Wonderful Velas – Celebrating life with turtle festival

About Velas

Velas is a small village along the Western coastline in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. It is famous for its beaches and turtle festival which is held by the local people of Velas and local NGO Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra. During this Festival, Ghumrs get opportunity to experience rare turtle-hatching event at the turtle conservation site. Velas Turtle Festival 2018 dates was held from 24th March until 1st week of April. The turtle hatching period will approximately last from early March to April this year.

Our nature camp to Velas beach to experience wonderful lives of Olive Ridley Turtles

I remember I never used to get enough of enjoying by the sea as a child. Mumbai’s seashore is its only natural element that every common man can approach and is free of cost! I remember looking for seashells while walking along the shore and my shell collection used to be my treasure. Later due to my profession as biodiversity environmentalist, I came to know that there is much more life present there than just fish and shells.

I am sure we all have similar kind of memories of our childhood (at least those who live by the sea). Sea has been always attracting lot of tourists. Coastal tourism is really booming. Where other shores of Maharashtra are attracting tourists through lot of fancy adventure sports, there is one coast that has been attracting a huge number of nature lovers – Velas beach, Ratnagiri. We planned a nature camp to this beach in the month of March last year. It was to watch babies of Olive Ridley Turtles making their way to the sea.

Olive Ridley Turtles spotted in Mexico - source Wikipedia
Olive Ridley Turtles spotted in Mexico – source Wikipedia

How to reach Velas from Mumbai?

There are two ways to reach Velas along Mumbai-Goa Highway – one from Mandangad and another one from Shriwardhan (this involves car ferry). We chose the second one. We took a ferry from Bhagmandla jetty and reached Vesavi jetty in about 10 mins. Velas is about 20 mins drive from Vesavi jetty.

Velas is one of the few examples of conservation that involves joint efforts from locals, government and NGOs. Earlier, due to lack of awareness the villagers were ignorant about the importance of turtles in nature and its conservation. Every year, Olive Ridley turtle females used to visit this beach to lay eggs. Either villagers or stray dogs/jackals took these eggs after digging the nests. As a result very few Olive Ridleys’ could make it to the sea and ultimately the species faced threat for their survival.

Another example of turtle conservation is Mumbai’s Versova beach. After 20 years, Olive Ridley turtles returned to Versova beach for nesting due to efforts by Afroze Shah and volunteers.

Velas – Accomodation and Food all organized by local NGO

A local NGO – Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra Mandal came forward and started putting their efforts in turtle conservation by taking the villagers in confidence. They formed a committee that provides protection to the eggs. They also regulate hordes of tourists visiting the coast to witness baby turtles coming out of eggs. A lot of villagers are member of this committee and tourists can stay in their house. They also provide information on the lovely species of Olive Ridley Turtles.

We had booked a home stay there. I recommend all Ghumrs to reach there by afternoon just in time for lunch, as the local food you get here is really yummy. There is almost zero chance of any visitor getting cheated here as the committee also decides homestay charges. So whenever you are in Velas you can expect transparency. We reached pretty late in the afternoon to Velas. After having delicious lunch, we went to the shore in the evening. The babies that hatch in the evening start their journey to the sea immediately. They follow the moonlight. Due to increase in electrical lights on the land some hatchlings get confused and start walking towards land instead of sea. This is one of the biggest concerns in their protection. It was a magical experience to witness these young ones making their way to the sea.

About Turtles at Velas

Olive Ridleys got their name from the color of their shell. Adults have heart shaped shell that is olive green in color while the young ones are grey in color. They are omnivores with diet consisting of crustaceans, mollusks, tunicates and fish. They have two visible claws on their paddles. Olive Ridleys do not live in groups unlike fish and reside in occur in warmer water and Indian Ocean is one of them. They migrate hundreds or sometimes thousands miles every year. Only time they come together as a group is during Arribada – when all the female turtles return to the shore where they had been hatched to lay their eggs. They use wind and tides to reach the beach.

Nesting of Female Turtles
Nesting of Female Turtles – source Wikipedia

Female lays hundreds of eggs at a time and it may nest up to three times a year. The incubation period of their eggs is about about 52-58 days. They have lot of natural predators. In addition, humans slaughtering females for their meat and skin, fishing nets frequently snagging & drowning these turtles adds on to their threat to survival. The replacement of natural sand barriers such as Ipomoea species (climber) with exotic tree species of Casuarina equisetifolia is creating a disturbance for females to dig up the nest. As, the roots of this tree don’t spread on the superficial soil surface and females cannot dig through that. The baby turtles have to combat all these forces to come out of eggs to experience life!

Olive Ridley baby turtles at Velas Beach
Olive Ridley baby turtles at Velas Beach

During our visit, about 21 hatchlings came out and this was the highest number so far for this year. But, the number of tourists that came to see them was around 500!! After looking at the crowd behavior, all of us decided to volunteer to control their movement. Some people didn’t bother the barricades and crossed the lines. It was dangerous for the hatchlings as even our footprints can act like a huge hurdle for them to cross. Almost everyone was trying to get best shot and selfies with the hatchling. The situation was really worrisome and crazy.

We decided to pay more attention towards hatchlings safety and control self-proclaimed “nature lovers” from getting close to baby turtles. The baby turtles can still get harmed after they enter the waters as they are pushed back to the shore by tides. So few volunteers paid a strict watch on them. There is no doubt that everybody came there with the good intention of witnessing this natural miracle. But getting too close to get the best shot should not harm the eco-system around us.

Luckily, the situation was better the next morning during sunrise. The number of tourists was less and everybody was following the rules. Since it was a morning time, we spent some time in nearby mangrove patch and along the hillside of the coast. Some of the mangroves were flowering. Some of our bird sightings included white-bellied sea eagle, white-breast water hen, Shrike, Parakeets etc.

It was the time to leave this beautiful place and we left this place with a heavy heart, promising to visit here again. Since it was a Sunday there was huge rush at the jetty. We had to wait for about 2.5 hrs to our turn in the ferry. While waiting some of the participants saw dolphins. So this wait did not bore us at all experiencing another unique species of water!

Gauri Gurav is a botanist and naturalist based out of Mumbai. Having worked at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF India), Gauri has expertise in bio-diversity (birds and plants species) and has extensive field experience in organizing nature camps. Currently, she runs her own venture Oikoessence – http://oikoessence.blogspot.in/

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