Ratnagiri (Maharashtra) , Jan. 27
AT around 5.45 p.m. one wished the three-inch, 15-minute-old Olive Ridley turtle hatchling good luck and released it on the edge of the beach. It crawled on the sands for a time leaving tiny traces of its flippers before the waves of the Arabian Sea took it away.
Alone, at home in the sea, the dark brown Olive Ridley turtle will probably grow to a full length of about three feet over years, if predators give it a chance. That evening moment looked auspicious with a chill wind and a deep orange sun jaywalking a blue sky overseeing the birth of an Olive Ridley.
"The first 10 years are the lost years as none knows anything about its way of life," remarked Varad Giri, who along with Bhau Katdare and Vivek Bendre worked on their cameras.
We were lucky as one was not sure if the hatchery would yield a baby turtle. One was relaxing on the beach in the evening as Bhau Katdare called out that a hatchling had come out of the sandpit.
One rushed to the hatchery and was allowed to hold the baby in one's palm as the others got busy clicking. It would have had to crawl some 20 feet, past green weeds (Ipomea pes-caprae) to make it to the sea, to which it belongs. Bhau explained that the baby has enough reserve energy to make it to the Arabian Sea but one helped it by carrying it to the beach. "You are seeing a rare event on the coast of Maharashtra," said Bhau.
Two days ago, the nest site No. 4 and No. 5 in the hatchery had delivered 40 hatchlings each. Next day at around 7 a.m., Bhau noticed a hatchling trying to make its way out of the hatchery. One crawled on all fours into the hatchery to pick up the little one and laid it near the sea. For a few seconds it struggled before a wave carried it away only to bring it back. A villager, who was with us, picked up the turtle, walked into the sea and placed it on an outgoing wave to start it on its long voyage.
Olive Ridleys have been found nesting along the coast of Maharashtra, though over the years the numbers have dropped owing to fishing and poaching by man and jackals.
On October 1, 2002, Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, Chiplun, under Vishwas Dattatray (Bhau) Katdare started conserving the nesting sites of Olive Ridleys with field work on the empty Velas beach, where fishing is absent. The Velas village is about 300 km from Mumbai and about 130 km from Chiplun and is dependent on farming.
A small river divides the village and tall Casuarina trees line the three-km beach. The female turtles visit the coast mostly late at night (though there have been some sightings during the day), dig up pits with their flippers, lay about 100 to 150 ping pong-ball-sized white eggs, cover the spot with sand and beat the surface hard with their flippers (the turtle dance) and go back to the sea. (One was not lucky to see the egg laying.) Mating takes place offshore with the male never coming ashore.
J.C. Daniel in his book The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians mentions the curious habit of the Ridley covering its nest with nearby vegetation, "a habit first noted and recorded by a Tamil poetess of the 4th century A.D. She identified the plant as Udumbu Kodi, the local name of the goat's glory (Ipomea pes-caprae), a very common creeper on sandy beaches. This habit and the use of the same plant have been reported for the Ridley nesting on Krusadai Island near Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu." After about 50 days, about 50 per cent of the eggs laid hatch and the hatchlings walk into the sea and the saying goes that only one of hatched eggs lives to be an adult.
According to Bhau, it is hard to trace the pits with eggs and harder still to monitor them over a long beach.
As a measure of protection, Bhau has built a rectangular hatchery (measuring 8x3x1 metre) just above the tide line. To avoid injury to the creeping hatchlings the hatchery is lined with cardboard at the bottom while the top is covered with chicken mesh to keep away avian predators.
Within six hours of the laying of the eggs, Bhau, with the help of a few villagers, relocates them in 18-inch-deep holes dug in the sand inside the hatchery. Small flags with numbers mark the nests and entries are made in a logbook on the timing and date of the relocation, the number of nests, eggs and hatchlings.
On tentative dates of hatching, the pits are covered with bamboo baskets overlaid with jute sacks. Bhau and his team of villagers keep watch as just before a hatchling makes its way out there is a depression in the pits.
"Activity is at its peak between October and March," said Bhau, adding, " High temperatures in the nest (32 degrees) deliver females while males arrive at 28-30 degrees and they are light sensitive."
During the 2002-03 season, the first two nests were recorded on December 10, 2002, and the last one on February 26, 2003. A total of 50 nests was located and relocated in the hatchery.
Out of a total of 5,372 eggs, 2,374 hatchlings were released, giving a hatchling success of 50.89 per cent.
All the nests were of Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). During the season five female turtles returned to the sea without laying eggs and Bhau is not sure why.
In 2003-04, the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra extended its activity to cover Anjarla, Saldure and Murud beaches in Ratnagiri district.
At the four sites, 3,506 eggs in 36 nests of Olive Ridley were protected and 1,687 hatchlings were released — a success ratio of 48.11 per cent.
A hatchery costs around Rs 17,000, with the village volunteers being paid Rs 1,200 a month. Bhau has been able to get the villagers on his side and they keep in touch with him when he is away at Chiplun.
Currently, the Bombay natural History Society and a few others are part-funding the conservation work, which could place the Konkan coast of Maharashtra an important spot for watching Ridleys. That could happen if Velas and nearby beaches could remain quiet and free.