The Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with a Single Flipper
It was a moonless night, and all was dark along Rushikulya beach in Odisha, India. As she dragged herself out of the water and over the sand, it was the culmination of a journey that lasted over fifteen hundred kilometers and several weeks. With single-minded focus, she crawled along the beach, up beyond the high-tide line to the soft dry sand, nearly fifty metres from the sea. And there, she got to work.
We came upon her as she was excavating the soil, some mysterious calculations running through her mind – the right depth, the correct temperature, the perfect amount of moisture – and sat in awed silence as we watched her construct her masterpiece. Soon enough, she was satisfied with her handiwork, and so began the end of her journey, the reason for her long migration all the way from the shores of Sri Lanka. The Olive Ridley Turtle began to lay her golf-ball eggs into the freshly-excavated nest over a foot deep in the sand, settling into a meditative trance that remained undisturbed even by our hushed whispers.
We watched with a kind of reverence, untired even by the late hour – sometime past 2 a.m. – as the turtle deposited over one hundred eggs into the nest, until finally, the last egg dropped in to join its siblings-to-be, and the job of covering the nest began. Using her flippers, she flung sand over the nest and into our faces, and patted the sand down over the nest, creating a ‘thump-thump’ sound that reverberated deep in your chest. We could only imagine the combined ‘thump-thump’ of a tens of thousands of turtles patting their nests closed in synchrony, enough to make the entire beach quake with the sound.
At last, the nest was covered up to her satisfaction, and the turtle swung around her large body – more than two feet across – and made for the sea, bioluminescence winking in her wake like stars reflecting in the frothing surf. We followed a few feet behind, an entourage to bid her farewell, as she began this next journey, one thousand and five hundred kilometers back to the coasts of Sri Lanka. She dragged herself over the sand, her flippers and shell leaving behind a distinct ‘tractor-trail,’ until with a final shove of the flippers, she came to rest by the sea shore. For a moment, we watched with bated breath, until the surf came in and she was swallowed by the waves, her journey never-ending.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley turtles congregate off the coast of the state of Odisha, in India. After journeying hundreds of kilometres, likely from the coast of Sri Lanka, dodging sailing boats and fishing nets along the way, the turtles mate in the open sea. Soon after, the female turtles make their way to the beaches of Gahirmatha and Rushikulya in Odisha. It begins as a trickle and then becomes a flood. First, a few dozen turtles coming to shore in the dead of night when the Moon has hidden her face. Then, a hundred. Then thousands, hundreds of thousands of turtles making their way to the beach en masse, all with a singular goal – to lay their eggs.
Space is scarce, and as one turtle closes her nest and returns to the sea, another opens it up in search of a place to lay her own eggs. Scavengers and nest-thieves have a free-for-all buffet laid out before them – but no matter how much they gorge, the immense number of eggs from a mass nesting (each turtle lay between 100-150 eggs) ensures that a majority of the eggs will be safe from predation – safety in numbers applies to eggs, too. In roughly two months’ time, the hatchlings make their way out of their eggs and to the surface all together, where they take the first steps of a long, arduous journey to adulthood. One in a thousand of these hatchlings will survive to maturity. The mass-nesting, also called ‘arribada’ (from the Spanish word for ‘arrival’) ensures hatchlings have a higher chance of avoiding predation and making it to the sea alive.
Rushikulya is quiet and dark at night, untouched by ‘development’ but for the glow of city lights in the distance. It is imperative for nesting beaches to be kept completely dark. When the turtle eggs hatch, some homing instinct makes the hatchlings move towards light. On a moonless night, the brightest object is the sea, reflecting the stars. But with development comes fluorescent light and LEDs, confusing the hatchlings, which move away from the sea instead of towards it, making them vulnerable to predation by dogs, birds, jackals, and other wild animals. Gahirmatha and Rushikulya are well protected – for now. The threats are multitudinous. Bright lights from the Integrated Test Range on Kalam Island, near Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, are turned off every year during nesting season to prevent turtle hatchlings from losing their way. Illegal fishing, trawling, and the use of fish nets without specially-designed Turtle Exclusion Devices, contributes to the already-high mortality of the turtles. Mass nesting once took place at the mouth of the river Devi, but with an increase in disturbance in recent years, only Gahirmatha and Rushikulya still see this extraordinary mass-nesting behaviour.
Yet, there is still hope. In the last week of March 2018, Olive Ridley hatchlings broke the surface of Versova beach in Mumbai and made their way to the sea, after a drought of over twenty years. This was largely thanks to citizen clean-up efforts along the beach. There is hope still for India’s wildlife, if only we continue to clean up after ourselves.
On that 20th of February, as we watched the Olive Ridley deposit her eggs, our hearts full to bursting, mere meters away forest department officials released two clutches of newly-hatched Olive Ridleys. In the dark night, drawn to the starlight reflecting off the surface of the Bay of Bengal, the hatchlings made their way, struggling over the sand, to the sea. One-by-one the Bay swallowed them up, a journey of a thousand miles beginning anew with a single, tiny flipper.
Bhavya has itchy feet which take her in search of wild landscapes, good food, and dark coffee. She has a Master’s in Wildlife Science, and she studied vertebrate scavengers for her dissertation. Bhavya is passionate about conservation, environmental policy, carnivore ecology, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. She is a founder member of RewildEd, an organization working to bridge the gap between people and nature through nature education.