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Now, don’t let the title of this post mislead you. No I didn’t really ‘swim’ with turtles. I wish I had but I suppose that would have looked uncannily like that scene in Finding Nemo. Anyhow, while I was on a much-awaited vacation in my state in Orissa, India, my father suggested that we should all go see newborn Olive Ridley turtles move to the sea. And we did!

So as excited as I was, I made sure that I had all the essentials to remember the experience properly. My dad’s DSLR was packed in, complete with a telephoto lens. I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to photograph turtles ‘in the wild’. My dad had his video camera too. So there was to be more than one way of documenting the experience.

DAY 1

We started out from Bhubaneswar at around 8 in the morning to travel to Rambha (a place in Berhampur), which is around 3 hours away by road. Most parts in Orissa are hot as hell during April. But that was not enough to snuff out our desire to see the turtles.

We travelled in my Uncle’s car. Bus services from Bhubaneswar to Berhampur are there but might not exactly the best for most travellers. One of the better reasons to take your own transport is to beat the scorching heat as well as to be able to travel easily as everything so far away from the bus stop or from an auto stand.

There were five of us – my Dad, my Uncle, my Aunt, my Mum, and of course, me – and the journey was quite enjoyable, save the heat. The road from Bhubaneswar is very comfortable to travel on and very picturesque as well, and we were able to take in the sights while trying to stay away from the heat.

We did however encounter major delays, with a huge truck getting stuck in the middle of the road near a train crossing area. But, we finally made it to Rambha.

We went to the Pantha Nivas – which is a Government hotel initiative. It is not five-star accommodation but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was located in a very beautiful area, just overlooking the Chilika Lake. Since a number of people had come to see the turtles, the best rooms, which were actually the cottages right next to the lake, had been completely booked. That was unfortunate as our rooms were rather small and were not exactly spotless either – but that is not to say that they were not decent.

The view of the Pantha Nivas cottages overlooking Chilika Lake from our room

Flowers in the Pantha Nivas garden

As we had reached after lunchtime, we decided to look for a place to eat. We did not try Pantha Nivas’ restaurant as we knew we would probably be having dinner there. But we walked in the scorching heat (bad idea, propagated by Uncle and Dad) to see if the Kamath Restaurant right outside the Pantha Nivas hotel entrance was actually open.

Kamath turned out to be a house belonging to the former king of the area. It was quite a beautiful but run down house from outside. There were cashew trees strewn across the backyard.

And sadly, it also turned out that Kamath was not open. We had to walk back again.

Thankfully we’d seen a seafood restaurant on our way to the hotel, so we went and ate there. Then we went back to Pantha Nivas, had some rest and then decided to go for a boat ride on the Chilika Lake.

The sunny skies now suddenly seemed angry and the rainclouds had gathered ominously overhead. However, we were determined to take the boat ride all the same. It wasn’t much of a boat ride as we were just taken around a small area of the lake, but it was still beautiful, and I got to take a number of pictures.

Dad talking to the boat operators on Chilika Lake

Rainclouds, Chilika Lake

Chilika, from the boat

Then after that was over and we’d taken in the sights of the Chilika Lake, we came back to Pantha Nivas once more for tea. I don’t drink tea but since it had been ordered for everyone, I had a cup.

We spent the evening sitting outside in the garden area of Pantha Nivas which had some lovely flowers. The cool lake breeze was very satisfying and after some natural rejuvenation, we went in to have a decent dinner. Then we slept as we had to get up at 4 in the morning to see what we’d come for.

DAY 2.

We woke up at 4am. That isn’t a great feeling when you sleep at midnight. But the determination to go see turtles was greater than anything else. With cameras packed in our backpacks, we moved groggily to a car that was to take us to the beach.

It was dark – almost like night. However since it is summer in April in Orissa, the sun rises very early, and by 5am, everything was more or less visible. The car ride was not the best – it was quite a long drive and there seemed to be hordes of people on the road even at that time. But looking outside the window was wonderful – the sun was just coming up and we could see a golden streak of light on the horizon. The air was also cool and comforting.

Once we reached a small village near the Rushikulya beach, we saw a number of tourists in the area.

We got to the beach on foot and though the sun was not fully up, it was definitely rising soon. The first turtles we saw seemed to have gone in the wrong direction. Instead of going into the sea, they had travelled to a small detached pond like area a small distance from the sea. Some people and some local children were helping move these displaced turtles to the sea.

A turtle moving to the sea at dawn

Turtle at dawn

A turtle getting into the water

Then we walked to the proper beach. There were lots and lots of tourists – some genuinely interested in the welfare of these animals – and some who had come to see them as some kind of attraction.

The Orissa Government had made the ‘event’ a sort of tourist attraction – which to me was ridiculous. As much as the Government actually thinks it is drawing attention to the fragile ecosystem these creatures breed in and are born in, the number of people who came to visit the beach like they were on a visit to the zoo was tremendous.

One of the things that saddened me most was the number of turtles that had been killed. The turtles were tiny. They would fit into your hand like this.

This is how small the turtles were

There were predators such as crows, eagles, and even red crabs that were feasting on these newborns. However, I think the biggest cause for the deaths of many of the turtles was actually indifferent tourists. I saw people walking around without actually looking at where they were treading.

Young boys from the village were helping the turtles but were demanding money from the tourists for doing so. What should have been a beautiful and environmentally friendly experience turned out to be, well, sadly, tourist-y. I was glad when some of the noise-making tourists finally went back, leaving only genuinely interested people behind.

I was initially frightened of holding these turtles and helping them make the journey to the sea, but I did so after seeing many of them getting stuck in nets and other kind of barricades.

We were there for close to 2 hours I think. I managed to take many photos, though I don’t really know how good they turned out to be.

A newborn turtle getting out of its hole

One turtle nesting hole can contain hundreds of newborns

Turtle twins

The experience of observing these turtles was indeed very beautiful. I’d never seen newborn turtles before and to see them on one of Orissa’s biggest nesting grounds was quite something. Apart from saving a turtle from the clutches of a crow, I think the biggest ‘good Samaritan’ act I did that day was to help rescue hundreds of turtles stuck in a fishing net far away from the sea by alerting the authorities there. I felt so good after that.

It is said that out of a thousand turtles that move to the sea, only one or two actually make it to adulthood. If natural forces such as predators and rough seas are the reason why such a large number of turtles diminish before becoming adults, imagine what human impact can do, and what it is already doing.

The Rushikulya area is a huge nesting ground for Olive Ridley turtles and every year these turtles come to lay their eggs on the beach. These areas are now in danger from falling prey to some very big companies thanks to the Orissa Government allowing oil companies to drill off the coast. If something is not done to protect this fragile ecosystem, what was once good and beautiful in the world, will be lost forever.

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