Return Of The Ridley
At Rushikulya, Odisha, Vivek Menon witnesses the ‘greatest wildlife show in India’.
Photo: Vivek Menon.
It was rush hour at Rushikulya. Two kilometres offshore, in the choppy seas, tens of thousands of ancient eyes viewed the beach like no tourist has ever done.
This was not the voyeuristic adulation of the coastline that visitors who have never seen the sea indulge in, for these eyes belonged to the brine. Neither was it the exultant triumph of the tourist who has bagged a beachfront room, for the beach was their birthplace, their natal ward, the youngest among them having left fifteen years ago.
No, the eyes scanning the shore were not those of creatures on holiday, but creatures on a mission. Like Navy Seals on recce, checking tides, wind and shore conditions before determining a launch date, they watched intently, bobbing up and down at the line of breakers that separated them from 42 kilometres of Rushikulya beach: that grand maternity ward of olive Ridley turtles. It was here that their hormones had brought them to lay their eggs. For it was here that they came from.
Now, it was time to return. It was time for the arribada.
THE GREATEST WILDLIFE SHOW IN INDIA
The spray from the first line of breakers swooshed onto the small boat that half a dozen of us were huddled in. There were no turtles until we breached that wall of fine spray, but as we emerged onto the open waters we saw them almost immediately.
In the translucent blue, every now and then an olive back floated by. Like a transplanted garden of yellow lilies, turtle heads bobbed up and down on the waters. They would bask in the sun for a few minutes and then, catching sight of us, dip down into the sea, glide a few metres away and bob up to bask again.
Murali estimated that there were a couple of thousand turtles in the waters. He was with the NGO Dakshin, part of a team of young researchers conducting their studies on these ancient beings. We were part of the Wildlife Trust of India’s board of trustees, and having just concluded our board meetings were doing the non-boring thing of taking to the waters.
This, after we had waited for Godot four nights in succession – for the arribada to happen. The turtles were just not obliging. We had to go out to greet them and boy, did they then oblige! There were at least a hundred giants in the water near us. Most would have been females, heavy and gravid, carrying up to 100 odd golf ball-sized eggs in their bodies. Many were males, their concave plastrons built to fit on to the female shells when they clambered on to them mid-sea to mate. A large number of such couplings took place in January in these very waters, although some would have occurred much deeper in the sea.
We were watching the beginning of the greatest wildlife show in India.
There are three parameters I take into account to give the arribada that epithet. The first is sheer numbers. A few hundred elephants congregate on the banks of the Kabini in Nagarahole every April. A few thousand Demoiselles migrate to Khichan in Rajasthan every winter. But an estimated 6,00,000 turtles, each reaching 0.7 m. (2.5 feet) in length and weighing up to 45 kg. (around 100 pounds), swarm to the eastern coastline between February and March every year. That’s 60 million pounds of animal flesh heaving out of the sea and packing the beaches! We don’t have the great monarch butterfly migrations of Central America to compete in terms of numbers, but even if we did, this would by far be the largest number and mass of animals to come to one place in India at any given time.
The second parameter I take into account is time. Sea turtles are among the most ancient creatures alive on the planet. They have been around for about 100 million years. The only creatures that are older (and come, coincidentally, to a beach not far from Rushikulya) are horseshoe crabs, which have been around for over 300 million years. These two ancient marine souls have been visiting the eastern coast of India since before the dinosaurs went extinct. And there we were, a set of puny evolutionary babies on our flimsy manmade crafts, watching them.
The third parameter I consider to rank the spectacle numero uno among the country’s wildlife offerings is the duality of being able to sight the Ridleys at sea during the day and on the beach at night. Seldom does nature offer you the ability to see a creature in two environments in a single day.
Photo: Vivek Menon.
THE ANCIENT BIRTHING TRADITION
Take a local fishing boat and you can do what we did: bob in crystal clear waters amidst a thousand reptilians in advanced labour. And at night, if luck favours, you might witness several of the females haul themselves onto the beaches, fling a flipper full of sand at your face and each lay a hundred or more pearly white, soft-shelled eggs into pits they have dug. Within an hour or so, the ladies, now unburdened, will cover the pits and leave for the sea. They might do this twice more in the season, each time after two to four weeks, before leaving for the high seas. They will return in two years, perhaps three, to bring forth their next brood. The males, having once left their nesting beaches, will never again return to land for their entire lives.
As the waters heat up and summer arrives, it will be time for the Ridleys to leave the waters of Rushikulya. The arribada or ‘the great coming’ in Spanish (the phenomenon was first described in Costa Rica) will then come to a close for the season.
Olive Ridleys were once called ‘bastard turtles’, having been thought of as a cross between green and loggerhead turtles.That riddle has now been taxonomically solved, though the Ridleys etymologically retain the old human confusion. Luckily for us, they themselves, unconfused and persistent, will continue to grace our shores for centuries to come.
Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, April 2016.