By Dr Biswajit Mohanty*
It was a clear spring morning in the month of March, 1999. As I sipped my morning cup of tea, the phone rang. Palpable excitement gripped me as I heard the much awaited news….the “arribada” had started at Gahirmatha. I had never seen this wonderful natural phenomenon before.
Soon, I was busy packing as we had to carry portable tents, spotlights, life jackets, dry rations, sleeping bags, etc to camp on the beach. After a bone jarring journey from Cuttack, we finally arrived at 9.00 p.m. at Gupti jetty. A forest department motorboat was waiting for us and soon we set out on the long journey in the pitch dark night. We were not sure if we could each the Babubahali island where the base camp of the department was situated since it depended on the tide in Pathashala river.
Dinner was steaming rice with fish curry. The fish, fresh from the river, was simply fabulous! The boat lurched from side to side as we steadily made our way down the river. As we approached Ekakula at midnight, the wind picked up and the boat started pitching crazily. We had to anchor because it was impossible to cross the river mouth to reach Babubahali island in this strong wind which had made the waters turbulent.
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 hull all night. The incredibly dense mangrove forests of Ekakula and Baunsagada surrounded us. I could not but help reminisce about how dense these forests would have been 50 years ago when tigers must have roared aloud in the 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 jungle fowl 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 now looked less menacing and the water had calmed as the wind speed had dropped. After sailing for about an hour, we finally arrived at Babubahali island.
As it was morning, a few turtles remained on the main nesting beach of Nasi 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 Nasi isand where successive waves of female turtles had come ashore to lay eggs. Nesting frequency usually decreased in the day and thus we were lucky to see a few stragglers, who had emerged towards dawn to lay eggs. However, we went back determined to return in the evening when it would be going on full swing.
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 the island. All of us got up and rushed out! Lo, behold! Right in front of the base camp island, we could see sand being kicked up! Little earth coloured mounds were scattered across the beach.
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 boat to take us across the half a km of sea which separated the two islands.
It was about 3 p.m. The strong afternoon wind created violent waves which crashed on the shore noisily throwing up a dense spray of water. The sea was rough and bore a sandy light brown colour. However, the pounding sea waves did not deter the turtles, who clambered out of the water and climbed onto the sandy beach determinedly. The mothers, heavy with eggs, crawled up slowly with a determined intent to nest on the beach.
We were witnessing one of the most spectacular sights of nature. It was a very rare sight since mass nesting usually takes place in the night only! But who can explain the mysteries behind the behaviour of this wonderful animal?
I was amused to see so many of them swimming up and down the beach eagerly scanning the beach as if searching for a space. Soon, the entire beach was covered with turtles. There were thousands of them everywhere blanketing the sandy beach, looking like giant beetles.
After a point of time, it was impossible to get even space to stand as there were turtles all around us in the tiny island. I had to sling my camera bag on my shoulders as turtles also climbed it when I tried to keep it on the sand! The strong smell of eggs was pervaded the air as they continued laying thousands of eggs. Many of them were digging up nests of the previous ones as space was at a premium!
The mother turtle was very serious in this entire exercise. With great care, she dug up the nest in the soft sand. 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 just not bothered! Though they can inflict serious injuries if they choose to bite with their powerful jaws, I have never heard of an Olive Ridley attacking humans!
The much awaited mass nesting was happening right in front of our unbelieving eyes. I felt like bending and kissing some of the turtles to keep the rendezvous going! Since nesting had failed during the previous two years, the event was the all more important for us.
Each turtle was using one rear flipper to dig the soft beach sand while the other was expertly manoeuvred to scoop the sand and throw it out. When the digging was over, the female turtle positioned herself and started laying the wet ping pong shaped eggs which dropped down in clusters of three to four at a time. I watched one nest and counted 133 eggs being laid in 20 minutes flat!
After laying the eggs, she started covering the nest she had dug by heaping soft sand on it. I was amazed at the coordination between the rear flippers which were doing the job. After the nest was covered, she started rolling side by side in order to settle the sand and flatten it by thumping on it.
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 sea water.
Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, which is next to the famous Bhittarkanika National Park, is a turtle paradise set up in 1997 to protect the turtles and other marine creatures from fishing so that they can be safe in this 1,440 sq. kms area. 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 200,000 turtles come ashore for nesting in Orissa.
In December, I had gone to survey the turtle congregations at the other mass nesting site at the Devi river mouth. Everybody scanned the horizon eagerly to watch for mating pairs. Soon, we arrived at the breeding grounds after sailing for an hour. I saw a pair of sea turtles bobbing up and down on the waves.
During mating, the male held the female with his strong flippers in a tight embrace. They were 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 see little sparkles of water all around us as hundreds of mating pairs of turtles dotted the water like stars in the sky. I was overawed by this breathtaking sight which very few people have been lucky enough to see!
Every turtle lover 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 50 days, hatching started at Gahirmatha. I rushed to the same beach to witness this phenomenon. This happens only during the evening when the beach cools down. If they come out in the day, it would be disastrous! The hot sun would desiccate them by the time they crawl to the water line. Eager predators like crows, sea gulls, eagles which lie in wait could also easily pick them off!
It is intriguing that hatching is also synchronised like nesting. Every day, thousands of nests would hatch and the hatchlings would emerge from their sandy home as if by mutual consent! 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 in the sand.
The tiny white glistening grains of sand stuck to the leathery bodies. Some of them, 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. 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 computer 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 in the end 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 centuries as thousands of turtles from faraway seas return to Gahirmatha beach to lay eggs. The little baby turtles would also return one day, to keep the spectacular show going!
How long will this last?
Odisha is lucky to be one of only three places in the entire world where sea turtles nest in large numbers. Olive Ridleys and Kemp’s Ridleys are two species which nest together. This phenomenon is known as “arribada” which is a Spanish word for “the arrival”. This behaviour is believed to ensure the survival of the species. As the nesting happens at the same time, predators are unable to eat up all the eggs since they are full after eating the eggs for a few days.
However, all is not well with the sea turtles of Odisha. They are threatened by a variety of natural and manmade causes. Loss of nesting grounds due to cyclones and beach erosion is a natural occurrence which adversely affects the long term survival of the species. If they nest on mainland beaches, predators like jackals, wild boars and monitor lizards which hide in nearby jungles eat up thousands of eggs and even hatchlings.
The manmade threats which have come up in the last two decades are more dangerous for the species. Though mechanised fishing is banned at the three congregation zones, thousands of turtles are killed due to illegal fishing every year. The government agencies need to be better equipped to protect this endangered creature, which has the same level of protection as the tiger and the elephant. More than 1, 50,000 turtles have been killed, which is an alarming figure since no species can survive this extremely high rate of attrition!
Indian Oil Corporation had given Rs.1 crore in 2000 to the forest department for turtle protection .The money was supposed to be used for purchasing speed boats, which has not happened even after 13 long years! In fact, aircraft carriers take much less time to order and be delivered! The forest department continues its patrols with hired fishing trawlers, which have the same speed as the errant trawlers they try to nab which fish in prohibited zones. Very often, it is a wild goose chase in the seas with no results! Besides, armed fishermen from Bangladesh and West Bengal often fire upon forest patrols injuring them. The slow patrol trawler jeopardises the lives of the guards as they cannot even escape when caught in a dangerous situation.
There are also development projects coming up, which will impact the long term existence of the species. Oil drilling and ports planned on the Odisha coast should be allowed only after careful study.
While evolutionary processes have empowered the sea turtles to overcome natural threats, man made threats could doom the species as they have no way of beating such threats.
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.
* Dr Biswajit Mohanty is a leading Indian green activist. He is the secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha and Co-ordinator, Operation Kachhapa, Odisha.