Mrs. Shakti & Mr. A S Bishnoi

Turtle Tales: Arribada in Odisha

Turtle Tales: Arribada in Odisha

Introduction

Every Year Odisha witnesses a migration of epic proportions. Huge numbers of Olive Ridley turtles arrive at Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi River mouth to lay eggs. To a lesser extent, some Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys Olivacea) also visit the coasts of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh as well as Andamans. This is a unique feature in their life as every year these turtles come to the same place for mating and laying their eggs. The hatchlings after reaching adulthood again come back to the same place to lay their eggs.

Olive Ridley Turtle

Our Experience

An opportunity to witness this mesmerising spectacle materialised suddenly when we got a call from a forest official friend. Both of us knew that we don’t have time, so immediately along with our kid we drove from Balasore and within four hours at 11pm in the night were were in the site to withness the mass nesting of turtles.

Olive Ridleys (Lepidochelys Olivacea), are the smallest of all other turtles. They owe their name to the colour of the carapace and skin which is grey to green. Found in the warm tropical waters of Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the Olive Ridleys have been the most abundantly found sea turtle. However, 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 Turtles returning to the sea

Olive Ridley turtles have given Gahirmatha the distinction of being the world’s largest rookery as official figures indicates that 90% of the population of sea turtles along the Indian coastline come to Odisha coast for nesting. The other nesting sites in Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Naidu etc see occasional and smaller number of nesting. They are also found in Andamans, in the Coromandel coast, Velas in Maharashtra 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.




Mating

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 officials, 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.

Olive Ridley Turtles mating in the sea

Egg Laying

When we reached the site, it was pitch dark and the silence of the night was occasionally broken by roaring sea waves, barking of dogs as well as the soft intermittent noises of digging the sand and beating the covered nests with the plastron. According to forest officials approximately 9000 Olive Ridelys had congregated in the beach. 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.

Olive Ridley Turtle laying eggs

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 Bhubaneshwar 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. The egg laying is an exhaustive process and their movements are slow.

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. The female turtle laid eggs and covered nest with the plastron in aprox 45 min. Turtle started moving towards sea and we followed her. After completion of their duty of laying eggs they all proceeded towards the sea. They will return again only in the next season. There were little clashes for space and few nests were dug out by other females accidentally due to shortage of space.

We were able to observe four turtles complete the egg laying process before the heat and humidity forced us to break for lunch under the shade of a tree.

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.

 

 

Interacting with forest officials 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.

Kid watching in awe

Next day we revisited the site in the 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. We had witnessed mating and found that our daughter was searching for the same turtle amongst the ones laying eggs. She was surprised that all the turtles looked similar. Soon she gave up. This uniformity of appearance of this species along with the massive numbers in the beach multiplies the impact and makes it mesmerising.



One important and noticeable aspect which touched us was hard work of forest department staff and 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 have 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.

Hatchings

Next step was to wait for 45 days to be able to watch the Olive Ridley turtles hatch from the eggs and make their way to the sea and then return back after attaining adulthood to again mate, lay eggs and repeat the cycle of procreation. We reached the Rusikulya beach, Orissa with a small group of environmentalists and tourists, and cheers erupted as the hatchings poured out of the sandy pits, to take their first wobbly steps.

Freshly hatched Olive Ridley turtles from eggs

Hundreds of baby Olive Ridleys were taking their first steps to find their way to the sea, with their parents no where near to help them. We watched them in awe, realising that these tiny tots are on their own without their parents to help them grow up. Such is the laws of nature. The sight of hundreds of newly hatched Olive Ridley turtels walking over the carpet of sea sand, wading through the white foam of the receeding waves towards the blue sea waters is mesmerising and can melt the hearts of anyone. It is a sight that common men and women should experience which will instill the love of nature in them.

The first steps

Watching the struggle of one of the babies through the camera lens helped really appreciate its effort as it takes in its bearings and stretches 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 our thumb, are wobbling and thrashing their flippers on the wet sand, trying to move ahead, losing direction and bumping into each other with their tiny bodies etching crisscrossing trails in the sand. Near me, volunteers from a turtle conservation NGO were releasing the hatchlings and also protecting them against predatory birds that were 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 heaved a sigh of relief, feeling proud to have been a part of these little ones journey.

Tiny freshly hatched Olive Ridley turtles returning to sea

The hatching season is from February to April and the end date depends upon the date of laying eggs as it takes 45 days to hatch. While large stretches of India’s coastline are home to the turtle species, the Rusikulya beach is the most popular nesting site on the Orissa coastline. However, just visiting the beach during the hatching seasons does not guarantee you sightings. One needs to be in touch with forest officials and based on their confirmation, make a visit.

Eggs dug up and destroyed

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 less space on the beach are major threats, but this is where the role of conservation societies comes in play along with local population and official duty of forest department.

Olive Ridley: Quick Facts

  1. It grows about 2-3 feet in length, and weigh 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 life 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 phenomena of nesting, up to 6000,000 and more females emerge from the waters to lay eggs.
  3. Easiest way to 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 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 ridleys 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 temperatures yield more female offsprings, more males are born if temperature is 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 Noted scientist.

Challenges over the Nesting Sites:-

Turtles often get caught in the fishing nets which doesn’t have TED (Turtle Excluder Device)

  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 space for nesting. Cutting of trees lead to beach erosion which reduces the nesting space.



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Mrs. Shakti & Mr. A S Bishnoi
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