Odisha is lucky to be one of three places in the world where sea turtles' mass nesting occurs. “Arribada” is Spanish for “the arrival” of sea turtles for mass nesting and is believed to have been used by first explorers who witnessed this unique phenomenon at California and Costa Rica coast. This behaviour ensures the survival of the species by the swamping mechanism. As the nesting happens at the same time, predators are unable to eat up all the eggs since after eating the eggs for a few days, they leave the nests untouched.
However, not all is well with the sea turtles of Odisha. They are threatened by a variety of natural and man made causes. Unfortunately, man-made threats which have come up in the last three decades are more dangerous for the species since they are irreversible and the species has no mechanism to deal with them.
Though mechanised fishing is banned at the three congregation zones - Gahirmatha, Devi river and Rushikulya river mouths, every year thousands of turtles are killed due to illegal fishing due to lack of proper patrolling by the Forest Department. Not a single fishing trawler uses the mandatory TED (Turtle Excluder Device) which should lead to cancellation of fishing licence. More than 2,00,000 sea turtles have been killed on Odisha coast in the last two decades but not a single fisherman or trawler owner has been convicted.
Court orders to conduct 24-hour sea patrolling passed in 2004 are not fully complied by Forest Department leading to avoidable turtle deaths though there is no dearth of funds. This is a shameful way to greet the Olive Ridleys who unfailingly turn up every winter.
In 2000 turtle funds provided by the Indian Oil Corporation were used by Forest Deptt not to buy patrol boats, but shockingly were spent on a luxurious car for the Chief Wildlife Warden’s use at Bhubaneswar which reflected misplaced priorities! The entire world is aware of the turtle killing fields of Odisha which can be completely stopped had the Forest and Fisheries Department implemented the law of the land since the last 20 years. Appeals made by turtle lovers to the Chief Minister to halt this massacre have not yielded any results so far and the killing continues.
Sea turtles are the unique natural heritage of Odisha, being our “living Taj Mahals” and all of us should ensure that these honoured guests return every year to breed and nest on our shores.
OLIVE RIDLEY SEA TURTLES - My First Experience
It was a clear spring morning in March. As I sipped my morning cup of tea, the phone rang. “Arribada” or mass nesting of sea turtles had started at Gahirmatha. I was eagerly awaiting this news and palpable excitement gripped since it would be a first time sight for me!
I made preparations to embark on a long journey that would take us to the remote island of Nasi. Portable tents, spotlights, life jackets, dry rations, sleeping bags, everything was packed and loaded on the jeep. After a bone jarring journey from Cuttack we finally arrived at 9 PM at Gupti jetty. Forest officials had kept a motorboat ready. We sailed out in the pitch dark night. We were not sure if we could reach the Babubahali island, the base camp, since it depended on the tide in Pathashala river. Steaming fish curry and rice was served for dinner a little before midnight. The fresh mullet cooked in a light mustard paste tasted fabulous! The boat lurched from side to side as we steadily made our way down the river. However, after midnight, the wind picked up and the boat started pitching as we inched closer to the river mouth. We had to cast anchor because it would be dangerous to cross the shallow river mouth in turbulent winds at night.
The boat was a large one and we could manage to sleep on the bunkers. It was a novel experience for me since I had never slept in a boat before. The rough waters were rocking the boat and I could hear the slapping sounds of the small waves hitting the wooden hull. I could smell the sea wind as the spray hit the boat deck. All around us the dense mangrove forests of Ekakula and Baunsagada surrounded us as a dark shadow. I could not but help reminisce about how dense these forests would have been 50 years ago when tigers would have roared at night!
The loud crowing of a rooster awoke us in the morning. I was a bit surprised since there were no human settlements here. However, I realized that it was junglefowl which were common in these mangrove forests! Dawn was beautiful in this vast expanse of sea and islands. As the sun rose from the east, a pinkish red hue suffused the sky. The waves looked less menacing and the water had calmed. The wind speed had also dropped making it easier for the boat to cross the river mouth. After sailing for about an hour we finally arrived at Babubahali island.
As it was morning, few turtles remained on the nesting beach which was half an hour away by boat. But we were eager to see them. This was the second day of nesting. Mass nesting had been going on throughout the previous night at the neighbouring Nasi II island when waves of female turtles had come ashore to lay eggs. Nesting frequency usually decreased in the day and hence we could see a few late comers. However, we went back determined to return in the evening when it would resume.
After a quick lunch at the forest camp we immediately fell asleep as all of us had a sleepless night. At around 2 PM, we heard shouts from a forest guard who was strolling on Nasi I island about half a km away.
All of us got up and rushed out! Lo, behold! Right in front of us, we could see sand being kicked up! Little earth coloured mounds were scattered across the beach. The nesting females were busy scooping out and throwing up the fine beach sand which was clearly visible even at a distance!
Suddenly, we realized that mass nesting was about to start at Nasi I which was right in front of Babubahali! Immediately, we rushed out to the waiting small boat to take us across the small water stretch.
It was around 3 PM. The strong afternoon wind created violent waves which crashed on the shore noisily throwing up a dense spray of water. The sea was rough with a sandy light brown colour. However, the pounding sea waves did not deter the turtles who clumsily clambered out to climb onto the sandy beach determinedly. The mothers heavy with eggs crawled up slowly with a single intent of laying their load on the beach. Many of them had already started digging the nests.
We were witnessing one of the most spectacular sights of nature – the Arribada. It was a very rare sight, since mass nesting usually takes place in the night. But who can explain the mysteries behind the behaviour of this wonderful reptile!
I was amused to see many of them swimming up and down the beach eagerly scanning the beach as if searching for a vacant space. Soon the entire beach was covered with Olive Ridleys. There were thousands of turtles, looking like giant beetles, all around us busy digging the soft sand not at all bothered about our presence.
After a point of time it was impossible to stand as there were turtles everywhere around us in the 1 km long island. I had to sling my camera bag on my shoulders as turtles also climbed it when I kept it down! The strong smell of eggs hung in the air as they continued laying thousands of eggs. Many of them were digging up nests of the previous ones as space was clearly at a premium!
Mother turtle was very serious in this entire exercise. Carefully she dug up the nest in the soft sand and once satisfied, she started dropping her eggs. She went into a trance and was oblivious to the happenings around her. I touched her but she was not bothered! Though, they can inflict serious injuries if they chose to bite with their powerful jaws, no Olive Ridley ever attacks a human being!
All of us on the beach enjoyed the wondrous sight. It was overwhelming and I was on cloud nine! The much awaited mass nesting was happening right in front of our incredulous sight. I felt like bending and kissing some of the turtles for keeping the rendezvous! Since nesting had failed during the previous two years, this year’s nesting was eagerly awaited by us!
Each turtle was using one rear flipper to dig the soft beach sand while the other flipper was expertly manoeuvred to scoop the sand and throw it out both moving in a surprising synchrony. When the digging was over, the female turtle positioned her cloaca over the nesting hole and started laying the wet ping pong shaped eggs. They dropped down in clusters of three to four at a time. I watched one nest and counted 133 eggs being laid over 20 minutes.
After the egg laying was over, she started covering the nest she had dug by heaping soft sand on it. I was amazed at the co-ordination between the rear flippers which were doing the job. After nest was covered she started rolling side by side in order to settle the sand and flatten it by thumping on it. This is done to obliterate all signs of nesting as natural predators like jackals and wild boar often dig them up to feast on the eggs.
I was watching the half-closed eyes of female turtles from which tears were oozing out. Many people mistakenly feel she is crying due to exertion but actually it is the lachrymose gland secretion which removes salt from her eyes.
After covering the eggs, the mother turtles crawled their way back to their marine habitat and disappeared in no time, once they reached the water. This was my first arribada and truly left me speechless!
MATING - MASS NESTING - HATCHLINGS
Gahirmatha is a turtle paradise set up in 1997 to protect the turtles and other marine creatures from fishing over an area of 1,440 sq. kms. Every year, turtles arrive at the Odisha coast in the month of October to breed. They travel thousands of kms from the deeper waters of the Indian Ocean beyond Sri Lanka. Mating continues for three months and usually mass nesting takes place in February or March. They lay eggs at three mass nesting sites in Odisha - Gahirmatha, Devi river and Rushikulya river mouths. Every year, nearly 300,000 turtles come ashore for nesting in Odisha.
A few months before, I had gone to survey the turtle congregations at the other mass nesting site at Devi river mouth in Puri district. After sailing for an hour, I saw a pair of sea turtles bobbing up and down on the waves. During mating, the male holds the female with his strong flippers in a tight embrace and are literally locked together for about 30 minutes. As the mating pair floated on the sea surface, they gradually turned over. The sunlight fell upon them and their plastrons or bellies flashed yellow which was a bright contrast to the deep blue waters of the sea!
One of them was looking at us warily but we could approach close to take some photographs. The sea was calm as it normally is at this time of the year. Suddenly, we could little sparkles of water all around us as hundreds of mating pairs of turtles dotted the water like stars in the sky. I was enthralled by this breathtaking sight which very few people are lucky to have seen!
Every turtle lover also looks forward to seeing the second event which is mass hatching of the eggs. After the mother lays her eggs, she returns to the sea and lets nature take over. Baked by the hot sun for nearly 50 days, the eggs hatch all by themselves and the little hatchlings come out and make their way to their watery home. After about 55 days, hatching started at Gahirmatha and we rushed to the same beach.
Hatching happens only after sundown when the beach cools down. If the babies come out in the day, it would be disastrous. The hot sun would desiccate them by the time they crawl to their watery home. Eager predators like crows, sea gulls, eagles which lie in wait could easily pick them off. It is intriguing that hatching is also synchronised like nesting. Every day, thousands of nests would hatch and countless hatchlings would emerge from their sandy home as if by co-ordinated timing!
It was evening when we landed at the nesting beach. The strong south wind blew over the sea and whipped up the superfine sand which flew into our eyes and filled our nostrils. A weak moon cast its pale light on the heaving swell of the sea as the white waves crashed loudly on the isolated beach.
It was a fascinating experience strolling barefoot on a virgin beach, devoid of tourists or other signs of civilization. We were looking for hatchlings with our eyes peeled. We were greeted by a pair of wild jackals waiting to devour the emerging hatchlings.
Suddenly, there was an elated shout from one of our field watchers. All of us rushed to the spot. In the pale moonlight, we could see tiny turtle babies, many of them hardly a couple of inches long, emerging from the soft sand, wriggling their way out. Some of them had already emerged and were obviously resting, obviously tired from the difficult exercise of coming out of eggs buried deep in the sand.
The tiny white glistening grains of sand stuck to the leathery bodies. Some of them were half buried in the sands, stuck their tiny heads out, as they tried to wriggle out, using their flippers. After freeing themselves from the confinement, the hatchlings turned around as if orienting themselves.
We switched off our flashlights in order to prevent them from being distracted by the light. The glow in the distant horizon over the open sea, was their natural signal. With determination, they started crawling towards the sea. Like little toys with self programmed memory chips, they moved slowly to the dark waves pounding the beach.
The hatching takes place at night to save the young turtles from the stinging rays of the sun and the predators. The first wave of water hit them and washed the sand from their glistening grey black bodies. Many literally “turned turtle” as the powerful surge of sea water pushed them back to their natal beaches. However, the strong instinct of nature prevailed and the determined little ones continued to forge ahead eager to join their friends in the sea! Dangers awaited them in the sea as well, since predatory fish like catfish swarm in the waters close to the nesting beach to consume them.
We moved cautiously taking care not to trample a young turtle beneath our feet. I was overawed by the perennial phenomenon, which had been taking place on the beach since millions of years, during which thousands of turtles from thousands of kilometres away come to Gahirmatha beach to lay eggs. The little baby turtles would also return one day, to continue the process as they remember their natal beach by imprinting!
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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