Standing on a sea shore and watching a sunset gives a different feel each time. The footprints on the sand remind me of the journey so far and inspire to keep walking! The gentle waves bring greetings from life across the vast ocean and its warmth is felt wholeheartedly. Changing colours of the sky, cloud patterns and the sun bidding good bye at the horizon to another day is soothing. An evening at Velas Beach in Ratnagiri district near Mumbai was another such experience.
My purpose of visiting Velas was also to participate in a very special event being organized there – Velas Turtle Festival and watch baby Olive Ridley Turtles find their way home to the sea. Olive Ridley Turtles are an endangered species who live in the tropical and sub-tropical seas. Mother turtle travels thousands of miles to lay eggs in the tropical coastlines across the globe during the breeding season from November to March. In India, Maharashtra and Orissa are lucky to host them.
The turtle eggs spread across the beach hatch in about 60 days. However, if they are left unprotected then survival chances are low due to the presence of predators. Hence, in the year 2002, an NGO – Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) took the initiative to conserve the Olive Ridley Turtle. In the last 20 years it has done magnificent work to protect marine life along the coastline of Maharashtra. Velas is one such village where SNM has trained and empowered the local residents to execute their conservation plan. Kasav Mitra Mandal (KMM – Friends of Turtles) is the local village body which undertakes all conservation activities and tourist management in Velas. The tourist season is generally from mid-February to end-April depending on the hatching situation of the eggs. There are no hotels or resorts in Velas but the village offers homestay facilities which are comfortable.
After laying the eggs, mother turtle returns to the sea. Thereafter, KMM volunteers carefully collect and preserve the eggs in nests created within a protected enclosure on the beach. Each nest is labelled with the collection date and count of eggs. Beach patrolling and monitoring is done round the clock. Volunteers check regularly if the eggs have been hatched and babies are ready for journey back home in the comforting waters of the sea. It is indeed commendable to learn that about 35,000 baby turtles have been released to sea by SNM.
We were informed that the volunteers will check the nests around 6 pm and the babies’ walk to the sea will start at 6:30 pm. This activity is done only around sunrise and sunset because baby turtles are not comfortable in strong sunlight. We arrived at the Velas beach around 5:30 pm and wandered around the beach and found a cargo ship nearby that was stuck in the sand with its crew desperately trying to find a way back to sea…what a coincidence!
By 6:15pm, Sun was almost below the horizon and it was getting dark. I thought may be babies are not ready yet to go home. Suddenly, we saw many people rushing towards a particular spot on the beach. We too reached there to see that volunteers were carrying a tub with some baby turtles! Tourists were informed about the rules and asked to remain within the barricade boundary defined on the beach and observe the turtles.
Volunteers placed the baby turtles one by one on the ground. They were 4-5 cms in length and kept their eyes closed throughout the journey to sea where as an adult these Ridley turtles will grow up to 60-70 cms and weigh 50kgs. The babies seemed confused as they meandered all over the place but after some time they got the correct direction to home. With eyes shut, they sense the vibrations of the waves crashing on the beach to identify their way. Early lessons in meditation, isn’t it? There wasn’t much sunlight to observe their movements properly but this evening session gave me some understanding of the event.
Next day morning session was scheduled at 6:30 am. We reached in time and took positions along the barricade on the beach waiting for the show. The Sun was rising making the sand glow in pleasant golden hues. Volunteers arrived with the baby turtles and this time their movements were much better visible due to ample sunlight. The babies crawled ahead with 5-10 steps, fell down on all four with exhaustion, again pulled up and moved towards the sea. This sequence is repeated many times for the next 30-45 minutes and I have tried to present their first steps in the images. They all lost directions occasionally but never gave up. Some were fast, some slow, some needed help but surely, it’s too early to conclude who will turn out smarter!
One by one they all touched the waters. I could see mixed emotions in the eyes of the volunteers as they bid farewell to their friends. They had protected and nursed the turtles for this day but it was not easy for them. Everyone especially the villagers wished the babies will be safe to grow big and strong and return to Velas one day to gift the responsibility of their own young ones…
Image Gallery : First Steps