On Thursday morning, 80 hatchlings of the endangered Olive Ridley turtle were spotted on Versova beach, the first such nesting in almost two decades. “We noticed the first batch of hatchlings wading into the sea. Female turtles must have nested here sometime back and now these babies have hatched from their eggs,” said Prashant Deshmukh, a range forest officer, western region of the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit of the state mangrove cell.
The turtles were spotted on Thursday morning by beach walkers and clean-up volunteers. “One of the volunteers informed me around 8.30 am about the turtles and I rushed to the beach to see these little turtles going into the sea. A few months back, we had heard of an Olive Ridley coming to the beach. I knew that it would have come for hatching. So we were expecting this to happen sometime,” said Afroz Shah, who leads the clean-up campaign on Versova beach.
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“While there cannot be one particular reason for the turtles to return to the shore, cleaning up of the beach could certainly be a factor that induced them. When the water condition is good, they are likely to come at the end of the breeding season,” said Vinay Deshmukh, a marine biologist and former chief scientist of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
About two decades ago, Olive Ridleys were known to be regular visitors on the Mumbai coast. “We used to regularly observe them near Chowpatty and behind the Governor’s Bungalow at Walkeshwar around 20 years back. However, over a period of time, with the decline in the quality of water and the dirt on the shore, these animals stayed away. It is a good sign that they have returned,” said Deshmukh.
However, marine biologists also raised concerns over the safety of the turtles on the shore of the densely populated city. As the eggs hatched and the hatchlings made their way to the water, many children picked up the barely two to three-centimeter-long animals and took them home.
“Around four to five hatchlings were picked up by curious children but we retrieved them and sent them back into the water. We are taking some steps for their safety. Our guards will be present there to ensure they remain safe from predators like dogs and birds. Some volunteers from the clean-up group will also extend support. For the coming eight to 10 days we have asked fishermen to avoid using their nets around 500 metres from the shore so that the endangered animals do not get trapped in them,” added the forest officer.
Nandini Deshmukh, a city-based marine biologist, said: “I am worried for the turtles as the beaches are not clean and they are also frequented by tourists and fishing folk. They are ignorant about these animals and may harm them. They are also at the risk of plastic pollution. Many of them die, mistaking plastic for green algae and then consume them. We need to make these places safer for them.”
Shah, along with his volunteers, has been working for 127 weeks to rid the beach of plastic and other solid waste. A winner of the ‘Champions of the Earth Award’, Shah said: “It was amazing to see our efforts of so many weeks bearing fruit like this. The pollution, mainly the solid waste, had kept them away from the shore for so many years,” he said.
Olive Ridley turtles come to the shore for nesting generally at the end of winter. Female turtles, aware of their predators, come to the beach at night and burrow deep holes to lay their eggs. They are known to lay around two to three dozen eggs at a time. “Once they lay their eggs they never come back to the beach and the eggs are incubated by the heat of the sand. When they hatch, the turtles are about the size of the human fist. Their instincts naturally make them crawl to the water and this happens mostly during the day,” Vinay Deshmukh added.
“These turtles also have a strange pattern of returning to lay eggs on the same beach where they were born,” Prashant Deshmukh said.
The largest nesting ground for these endangered animals in India is at Gahirmatha beach in Orissa and is the world’s most important nesting place for them. In Maharashtra they are known to nest at various beaches such as Velas, Anjarle, Harihareshwar, Maral and Diveagar every year.
Doubts were raised by some about the sudden appearance of turtles. Stalin Dayanand, director of the NGO Vanashakti, wrote to N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forests, state Mangrove Cell, seeking an investigation as no egg shells have been found on the beach. “If the turtles have been brought from another site and released here it would qualify as an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act,” he wrote in his email.