By Shekar Dattatri
Come December and it is time for volunteers to be alert on the Indian coasts. For this is the time we need to assist nature and give the Olive Ridley turtles a helping hand.
With winter approaching, groups of volunteers along India’s coast, including many students, will prepare to welcome some unique visitors — the female olive ridley sea turtles. While the male turtles spend their entire lives at sea, females have to come ashore to lay their eggs. The nesting season in India is generally from December to March.
Like all sea turtles, olive ridleys are endangered, and in urgent need of protection from many man-made threats. At sea, many get caught accidentally in large nets cast by mechanised fishing boats. Unable to breathe underwater for long they drown. Others die when they swallow plastic bags floating in the ocean, which they mistake for jellyfish — a favourite food item.
Miracle of nature
Females that escape these dangers come ashore at night to nest on our beaches. Wonderful swimmers, they are at a disadvantage on land, and can only move slowly. When a female finds a suitable nesting spot above the high-tide line, she excavates a hole in the moist sand, into which she deposits more than a hundred eggs, each the size of a ping-pong ball. When all the eggs are laid, she carefully covers up the nest with sand and heads back to the sea. Unfortunately, her telltale tracks make it easy for poachers to locate the nest, and the scent she leaves behind attracts predators such as pigs, jackals and dogs.
The eggs that escape these dangers hatch 45-60 days later, having incubated under the warmth of the sun. The tiny hatchlings emerge from the sand after dark and head towards the sea, orienting towards it from the faint illumination of moon or starlight on the water. Once in the water, they swim vigorously away from the shore. Most of them will fall prey to fish and other sea creatures during the first few weeks of their lives. In fact, scientists estimate that out of every hatchling that successfully makes it into the sea, only one will live to reach maturity. In a miracle of nature, those that do reach maturity unerringly make their way back to the very beach where they were born to lay their eggs.
Olive ridleys and other turtles have followed this pattern of breeding for millions of years, but today they are threatened because of our activities. Beach constructions have greatly reduced nesting habitat, while powerful artificial illumination lures hatchlings in the opposite direction from the sea, leading to their death. It is to give these vulnerable creatures a fighting chance of survival that teams of volunteers work tirelessly during the nesting season. Some simply erase the tracks of nesting turtles to prevent poachers from finding the nest. Others collect the eggs and bury them in protected hatcheries to safeguard them from poachers and predators until they hatch. Today, there are many voluntary sea turtle groups in several coastal states. If you join one, you too can play your part in helping to save the olive ridley.
The writer is a wildlife and conservation filmmaker and winner of a Rolex Award for Enterprise.