The Olive Ridley sea turtle truly is a magnificent creature of the sea. It sports a beautiful heart-shaped olive-colored shell with pairs of sharp scales, or scutes, as it paddles through the open ocean, looking like a living submarine. And when the time for reproduction comes, many thousands of female turtles emerge from the sea at night to lay their eggs, a truly amazing sight. This reptile is one of the wonders of the ocean, and is a credit to aquatic life.

Olive Ridleys are the most common species of sea turtle, and approximately 800,000 females come to nest annually. Their sizes vary from region to region, but overall, they are quite small among other sea turtles, adults being 45 kilograms and 56-79 centimeters on average. The largest specimens are found on the West coast of Mexico, but there are Olive Ridley habitats in all the waters around India as well. They can be identified by their olive heart-shaped shell and the high amount of scutes, surrounding it.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of their behavior is their nesting habits. Every year, a large number of females come onto beaches and lay their eggs in masses, an activity known as an “arribada.” Although some females will lay some of their eggs away from the others, most turtles will gather in masses near the coast before moving onto the beaches for the arribada. One time, 200,000 turtles took part in a single arribada on a beach in India!

Once they lay their eggs, the mothers will go their own way. As for the eggs, those that have not been eaten by other animals hatch into baby turtles, which try to avoid predators and make their way back to the ocean.

Olive Ridley turtles have now been listed as an endangered species. Since the 1960s, the overall turtle population has gone down by 50%. Some possible threats include the destruction of beaches which are used for arribadas, directed harvest of turtles, and bycatching, which can happen when turtles are accidentally caught in nets.

One such problem occurs on the coast of Tamil Nadu in Southeastern India. Currently, the government is creating several projects to beautify the coastline. First, they are trying to build docks extending far into the ocean, which will eventually cause erosion of the beaches around it to increase, destroying the nesting sites of these turtles. To add to that, they are thinking of putting streetlights near the beach, unaware of the devastating effect it will have on the turtle population. When baby turtles hatch and dig themselves out of the sand, they get back to the ocean by following light sources such as the stars, the sun, and the moon. However, if they hatch at night, they may mistake the streetlights for these light sources and waddle onto the road, where they may get run over by cars or eaten by dogs. Also, several fishermen illegally use gill netting, in which turtles are caught as bycatch.

There are several things we can do to save these creatures. We can educate the coastal population on the dangers of the government projects and eventually petition against them. We can also educate the fishermen on why gill-netting is wrong and what areas they shouldn’t fish in.

In the end, it all comes down to education of the locals. If we don’t stop the genocide of these reptiles, bad consequences will come to the sea. Without the turtles, balance in the coastal ecosystem will be lost, for they play an important role in the ecosystem by keeping invertebrate and algae populations at bay. A decline in their population would diminish fish populations, and thus hurt fishermen. Above all, we would lose many of these beautiful creatures that inhabit our waters.

Naren Pradhan

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Turtle Walks

January 16, 2010

So after much procrastination on my part I finally got down to writing a blog post!

Its 12 o’clock in the night and Neelankarai beach is eerily quiet.

The beach is so much more alive and happy at this time of the day, and its actually cold! Plastic bags flutter around in the breeze, leftover by the crowd that was probably here.

Anyway before I begin to ramble…Its turtle walking season again!

Hopefully some of you have been on a turtle walk. For those of you who haven’t, you’ve definitely missed out on something! 6 kilometres of walking on the cool wet sand and searching for turtle nests and hatchlings, a wildlife lovers paradise! I’ve always wanted to visit Gahirmatha in Orissa and watch the Arribada.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s when turtles mass nest on the beach! And by mass nesting I don’t mean a few, but hundreds and hundreds of turtles converging on the beach at the same time! Chennai has its own nesting sites all along its coast for the Olive Ridleys. We do get an occasional Green turtle too.

Sadly this year there have been numerous dead turtles washed up on the beaches. We even found a sperm whale last week!   Trawling and gill nets drown the unsuspecting creatures and wash them onto the shore. Hatchlings die of dehydration as soon as they are born because of the lights on the beaches that distract them from their goal – the sea.

What is the cause for all of this?  Who is responsible? It’s us! Every year they put up more lights on the beach for ‘safety’. More trawlers are sent out to the sea to fish, and more people come to the beaches and litter.

There is a solution to this just like most other problems : If you live near the sea switch off your lights from 12 to early morning during turtle nesting season (which is from January to April)! Clean up after you have fun at the beach! And don’t forget to use those trash cans! Only then will you be awe struck like I usually am when I go on a turtle walk or visit the hatchery.

Nothing beats watching turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests. They truly are magnificent creatures.

Anjana, ROB