Every year, during a five-to-seven day period in January or February, hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles land on Gahirmatha Beach in Odisha to mate. When the mating is over, up to 600,000 female Olive Ridleys begin the laborious process of digging nests in the sand with their hind flippers to lay about 100 to 140 eggs each.
It’s the largest mass nesting ground in the word for these sea turtles, some of whom travel thousands of miles—from as far away as the Pacific Ocean—to get there. This unique mass nesting is called Arribada, which is Spanish for “mass arrival.”
About 45 to 65 days later, the fun begins. More than 2 million tiny baby turtles swarm the beach as they make their way to the sea for the first time. It’s a dangerous time for the tiny hatchlings as many predators, such as birds, crabs, and dogs, wait to feed on them. About one hatchling in 1,000 that makes it to the sea reaches adulthood. Nevertheless, Olive Ridley turtles are considered a vulnerable species as their numbers are declining due to fishing and habitat loss.
In response to this annual event, conservationists, the government, local people, and volunteers come together to protect the hatchlings. The mass nesting site on Gahirmatha Beach is fenced off to allow the hatchlings a safe passage to the sea, and fishing is prohibited.
Olive Ridley turtles are the smallest sea turtles in the world, though they can grow to two feet in length and weigh 50 kilograms. They are also the most abundant sea turtles in the world, and can be found in warm water across the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The nesting beach at Gahirmatha is part of Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, and is known as Gahirmatha Marine and Turtle Sanctuary. The beach was given protected area status in 1997 so that the turtles could return to the same beach every year, undisturbed. Previously, they had to change nesting locations often, due to human interference.
Every year, Gahirmatha Turtle Sanctuary draws visitors who come to see the mass migration of these wonderful creatures.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, volunteers in Mumbai recently cleaned up Versova Beach and Olive Ridley turtles returned to nest there this spring, after an absence of 20 years.
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