Avoiding a newly formed sand bar at the regular nesting site, thousands of Olive Ridley turtles have chosen the remote Podampeta hamlet as nursery this year

One of the longest living sea creatures, the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are in trauma this year. All along the Indian coastline, particularly the virgin beaches of the Orissa coast, turtles come ashore after leading a prolonged aquatic life. They congregate in large numbers but are tormented and tortured due to a number of natural and manmade reasons. Turtles come onto land only once in a year to lay eggs in thousands on beaches that are relatively untouched by man. An enduring ritual followed religiously by female turtles for hundreds of years. On the other hand, the male turtles never ever touch ground again; they even prefer making love only at sea.

Given the high densities of human population along the 7,517 km long Indian coast abutting the Arabian Sea in the west, Indian Ocean in the south and Bay of Bengal in the east, turtles are finding fluctuating fortunes.

Choosing a suitable site to lay eggs is increasingly becoming difficult for them. Nests are vulnerable to predation by humans, feral dogs, cats and wild animals. Hatchlings are vulnerable to predation and are disoriented by beachfront lighting. They also face a formidable flotilla as several minor and major ports operate in the name of development. Large scale commercial fishing also kills the docile turtles in large numbers.

February and March is a crucial season for nesting turtles but there has been comparatively low activity along the coast of Orissa this year. Olive Ridley Turtles predominantly prefer hotspots at Rushikulya and Gahirmatha along the NH-5 running along the east coast. While both 2010 and 2011 saw a fantastic nesting fiesta with thousands of marauding turtles laying millions of eggs, this year there has been a drastic dip on the visiting turtles.

I learnt from various sources that a strange situation confronted the beach configuration. The combined effects of low tide and high tide, sea erosion and splurge in Rushikulya River have dramatically changed the dynamics of the original terrain. The hungry tide had eaten into the beautiful beach that I had seen last year where I spent seven fruitful days in two spells. I witnessed an amazing wildlife spectacle called ‘Arribada' - mass egg-laying by pregnant turtles. Thereafter I watched hatchlings scampering to the sea in April. On both the occasions' drama-in-real-life happens only in the dead of the night when there is no sunshine or even a hint of moonshine. Unfortunately only one out of every 1000 new born turtles survive to adulthood.

Rushikulya still flows with fresh waters into the Bay of Bengal and at the mouth of the river forms a mini delta equipped with ecological conditions which the turtles adore. This was originally the pristine piece of beautiful beach, a perfect terra firma used for nesting. This year the river mouth had split wide open and a large band of sand, nearly three kilometers long has formed. The turtle's seems to sense some trouble with their uncanny animal instinct, as they had arrived on time but were reluctant to lay eggs on the newly formed islet. They speculated that this swathe of sandbar freshly created by a quirk of nature is unstable. Their natural instinct tells them that the wanton waves are going to gobble it away in due course. Instead, the turtles took the trouble of traveling deep inland to a tiny village and started laying eggs in the middle of the night.

The startled villagers woke up with a mixed feeling of ecstacy and agony. Everybody including the turtle experts, the forest departments and even scientists are equally baffled. Mr. Rabindranath, secretary of Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee gleefully admits that the turtles feel secure with the humble villagers and not only laid eggs in the exterior but even interior of the villager's huts. The privileged Podampeta hamlet saw almost 10,000 turtles and each meticulously laid about 100 ping-pong sized eggs.

According to B.C.Choudhury of Wildlife Institute of India, who has 30 years of experience in Indian natural history says, “It's obvious we have a long way to go, to fully comprehend the mysterious maturity of nature in its totality. Like wise men, we have protected a stretch of around 5 kms of nesting beach hoping the turtles would lay their eggs every year within this range. In retrospect, turtles have acumen first to ensure the suitability and sustainability of the nesting beach and maximum protection to their progeny.

Mr Choudhury goes on to say that now we need to demark and safeguard even longer stretches of the coast. If need be, at least 10 to 15 km of sea beach on both north and south of the nesting beach that is used every year by the turtles. These identified stretches of dynamic nesting sites need to be isolated for the turtles by shunning any sort of anthropogenic or developmental activity.

Despite decades of study, we have only learnt some sections of the biology and ecology of the gentle giants of the sea. After formulating some ‘turtle theories' we learn something new, as nature behaves differently and turtles resort to new ways to fulfill their reproductive requirements. “Sound nesting beach management, determining and safeguarding the offshore distribution is vital. Acquiring data on migratory pathways of Olive Ridley Sea Turtle along the coastline of India judiciously based on scientific prudence is mandatory” rues Choudhury. Meanwhile, wait for the update on the birth of tiny baby turtles to hatch and watch them toddle into the sea waters in two to three weeks time as will begin a long journey in the oceans of fantasy. naturenib@hotmail.com