When turtles visit Rushikulya

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Ravi never sleeps. Or he hasn’t slept for the last 5 days.

Working everyday, he keeps an eye out for the returning olive ridley turtles that visit his village beach every year.

He called us a few days back, his voice excited and shrill through the telephone. No scientists have predicted this yet, he told us, but the arribada is about to begin – the mass nesting of thousands of olive ridleys in Orissa. We must come down to his village within the day if we want to film the turtles.

We met him, much younger than what I had imagined, a tall thin man. He was wearing rubber slippers and a hat and I realized he probably spends a lot of his time next to the sea. A closer look revealed that the sides of his eyes had fine wrinkles that you get with spending many years in the sun.

We waited with our cameras in the hot sun for the deputy forest officer who would give us the final approval to walk towards the turtle beach. We had traveled to Bhuvaneshwar from Delhi and then driven down 3 hours south to Rambha, a small village that cant be found easily on the map.

Gautam, cinematographer and a partner in most of my adventures, asked Ravi if he has seen the turtles this year. He started on a complicated set of sentences that we soon learned to decipher. He repeats his sentences, building on them each time and somewhere in that is the hidden information we need.

During his speedy sentences he nods towards the beach and points to little black dots in the horizon and says, there they are. Quickly we turn our cameras on and using the lenses try to see if he is right. And yes, the little black dots are the olive ridley turtles.

The Forest officer does not arrive and instead asks us to go on without him. Lugging our equipment, Gautam and Ravi chatting in the front, and Lalman ji, our long trusted camera assistant behind me, we reach the edge of the Rushikulya river a kilometer away.

Until last year Ravi and the fishermen could walk to the turtle beach but now the 3 kilometer long stretch is separated from the mainland by the river. Heavy floods ruined the farmers crops and destroyed many houses last year. The villagers had to dig and let the water out creating a gap between the beach and the village. The river was allowed to flow through and an island beach was formed. Now anyone wanting access to the beach has to hire a local boatman to cross the short, but deep, 500 yard stretch of river. A good way for the locals to earn a few extra rupees from turtle crazy visitors such as us.

We jump on to the motor boat which chugged across the river, spouting diesel fumes and brought us to the island beach of Rushikulya.

A hump on the beach hides the view of the sea and from the boat we could not see very much. The excitement kept building as we got off and started walking towards the sea. On top of the hump we all stood spell bound. Thousands of turtles lay on the beach, digging deep holes to lay their eggs in.

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We stood there taking stock of the situation, overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. The numbers were enormous. As Lalman ji prepared the cameras, turtles walked past us, brushing us, hitting us with their flippers, walking through the tripod legs, over our bags, past our equipment, not a care but only one thing on their mind, where do I lay my eggs. Where is that perfect spot for me where I can dig and lay my eggs and leave, go back to the ocean soon.

Meanwhile Ravi is gone. He is already far ahead on the beach, clicking away with his point and shoot camera. Capturing what he can in photographs. He is excited and even though he has seen mass nestings at night for the past 20 years, this is the first time that the ridleys have arrived during the day.

Mass nestings of olive ridleys take place at night when all is quiet and everyone is fast asleep. The turtles arrive in thousands to lay their eggs and before the full glare of the morning has arrived, they are gone from the beach, leaving only their tracks as proof of their presence at night.

This is why Ravi has not slept these days. He is riding up and down the villages tracking the turtles at night. The time they arrive and when they leave.

The turtles may as well be communicating with him. He knew before any of the scientists or researchers based in the area that today the turtles would arrive in the afternoon, a phenomena that has not occurred in years.

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In front of us the Bay of Bengal stretched to infinity, blue and clear in the afternoon sun. Far in the distance turtles were bobbing in the ocean waves, making their way to the beach. The waves threw them into the shallow waters from where they kept emerging, in hundreds and thousands, towards us, towards the beach.

Gautam got to work, he had I imagine, worked out a shot list and was already in the sand filming.

I walked further up the beach to find a spot and stationed myself close to the turtles for some close ups. It was all fascinating. Turtles seem slow but they move fast. Using their flippers they were hurtling towards each other, above each other. Once they found a spot they liked they started digging. Moving the sand around them they created a depression. The back flippers used to scoop up sand and throw it aside. The flippers are strong and flexible, working like spades.

I looked towards the sun which was hanging much lower in the sky and as far as my eyes could see the turtles were digging. An orchestra of flaying flippers and flying sand against the sun. Dig, sand, dig, sand. The symphony made complete with the constant sound of the sea.

A few had stopped digging and were covered with sand. These were the ones preparing to lay their eggs. Focusing my camera at the rear end of one of the turtles I sat motionless. Perfectly round and bright white eggs plopped out of the turtle. Falling softly in to the sand pit.

After laying their eggs the turtles are tired. They sometimes just lie there catching their breath, in a nesting trance. Once the 100 or so eggs are in the sand pit the slow process begins of covering the hole. Using their flippers again, the turtles cover their nests, thumping their heavy bodies on the sand to pack the hole close, before they make the exhausting journey back towards the sea.

As soon as they reach the water line they slow down, allowing for a wave or two to wash the sand off them. Clean and finally back in their element, they swim out into the ocean, leaving their babies behind, only to return next year!

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Ravi who had vanished all this while comes back and asks me to pose among the turtles. Then he wants me to take his picture. He hands me his camera, walks a little further and sits between the turtles, touching them, trying to hold on to a moment he may never witness again.

Happy with his photographs Ravi now goes into asking a barrage of questions, mostly trying to find out if we are done and if he should call the boat man to take us back.

As we prepare to leave and pack our equipment, more turtles arrive. They are everywhere. One topples our tripod over and another tries to knock our camera bag out of her way. I try and take some more pictures but the light is now failing us, threatening us to leave.

Its dark and Ravi is busy making calls, thanking the forest officer, trying to reach the boat man, telling his family he might not come back home tonight again.

We stand on the beach and the silence that has overcome us becomes evident. We cannot see the turtles anymore but we can hear them digging, hear their tired breath and the sea lashing at the beach.

The boatmen arrive in the dark, flashing their torchlight back at ours to find their way to where we stand.

We leave the turtles behind, digging tirelessly into the night.

The boat takes us back towards the village and we walk the last kilometer dragging our feet on the sand, exhausted and hungry and smelling like turtles. The torch lights help us find our way back to the car.

Ravi is not exhausted. His night has just begun. He will be back at the beach in a few hours. Before he bids us goodnight he takes us to his small office. This is where he organises screenings of films and lectures for children from the village. He firmly believes that if the children are educated and made aware then they will become the guardians of the olive ridleys in the future.

He works hard to engage the local community, to make them stakeholders in the protection of the beach – for now a safe haven for the ridleys. This is his contribution to the turtles, to conservation and to his village.

The next morning we meet Ravi on the beach, in the darkness and chill of a 4 am morning. The beach is barren. The turtles have left, swimming towards their breeding grounds. The beach does not indicate in anyway that there are millions of eggs sleeping peacefully under the sand. We talk about coming back in 45 days when the hatchlings will push themselves out of their nests and make their way out to the deep oceans. We sit on the beach looking out at the sea, the sky slowly turning pink, waiting for the sun to come out and warm us. The nesting is over and we must all travel home.

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