A hot gust of wind caresses the mangrove forests along the creek. It is the middle of February, and 20 of us have set out from the village of Gupti in Kendrapara district in eastern Odisha. I scan the mudflats in the light of the afternoon sun and find white-throated and brown-winged kingfishers brooding on trees before diving into the water; or whimbrels and Eurasian curlews being startled by our boat. The saltwater crocodiles, however, coolly bask in the shade of the mangroves. Just as I begin to get to know my neighbours better, the boat approaches the jetty. We have reached Habalikhati.
This tiny coastal village gets its name from the thespesia tree—called habali in Odiya—commonly found in mangroves. As students of Wildlife Institute of India (WII), my batch mates and I are here because Habalikhati is an entry point to the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, believed to be the world’s largest nesting ground for the smallest species of sea turtles—the olive ridleys. Spread over 1,435 square kilometres, the protected area comprises mangroves and other vegetation of the Mahanadi delta. Every year, usually between October and April, over seven lakh female turtles nest at Gahirmatha beach. This phenomenon of mass nesting, called arribada (Spanish for ‘arrival’) occurs only in India, Mexico and Costa Rica. The coast of Odisha is the only arribada site in the country, though olive ridleys nest on other Indian beaches as well.
I could only imagine the spectacle, and wonder whether the odds would be in my favour. You never know the exact date of the arribada. It usually goes on for anything between three to seven days, in the dark of the night. Would we get to see it? Like excited, babbling 10-year olds, we check into the rest house in Habalikhati, located right beside the waters, amid swaying casuarina trees that separate the beach from the mangrove forest.
We step out for a walk at 10.30 p.m., and my mind plays a montage of arribada photos I’ve seen on the internet—lakhs of little black shapes emerging from the water in the darkness. If I am absurdly lucky, I might be able to spot an olive ridley mom dig in the sand and drop her white egg within. Suddenly, I stumble upon a turtle. It is dead.
Sadly, many olive ridleys making the journey get caught in the nets of trawlers fishing in the sea, and wash off on the beach. However, our lament turns out to be a feast for a couple of jackals and wild boars at the beach. We walk on, and no longer needed the headlamps (carrying torches here is an absolute no-no, as it disorients the turtles). Soon, the sand under our feet seems to be lighting up, like sparks of fire from rubbing stones. Bioluminescent plankton light our steps in greenish-blue light. We walk with great care, just to see them light up. Further, hermit crabs scamper over to give us company. I spot egg shells and nest spots, but no turtles that night. It is four in the morning by the time I reach the other end of the beach. Beyond me lies the Bay of Bengal and the confluence of Mahanadi and Dhamrarivers. We dig pits into the sand and sleep, and wake up an hour later to begin the walk back to the rest house. On my way back, slightly dejected at the adventure that wasn’t, I take solace in the place I am in.
Places like Gahirmatha are unique habitats; havens that provide protection to the vulnerable olive ridley turtles. There are, however, bittersweet realities to consider: fishing around the sanctuary is banned for seven months each year, which goes a long way in protecting the turtles, but affects the fishermens’ livelihoods.
Later that morning, I pin my hopes on one last excursion into the waters: to see the olive ridleys mating in the middle of the sea. We hop on a swanky, forest department speed boat used to scan the waters for illegal trawlers in no-fishing zones. I keep my eyes peeled for about an hour, and then I see them—a male and female olive ridley floating while they mated. I see more couples around; at times, they come too close to our boat, and then promptly dive underwater, but most are pretty nonchalant to our presence. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. Hope flickers again—I am about to travel to Rushikulya beach later tonight, and it is another major olive ridley nesting site. Did I have a chance?
An evening drive takes us to the village of Gokharakuda, where we learn from locals that the turtles might just have begun to arrive at Rushikulya beach. There is no time to lose: we immediately head to the beach with a low-intensity, red-light torch and a forest guard to guide us. I desperately scan the beach for flipper trails. And there she is—a lone female olive ridley slowly crawling under the night sky. We keep our distance, and silently observe how she takes a long, winding route from the sea, looking for an ideal site to nest. She stops occasionally, as if to catch a breath or perhaps sense something that’s incomprehensible to us. Soon, I see her beginning to dig with her hind flippers. She maintains a steady pace of scooping out sand and making a hole, oblivious to 20 of us standing goggle-eyed. Once done, she lays her eggs (olive ridleys can lay as many as 120 eggs at one go), fills up the hole, levels the sand with thumping sounds, and glides back to the sea, leaving behind a trail of flippers. The sea consumes her entirely, as if hugging her for the immense effort.
Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary is located 142 km/3.5 hr from Bhubaneshwar and best reached by taxi. The best way to reach Habalikatti is by ferry from Gupti. Rushikulya beach lies 143 km/2.5 hr from Bhubaneshwar. Taxis regularly ply this route as well.
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.