It was like a scene from one of those crazy Japanese game shows. As soon as the instruction came in, we made a run for it, all 250 of us. We lost our slippers – and our balance – in the black, slushy sand, waded through a stream of knee-deep water and climbed over a sandbar that was too steep for our liking. Out of breath and splattered with mud, we formed a horseshoe of sorts around a patch of beach, and stood in wait – while the rain fell relentlessly around us – for a tiny Olive Ridley turtle to make his first journey to the water.
Soon enough, Mohan Upadhye, a part of the local NGO working on turtle conservation, placed a baby Olive Ridley in our midst, a few feet from the water. Our little guy was nervous, and understandably so – his first introduction to the world was a horde of overly excited humans. He waited on the sand for a while, surrounding by our frantic whispering and constant photo taking.
Then, he moved one flipper forward, testing the ground as it were. A few moments later, his other flipper pushed him ahead, closer to the sea. Every movement prompted cheers from us, like we had a personal stake in him making it. Perhaps nerves got the better of him, because after about 10 minutes, Upadhye placed the turtle right by the water. When the waves came in, the little new-born was swept out to sea. And just like that, he was gone.
It wasn’t a coincidence that a bunch of us happened to be on a beach with a baby Olive Ridley on a rainy Saturday evening in February. We were visiting as part of the annual Velas Turtle Festival that takes place in the tiny village of Velas, in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. From October until about April, the waters around Velas become nesting and breeding grounds for the Olive Ridley turtle; one of the few places in the world where these reptiles come to nest.
Minutes before our mad dash to the water, Upadhye had examined eight nests on the beach that held around 500-odd eggs. The untimely rain had brought down the temperature from the ideal range of 28℃-32℃ that the eggs need to hatch. “That’s the first hatchling this season,” Upadhye told us with a smile.
Although Olive Ridleys are found abundantly in the oceans, they’re endangered because of their nesting practices. These turtles nest in only a small number of places around the world, and a disturbance at any of these sites would put the entire species at risk. In the wild, these eggs have about 60 per cent survival rate, Upadhye said, due to natural and human predators. But with the intervention of the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), a conservation group working along the Konkan coast, and local volunteers like Upadhye that number goes up considerably.
As we crossed the drenched beach to return to the village, past a strip of giant trees on the beach and through slushy fields, I wondered whether we’d see any turtles the next morning. The rain didn’t seem like it would let up any time soon. It didn’t. Sunday morning greeted us with grey clouds that threatened to open up at any moment. We skipped going to the turtle beach thinking there wouldn’t be any new hatchlings to see off thanks to the downpour. That was stupid, because Upadhye later told me that two more eggs had hatched that morning.
While my friends slept in, I decided to check out the village a little more. I’ll be honest; the thought of having seen only one turtle was kind of getting me down and I wanted to get more out of this trip. Before I’d left for Velas, a colleague told me that she’d seen 53 turtles when she’d visited a few years ago. Fifty-three! I was thinking about that as I made my way down the main road that leads through the village. It opens up to a beautiful site that wouldn’t be out of place in an exotic Game Of Thrones shoot – rising rocky hills covered in cacti and shrubs on my right, the bruised sea painted in shades of grey and deep purple on my left, a strong breeze and a single-lane road down the middle.
I parked myself at a large rock outcrop by the water’s edge and thought about the previous evening. In the moment that the turtle first hit the waves, I felt a bunch of things: protectiveness for the little turtle, awe at the creature’s instinct to head straight for its natural environment and fortunate for witnessing the beginning of what will be a great journey. It was one of those moments I won’t forget for a long time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that seeing one turtle was still better than seeing none at all.
Sure, I’d have liked to have seen more hatchlings. And yes, it would have been nice to have not got lost for three hours and ended up at the wrong Velas (more on that in the Factfile). But overall, the weekend trip had definitely been worth it. There was a road trip through the gorgeous Western Ghats, mountains of good food (lime and chili chips sandwiched between thepla, anyone?), copious amounts of rain, blissful isolation with the lack of electricity and phone coverage, great company – of the human and animal variety – and beaches that were straight out of a postcard.
That weekend may not have gone exactly as I’d hoped but I know that, thanks to the stellar work by folks like Upadhye and the SNM, I’ll always have another shot to go see baby Olive Ridleys scurrying to the sea.
Getting there: Velas is a village in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. It is just over 300km from Mumbai. The only way to get there is by road, including a ferry ride from Bhagmandala to Velas.
Good to know: There are two villages called Velas in Ratnagiri. When you’re asking for directions, make sure you ask for Bankot Velas or Bhagmandala. It’ll save you three hours worth of backtracking.
When to visit: The Velas Turtle Festival is usually held between the end of February and April. You’ll get all the details about the festival on the website or you can call Mohan Upadhye at 02350-220304/089756 22778 .
I definitely recommend visiting Velas otherwise, too. The village and the neighbouring beach of Kelshi offer great weekend getaways; Kelshi has a range of hotels you can try.
Accommodation: During the Turtle Festival, a handful of villagers in Velas open up their homes, allowing you to experience true Konkan hospitality. On average, you pay between ₹300-₹500 for a night’s stay, which includes three meals and chai. There is no charge for seeing the turtles.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.