Olive ridleys make it back to the Bay of Bengal after nesting on the Rushikulya coastline

Olive-ridleys-make-it-back-to-the-Bay-of-Bengal-after-nesting-on-the--Rushikulya-coastline

Rushikulya,May12:On the eastern coast of India, in the state of Orissa, lie three big nesting sites for one of the world’s smallest sea turtles – the Olive Ridley.

Every winter, thousands of females return to these shores to nest.

Journalists Supriya Vohra and Meesha Holley witnessed the synchronised move, which is known as “arribada”- the Spanish for arrival.

This photo essay spotlights the turtles breeding on the beaches near Rushikulya, and the nearby fishing villages.

An Olive Ridley Turtle lays her eggs at Rushikulya Beach on 16 February, 2017.Image copyrightASIT KUMAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe turtle eggs take around seven weeks to hatch

After about seven weeks of incubation, the Olive Ridley hatchling scrapes open its egg and scrambles out into the sandy world beyond.

Using the nutrients in the shell, it powers its way towards the open water.

The walk to the ocean is a crucial journey for the tiny turtle, strengthening its fins and preparing it for the long journey ahead.

An Olive Ridley hatchling begins its journey into the open waterImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionAn Olive Ridley hatchling begins its journey into the open water

The Olive Ridleys are one of five species of sea turtle that mate and nest on India’s shores. They are protected under the country’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

The entire stretch of the nesting beach is a 4.1km (2.5 mile) shoreline, covering three small fishing villages – Pornapettam, Gokhur Khuda and Purunabandha, in Orissa’s Ganjam district.

The beach lies near the mouth of the Rushikulya River, where it meets the Bay of Bengal.

The arribada nesting beach with turtle tracksImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionThe arribada nesting beach, festooned with turtle tracks

Every year, the Olive Ridleys return to their birthplace for the three-week nesting season.

Scientists discovered that turtles are guided by the earth’s magnetic field, and follow the ocean’s currents instead of swimming against the tide.

This magnetic field directs them back to the first sand they ever saw.

A female Olive Ridley enters the Bay of Bengal after nestingImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionA female Olive Ridley enters the Bay of Bengal after nesting

Rushikulya was officially declared a mass nesting site – also called a rookery – in the early 1990s.

Since the area is so close to fishing villages, much research has gone into understanding how human and turtle communities can share the space.

Conservation efforts have been launched by the state’s forest department, the fisheries department, local non-profits and the district administration.

A local hired by the Forest Department helps an injured olive ridley lay eggsImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionA local hired by the Forest Department helps an injured Olive Ridley lay eggs

Rabindra Nath Sahu, 36, has played a key role in the turtle conservation movement. A local of Purunabandha, he learned about arribada as a 14-year-old.

“We never harmed the turtles, as they were considered an avatar of Lord Vishnu [a Hindu deity], but we used to take the eggs and eat them or sell them.

“But in 1993, Bikash Pandey, a scientist with Wildlife Institute of India, visited this region and showed us this incredible phenomenon of arribada. I think we tagged about 10,000 nesting turtles then.

“I have been hooked on turtle conservation work ever since, and can assure you that NOBODY in any of these three villages now even dreams of poaching the precious creatures. And it is going to stay this way.”

Rabindranath Sahu, 36, has been saving turtles since his teensImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionRabindra Nath Sahu, 36, has been saving turtles since his teens

Turtle eggs and hatchlings have a survival ratio of one in 1,000.

In Rushikulya, they fall victim to prowling stray dogs and predatory birds. Some hatchlings get caught in fishing nets, while others are disorientated by artificial light from nearby towns and factories.

To boost the babies’ chances, the forest department and research groups like the World Wildlife Fund have their own hatcheries, and employ guards to patrol the nesting sites.

A nest plundered by dogs and birdsImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionA nest plundered by dogs and birds

After leaving its shell, the newborn turtle has to make the long, perilous journey towards the ocean.

During this time, the local communities get together and patrol the beach, often putting the hatchlings in buckets and releasing them near the sea.

A local guard releases hatchlings from a hatching nurseryImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionA local guard releases hatchlings from a hatching nursery

During the arribada and hatching period, fishing is restricted to prevent any damage to the creatures.

Mechanised trawling is banned, and the fisheries department offers affected families subsidised rice rations for up to six months as a form of compensation.

However, the sheer number of turtles in the water can still destroy fishing nets, leading to lost income.

The fishing community hard at work early morning at PornapettamImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionThe Pornapettam fishing community hard at work in the early morning

Magadha Behera is from Purunabandha, and works in conservation with Rabindra Nath Sahu.

“We are truly a converted lot,” he says. “Everyone shares a certain love for these turtles. World Turtle Day [on 23 May] means a lot to us, and we celebrate it in a big way.

“We really want our communities to prosper. If our district is known worldwide for arribada, then we want our people to benefit from it in some way.

“We want to create alternative livelihoods for them.”

Fishermen and women organising their catch of the dayImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionFishermen and women organising their catch of the day

These ancient ocean wanderers have been making their enormous migrations the same way for millions of years.

The smaller communities who live alongside them are playing their part for conservation.

But it’s ultimately down to the big players – the Orissa state government and local industries – to ensure that development and turtle protection go hand-in-hand.

An Olive Ridley hatchling makes it way to the seaImage copyrightMEESHA HOLLEY
Image captionAn Olive Ridley hatchling makes it way to the sea
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