Turtle Tale

Every year, in the quaint seaside village of Velas in Maharashtra, thousands of baby Olive Ridleys celebrate their journey to the sea. Sudipto De talks about this unique experience

It’s an exhilarating experience to be the part of a newborn’s first journey. To be able to watch in awe as the first few unsure steps are taken and be immersed in a sense of fulfillment as the babies head into their future. It is this feeling of absolute wonderment that washes over me as I watch hundreds of newly-hatched Olive Ridley turtles carpet the sand, waddling towards the white and blue waters of the Arabian Sea lapping at the edge of the beach. I am at the Velas beach, in Ratnagiri, a popular eco-tourism destination on Maharashtra’s stunning Konkan coast, which lies at the beginning of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And along with a motley group of environmentalists and tourists, I cheer as the hatchlings pour out of the sandy pits, and take their first wobbly steps. As the sun dips into the sea, setting alight the waters, and darkness starts descending, the turtles begin their first journey towards the sea, towards safety and towards life. It is a race for survival for them!

The first steps

I zoom my camera lens to focus on one of the babies; the struggle of the newborn is quite apparent as it takes in its bearings and tenses each and every sinew in its tiny body amidst a whirlwind slapping of minuscule flippers. Around it, hundreds of similarlooking turtle babies, some as small as my thumb, are wobbling, thrashing their flippers on the wet sand, moving ahead with small jumps, losing direction and bumping into each other, their tiny bodies etching crisscrossing trails in the sand. Near me, volunteers from a turtle-conservation NGO are releasing the hatchlings. We encourage some of the stragglers to buck up lest they be attacked by the predatory birds that are already circling overhead. It’s interesting to note that the female turtles among the babies, upon reaching adulthood, will return to the Velas beach for laying their eggs. As the last of the babies makes it to the sea, swimming vigorously into the open ocean away from the predators, I heave a sigh of relief, feeling proud to have been a part of these little ones’ journey.

The hatching season lasts from February to April. While large stretches of India’s coastline are home to the turtle species; the Velas beach is said to be the most popular nesting site on the Konkan coast. However, just visiting the beach during the hatching season doesn’t guarantee you sightings. I am informed that until a week ago not a single egg had hatched!

Turning turtle

The Olive Ridley turtle is a marvel of nature. Although destruction of its natural habitat has led to a drastic reduction in its numbers, it is the species’ mass breeding, also known as arribada, that is unique. Female Olive Ridleys head to a few select tropical beaches across the world, dig nests as deep as two feet and lay around 100 to 200 eggs in a nest. Using their flippers they cover the pit with sand, before scampering back to the ocean in the dark of the night. After about two months, the magic starts as the eggs hatch.

The journey of the newborns towards the sea is extremely challenging. It is so perilous that only a few hundred make it to their destination out of the thousands of eggs laid. Wild predators and overpopulation on the beach are major threats, but this is where the role of conservation societies like the NGO Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra comes in. The conservationists of these organisations carry the female turtles to a hatchery where they lay their eggs in a safer environment before the little ones are escorted back to the sea.

As night falls, I head back to my homestay in the village, as star-trail photography enthusiasts start to set up their equipment! With clear skies for most parts of the year, Velas offers one of the best star-gazing and astrophotography experiences in the country. Velas also draws ornithologists and bird watchers, as it attracts several species of birds like the white-backed vultures and the white-bellied sea eagle.

What’s around

The next morning, there’s another session of hatchling release but I decide to explore more of this Konkan paradise. Surrounded by lush greenery, Ratnagiri is a soothing balm on my cityfrayed senses. A six-hour-drive away from Pune and a nine-hour-one from Mumbai, this quaint village boasts a picture-postcard setting, with neat rows of red-tiled-roof houses, gardens, tree-lined lanes, warm hospitality and delicious local food.

As I drive out of the village I hit a road that winds through a tunnel of green canopy, climbing higher and higher up the Western Ghats. At the bends are roadside eateries, offering sweeping views of the mountains.

My destination is the Bankot fort located nearby. Square-shaped, the fort stands atop a hill overlooking the sea. But what really piques my interest is the moat around it made from purple-coloured jambhya stone, which is known for letting water pass through. The popular Harihareshwar temple on the beach nearby, is my next stop. This temple can be accessed by boat or by road and has shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva. The beach here arcs out into the Arabian Sea showcasing a stunning juxtaposition of shiny black rocks set against sparkling blue waters. As the water starts rising during high tide, the waves break on the stones, shooting up in a geyser of sprays!

The author is an avid traveller and the views expressed in this article are his own

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