Having travelled over the course of three days by train from Pondicherry to Puri, and thereon to Ganjam, I was a little worn out when I stepped off the train station. I walked out of the station hoping that my texts had got through to Hari with the details of the train. Hari is a field researcher in Ganjam monitoring olive ridley turtles during their nesting season over the first few months of the year, and was to be my host at Rushikulya. I caught the eye of one guy in the ticket hall who seemed to be looking out for me too (not hard to be spotted in rural India as a westerner with a Panama hat on). I walked over to confirm that we were on the same wavelength.
Me: “Kartik?” – nope. “Murali, Hari?”
The guy: “Yes, yes, Hari!” It was Hari’s tuk-tuk driver.
Good stuff! On our way. Hari was there too, and welcomed me with a big smile. I felt much more relaxed now. We went to the research station to unwind and chat.
I had been put in touch with the people who run the sea turtle monitoring project in Odisha by my colleague, Peter Richardson, from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in the UK, who informed me that my visit to India was coinciding with the nesting season in Odisha for olive ridley turtles. I work as a fundraiser for the MCS and Peter heads the Biodiversity department, and is a turtle nerd – well, so says his t-shirt!
Kartik and Murali, who run the project, suggested I spend an evening at the research station in Ganjam by the river Rushikulya to do an overnight turtle survey. Hari and his colleague, Hugo, looked after me (and fed me very well)! Later that afternoon we went down to the estuary for a walk and on to a nearby village. Ganjam and its surroundings have a really good vibe, a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Mayo and Bipro, the local field staff, were hanging out at the bridge into the village. They would be accompanying us on the overnight survey along with Madhu: musician, cook, local celeb, and all round good guy. Madhu had already spoken the local fishermen who were to take us out on a fishing boat in the morning. Heading back to the research station my excitement grew for the night ahead.
I got my head down at 10.30pm and tried to doze as much as possible. At 2am a tremendous fog had descended upon the town. Hari returned from taking Hugo to his research transect and picked me up. Safely arrived at our meeting point we set off along the beach in the dense fog, with Mayo and Bipro, armed with torches and a GPS locator. Looking for turtle tracks and any new nesting turtles – or maybe even an arribada! Hari pointed out some tracks from the night before leading up to the top of the beach. I should say at this point that I have never seen a sea turtle in the flesh before and so even a sign of one having been there recently was enough to get my heart pounding. At the empty nest we saw that the eggs had been predated, probably by a jackal. Shells lay strewn across the sand. Normally with early nesting turtles the staff would take the eggs themselves and take them to a nearby hatchery for artificial incubation, but sadly not this time.
We moved on and though I had hoped to see a live turtle, it seemed increasingly unlikely. But I did spot something up ahead. Could it be my first ever sea turtle in the flesh? If I thought my heart was pounding before then it was pounding even more now. Closing in, it was obvious that it was a dead male turtle and recently washed up. Just to be so close to this beautiful animal, to be able to stare and absorb its form, was mesmerizing.
Further along the beach there were parts of turtles: flippers, carapaces, carcasses etc., and then on the way back, another washed-up one – female this time. The fog would remain for the rest of the night. Thankfully, the GPS locators helped us back to the meeting point and we set off back to the research station.
At 9.30AM the fog was just lifting and we went back to the beach to meet Madhu and some fishermen. It was gloriously sunny by this time. Two fishermen took us out and I didn’t really know what to expect. At first there were no signs of turtles, but after maybe 10-15 minutes we started to see the bobbing of heads. Olive ridley turtles coming up to breathe! One, two, ten, twenty. More and more kept springing up.
We saw them glide past the boat underneath the surface of the water. Magical. They’re such elegant creatures in their element.
It was just a matter of soaking it all up. Nothing else to do apart from just look out and watch. After some time and quite far out we thought about heading back. However, we saw something up ahead: something that wasn’t going back down underwater. It was two turtles mating. We moved slowly to have a closer look. Amazing sight. They mate for around 45 minutes; the female certainly has her work cut out keep both male and herself afloat!
And there we have it. A proper adventure, at least for me. First trip to India, first sightings of sea turtles, and what a way to see them! After returning home to the UK about two weeks after my boat trip the arribada happened. I just missed it!
Thanks to Hari, Murali and Kartik for making this happen. It was a wonderful experience which I hope to do again and hope to catch the arribada then!
Sanjay Mitra is Corporate Partnerships Manager at Marine Conservation Society (UK).