WILD CARD

NISHA JHA travels to Velas village
in Ratnagiri to see Olive Ridley
turtles hatch, lovingly supervised by
conservators. A perfect family
weekend out of Mumbai

Baby’s
day out
WE
were at an to the sea. And boy, they plopped out and glistened
unknown village to with the lustre of the sun, shiny and skidding,
see some new-borns unsteady in their hobble. They did not hold hands
take their first baby but headed to the sea, en masse, orienting
steps and swim out themselves with the horizon and daylight. The sea

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pooh-poohed the information as rumour had it not

PHOTO: DA TRAVELOGRAPHY
been for the stature of our friend. He was a wildlife
enthusiast, a naturalist and would definitely know
about these things. We had been reading for
sometime about the dwindling population of sea
turtles and one February evening, we decided to go
to Velas Village on the spur of the moment and
experience what is now known as the Kasav
Mahotsav meaning Turtle Festival.
Velas is a small eco-friendly village in Ratnagiri.
A few years ago, an NGO named Sahyadri Nisarga
Mitra, who were involved in conservation of

currents got stronger, our heart jumped as
some of them got tousled and thrashed
around. Could we save them? But then these
were hatchlings of the Olive Ridley turtle, who
don’t give up even if one in a 1,000 survives.
Beating the bigger fish, ghost crabs and seagulls,
PHOTO: DNA INDIA
they descended into the marine world,
unchaperoned yet united, untrained yet skilled, the dwindling population of various animals, found out
little crawling wonders. that its beach was one of the many locations where
This ritual happens during the months of female turtles washed up to lay their eggs in flask-
February, March and April in this otherwise shaped cavities and covered them up with sand,
sleepy village of Velas in Ratnagiri district, south laying it thick with their flippers. They also found
of Mumbai. that while there was evidence of a large number of
A few years back a friend mentioned to us nests, they could not find any eggs intact. They
about turtle conservation in this district on were perhaps poached by villagers or animals. Also,
the western coast of India. We would have most of the hatchlings did not make it to the sea as

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they fell to predators and villagers. The villagers
were educated on the importance of saving these
marine reptiles and thus was born the Kasav Mitra
Mandal. This was a win-win for them. They were
able to help conservationists and simultaneously
create a tourism opportunity to boost the economy

PHOTO: SAHIL'S NATURE BLOG
of this village.

BEACHCOMBING OF ANOTHER KIND

WE reached the village just in time for
breakfast. Most locals open their doors
to tourists for a nominal fee that includes all
meals. Though the homestay was rudimentary in
nature — there were mattresses for sleeping,
separate rooms for men and women and a couple turtles if they are inadvertently caught in their net.
of common bathrooms — the warmth and They are also trained to inform the NGO if they
cleanliness turned simplicity into luxury. For spot any injured turtle which are then nursed back
breakfast, we were served poha, the best beaten to health and returned to the sea.
rice we had had till then. On the beach, we learnt a lesson in survival.
The chief conservationist told us how initially The female Olive Ridley turtles travel thousands of
the villagers did not listen or care about the new- kilometres every year to lay their eggs at a massive
age hullaballoo about conservation and protection, nesting ground on the beach in a synchronised
which they thought were just propaganda to manner. They believe there’s safety in numbers.
encroach on their daily lives. It took persistent The turtles scoop the soft sand to a depth of 45 cm
awareness drives and education to convince the with the help of their flippers and release 100 to
fishermen that there was more money to be made 180 eggs. Before scampering on to the beach, they
in preserving the rare creatures and multiplying survey the nesting ground from the sea and in case
their numbers than catching them for human they smell danger, they search for a safer breeding
consumption. Now the same fishermen release the ground. The urge to release the egg is so intense

GETTING THERE
Several touring companies conduct a three-day
trip to Velas from Mumbai and Pune. One
can go in a private vehicle as well.

ACCOMMODATION
Almost every house is a homestay. One can
walk in and negotiate. Weekends are
always crowded.

PHOTO: AURABH THAKEKAR
that they spawn at night, breathing in the covered each hole with a basket and a card
southernly wind with a loud hiss to ramp up their mentioning the nest number. This exercise is done
oxygen and energy levels. The period of emergence for each of the nests found till the nesting season is
and retreat into the sea after nesting takes 45 to 55 over. After that, is the long wait for incubation.
minutes. The most incredible part? Each female We returned in the evening to a site which had
turtle always returns to the same beach at which it long been in incubation. We waited for the
had hatched. It has a mystic memory! On the temperature to drop so that it was cool enough for
contrary, male turtles almost always never return the young ones to come out. For tourists, the turtle
to the beach at all. festival begins when the incubation period of 45 to

SAFE IN THE INCUBATOR

EVERY morning during nesting
season, volunteers from
Kasav Mitra Mandal comb the beach for signs of
turtle movement on the sand. Generally, you can’t
miss the tracks as the turtles are almost 70 cm in
length and weigh about 25 to 50 kg and leave deep
trails. Quite heavy we thought but our
conservationist laughed, “By the way they are some
of the smallest turtles.” The volunteers followed the
tracks to their end and started digging with great
care so as not to break any eggs. Sometimes the
tracks are false indicators. Some turtles are known
to return without laying eggs or move to another
PHOTO: JAYESH PARANJAPE

spot on the beach. If eggs are found, then details
are recorded with date, nest number and number
of eggs. Our team found some eggs, collected them
in baskets and took them to a fenced off burrow in
the beach to prevent predators. After depositing the
eggs in a series of holes dug for the purpose, they
filled them with sand just like the mother turtle and

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PHOTOS: VASUDEVAN R
60 days is over. Each day the volunteers uncover and jostling for freedom. We soft-padded to the
the baskets to see if any hatchling has surfaced. It seashore as the volunteers carried the unsteady
is yet another nature’s wonder that buried deep hatchlings to about 70 metres from the breakers, sat
into the ground, when the turtle babies hatch they them down and left them to fend for themselves.
know instinctively to claw their way up The hatchlings were delicately tiny, just 10 cm or so,
overcoming the weight of the sand above. The but knew exactly what they should do. And in a
walls of the pit gradually collapse, thereby allowing collective uprising of genetic memory, they
the eggs on the lower strata to rise upwards. intuitively used their flippers, ploppy flaps really, to
propel them towards the gigantic sea. For us even
THE DESCENT INTO SEA the thought how these babies would survive in the

TURTLE experts were dutifully
making sure the
viewers would be safe and not scramble over each
vast sea brought goose pimples. We could see them
getting tired once in a while as they slopped on the
sand and got caught in the tangle of weeds and surf.
other. We were glad to see a sizeable number of But then they had to honour the motherly spirit of
children in the crowd waiting to see the babies. determination. And so they started once again,
This was a great family outing too, away from the uncurling and stretching but bobbing bravely on
bustle of the city. into the sea. The water engulfed them eventually.
They uncovered the first basket...no response The females would definitely come around
or movement...there was an audible sound of sometime and the whole lifecycle continues.
disappointment in the crowd. Perhaps the time On our return journey, we asked our guide why
had not come for the eggs of this nest to hatch. these gentle beings were called the stately Olive
They covered the nest and opened the second. No Ridleys? “The carapace (shell) of an adult turtle is
response. By now we were sure the organisers olive green in colour. Even the plastron (the
were playing to the gallery and building up a underside of the turtle) is green-yellow. But
dramatic pitch and that the last basket would have nobody really knows why it’s called a Ridley,” he
the babies. told us smiling. We liked his honesty and
And there they were, a clatter of shells, writhing forthrightness. That’s a riddle for another day.

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