Turtle Festival in Velas, Maharashtra
It was about 5 AM on a Sunday morning. We had woken up before the alarm would ring. Only some chirping crickets were audible in the otherwise peaceful night of this small remote village. We freshened up and got ready in no time. The loud sound of our motorbike engine revving up broke the silence of the night as we started towards our destination. We wanted to reach earlier than anyone else while it was still dark. As we got closer to our destination, we were surprised by hushed voices coming from groups of people walking in the same direction. We realized we were not going to be only ones trying to reach early. By the time we reached the parking area, it was clear we were not the first ones there. Few bikes, cars and a bus had already beaten us. Quickly parking our motorbike we began walking using the mobile torches to light up the narrow path. The sky was gradually turning blue as dawn signaled its arrival. We could see many torch lights ahead of us as we picked up speed to complete the 600 meters tapering trail that ended on a beach. As we closed in on our destination, we could not believe our eyes. Two rows of people were already sitting near the barricaded fence reserving the best spots. As per our pre-decided strategy, we split. One of us reserved a decent spot with next best available views near the barricade while the other walked ahead about 100 meters towards the seashore. We then waited for more than an hour as people kept coming in trying to catch some action. 7 AM is what everyone was waiting for.
At exactly 7 AM when it was bright enough to see around, two volunteers opened the fence door as hundreds of people looked anxiously. After a brief announcement thanking everyone to come this early in such remote village, one of the volunteers picked up an inverted basket revealing what was underneath. Though only few who had arrived very early and reserved the best spots could see anything, the excited gasps told everyone what was to come. The volunteers carefully picked up what they saw underneath the basket and rushed towards the seashore as hundreds of people followed them. Few hundreds had already gathered near the seashore picking up best spots around the temporary barrication that was meanwhile built in a U-Shape. On reaching the U-Shape the volunteers released what they had carried as other volunteers struggled to control an excited crowd. The sound of sea waves became more prominent along with shutter sounds as hundreds of cameras clicked the amazing natural phenomena. The tiny baby turtles which had just hatched were taking their first steps towards the sea.
This is a normal weekend for about 4 months from December to March every year in this village called Velas. Velas is otherwise an unknown speck of dust in map of Maharashtra, a state in India. A village that is sparsely populated with most youngsters migrating out looking for jobs, a village where mobile network has still not reached and internet is rather distant dream, a village that does not have a bank, ATM or even a restaurant, a village that suddenly comes alive during these months as tourists flock this place to catch a glimpse of baby Olive Ridley turtles and celebrate The Turtle Festival.
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Migration journeys of a lot of animals and birds are simply phenomenal. Be it in search of food and water for African animals and Alaskan bears or to prevent themselves from extreme weathers such as Monarch butterflies and Arctic birds or the need to reach better breeding grounds for Emperor penguins, red crabs and sea turtles; migration journeys of various species are ecological wonders worth witnessing. The science around how they find their way across the globe without GPS and maps called 'Magnetoreception' - the ability to sense earth's magnetic field; is simply baffling.
The Olive Ridley sea turtles are one such species of turtles who live their whole lives in sea but migrate to land for laying eggs. Primarily found in tropical waters of Indian and Pacific ocean, these turtles are best known for Arribadas - a synchronized behaviour of mass nesting. While Arribadas are witnessed in various parts of the world, certain beaches in Odisha, state of India are the largest mass nesting sites in the world. Most of these areas are ecological reserves maintained by government and not accessible by tourists but the pictures of these that you would see on internet are absolutely breathtaking. Some of these things, and thirst to see and know more took us to the far off lands of Velas where every year on a specific weekend, the turtle festival is celebrated.
A unique characteristic of these turtles is that they lay eggs in their natal lands, something similar to what mothers in Indian culture do. So the female turtles who were once born on the beaches of Velas come back here after 10-15 years, dig a hole to lay around 100 eggs and bury them with sand usually in the night. The volunteers of Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra (SNM), a NGO focused on nature conservation, along with Forest department and local village panchayat; identify locations of nesting through the trails left by the mother turtles. They then remove all the eggs and relocate them in a conserved fenced area to prevent poaching of eggs by dogs, hyenas or even from high sea tides which would destroy any possibility of eggs hatching successfully. The relocation too reduces the percentage of success of eggs hatching but this is the best possible protective action under the given circumstances. The volunteers ensure that the eggs are buried under the sand in the nursery at same depth as
dug by the mother turtle to maintain temperature levels and cover it with a basket. The eggs hatch around 50-70 days later and baby turtles make their way up on the land by crawling upwards. The volunteers check the baskets everyday at 7 AM and 6 PM for any baby who may have made its way up. These babies are then taken close to seashore and they intuitively know that they are supposed to go towards the sea. This cycle continues when the female babies come back to the same beach to lay eggs after 10-15 years. The pictures below was a demonstration that the volunteers gave us explaining the process.
The Olive Ridley sea turtles are listed as vulnerable or range from Endangered to Threatened by various nature conservation bodies. Their population has been going down mainly due to human actions, boat collisions, fishery related activities, beach erosion as well as pollution. Apart from these, sea turtles in general are more susceptible to predators as unlike Tortoise they have streamlined shells which does not allow them to go inside it for protection. Thus most of the babies do not reach adulthood. However ability of turtles to adapt and survive should surely not be underrated as they have survived the disasters which wiped out Dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Various conservation projects and awareness efforts these days would also help them to hopefully flourish in future.
Our stay in Velas was highly educational. The volunteers we met were extremely passionate about conservation and always prioritized what is right for turtles over tourists requests. One of the leads - Mr. Mohan Upadhyay plays a documentary on the work done by SNM for conservation of turtles in his home verandah every evening at 7 PM.
We were in Velas for 4 sessions - 2 morning and 2 evening sessions but managed to see Turtles only once. The hatching of eggs and sightings are purely based on luck. Despite volunteer's best efforts to estimate maximum hatchings before finalizing dates of turtle festival, nature does not bend to science and no one can answer if you will be able to see turtles on the dates you visit. Also the crowd left us wanting for more as we could see turtles only from a distance and given how tiny they are, we felt coming on a weekday would be far more enriching. Still visiting Velas itself was an experience in itself. People travelling from far off distances in hope to catch a glimpse of baby turtles take their first step was bordering crazy - THE GOOD CRAZY. It was heart-warming and filled us with hope in general. Though sighting turtles was our primary motive, it ended up being cherry on top compared to what we learnt and experienced in the whole trip. The sights of tiny baby turtles who have never seen their parents, who have never been told where their homes are yet instinctively start walking towards the sea was definitely the highlight of the trip. The cheer and applause given by crowds as the first one reached the waters felt like a rock star arriving on stage. We left Velas with much more empathy and hope in our lives.
Visit our next blog about village life in Velas and accommodations available. You can also read another article if you would like to know other places around Velas that you can visit quickly in the same trip. Do let us know how you found this blog and do pin it, share or leave your comments.
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