For a few seconds, the turtles stood shock still, their ET-like eyes fixed on the horizon. Then, as if prodded by instinct, they rushed forward, their flippers making a trail on the wet sand. Some of the baby turtles headed straight for the waves crashing a feet away, and some wavered uncertainly at the water’s edge till a gentle wave floated them away. We were at Velas beach in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, watching the newly hatched Olive Ridley turtles find their way to their pelagic home. The Turtle Festival, held annually for the last few years now, is drawing visitors not only from Maharashtra but from other corners of India and even abroad. Almost 300 km from Mumbai, tucked inside the Konkan coast, Velas would have continued with its near anonymous existence if it was not for a chance discovery by Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, a Maharashtra-based nature club. In 2002, out to survey the white-bellied sea eagles that nested among the rocky outcrops along the Velas beach, the members discovered small mounds of sand littering the beach. Inquiring with the local people, they learned that these were nests of turtles that came from the sea to lay eggs. However, the nests were empty; apparently the eggs were eaten by jackals. The following year, the club members were surprised to find that Olive Ridley turtles nested here. But poached by locals and wild animals, very few eggs survived.
Then began a long and coordinated effort to save these turtle eggs and spread the word of conservation. The nature club members roped in some villagers and formed the Kasav Mitra Mandal (Friends of Turtles). The Mandal members kept a vigil on the beach when turtles come ashore to lay eggs which is usually in November-December. Since it was impossible to save the turtles without local help, the nature club members decided to hold an annual Turtle Festival. Since there’s no hotel at Velas, visitors are hosted by the local people for a small payment. This also helps them with some extra income. As more and more locals realised that it was the turtles who were drawing visitors to their village, they too actively participated in protecting the turtles during the nesting period. As photographers tried their best to freeze frame these little creatures and their first struggle in life to reach the sea, the rest of us looked on in amazement. On the way back, we gathered at the club’s office to see a short film on the life of Olive Ridley turtles and the conservation efforts being made to save them.
Starting from Mumbai, one has to turn off the Goa-bound NH17 and take the route via Mhapral, Mandangad and Bankot to Velas. Although state transport buses ply to Velas from Mumbai, Pune and other places, these can be very crowded. Either take your own vehicle or opt for a package tour.
About the Author
Jigyasha is an avid weekend traveller who also loves to read a book or two on her way. Second love: Theatre.