THE TALE OF TURTLE-OLIVE RIDLEY
-Mrs Shakti Bishnoi, Mr A S Bishnoi, Ms Priyadarshini Devi
Every Year in the quaint seaside village of Orissa turtles throng the coasts of Odisha each year in huge number at three major locations namely, islands of Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi River mouth and other parts of Maharashtra, Tamil Naidu and Andhra
Pradesh, to lay eggs and thousand of baby Olive Ridleys celebrate their journey to the sea after hatching. The mere presence of the turtles along the Indian Ocean suggests that there is a conducive environment being offered and suitable habitat for these wonderful
creatures ( that I shall support with facts) and let us continue so these guest visit us again and again. We shall narrate our experience of in succeeding paras.
We had read about them and seen photos/ articles in magazines but the urge to see them in person was always back of our mind. As rightly said, you have to dream to convert into reality. So our dream came true. I was informed by forest official(a friend
of mine) that mass nesting sites are inundated with Olive Ridley and kindly reach immediately. I spoke to my wife and it was 2000Hrs in Balasore. We packed our bag and told our daughter that we are going to see the unbelievable creation of God. She packed
her small bag and we headed toward Rusikulya/Gahirmatha within half hour. It takes 3-4 hours to reach. But our car made sure that we reach early not to miss any event. We often converse with car and she responds positively. Finally we reached site at 2300
Hrs and our forest official friend was waiting for us. He was surprised with our immediate/flash and prompt action to his call. The day was exhilarating experience to be the part of a mass nesting.
These turtles migrate several hundred Kms in the sea waters to finally congregate at nesting sites (Gahirmatha, Rusikulya etc.) which is a unique feature with the Ridlyes, both Olives and Kemp’s Ridley. This phenomenon of nesting is called “Arribada”.
Life Cycle :-Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys Olivacea)
We witnessed mating and wanted to see the next natural action, and our dream came true as we were opportune to witness mass nesting. To our surprise my daughter was looking for that particular female who mated..but all were same. So she gave up.
Olive Ridleys, Lepidochelys Olivacea, are the smallest of all other turtles like their close kin the Kemp’s Ridley turtle. They owe their name to the colour of the carapace and skin which is grey to green over various periods of life. Found in the warm
tropical waters of Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the turtles have been the most abundantly found sea turtle. Olive Ridley sea turtles, though found in abundance, their numbers have been declining over the past few years, and the species is recognised
as Vulnerable by the International Union for conservation of Nature(IUCN) Red list. These turtles, along with their cousin, the Kemp’s Ridley turtle, are best known for their unique mass nesting called “Arribada”, where thousands of females come together on
the same beach to lay eggs. Olive Ridley sea turtles is endemic to Odisha coast as the world’s largest rookery is in Gahirmatha and official figures indicates that 90% of the population of sea turtles along the Indian coastline comes to the Odisha coast for
nesting. The other nesting sites in Bay of Bengal is (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Naidu etc but scattered) but occasional and smaller number. In the Indian Ocean they are seen in the Coromandel coast, Velsa (konkan belt) and Sri Lanka. The other congregations
for nesting in world are found at Mexico and Costa Rica. However they are becoming endangered slowly due to loss of suitable breeding or nesting grounds all over.
As the mating occurs in the sea waters, the males retreat to the foraging ground post mating. The females linger around looking for shallow waters over a month(general figure is 45 days) till they reach the beaches to lay their eggs. As per forest official,
nesting seasons in India last from around Jan-Mar depending upon the conducive and favourable conditions prevailing at that point of time. The females lay around 100- 150 eggs per individual. Each female takes around 30 minutes to an hour to dig a hole around
2-3 feet with its flippers and lay her eggs.
Eggs Laying (Arribada)
So we reached in the night and the process had already begun, the approx congregation was 9000 as per forest official. It was pitch dark and silence of night was occasionally broken by roaring sea waves, dogs barking and soft intermittent noises of digging,
other beating the covered nests with the plastron. On moving ahead we could see the female turtles approaching steadily towards the sandy beach with a hope to dig their nests and lay eggs. My daughter saw the unique phenomena and she wanted to observe closely,
so we used our torch to make her see.
We planned to visit next day in day light as few turtle visit during day times also so that we can appreciate much better. We went back to Bhuneshwar for a rest so that we reach fresh in the morning to witness. To our surprise, we could see few enthusiastic
turtle laying eggs. We were ecstatic and walked near a turtle to see the entire phenomena, it was as if the moment was played again but in day light. We walked with careful footsteps and sat near a turtle. We were over whelmed to find that the one turtle
in front of us started to dig the earth indicating that she will lay eggs here in front of us. We could see that forest department staffs posted and NGOs were sincerely performing their duties, not allowing any tourist to disturb their habitat, chasing dogs
and ensuring, that foreign guests(Olive Ridley) are safe and have peaceful nesting. Few post completion of their duty of laying eggs started proceeding towards sea, never to return again till next season. Their movement seems to be slow as eggs laying is exhaustive
process. There were little clashes for space and few nests were dug out by other females accidentally due to shortage of space. But this is how nature balances.
The female turtle laid eggs and covered nest with the plastron in aprox 45 min(we monitored). Turtle started moving towards sea and we followed her. She was exhausted and my daughter prayed god to give her energy so that she reaches to sea safe and sound.
She followed her till sea and once she entered, she heaved sigh of relief and started looking for other turtles. Likewise, we saw four turtle life cycle of eggs laying and since it was afternoon laced with deadly combination of humidity and temperature soaring
above 36 degree, we headed towards shade of tree and had lunch underneath tree. We waited for the sun to reduce temperature.
Interacting with forest official we came to know that compared to previous years where there have been instances of no nesting at all due to various reasons like change in temperature, cyclonic disturbances, salinity, oil spillage etc, this year has been
heartening and we were more than excited to have our foreign guests (Olive Ridley) in Orissa with definitely encouraging numbers. We could also spot one tagged turtle and forest official were ecstatic as she revisited the same place to lay eggs.
Since I was not so satisfied, I wanted to see more of such congregation, we decided to stay one more day to revisit site in wee hours to have their closer glimpse. I reached at 0300 and to my surprise, there was hardly any space to walk even with measured
and careful footsteps. I used my flash to click as many photos I could and waited for the first light of sunlight to have a a closer look. I saw huge congregation and one most important and noticeable aspect was hard work of forest department staffs was clearly
visible and so was their sincerity. Even NGOs were actively involved and working day in and day out during the season of nesting till hatchlings move safely in to the sea. The local villagers has been instrumental in discouraging poaching and trade of products
like eggs, meat, carapace etc to a huge extent. The young children also participate in saving the turtles babies from being predated by the numerous predators like the crows, dogs, jackals, hyenas, wild boars, raptors etc. Inspite of vigilance during laying
of eggs, dog and raptors make their way to have eggs as their food. But still we need to put in efforts to keep them healthy and alive.
Next step was to wait for 45 days to be able to watch in awe the first few unsure steps being taken by the tiny Olive Ridley after hatching and getting immersed in the mighty sea forever and return after 10-12 years and cycle repeats. This will be sense
of fulfilment as the babies head into their future. It was this feeling of absolute wonderment that I waited for accounted days to watch hundreds of newly hatched Olive Ridley turtles walking over the carpet of sea sand, wadding towards the white and blue
waters of the Arabian Sea with their first lapping. I reached the site a day before i.e Rusikulya beach, Orissa and with a motley group of environmentalists and tourists, I cheered as the hatchings pour out of the sandy pits, and take their first wobbly steps.
My dream came true.
The first steps
I took my camera lens to focus on one of the babies, the struggle of the newborn is quite apparent as it takes in its bearings and tenses each and every sinew in its tiny body amidst a whirlwind slapping of minuscule flippers. Around it, hundreds of similar
looking turtle babies some as small as my thumb are wobbling , thrashing their flippers on the wet sand, moving a head with small, jumps losing direction and bumping into each other, their tiny bodies etching crisscrossing trails in the sand. Near me, volunteers
from a turtle conversation NGO are releasing the hatchlings and also protecting them against predatory birds that are already circling overhead. It is interesting to note that the female turtles among the babies upon reaching adulthood will return to Rusikulya
for laying eggs. As the last of the babies makes it to the sea, swimming vigorously into the open ocean away from the predators, I heave a sigh of relief, feeling proud to have been a part of these little ones journey.
The hatchings season starts from February to April (Depending upon the eggs laying +45 days). While large stretches of India’s coastline are home to the turtle species, the Rusikulya beach is said to be the most popular nesting site on the Orissa coastline.
However, just visiting the beach during the hatching seasons does not guarantee you sightings. Be in touch with forest officials and based on their confirmation, make a visit.
The journey of the newborns towards the sea is extremely challenging. It is so perilous that only a few hundred make it to their destination out of the thousands of eggs laid. Wild predators and over population on the beach are major threats, but this
is where the role of conservation societies like the NGO comes in and forest officials and local population.
Facts : Knowing them
1. It grows about 2-3 feet in length, and weighting about 50 kg, the Olive Ridley derives it name from its Olive coloured carapace, which is heart shaped and rounded. Males and females grow to the same size, however, females have a slightly more rounded
carapace as compared to male. They are carnivores, and feed mainly on jellyfish, shrimp, snails, crabs, molluscs and a variety of fish. These turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean, and migrate thousands of kilometres between feeding and mating grounds
in the course of a year.
2. Females return to the very same beach from where they first hatched , to lay their eggs. During this phenomenal of nesting, up to 6000,000 and more females emerge from the waters to lay eggs.
3. Easiest way identify the gender of an Olive Ridley is by the size of its Tail. The males have longer tails than the females
4. Although the Olive ridely is closely related to Kemp’s Ridley, the former is found only in warmer waters, including the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
5. The coast of Orissa in the India is the largest mass nesting site for the Olive ridley, followed by the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica.
6. Olive Ridley turtles have a slightly smaller head and shell as compared to the Kemp’s Ridley
7. The scientific name of Olive is Lepidochelys Olivacea
8. Olive ridley are migratory, sometimes travelling several thousands kilometres between their feedling grounds and nesting sites
9. Whether hatchings are male or female depends on the temperature when they are in the nest, known as the Pivotal temperature, while warmer temperature yield more female offsprings, more males are born if temperature are cooler
10. After about 45-50 days of the laying eggs, the hatchings begin to pip, or break out of their eggs, using a small temporary tooth located on their snout, called a caruncle.
11. The last walk of a hatchling from the nest to the sea is very critical to the imprinting of a geomagnetic field that helps female olive to their place of birth as adults.
12. It is believed that olive ridley was named after henry Nicholas Ridley, a Notes scientist.
Challenges over the Nesting Sites:-
1. Industrial areas near the vicinity of Rushikulya.
2. Artificial lighting along the coast at the nesting sites
3. Use fishing mechanisms which is not turtle friendly for deep sea fishing.
4. Changing pattern of the beach and shoreline due to tidal dynamics and cyclonic disturbance which over period of time is more frequent and devastating.
5. Beach salinity, pollution levels due to oil spillage, temperature.
6. Hatchlings being consumed by wide range of predators from scavengers to birds, mammals and even crabs.
7. Shrinking habitat due to beaches divided into fragments and beach erosion leading to shortage of available suitable space for nesting. It is cutting of trees in the vicinity of eggs laying areas for financial gains.