Ridley me this: The nesting of Odisha’s Olive Ridley turtles is an experience of a lifetime
Fun fact — Arribada or “arrival” refers to a unique mass nesting event in which thousands of female Olive Ridley turtles come together on the same beach to lay their eggs. It lasts over a period of five to seven days and takes place almost every year along the coast of Odisha. Photographers, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts from across the globe flock the state in the hope of witnessing this phenomenon. This was also why we were at Rushikulaya beach at midnight on a surprisingly pleasant night. Our guide Ravi, a local who’s deeply involved in efforts to protect the species, asked us to have patience. “It will be a long night,” he warned.
Did you know?
As the temperatures dip, we get acquainted with the marine turtles. The Olive Ridley turtles are the smallest of all sea turtles found in the world. They are also the most abundant. They inhabit the warm waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, feeding mainly on jellyfish, shrimp, snails, molluscs, crabs, fish and their eggs. Named after their olive green coloured shells, they spend their entire lives in the ocean, travelling thousands of kilometres between feeding and mating grounds in a year.
But what they are best known for is their mass nest aggregations. Females return to the same beach where they first hatched to lay their eggs. During Arribada, up to 6,00,000 females could emerge from the waters at a time. The turtles trudge up slowly to the beach in the dark and using their hind flippers, laboriously dig conical nests that are about one and a half feet deep.
A single female lays around 80 to 120 eggs and the process can take up to an hour. If everything goes smoothly, the eggs hatch after about 45 to 65 days. The beaches are then swamped with crawling Olive Ridley turtle babies, making their first trek towards the ocean. It is estimated that one hatchling survives to reach adulthood for every 1,000 hatchlings that make it to the sea. This may be the reason why Arribadas happen — to increase their survival rate.
The coast of Odisha is their largest mass nesting site, followed by the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica. “But there is no guarantee that they will nest every year,” our guide informed. In 2019, the turtles didn’t show up at Rushikulya, and double mass nesting was reported at the same spot in 2018. No one knows why.
The best guesstimate is that the Olive Ridleys instinctively know if the conditions are favourable for laying eggs. “The beach has to be clean, the slope that the turtle climbs to lays her eggs has to be gentle or they can’t reach their nesting spots, and the soil needs to be the right temperature. Even the wind needs to be blowing from a certain direction to signal that the time has come for them to go ashore. If any of these conditions aren’t met, they will not nest,” Ravi explained.
There are other challenges as well. Predators such as jackals and dogs feed on the eggs and baby hatchlings. One can see several eaten shells on the beach while looking for the turtles. If the nesting happens between mid-February and late March, there is a threat of soil erosion on the beaches when the monsoon current arrives in May. But the most severe threat the turtles face is accidental killing of adults through entanglement in trawl nets and gill nets during their mating season. This has led to a decline in the numbers over the past few years and the species is now recognised as vulnerable by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
The Odisha government has geared up to fight for the cause. It set up Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary in 1979 in an effort to conserve these smallest species of sea turtles. A fishing ban has been imposed along its coast from November to May to ensure that the turtles and their hatchlings get safe passage from the sea to the nesting spots, and back. It is also working with WWF-India and its partners to reduce accidental killing by making it mandatory for trawls to use Turtle Excluder Devices. This specially-designed net comes with an exit cover that allows turtles to escape while retaining the catch.
That’s not all. Beaches where nesting takes place are cordoned off to prevent people from disturbing the turtles or accidentally trampling on the eggs. Also, fishermen are being educated that the gentle Ridleys present no threat to their livelihood, in order to help change their mindset and involve them in conservation efforts of the species.
We see you
Unfortunately, there was no turtle sighting on the night we are there. The state received a few unseasonal showers earlier in the week and the cool weather wasn’t conducive for nesting. Ravi, our guide, noticed the long faces and offered to take us by boat into the open sea to see the mating of the turtles instead.
The next morning, we got into a fisherman’s trawler while putting our bravest face forward. The tide was coming in and the waves looked quite intimidating. But little did we know that we were in for a treat! Just a few minutes later, a pod of dolphins was on the hunt. Small fish jumped out of the water at regular intervals in an attempt to avoid the predators. This kept us engrossed.
Then about five kilometres in, the sea around us was suddenly full with floating specks of green. Heads emerged from the water every few minutes and a few turtles even dared to swim right by the boat. We were dazzled by the sheer numbers. There could be hundreds or thousands out at sea, all waiting patiently for the conditions to turn favourable for them to mate and nest.
We spent a few minutes taking in the sight and clicking pictures. On our way back, the dolphins joined us again, this time playing around the boat. We set foot on the beach with a sense of satisfaction.
Keep in mind:
The best time to visit to see the nesting of the Olive Ridley turtles is February. But do track websites and newspapers to know if they will be there. The turtles nest at night. So you will be expected to venture out on the beach without lights after midnight. Once the turtles come ashore in large numbers, the beaches are cordoned off. Visitors can then only see them from vantage points that are set up.