Tuesday 24th Jan 2023 – It was like any other day, a usual beautiful morning in Goa, our home for our first few months as empty nesters. We headed to the neighbourhood beach for our customary walk with our adopted Indie baby Ruby looking forward to her leash-free run and beach exploration.
A few steps onto the sand past the beach shack, I heard Manish calling me to come and see something fascinating. Here is the sight that had caught his attention and my breath. Could this be true I wondered?
Seeing the Olive Ridley sea turtle was on my bucket list and we were hoping to do this in coastal Odisha, the largest mass nesting site of this vulnerable species. A trip yet to be planned, with the understanding that we could only see them from a distance as the nesting areas are cordoned off. And here I was looking at a nesting olive ridley at arm’s length!
My brain cells fired up and I realised that we needed to first get our curious Ruby away and then do something to safeguard the turtle and her nest. Noticing a jeep and some folks who seemed to be keeping a watch, I walked up to them and asked if they had informed any responsible authority. They were fisherfolk from a nearby village and wondered if I could figure out who to contact.
I searched on my phone for helpline numbers to report Goa turtle nesting, found a 24-hour turtle conservation center and called, only to be disappointed after explaining the situation. The person answering said the location was far for them to do anything! When pressed for alternatives, he suggested contacting the Goa Forest Department but refused to help in making that call, leaving me, a lay citizen, to figure that out for myself.
The Goa Forest Department only had landline numbers listed and no helpline for emergencies. As expected nobody answered the calls as they were all landline numbers and before 7:30 am was out-of-hours! Feeling stuck but unwilling to give up, I kept thinking and it struck me that I could check with my birding guide who was bound to be plugged into the local conservation ecosystem. Aware that he was leading a birding tour outside the state, I messaged hoping for a response. The single tick marks on my messages told me he was out of network coverage.
Thinking some more I recalled another birding guide who I had not yet contacted. Give it a shot I said, decided to call rather than message, and heaved a sigh of relief when Rahul Alvares answered! A herpetologist, conservationist, wildlife and birding guide, Rahul was excited by what I told him and immediately sent me mobile numbers of a couple of forest department officials who would be sure to help. I was in luck, and got a response on the first number I called. As directed I shared the location along with the above video clip, and was assured that help was on the way. I was guided to go back to the spot and standby until the arrival of the lifeguards who were due to start their duty at 8 am. I was informed that all the lifeguards on Goa beaches are trained to safeguard turtles and nests until the forest department comes in.
I had meanwhile come across a second turtle but this one was lifeless with head missing and reported it. Having sent the sad picture and its location to be used for reporting and investigation, I traced my way back to the first turtle and was greeted with a heartwarming scene of lifeguards having secured the nest and keeping morning walkers and onlookers at a distance to allow an unobstructed safe return to sea for the turtle.
The turtle was clearly exhausted and it was a slow journey back with the morning heat beginning to set in. These turtles usually come to shore to nest in the night as I understand; perhaps the timing of the tide was such that this event happened at dawn. And it was extremely unusual for turtles to come ashore in this stretch of the beach; they are known to do so further south in Talpona and Galgibaga beaches which are reserved and monitored by the forest department. What a stroke of luck then that we got to witness this miraculous happening! Infact we had visited Galgibaga a few earlier and seen olive ridley turtle eggs in protected enclosures.
Feeling blessed and grateful, we bid goodbye to our Olive Ridley as she disappeared into the Arabian Sea.
Her eggs were relocated for safekeeping and hatching to the Galgibaga turtle conservation zone, and hopefully some hatchlings made it safely to sea sometime in March.
We witnessed firsthand the critical role played by the local community in conservation efforts and a synergistic partnership at work.