In search of the Olive Ridley

Members of an NGO along with the Forest Department's team headed by Dr. S. David Raj lead a search for Olive Ridleys nesting at Marina Beach. Photo : S. R. Raghunathan

Members of an NGO along with the Forest Department's team headed by Dr. S. David Raj lead a search for Olive Ridleys nesting at Marina Beach. Photo : S. R. Raghunathan  

Street dogs bark madly at us, confused. What are so many people doing in their territory in the dead of night? We trudge on, along the strip of beach behind the Lighthouse, ignoring their questioning looks. Meanwhile, almost two kilometres away, an Olive Ridley sea turtle is making her way to the shore to build a nest. She is unaware of the party that’s come in search of her and happily sets out digging a hole in the sand with her flippers.

Our group consists of some 80 people. Led by S. Anand and N.B. Gopinath from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and Youssef Labidi from Save A Turtle, we set out on what’s called a ‘Turtle Walk’ at 1 a.m. The walk is a journey on foot along the seashore, to look for Olive Ridley nests, and if we’re lucky, the turtles themselves. “Do not use flash lights,” warns Youssef at the start of the walk. “If you spot a turtle, do not photograph her using a flash.”

The distance between us and the Olive Ridley is reducing by the minute. It’s been almost half-an-hour now and she has finished digging her nest. She starts her business instantly — she has over 100 eggs to send to the world outside.

There’s a commotion ahead — a nest has been spotted. A turtle has left a trail on the sand as it slid into the sea. Anand and Gopi get to work, as we settle on the edges of a boundary they sketch around it on the sand. We watch with bated breath — they poke an aluminium rod into the heaped sand. They are looking for the nest’s core that holds the eggs. Loose sand indicates that it has just been meddled with. Their head bent low and eyes focussed, they investigate the grey-brown sand in the dark. But there’s nothing — it looks like the turtle was scared away after it built the nest.

(An Olive Ridley returning to the sea after laying eggs at Marina Beach Photo : S. R. Raghunathan)

But our Olive Ridley that started laying eggs is lucky. Her work is done — she has laid 131 eggs. Now comes the crucial task: covering up the nest so that the eggs are safe. She slides sand over the nest with her two flippers. This takes a lot of effort. She’s almost done. A little bit of sand to top it off, and she will be on her way back...

“This is it!” calls out a volunteer. “You’re a lucky bunch. Before you is an Olive Ridley. Now, if you please sit down quietly, we can see it.” We focus on a dark spot beside a cart where the turtle is assumed to be seated. “It is right there,” points out Anand. But we see nothing. It’s too dark. Then, a sprinkle of sand flies from the surface and shines a dull gold under the moonlight. More sand flies up at regular intervals. “The turtle is covering up the nest,” explains Anand. “It will pat the surface once it’s done; on certain nights, when the waves are silent, you can hear the gentle pat of the flippers on the sand.”

(Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs at Marina Beach Photo : S. R. Raghunathan)

Gopi tip-toes towards it and gestures for us to come closer. The grey shell, that’s covered with sand after all the hard work, comes into view. It stops in its tracks — thanks to the flash from mobile phone cameras of some insensitive, over-enthusiastic people. She looks up once with beady eyes, confused, and hits the sea in one quick move.

Gopi and Anand measure the size of the nest and collect the eggs in a bag; these will be taken to a hatchery in Besant Nagar, where the eggs will be nurtured in an environment that’s similar to their nest. The little ones will be released 45 days later into the sea. “These hatchlings will return to the same coastline to nest, some 15 years later,” says Gopi. Olive Ridleys never forget where they’re from.

Saving Ridley:

“Olive Ridley numbers reduced by almost 50 per cent across the world, some 15 years ago,” says Youssef of Save A Turtle. The reasons include increased activity along beaches, climate change, and uncontrolled fishing during the nesting season.

The walks are aimed at creating awareness on the need to protect Olive Ridleys. “We’re also educating fishermen to use the turtle excluder device that lets turtles escape from the nets if captured. Without the turtles, there will be no fish in the sea. This is because turtles eat jelly fish — which feed on fish eggs — and keep their numbers under control.”

The turtle walks are on till March 15. To participate, call 97909 68326 or visit Save A Turtle’s Facebook page.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2020 7:29:41 PM |

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