ENVIRONMENT: The east coast is currently witnessing the birth of millions of olive ridley turtles. Only one in every thousand survives to adulthood

Last fortnight the Indian east coast was witness to three dramatic ‘hiccup events' in the world. While two grabbed world headlines, the third event went unnoticed. The first was a traumatic tsunami scare; the second was launch of Agni-V and the third was the birth of about ten million tiny turtle hatchlings.

Under the protective cover of darkness, beaches in Ganjam district of Odisha suddenly came alive. On ground zero at Rushikulya rookery, thousands of mini landmines softly implode with newly hatched Olive Ridley Turtles. Akin to the ICBM expulsion at Wheelers Island in Odisha, tiny turtles literally launch themselves out of the sandy situation. Buried securely in the earth by their respective mothers, the turtle eggs spend 45 days incubating and growing. Once they are fully developed replicas of their parents, it is time to escape from the hidden nurseries. Bale -- the collective word for turtles -- tumble and fumble out of each pit as the countdown begins when the weather is conducive. The flush of mass emergence of baby turtles was noticed between April 16 and April 24. Thereby starts the tale of the bale of turtles which roam the oceans without touching land for 20 years until maturity.

In recent years, pristine beaches near Rushikulya river mouth have emerged as the main nesting grounds for the endangered Olive Ridleys. The other major nesting site is Gahirmatha sanctuary close to the Bhitarkanika National Park. Strangely, the sea turtles have stopped laying eggs at another location near the Devi river mouth. While Odisha is the most preferred location, there are many nesting spots across the Indian coast stretching from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. However, the egg laying is a minimalist affair. This synchronized egg laying in Odisha called “Arribada” is a wonder of nature and continues to be a mystery. Mr. B.C. Choudhury, an authority on turtles at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), explains, “Turtles often migrate great distances between feeding and breeding grounds. They only assemble to breed and brood at favourable locations.”

The odyssey of endurance for the baby turtles begin right from the day mother turtle sheds her burden of gravid eggs into flask shaped pits. Due to inclement weather and oceanic conditions this year, thousands of underground eggs were washed out by the hungry tides. “Nearly 40 per cent of the eggs laid were lost to the wanton waves of the mighty ocean.” says Mr. Rabindranath of Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee (RSTPC). But all is not lost as these eggs become food and are gobbled by land and sea creatures. Forest officials and turtle lovers managed to collect some of exposed eggs and reburied them in ‘sandy incubators'.

Emerging from the cozy comfort of the eggshells, baby turtles, as if on cue burst into the open. About 70 odd turtles emerging from their little prisons are a sight to behold as they ‘swim' out of the loose sand.

Like all young ones, they take in the first breath of fresh air and look around only to see total darkness. They resemble adult turtles but lack the hardness of the protective shell. Equipped with a baby blue dry skin they initially toddle around to get their bearings right. Though they seem lost, their inborn instinct makes them head straight to the sea and not the other way. Wildlife experts explain that in total darkness they initially rely on two senses.

They smell the salty sea breeze and importantly the white surf glistening on the crest of rolling waves act as a beacon. This prompting is enough for them to head straight into the cool sea waters and realise they are home. Equipped with paddle like hands and legs, swimming comes easy to the tiny turtles.

The need for speed is there in all the turtle babies, but not all are lucky in the seaward march as they face innumerable adversaries. Turtles need to cover at least 100 to 200 meters to reach the security of the sea. Meanwhile, hungry predators like jackals, feral dogs, eagles, gulls, kites, crows, mongooses are all waiting for turtle morsels. If that is not enough, turbulent seas, drowning and even dehydration can take its toll on the hapless new born. Scientists have deciphered that only one in every thousand survives to adulthood. That is a colossal waste in human terms but nature has its own way of dealing with challenges. Hence innumerable eggs are laid so that only healthy turtles can roam the seven seas. naturenib@gmail.com