Every March, turtle festivals are held in Anjarle and Velas, two villages redefining sea turtle conservation and ecotourism in coastal Maharashtra. Organised with the help of passionate local communities who host tourists in modest homestays during this period, the festival promises visitors a rare sight—new-born sea turtles wriggling into the ocean. Determined to spot this ‘scavenger of the sea’ in action, two friends and I set off for Velas and Anjarle by road this February.
Those who complain “I am done with Goa” should check out the Konkan belt. It’s Goa minus all the noise, booze, and touristy hype. Though the impact of the devastating cyclone Nisarga of 2020 was still visible—the chikoo and mango orchards, for example, remained in limbo—the region was as lush as ever. Summers can be notoriously blazing here, but for now a refreshing nip swirled in the air. As we hurtled past the unspoiled beaches of Aaravi, Shrivardhan, and Harihareshwar, we wondered why more people don’t explore them. But then, it’s a good thing they don’t, lest this coastal paradise turn into a proverbial theme park. With several detours and stops on the scenic route, it took us the better part of the day to cover the 200-kilometre journey to Velas from Mumbai, the last leg of which saw us pile into a car ferry at Bagmandala and cross the creek to Vesavi.
Once in Velas, we were greeted by Mohan Upadhye. Working with the Mangrove Foundation, he lived in a mud dwelling aptly named Turtle Nest. The brightly-coloured walls of his home featured images of the reptile in full swag. Velas is as sleepy as Mohan was energetic—a hangover, perhaps, from his Mumbai upbringing. Living in Mumbai until 2000, the now 44-year-old eventually got fed up with the city’s relentless bustle and decided to move back to his ancestral village. “I was always more comfortable around animals than human beings,” he told us, over lunch. In 2003, he got an offer from the award-winning conservationist Bhau Katdare to get involved in a sea turtle conservation project. Bhau’s non-profit Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) in Chiplun frequently enlists hard-working locals like Mohan. Bhau is an eco-warrior whose organisation has played a significant role in promoting nature conservation and underscoring conversation around wildlife, deforestation, aquatic degradation, global warming, and biodiversity in districts such as Ratnagiri, Raigad, Thane, and Sindhudurg.
“As an animal lover, I was curious about the sea turtles, but didn’t know anything about them when I joined SNM,” said Mohan, who didn’t spot a single reptile for the first five years as a volunteer at SNM. “Like any good teacher, Bhau (Katdare) did not share trade secrets. Instead, he threw me into deep water and said, ‘Go, swim,’” he recalled. Today, Mohan is an expert at his job, having earned the monikers, Turtle Mohan, Friend of the Turtle, and Turtle Daddy for his two decades of work in the field. Without sounding pompous, he said that he can tell if the turtle will land up on the beach tonight “just by the sense of smell, movement, and intensity of a sea breeze.”
Approaching the seashore at night, the Olive Ridley sea turtles are known to dig a 1-1.5 feet long pit to lay their round-shaped white eggs — “tennis ball sized,” as Mohan put it —and cover it with sand before leaving. They will never see the hatchlings ever again. Mohan said that chances of spotting them tonight were very high, given a full moon illuminated the starry sky. “If you see a halo around the moon, then you are definitely going to have a sighting, because that’s when the moon’s gravity is strongest and the tides highest,” Mohan remarked, raising our hopes. We might think of the sea turtles as bad parents but their biology tells us something else. Apparently, they coincide their nesting period with the rising tides to give their offspring the best possible shot at survival. During pregnancy, the female turtle comes out thrice to lay eggs on the sand, each time laying 80-150 eggs. Volunteers from the SNM, working closely with the Mangrove Foundation, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and the Forest Department, protect the eggs from predators. After a month and half of being in the hatchery, when the hatchlings pop out of the shell, they are promptly released into the sea. The first ten years of the lives of the little ones are so mysterious and under-studied that scientists have dubbed them the ‘lost years.’
Mohan explained, “The babies take between two to four days to emerge out of the pit. Being naturally phototactic, they start crawling towards the sea because of the moonlight falling on the waves. It’s amazing that the earth’s magnetic field gets so deeply imprinted on their young minds that when these hatchlings grow up, the adult females among them return to the same nesting ground after 15-20 years.”
Having no luck with turtle spotting in Velas, we headed south to Anjarle (43 kilometres) one early evening. Our stop for the night was a homestay overlooking the beach. In late January, two females were satellite tagged in Anjarle and Velas for the first time in Maharashtra. The first one was named Prathama and the second Saavani, after a local goddess. “According to the transmissions we are receiving, they haven’t gone too far. Who knows, you might get lucky tonight,” Mohan said, optimistically.
Though tucked in bed, we spent a sleepless night as the three of us kept our phones at hand, expecting a call from Mohan and his team anytime during the night. In the wee hours of the morning, we felt like somebody knocked on the door followed by a distinct rumble in the gotha (pen). Alas, it turned out to be a false alarm. “There was a leopard here last night,” the homestay owner clarified in the morning, as he served us a hearty brunch comprising Konkani staples such as ghavane (neer dosa), kombdi vade (chicken curry with fried vada) and vaal bhaji (sautéed sprouts).
Turtle-sighting being a mostly nocturnal activity, we were left with much time to kill during the day. In the afternoon, we were told, “Bhau Katdare is in the house.” The man who has devoted his entire life to protecting the region’s rich ecology was waiting for us in the courtyard. The Chiplun-based Bhau, whose real name is Vishwas Katdare, was once a kabaddi player. He inherited a love for the environment from his father who would carry a large tape recorder to the forest and “record the birdsong.” Bhau grew up hearing stories about a time in the olden days when hundreds of Olive Ridleys used to lay hundreds of eggs in one night alone. “There was a lot of poaching when we started the conservation work back in 2002. Villagers used to either eat the eggs or feed them to the warrior bulls and oxes,” explained Bhau, who’s now working to save pangolins, one of the most trafficked and endangered animals in the world. Mohan added, “Turtle is called kasav in Marathi and according to the local folklore it’s an avatar of Lord Vishnu. People used to consume the eggs, conveniently outside, and enter (their) home after purifying themselves with a bath.” Later, we ran into village elders, one of whom reeled off the various Olive Ridley egg omelette recipes popular during his own childhood.
While the Olive Ridleys breed in large numbers along Maharashtra’s 720 km shoreline, some unconfirmed reports suggest that there have also been occasional sightings of other species such as Green, Leatherback, and Hawksbill sea turtles. For decades, Odisha has led the way in turtle conservation; following in its flippers, Maharashtra is now increasingly claiming the spotlight. Wandering through the charming Anjarle and Velas villages, it was hard to miss the homestay boards advertising eco-friendly retreats and sumptuous seafood menus alongside turtle-related puff. Even though my nightime jape for Olive Ridleys revealed nothing more than star-spangled skies, I will soon return to this neck of Konkan coast to greet the key stone species on its shores.
Turtle tourism is fast becoming a success story here and abroad, and Mohan and others are eager to benefit from it. “Once upon a time, Velas was not even a dot on the map. Have you heard of Las Vegas? We used to call it Lost Velas,” he laughed. “But now things are changing. We are following the self-sustainable model whereby the villagers can help protect the turtle, which is like the goose that lays the golden egg and earn their livelihood through it. In other words, the turtles we all helped save are now saving us. It’s a powerful incentive and a win-win for our local economy,” concluded Mohan, flashing a tattoo on his arm that had a picture of his lucky mascot along with the words, ‘Save Me.’
Shaikh Ayaz is the kind of writer, who, say if he's in Melbourne will gladly skip the MCG for any art museum. But the problem is there aren't that many great art museums in Melbourne. Also, he's running out of professorial, serious-looking turtlenecks that help him, as he says, fit into the whole arty-farty culture.