By Vivan Sharma, Bhubaneswar (Odisha) , Feb.18 : I had read about Odisha's Olive Ridley turtles and seen them on television programmes and had hoped that someday, sometime, I would get a chance to see them on a beach near the sea.
Little did I know that my wish would be granted sooner than I thought. I shifted from Delhi to Bhubaneswar in March 2013, when my mother took up a job there. Soon after we made the city our home, we got to know that mass hatching of Ridley turtles was taking place on some beaches in the coastal areas of the state.
My family and some friends decided to visit a beach close to Chilika Lake to witness this amazing phenomenon.
Odisha is a unique place as far as the Olive Ridley turtles are concerned. This is because there are only three places in the whole world where the mass nesting of these Olive Ridley turtles takes place. Costa Rica and Mexico are two of them and Odisha in India is the third one.
The Gahirmatha and Rishikulia beaches in the state have gained worldwide fame because of the presence of these rare breed of turtle.
The Olive Ridley's vulnerable status comes from the fact that they nest in a very small number of places, and any disturbance to even one nesting beach could have a huge effect on the entire population.
The endangered sea turtles are found mostly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They get their name from the colour of their shell - an olive green colour. They are the smallest of the sea turtles, weighing up to 45 kilograms and reaching only about 2 feet in shell length as adults!
They are omnivorous, but mostly carnivorous, feeding on creatures such as jellyfish, snails, crabs, and shrimp. They occasionally eat algae and seaweed as well.
We started off from Bhubaneswar around 6 in the evening and reached our guest house, about 20 kilometres from the beach, at around 10 in the night. We had dinner and crashed out.
We woke up at 1:30 in the morning and quickly headed to the beach located right next to a village.
Mass hatching of turtles takes place in the night and so this was the best time to head for the beach.
Did you know that baby turtles are attracted to light? Moonlight gives the sea a faint glow, and that is what directs the small turtles to the sea.
It was completely dark when we reached the village. We made our way to the beach with the help of torches.
The first hatchlings I saw were trapped in fishing nets. As we freed them from the nets I picked one up ... it fitted in my palm!
Hatchlings are preyed upon as they travel across the beach to the water by vultures, frigate birds, crabs, raccoons, coyotes, iguanas, and snakes. Adults have a few predators, other than sharks, and killer whales. Other threats include boat collisions, trawling, gill nets and ghost nests etc.
Humans are still the leading threat to the Olive Ridleys, responsible for unsustainable egg collection, slaughtering nesting females on the beach, and direct harvesting adults at sea for commercial sale of both the meat and hides.
As we continued our walk down the beach, we were stopped by some conservationists who spend three-four months on the beach from the time mass nesting takes place to the time hatchlings head out for the sea, protecting them from people and predators like crows and crabs.
They asked us to wait in one part of the beach till dawn where we could see turtles make their way to the sea better. Also, our torch lights could have directed the hatchlings away from the sea to a certain death.
So, we waited. It was well worth the wait. The gentle sunrise brought an amazing sight; we could see hundreds of little baby turtles inching forward, trying to get to the sea.
As they struggled to reach the water, the waves would come rushing in and push them further inland... but the babies did not give up. They continued their struggle to reach the sea. Some were tinier than others. Some had missing limbs, but the need to get to the sea and for life was there in all.
Many did not make the mad dash to the sea; some did, beginning a new cycle of life.
The Olive Ridley turtles migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles every year, and come together as a group only once a year for the Arribada. That's Spanish for the arrival and the time when females return to the very beaches where they hatched, sometimes in thousands, to nest. During nesting, they use the wind and the tide to help them reach the beach. Females lay about a hundred eggs, and may nest up to three times a year. The nesting season is from June to December.
The little ones who I saw being carried out to sea would hopefully return one day to this very beach to nest!
The trip to see the olive ridleys was an amazing, inspirational and memorable experience. I hope to come back sometime to see a mass nesting, but that is for another day.
The views expressed in the above article are that of Vivan Sharma, a grade 10 student at the Sai International School, Bhubaneswar.