Dusk was setting in as I alighted the bus at a remote village in coastal Maharashtra. The narrow streets had no lights and my phone had no network. Per our last phone conversation an hour ago, my host was supposed to meet me at the bus depot but I saw no signs of him. An oil lamp lit in the nearby tiny house flickered and I decided to ask the old lady sitting there for the directions to my host’s house. The best thing about such places is that everyone knows everyone. And so minutes later, after walking the path suggested by the kind old lady, I was standing at the gate of a rather large and traditional Konkani house that belonged to my host.
After a year-long wait, finally, I was at Velas – the turtle town of coastal Maharashtra, to attend the famous Turtle Festival. Another agenda of the trip was to go off the radar for some time. My phone had lost signals the minute I entered the village and didn’t ring until I left the place two days later. Without any kind of digital distraction, those couple of days were blissfully spent relaxing, meeting new people, learning new things & exploring the place.
Since my arrival the previous evening, Mohan – my host, had shared many interesting facts about the sea turtles. We spoke at length about his work at the Turtle Conversation Group he was a part of. I met Marine Biologists & many enthusiastic volunteers who had traveled from all over the country for Turtle festival that Velas hosted every year. Mohan told me about the ‘Arribada’ or mass nesting of the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles that happens on the Velas shore. Other shores, including eastern coast of Orissa is also the nesting ground of these sea turtles in India. He also told me how the mother turtle never meets her babies, and so she takes the utmost care to protect the eggs by digging the sand nests at the safest possible spots on the shore. The dawn was breaking, but it would still be some time before the first ray of sun entered this densely covered, remote village; tucked away amidst the Sahyadri mountain range in coastal Maharashtra.
India is a global nesting hotspot for Olive Ridley sea turtles and Velas accounts for 40% of Sea Turtle nests along the coast of Maharashtra. Local villagers and volunteers from an NGO – Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra are constantly engaged in the welfare activities of these scavengers. During the nesting season, which is between November-January, the volunteers at Velas keep a close check (night patrolling as well) on the shores & track the turtle trails for nests. They look out for the cleverly dug sand nests on the shore by following the typical trail marks. A female turtle’s trail is visibly different from that of the male’s. Once the nest is spotted, the eggs are then carefully transferred to a fenced nesting facility on the beach. This safeguards the eggs from any possible threats. A replica of the original nest is made by taking the accurate width & depth. The volunteers check the turtle nests for hatchlings twice every day. After about 45-50 days, the hatchlings slowly start making their way out of the sand nests. As soon as they reach the surface, the hatchlings must be released into the water to their natural habitat. The event of guiding the hatchlings into the sea is open for everyone – that’s what the famous Velas Turtle Festival is all about. The nests open between the months of February-April. It is said that the sea turtles have strong memories associated with their birthplace and hence will swim over 3000 miles, returning to their natal beach to lay eggs.
IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.flickr.com/photos/142410415@N08/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I hopped on the pillion seat of Mohan’s bike as we headed for the beach. It was a cool morning and the nonchalant village was slowly waking up from a sweet slumber. The narrow streets were lined with rustic houses and numerous trees. The bike was wobbly on the unpaved and bumpy dirt roads; I tightened my grip on the grab bar, excited at the thought of welcoming the newborn turtles & helping them reach safely to their home – into the open sea.
Velas is a tiny village in Coastal Maharashtra, with minimal connectivity. Nearest major cities are Mumbai and Pune. Best routes are Mumbai-Velas or Pune-Velas, I had taken Pune-Velas route.
Driving distance from Mumbai: 225 KM (approx.) & from Pune: 199 KM (approx.)
If you wish to take the state transport bus, try to book it in advance as there’s only one direct bus from each place per day, for Velas.
Where to stay
There are plenty of Homestays in Velas. Call on the numbers given on the website & book it in advance, as there’s a huge surge of tourists during the turtle festival.