Lakhs of Olive Ridley turtles return to the Odisha coastline for their annual mating and nesting season

Published : January 07, 2021 20:00 IST

A pair of Olive Ridley turtles mate in the Bay of Bengal at Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, just off the coast of Babubali Island in Odisha’s Kendrapara district. Olive Ridley turtles congregate on the eastern coast for their annual nesting. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

A hatchling of an Olive Ridley turtle. File picture.

The otherwise serene landscape of Odisha’s coast turns into one of the world’s unique ecological hotspots every year during the winter months. While scores of migratory birds of nearly 200 species throng Chilika lake and Bhitarkanika National Park, lakhs of Olive Ridley sea turtles too arrive on the State’s coast for their annual mass mating and nesting ritual.

As in most years in the past, the process of mass mating of the endangered Olive Ridleys started in the Rushikulya rookery, a major nesting site for these turtles on the Indian coast, in the first half of December 2020 and is likely to continue till the end of January, according to Amlan Nayak, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Berhampur.

“The Forest Department is taking all possible measures to ensure that no harm is caused to the visiting Olive Ridleys during their mating period,” said Amlan Nayak, who spotted as many as 25 pairs of mating turtles during patrolling in the Bay of Bengal on January 6 along the Rushikulya rookery.

After the mating period is over, male turtles return to distant shores while the females remain for the mass nesting during February-March. The mass nesting had taken place in the five-kilometre stretch between Gokharakuda and Bateswar villages at Rushikulya rookery in the third week of March last year.

The female turtles, who lay about 100-150 eggs each during the night in the small pits they dig, leave the beach after covering the holes with sand. The hatchlings emerge from the eggs after 45-60 days and crawl into the sea in the absence of their parents.

The DFO added that the Department’s intensive patrolling, including at night, had helped decrease turtle mortality during the mating period this time. Turtles often die by getting entangled in the fishing nets of trawlers.

While the Forest Department was keeping a watch on fishing trawlers venturing into the area up to 10 km into the sea from Balasore in the north to Andhra Pradesh in the south, the Coast Guard was preventing fishing beyond 10 km from the coastline, according to Nayak.

The Department had also started fencing the beach between Gokharakuda and Bateswar, to keep it free from predators and facilitate smooth mass nesting by the turtles. Local community-based social organisations were also helping keep the stretch clean.

Despite the congregation of Olive Ridleys in the sea for mass mating in 2019, they had not come for the mass nesting on the beach that year. However, mass mating and nesting had taken place smoothly in 2020, when more than 3,23,000 turtles turned up to lay eggs at the site.

In 2018, mass nesting was witnessed twice in February and April, with the total nesting figure crossing 4,70,000.

There are two other mass nesting sites on the Odisha coast – the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary coast adjacent to Bhitarkanika, and the Devi river mouth between Puri and Paradip. While Gahirmatha continues to witness large-scale mass nesting, the arrival of the turtles has declined drastically at the Devi river mouth in recent years. According to Bikash Ranjan Dash, DFO, Rajnagar Mangrove (Wildlife) Forest Division, a total of 4.07 lakh turtles had come for mass nesting at Gahirmatha last year.