The endangered Olive Ridley Turtles thrive in warm tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Ocean and India is a hotspot breeding ground for them. If you want to see hordes of these turtle hatchlings then the coast of Odisha is the place to be. Closer home, a town named Velas accounts for 40% of the hatchlings in Maharashtra.
Every year, around November-December, adult female Olive Ridley turtles come to the shore of Velas to lay their eggs. These turtles visit in large groups for mass nesting called Arribadas. Olive Ridley turtles are endangered because they only lay their eggs at select beaches. Why select? The females note down the beach they were born at and return when they attain adulthood, to lay their eggs at this very beach, no matter where in the world they are. Astonishing, isn’t it? But the Olive Ridley turtle eggs have been victims of poachers and also pigs, jackals and eagles that eat them.
Enter knight in shining armour – Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), a Chiplun based conservation team.
A community initiative for eco tourism
SNM initiated the Velas Turtle conservation project in 2008 and have successfully released over 25000 hatchlings in a phased manner. They patrol the beaches prone to turtle visits and collect the eggs and place them in separate baskets in a protected area under artificial conditions. The eggs are left to incubate naturally and take around 50-55 days to hatch. New borns are released near the waters and allowed to crawl their first baby steps towards the sea.
With the help of the Gram Panchayat, local villagers have been roped in to open their houses to tourists for homestays during the festival (February to early April)…a brilliant move to promote eco tourism and generate seasonal income. The proximity of the beach to commercial cities Mumbai and Pune has made this initiative quite a hit. Hundreds of weekenders willing to learn and witness this unique sight now throng this place during season.
Homestays in the coastal village of Velas
The easiest way to do this trip is to join any Mumbai based travel group for a weekend to Velas. I generally don’t prefer large crowds, so decided to drive down with three friends, but not before calling up a couple of homestays to ensure I have a place to crash for the night. You should do this too, as homestays get booked almost immediately for weekends.
We reached Velas at 1pm and headed straight to the village to meet our host and grab lunch. Our hopes were dwindled on interacting with the locals who told us that there have been no new borns since two weeks. Chances were bleak that an egg would hatch especially for us this weekend and we would get to see these turtles. Nonetheless, we moved towards the beach in the evening…secretly praying that we get a glimpse of these endangered species.
Banners carrying information about the Olive Ridley Turtles were placed at strategic points along the route until we were greeted with a large fence that housed the turtle eggs.
The organiser tried to educate the tourists about these species but his voice was mostly inaudible. He then moved towards the baskets to see if any eggs had hatched. While we waited with bated breath for him to break the good news, some tourists were shouting Ganpati Bappa Morya. SERIOUSLY!
No eggs had hatched that evening and the disappointed crowd dispersed to wander around the beach.
Velas Beach pleasantly surprised me with its clean sands and beautiful landscape including a mesmerizing sunset. Believe me, it’s quite a place to spend some time in solitude. Be sure to leave the beach before it gets dark as there are no lights whatsoever. Carry a torch…it can get unsafe to wander alone after sunset.
spending some ‘me’ time atop a hill on the beach
Part of the deal with homestays is three meals with tea. The locals are kind people who do everything to make you feel comfortable. At one point, I felt guilty that we were resting in their homes while they sat coyly in the passage between the hall and the kitchen as if they were the outsiders and this was our house. Rural hospitality is heartwarming indeed! May be it’s the culture, but some of them treat you royally, when actually you’re just like them slogging it out to make a livelihood, but only in an urban setting.
Some hosts may have private rooms to let but most of them will give you the hall and a mat. We lived it like the locals sleeping on the floor that had a coat of cow dung paste…and we played antakshari before calling it a night.
our humble abode for a night
The next morning, we were set to try our luck again. We reached the beach at 7:30am (half an hour late!) and saw a large gathering near the sea. Two eggs had hatched and the team at SNM had carried them closer to the water so they could take their first baby steps towards the ocean. We ran a marathon to get there and fought the crowds to get a glimpse of these little ones preparing to take on lives of their own.
It took the turtles around 30 minutes to walk what could be less than 50 meters of distance. But the crowd looked in amazement and gave it all their patience…few because they genuinely loved the rare spectacle and other’s because they have to get their monies worth for travelling so far.
The turtles finally left us for greener pastures and soon the beach was empty with no sign of civilization. We hung around to click some postcard pictures, play hopscotch and even took a dip in the sea.
After a traditional home cooked lunch, we bid goodbye to our hosts and drove down to Bankot Fort (3 km). There wasn’t much information at the site, although online media said that the structure was once ruled by Shivaji Maharaj. We then took the ferry and headed to the beautiful Harihareshwar beach before leaving for Mumbai the same evening.
Important to note
- Watching these turtles is free of charge.
- Two batches are organised every day to see the hatchlings at 7am and 5.30pm
- The incubation is natural and hence there is no guarantee of day, date and time when the eggs would hatch
- Plan the trip in such a way that you get at least two visits to the beach. I have known of people who come on weekend trips and have not seen even one turtle. But the travelers they are, they often return to Velas to see these little ones 🙂
- Please don’t shout or yell (especially GANPATI BAPPA MORYA) when baskets are opened to see if eggs have hatched, and also when they are crawling towards the sea. Turtles don’t understand a thing, and you sound foolish!
- For more information about the Velas Turtle Festival, check out the official website of Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra
On a final note
The Olive Ridley Turtle sightings are getting lesser each year. Few years back, when I first read about this festival, the hatchlings were about 50 in a single release. When I visited in 2015, we only managed to see 2 turtles and it took us two rounds to the beach. Go now!
I’d visit Velas again for this beautiful scenic drive
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