Every year, without fail, Olive Ridley turtles numbering lakhs, home in on the beaches of Orissa to lay eggs. Thanks to volunteers and stringent laws, the hatchlings have a much better chance of survival now…

Avisit to the Rushikulya rookery in order to witness hundreds of thousands of mother Olive Ridley Turtles saunter up the beach and lay eggs en masse no doubt was a fascinating prospect. We drove on NH-5 late into the night and reached the town of Ganjam in southern Orissa, where the river Rushikulya merges into the Bay of Bengal. A detour took us to the village of Gokhurkuda, a tiny hamlet of fisher folk and farmers.“Just follow me,” requested the torch-wielding Rabindranath Sahu, Secretary of the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee who was our guide as well. Under a star-lit sky, we trudged along sandy dunes and shrubs, the sound of roaring waves beckoning to us. In the ensnaring darkness, our eyes getting acclimatised, we reached the huge expanse of sandy beach, “There' s a turtle!” We saw a huge, almost 40 kg, mother Ridley with a carapace length of about 60 cm digging the sand with her hind flippers. When she was satisfied that the pit was about a foot deep, she settled over it and began dropping one round white egg after another into the flask-like nest. While she was engrossed in offloading nearly a hundred-odd table-tennis shaped round eggs, she remained absolutely oblivious to our presence and touch. Then slowly she began covering the pit with sand, using her flippers on either side dexterously.

Quick affair

“Watch her pounding on the sand this way and that in order to ensure that her clutch of eggs is securely scaled in the nest, away from rapacious predators,” observed our guide. Having accomplished her task, she started rushing back to the sea. I too rushed behind her, patting her hard and bony scute-covered shell while seeing her off.

“One of the rarest species of mothers, indeed!” I remarked on hearing that the mother, who had no role in incubation or nurturing of young ones, wouldn't even have a glimpse of her babies once they were hatched a month and a half later! All around us, this sort of activity, of female expectant Ridleys coming out from the Bay of Bengal and dragging themselves languorously to the sandy shore, selecting an ideal spot for their nest, then going through the ordeal of cautiously off-laying their eggs, kept going on throughout the small hours of the night. With the early hours of the dawn breaking out, the beach was indeed a rare sight to behold. Everywhere, we could see congregations of mother turtles either scattered along the whole wide expanse of sand, or going to and fro from the ocean! This en masse nesting, known as ‘arribada' meaning arrival in Spanish, was indeed an indelible experience.

“All these turtles were born here itself,” declared Rabindranath as we stared, bewildered. “It's a proven scientific fact that the female turtles, after mating in the off-shore waters of breeding grounds visit their natural beaches to lay their eggs,” he elaborated.

With the sun appearing on the horizon, the frenetic activity of the night began to reduce. The next day, the papers had it that February 16 was the day when over a lakh turtles had nested in the ‘ arribada' at the Rushikulya rookery, the second largest in the world after Gahirmatha rookery, the largest one, also in Orissa.

Amazing sight

A month and a half later when the hatchlings crawl out of the sandy pits, you get to experience another amazing wonder of nature. Incubation takes place with metabolic heat and natural sunlight. Then follows en masse hatching, also a nocturnal activity. The entire beach, a storehouse of camouflaged turtle eggs, begins to pulsate with life. In the fading light of the small hours of April 5, we see a tiny, three-inch small baby struggling to creep out of the sand. Once it pops out, it rushes towards the sea waters. Within seconds, nearby, another hatchling emerges from the same pit, as simultaneously several, dark, tiny creatures follow suit and instinctively crawl into the sea. The entire beach is a unique spectacle with innumerable hatchlings, to the tune of lakhs, scattered throughout the length and breadth of the sandy shore. “But only one in a thousand will sadly survive out of these massive numbers,” informs our guide, who along with other volunteers is engrossed in collecting the babies straying away in the opposite direction of the sea. The buckets with hatchlings are emptied into the waves as the new-born hatchlings enter a new phase of life.

Of all the Indo-Pacific marine turtles, the Olive Ridleys, named after their Olive green colour, perhaps, are the smallest in size. They feed on jellyfish, shrimps, sea urchins, marine snails, crabs and algae. This endangered species faces its greatest threat from fishing nets and trawlers, sea creatures like sharks, killer whales, crabs, crocodiles, and animals like dogs, jackals, crows, eagles etc. The turtles are hunted for their eggs and meat. The Ridleys' shells are collected for ornamental purposes.

Thanks to the incessant efforts of Volunteers of the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, the Forest Department, The Wild Institute of India and the community-based approach towards conservation, besides the stringent laws preventing mechanised trawlers from operating in sensitive zones, the enigmatic, endangered Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtle will survive against all odds and not become part of ancient folklore.

Getting there

The Rushikulya Rookery is situated near Ganjam town in southern Orissa. Spread over five km, the nesting site is east of National Highway 5, running between Kolkata and Chennai. You can hire auto-rickshaws from the railway station or bus stop at Ganjam and go through tiny villages of Purunabandha, Palibandha or Gokhurkuda to reach the sandy rookery. You may contact the Secretary of RSTPC, Rabindranath Sahu, on 09437204384.