years.
The morning is still young though and what do you think happens? A nest is found! The eggs are the size of a tennis ball, white and covered in mud. It will take about 45-50 days for the little ones to emerge out of the shells. Mohan informs the shells are sticky in nature to keep off fungii. Immediately, the lot is transferred to the hatchery. While relocation reduces the chances of hatching to 60-70%, leaving them unguarded on the beach can be tricky as frequent water penetration can stall the whole process.
In Odisha though, which is the main ground for the Olive Ridley turtles in India, hatching happens in situ (in the original place). Here, one can also witness mass nesting or Arribada, where over a 100 sea turtles descend together. News reports say over 3.55 lakh eggs were laid in Odisha beaches in just a week this year. But when it comes to Velas, only 8 nests have been found this year. Combining the nests found in adjoining locations, it is around 26 nests or less than 4,000 eggs. This is why the work of conservationists in this area is even more important.
Meeting the volunteers though I’m hopeful. The ones I met were researching sea weeds with lateral roots that are found only in Velas and can penetrate turtle eggs, the nesting preferences of the olive ridleys and white bellied sea eagles. Looking at the swelling crowds each day, even in the endeavour to increase awareness, I’m glad they are there so the Olive Ridleys can safely reach atleast the shore.
Ps: Avoid going during the weekends if possible to escape the crowd. Weekdays are a much better bet to get a good look at the sea turtles.
- When to go: Feb to March. Visit the Velas turtle festival for exact dates
- How to reach: Follow the Mumbai-Panvel-Pen-Mangaon-Mandadgad-Velas route. Local ST buses leave Mumbai Central at 12:30 pm and reach Velas around 8 pm. From Velas, bus to Mumbai leaves at 6:30 am and 9 am. There are local buses to Pune and Ratnagiri too.
- Where to stay: Visit the website for a list of homestays
- Travel groups such as Mumbai Travellers, Treks and Trails etc organise weekend trips to Velas.