The turtles of Velas

Adventure, Destinations, India, Maharashtra, Wildlife

This  week I take a ride down memory lane, as I recall my trip to Velas to see turtles on the beach

I am in sleepy Velas, a coastal village in Maharashtra. I’m here to see Olive Ridley turtles take their first baby steps into the sea. And unlike last time I’m hoping I actually get to see some turtles.

The Velas coastline from Bankot fort
The Velas coastline from Bankot fort

Velas is small coastal village that’s a bit off the beaten road.While neighboring Harihareshwar is probably more popular, it’s home to a lovely small beach. And it’s this beach where Olive Ridley turtles nest every year.

Since Olive Ridley turtles are endangered, a local NGO called Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra began working with the village to help protect and conserve the nests. Out of these efforts the annual
“Turtle” festival was born, where visitors could see the newly hatched turtles make their way to the sea.

The festival has become quite popular of late, and that’s my destination this week. I leave early in the morning with my good pals Mehul and Amyth, who have been gracious enough to help organize the trip. We make the journey to Velas is fairly good time and just about make it by early evening. The trip brings back memories of a similar trip I made last year in the hope of seeing some hatchlings. But Lady Luck didn’t favor me then, and I ended up not seeing a single turtle. Maybe this time will be different I think, as I make my way to the beach.

We wait to find if any turtles have hatched
We wait to find if any turtles have hatched

The nests are in an enclosure on the beach and the story of how they got there is a tale in itself.

Every night, the turtles make it to shore to lay their eggs in nests dug in the sand. The villagers scour the beach each night and look for telltale tracks that may point these nests. Then once the nest is found, begins the meticulous task of moving the eggs into a “nest” in the enclosure. The new nest is approximated to be like one in which the eggs were found. Once the eggs are secure, the villagers watch over the nests till the turtles hatch and then release them into the sea.

I stand outside the enclosure hoping to see some turtles, but it seems it isn’t my lucky day. Resigned to yet another disappointing trip to Velas, I decide to make the most of the trip, as I head back to our homestay. Evening is pure bliss, as night descends and the stars twinkle into the sky. There aren’t so many out there yet, but still it is quite a sight to see them sans any pollution. I catch up on some reading in the quiet, as our host for the evening prepares dinner.

Dinner is some delicious simple Konkani food, which we all relish after the long day. I make friends with the house cat, who seems to relish the food as much as I do. Post dinner we plan a quick walk around to take in the fresh air. It’s a pity that the night sky is cloudy, otherwise we would have been treated to some lovely stars in the sky. In the distance we see the waves gently crash against the shore. After a while, we call it a day hoping that the new day brings in better tidings.

The Velas sky on a clear night (from my 2017 trip)
The Velas sky on a clear night (from my 2017 trip)

Early morning we make a mad break for the beach. The way to beach is actually quite well maintained. It twists and turns through the mangroves, before it finally suddenly arrives at the beach.

With bated breath, we wait for the opening of the nests. The caretakers arrive and begin opening the nests. The atmosphere is tense as they open the first nest and shake their head – no turtles.

They move on the other nests and then suddenly the crowd gets excited. One of the nests has hatched some turtles !!!

The crowd is excited, some turtles have hatched
The crowd is excited, some turtles have hatched

I race to the beach, hoping to get some good shots. The caretakers slowly let each turtle go, a few feet away from the sea. The little turtles take their first steps on the sand, as their every step is watched and cheered on by a gaggle of eager humans. The crowd goes into a frenzy as the turtles waddle towards the sea. And just like that they are gone into the sea, hopefully to return many years later, to begin the cycle anew.

A little turtle hatchling crawls into the sea
A little turtle hatchling crawls into the sea
A turtle rests for just a second on its long walk to the sea

As I watch the turtles make it to the sea, I am glad that this human interest in their conservation will help increase their numbers. But I am slightly appalled (and a bit guilty) as well at the sheer number of people gathered around to see those turtles. As I drive away from Velas, I wonder what the turtles might have thought of their noisy and crowded welcome into the world. At some level I’m sure it was traumatic to them and I hope that in our zeal to promote conservation, we may also be more mindful on the unintended impact our actions have

More Information

Getting there

Velas, located in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, is about 237 km from Mumbai. Road is the only way to reach Velas and it takes about 6 hours to drive down to Velas from Mumbai. If you want to travel via public transport, you could take the state transport bus to Dapoli and then use local transport to ride to Velas. While we drove on this trip, my previous excursion to Velas was with Nikhil Gaikwad (Moments Photo Shoot) who organizes photo tours every year during the festival. Mumbai Travelers also organizes regular excursions to Velas during the turtle festival.

When to visit

The hatching season is usually in the months leading up to the Indian summer. The best time to visit is in March-April. But you should watch for announcements as the dates may vary each year by a few weeks.

Where to stay

In Velas, the only stay options available are typically homestays in local village houses. Meals are simple but delicious Konkani meals. A weekend trip should set you back by about Rs. 2000 per head or less for stay and meals. If you plan the trip in an organized group, stay and meals will be taken care of as part of the trip.

What to do

While you won’t find much to do in Velas, with the beach being off limits for swimming, there is quite a bit that you can explore in the neighborhood. Between trips to the beach to see the hatchlings, you can visit the fort of Bankot. Bankot is perched atop a hill. It’s ruins offer a commanding view of seascape. And on the way back you can also extend the trip with a quick visit to Harihareshwar beach and it’s famous temple. Or you can make your Konkan exploration a bit longer with a quick day trip to Dapoli.

Chasing Hanoi's Street Train
In search of the Great Indian Rhinoceros