The nesting and breeding season of the Olive Ridley turtles has almost come to an end in India and the last of the late bloomers should emerge from their nests and head out towards the gentle waves any day now.
And while the COVID-19 lockdown has allowed the turtles to nest undisturbed this time, the nesting itself this time around has been comparatively lower than usual, says Dr Supraja Dharini, Founder and Chairperson of the TREE Foundation, an NGO that primarily focuses on marine conservation.
A season of lesser nesting
This year, a total of 2,818 nests were protected by the TREE Foundationâ€™s Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) members along the east coast of India. Of the 3,01,126 eggs protected this season, so far, over 1,95,750 newly emerged baby turtle hatchlings have crawled their way down the beach to the ocean. Compare this with last year when the foundation protected around 5,498 nests from which a total of 5,21,038 hatchlings were released into the sea.
â€śThis year it was very strange that we found very few nests all along the eastern coast. This is unusual. In all these years that weâ€™ve been involved in conservation, this has never happened,â€ť De Supraja says.
â€śThe mass nesting too was very late this time. It usually finishes by February, but this time it only began by the end of March. Based on the data gathered, we have observed 45% reduction in the nesting of the turtles this year,â€ť she continues.
Dr Supraja attributes this to the ocean currents. â€śThe wind pattern didn't change for a long time. I believe we had a storm in late December last year and so ocean currentâ€™s movement changed,â€ť she speculates.
In contrast, Kannan, a fisherman from Kovalam who has been protecting Olive Ridleysâ€™ nests since 2008 when he was in college, tells TNM that this one has been a good nesting year for the turtles on the Chennai-Kancheepuram part of the coast. â€śThis year we found 42 batches (nests). Last season, because of high tide the shore was smaller, and so there were about 28 batches. Although this number is only at Kovalam, in the other areas along east coast theyâ€™ve found very little nesting this time,â€ť he tells TNM.
Kannan along with another STPF member scours the shore from Kanathur in the north to Kovalam in the south for Olive Ridley nests to protect. â€śYou can find the nests based on the tracks the turtles leave behindâ€¦ like the tyre tracks of a tractor. In all these years that Iâ€™ve been doing this, Iâ€™ve watched a turtle lay its eggs up close only once. After laying them, they paddle sand onto the pit theyâ€™ve dug with such unexpected force. It is a sight to behold. Even five minutes later, you wonâ€™t be able to find the exact spot where it laid its eggs. That is how well the mother covers the spot. They truly are a fascinating species,â€ť he explains, painting a picture of the entire process.
The good and the bad of the lockdown
Despite the fewer nests spotted, this year has been a good one for the turtles on the whole, sans the pesky beach crowds, or the hazardous fishing gears, the Olive Ridleys have had a peaceful ambience for the eggs to go through an uneventful incubation period.
â€śBecause of the lockdown there was less disturbance on the beach, in-situ the hatchlings were able to go towards the ocean by themselves. We also rescued a lesser number of turtles entangled in nets. Overall, it was a good season for turtles in the sea as well because there was no trawler fishing,â€ť explains Dr Supraja.
On the downside though, the lockdown also restricted movement of the STPR members.
Kannan shares with TNM that this time only two turtles came ashore with injuries. â€śThey are currently at the TREE Foundation office in Chennai. The only trouble we had was to find ways to feed them with fish. The police did not allow us to travel due to the lockdown. But Dr Supraja was able to secure us passes. Even then the police officials stopped us asking if feeding injured turtles was more important than our lives. I even fought with the police to be allowed to do it. They (turtles) are just like us and they need food to survive,â€ť he asserts.
Sea turtles are the only marine species that swim ashore to lay their eggs. The breeding and nesting season for the Olive Ridley turtle is between the months of December to April every year. Interestingly, these turtles return to the very beach from which they hatched and made their very first journey to the ocean. If their journey to shore is made up of braving through fishing nets and trawler boats, more hurdles await them on the beach in the form of predators. For instance, in northern Andhra Pradesh shores, sloth bears are found along the beaches and may sometimes destroy turtle nests.
Since 2002, the TREE Foundationâ€™s Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) has been actively involved in protecting the Olive Ridley nests on the east coast of India, patrolling 700 kms of beaches across the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha working jointly with the Forest Department, Fisheries Department, Marine Police and the Indian Coast Guard in an Integrated Community Based Sea Turtle Conservation Program in the three states on the east coast of India. Initially they started with just 15 members, but have since expanded to 37 in the Kanchipuram district, 263 in Andhra Pradesh, and 16 in Odisha. Between 2002 and 2019, over 24 lakh hatchlings have had a successful journey to the ocean, according to STPF.