Velas Turtle Festival India

Photo of Velas Turtle Festival India 1/4 by Soumyajit Das
Photo of Velas Turtle Festival India 2/4 by Soumyajit Das
Photo of Velas Turtle Festival India 3/4 by Soumyajit Das
Photo of Velas Turtle Festival India 4/4 by Soumyajit Das

Number of People Gathered: ~200; Number of Turtle hatchling(s): 1; The Ocean: Limitless;  Chance of survival : 1 in 1000

It is this sense of hope, this very small and yet powerful dose of probability that makes me feel wonderful about every conservation project in the country. It helps you find courage; and gives you confidence, that for everything wrong in the world, there is someone, in some corner of the earth, doing his bit to make this a better place.

The year is 2015 and all of the marine turtle species have long back been declared ‘Endangered’.  We are in Velas; a sleepy little fishing village nestled away in a remote corner of Maharashtra.  Velas has come a long way from the days in 1980s when turtles topped the list of delicacies; adults and hatchlings hunted for meat and eggs collected as a routine. Since then a small number of people from the community have set in motion a conservation effort that would go a long way, and put velas in the map for being a village that helps in and also benefits from conservation efforts. Every year, especially during February and March, the village plays host to a large number of conservation experts and enthusiasts who gather to witness the conservation effort in action. Velas is among many such spots spread across the coastline of this country, striving constantly to give these wonderful marine creatures a fighting chance. We chose Velas because of its proximity to Mumbai and took a bus for an 8 hour long overnight journey that took us across highways and criss cross roads and right in to the very heart of this scenic coastal village. The beaches were pristine and the sky overcast- a setting that felt heavenly.

The conservation effort here is managed by the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra(SNM), who have since 1992, been working towards making the beaches an ideal nesting spot for the Olive Ridleys. Ridleys breed throughout the year; but it is during Feb and March that they are most active and need the maximum care. Volunteers guard the nests on rotation, ensuring that they are safe from predators and poachers. Female ridleys reach the beach late in the night and lay anywhere between 80-120 eggs. An incubation period of around 40 days later the hatchlings emerge and under the care of the SNM volunteers make their way towards the ocean. We reached Velas on a day when it was raining incessantly, making our chances of actually seeing a hatchling very slim. The walk from the village to the nesting location takes around half an hour and offers plenty of opportunity to capture village life at its simple best. Hatchlings are released twice a day (Morning 630 and Evening 6 on the day we went). We reached the spot with plenty of time to spare. The nests are well guarded and you can’t possibly miss them even from a distance. The fact there was no one around made us wonder if there would be any activity at all on that day. However, soon enough, we say groups walking in; and within the next hour there was a gathering of around 200 visitors. The SNM volunteers turned up around half an hour before the scheduled release and made it very clear that given the weather and the trend of the past few days the chances of seeing a hatchling is limited. But there was good news waiting! A quick inspection later, one of the volunteers brought out a hatchling from one of the nests; and he did it in a style reminiscent of the movie “The Lion King”, where the proud King holds up his baby for the world to see. Almost instantly the cameras went berserk! The kiddo was safely put in a basket and a bunch of volunteers ran towards the beach to cordon off a release trail; the crowd followed them, hoping to have the best seat in the house when the hatchling crawls her way towards the ocean.

The release was a spectacle. The emotions that it evoked moved me; I saw some people shouting and cheering the hatchling on, while others watched in awe, and some overwhelmed by the fact that this tiny little toddler is ready to take on the massive ocean and its powerful waves. The hatchling made her way towards the sea, one step at a time (and leisure breaks in between!) , while the cameras kept clicking. There are a few moments from this release that are very close to my heart; one for instance is the point when the baby crawled towards the ocean between a volunteer’s legs, safe and sure, to take on one of the most unpredictable and powerful forces of mother nature; or when it hit the water for the first time and the ocean pushed it right back. It is amazing how being close to nature teaches you stuff no classroom can. The hatchling finally made it to deeper waters and you could still see it popping up and down, fighting the waves and paddling through. As it vanished into the endless ocean I turned by camera off and hoped that this one is blessed with all the luck she needs to beat the laws of probability and mature into a wonderful young Olive Ridley, one day to return to this very beach to lay her first batch of eggs !