Velas

Based upon my personal visit in March 2014. Rajesh Deshpande © 2014.

Destination Type – Marine turtle conservation site. Trip type – ecotour.                       

Click here to view photostream of Velas

Velas is a quaint little coastal village on the Konkan coast of Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra, India. It stands near the confluence of the Savitri River and the Arabian Sea.  The Savitri River separates the coastal districts of Raigad and Ratnagiri. Velas has become popular due to the Olive Ridley Marine Turtles and is also known as ‘Kasvanche Gaon’, literally ‘The Turtle Village’ in Marathi. Every year since 2006, the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), an NGO based at Chiplun, Maharashtra celebrates the Turtle Festival while drawing large city crowds to witness the process of releasing baby turtles in to the sea. The conservation efforts of SNM are supported by the Dept. of Forests, Maharashtra and the local village volunteers across the Konkan coast.  Velas is at a distance of 220 Kms from Mumbai and 195 Kms from Pune.

Bankot Jetty .. gateway to Velas

How to reach?

By Rail – The nearest railhead is Mangaon on the Konkan Railway, 80 Kms from Velas. Many Goa bound trains halt at Mangaon. It is not recommended to reach Velas by rail.

By Road – direct S.T. buses from Mumbai are available for Velas. There’s one bus at mid-night that reaches Velas at 6:30 AM in the morning and there’s other one that leaves Mumbai at noon and reaches Velas at 8:00 PM. Seats can be reserved through MSRTC online reservation website. Local S.T. buses are also available from Mandangad and Dapoli to Velas. ST doesn’t operate semi-luxury or Volvo buses on this route.

If travelling by own vehicle from Mumbai, take the Vashi, Panvel, Palaspe Phata (NH-17), Pen, Vadkhal, Kolad, Mangaon, Lonere, Goregaon, Ambet, Mahapral, Mandangad route to Velas.

From Pune, take the Chandni Chowk, Paud, Tamhini ghat route to Mangaon and ahead to Lonere, Goregaon, Ambet, Mahapral, Mandangad route to Velas.

From Mangaon, there’s an alternate route … turn right to take the Morbe, Mhasla, Shrivardhan, Harihareshwar route to Bagmandla jetty. From here take the ferry to Bankot (the ferry is large enough to accommodate two mini buses, assortment of cars and SUV’s plus about 100 people). It takes fifteen minutes to cross the Savitri River to reach the other bank at Bankot. From Bankot it takes twenty minutes to reach Velas. The ferry operates from 6 AM to 10 PM every day. It shuttles once every hour.

By Air – Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai is the nearest airport, 220 Kms away.

Olive Ridley Baby Turtle

Olive Ridley Baby Turtle

Where to Stay?

Velas is a small coastal village. There are no hotels in Velas. The villagers volunteering for SNM’s turtle conservation make homestay arrangements at a nominal cost. Click Here for finding a homestay at Velas. Don’t expect city comforts at Velas. Accommodation is mostly common lodging with common washrooms. Very few homestays provide separate rooms with attached washrooms. Food available is local Maharashtrian fare. Velas is largely a vegetarian village. There are no restaurants or chemists in Velas. There’s only one shop which sells packaged drinking water and cold beverages, biscuits and provisions. Being a coastal village having tropical climate, the season from mid-March to mid-June is very hot and humid.

Bankot near Velas

The Festival

This year (2014), SNM had originally declared the Velas Turtle Festival to begin on 15th March on their website www.snmcpn.org however due to the mass hatching of eggs expected to happen around 20th March, they have rescheduled the festival to begin on 20th March and to continue for a month till April end.

The Turtle Festival – more of a ritual for releasing hatchlings in to the sea is held on the Velas beach itself. Approach to the beach is on the outskirts of Velas just adjacent to a bridge over a culvert. A trail leads to the beach through casuarina trees. It’s a walk of about 2 Kms. one way from the village to the beach. Reach the hatchery on the beach to see the turtle nests from where the baby turtles are collected in to baskets and released in to the sea about hundred meters ahead.

Excited crowd running to the release site

Excited crowd running to the release site

As on 15th March 2014, there were a total of twelve nests at Velas out of which one had completely hatched and the other one has begun to hatch as on 16th March 2014. The other nests are expected to begin hatching around the festival day. Apart from Velas, there are hatcheries also at the neighbouring Harihareshwar, Kelshi and Anjarle villages, although few in number.

Due to sudden geological changes, the shoreline at Velas has considerably changed over the past two years leading to formation of wet sand elevations creating ravines on the beach. This has prevented many female turtles to come on the beach for laying eggs.

P.S. – There are no fixed dates for releasing the hatchlings in to the sea; it is purely a game of luck and natures will. For sure sightings, one has to be patient and be prepared to stay put at Velas for 2 – 3 days.  Visit the hatchery on the beach twice a day when the volunteers check for hatchlings at 7 AM and 6 PM. The local SNM volunteer can only guess if the hatchling would come out in a day or two but can never accurately forecast. Cooperate with the SNM volunteers by following their instructions. 

Tips for photography enthusiasts – turn off the built-in flash on point and shoot cameras. Do not carry tripods for photography, the tripod would never stand still in the quick slipping sand and  due to the shake caused by the crowd around. Photographers using a DSLR camera can use a good telephoto zoom lens for taking close-ups of the baby turtles. 

General Tips – There are no chemists in Velas, carry medicines along if required. Velas has no cellular coverage however wired phones are available with STD facility for calling home. The locals speak Marathi. Hindi is also well spoken while English is understood. The SNM volunteers however can communicate equally well in any of the three languages. Velas is not a picnic spot or a holiday destination. Swimming is strictly prohibited in the sea as the turtles perceive human presence to be a threat and change course. Do not litter the beach. Do not shout on the beach. Be a nature lover and do your bit to help conserve nature’s creations.

Things to do

The purpose of visiting Velas is to sight the Olive Ridley turtles. There is nothing much to do apart from knowing about the life of these beautiful creatures and seeing them. The SNM volunteers also show a documentary on the life of Marine Turtles every evening in the village. There’s also an Information Kiosk amidst casuarina trees near the beach.

Baby Olive Ridley Turtle pair

Baby Olive Ridley Turtle pair

Shopping and Eating

There’s nothing to shop at Velas. Relish the delicious Konkani cuisine at your homestay.

In and around Velas

Velas has beautiful scenery; the road to Bankot from Velas is extremely picturesque as it runs adjacent to the confluence of the Savitri River and Arabian Sea.  4 Kms north-east of Velas is Bankot … a land fort built by the Maratha Navy for surveillance over the Savitri River. Although the fort is in total ruins, it offers imposing view of Harihareshwar across the confluence. The Bankot jetty also offers a magnificent view.  Across the Savitri River to the north is the temple town of Harihareshwar with two beaches … the touristy north beach now offers water sports while the south beach is desolate.

Down south Velas are the coastal villages of Kelshi, Ade, Anjarle, Harnai and Palande with unspoilt beaches. Click Here to view photostream of Anjarle. A visit to Suvarnadurg Sea Fort off the Harnai jetty is worth the time spent. If lucky, Dolphins could be spotted here. The ancient caves at Paj Pandhari village near Harnai are also worth a visit. Further south are the touristy coastal villages of Murud, Karde and Ladghar with many resorts and water sports facilities.

Ferry between Bankot and Hari Hareshwar

To know more about the Olive Ridley Marnie Turtles ….. continue reading further.

The information given below is based upon FAQ’s answered by SNM volunteers at Velas Hatchery and information displayed at the information kiosk near the beach.

The Olive Ridley Marine Turtles

To begin with, let’s have a look at the difference between a turtle and a tortoise.

  1. A turtle is relatively smaller compared to a tortoise, it also weighs less than a tortoise. An adult Olive Ridley turtle weighs about 50 Kgs. and grows to about 3 feet length.
  2. A turtle cannot retract its head and flippers under its shell but a tortoise can. Thus turtles are susceptible to be easy prey for predators.
  3. A turtle’s life span is relatively lesser than a tortoise. A turtle lives for about 80 years whereas a tortoise can live up to 150 years.
  4. A turtle has flippers whereas a tortoise has well-formed legs.
  5. A turtle is largely a marine creature whereas a tortoise can be found in fresh water too.
Olive Ridley Turtle Lifecycle

Olive Ridley Turtle Lifecycle

Interesting facts about the Olive Ridley Turtles

  1. On reaching maturity in about 15 – 20 years, the Olive Ridley male female pair mates in the sea.
  2. The female turtle loaded with eggs comes to the same shore to lay her eggs where she was born. This unusual phenomenon isn’t satisfactorily explained by science yet.
  3. The female turtle digs her nest in the sand for laying eggs. The nest is about 2 feet deep. She lays eggs only in the night or early morning.
  4. One female turtle lays approx. 140 eggs in one nest. The eggs are of the size of a table tennis ball and are flexible enough to sustain minor shocks.
  5. It takes about 45 to 55 days for the eggs to hatch. The baby turtle breaks the egg with a small nail on its flipper or using a pointed projection on its head to come out.
  6. The baby turtle once hatched under the sand needs to make its way up through the sand to come out to the surface. It struggles hard to make its way up using its flippers. The effort pays off by way of the flippers becoming strong enough to make the turtle crawl and get in to the sea.
  7. Once the turtles are on the surface of the shore, they head on straight to the sea. However, this journey from the nest to sea is full of challenges, the turtles are at high risk of being picked up by predators like vultures, eagles, stray dogs, and foxes loitering on the shores.
  8. On reaching the sea, the risk to their lives continues, there are predators under water waiting for a feast, and other risks like fishing nets and trawling also take a toll on their lives.
  9. The lucky baby turtles have to swim for about 8 Kms in to the sea to find their first meal of moss on the sea bed.
  10. The turtles travel deep in to the sea for thousands of nautical miles till they reach adulthood. In an experiment, where a female baby turtle were tagged and released in to the sea at Orissa, it was found that the turtle had travelled as far as Sri Lanka, encircling the entire Sri Lankan peninsula and returning to the same shore in Orissa to lay her eggs on reaching adulthood from where she was released in to the sea.
  11. No Parenting – the baby turtles get no parental care. The female turtle never turns back after laying eggs. The baby turtles live on their own without any parenting or protection.
  12. Survival Rate – Out of hundred hatchlings released in to the sea, only one turtle survives to reach adulthood. Thus the survival rate is only one percent.
  13. Sex Determination – The sex of baby turtles is determined by the temperature in the nest. A fine balance of temperature determines the baby turtle’s sex. Higher the temperature, the baby turtles turn out to be females. Lower the temperature, the baby turtle would be males. As temperature in the nest varies at different levels, the bottom most part of the nest is at a higher temperature of approx. 30 deg. Centigrade whereas the upper portion is at a slightly lower temperature of about 28 deg. Centigrade, thus it is found that the eggs in the bottom most part of the nest hatch as female turtles whereas eggs in the upper layers hatch as male turtles. At 29 degrees centigrade it’s a mix of male and female turtles.
  14. Some Olive Ridley turtles are vegetarians while some others turn non-vegetarian feeding on small prey like crabs and sea horses.
  15. The female turtles come to the shores from November to March for laying eggs. Accordingly the hatchings happen from January to May. The peak hatching period being March and April.

Conservation Effort on the Maharashtra Coastline

The Olive Ridley species was a fast diminishing turtle species few years back when the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), an NGO based at Chiplun, Maharashtra together with the Department of Forests, Maharashtra and local villagers initiated a massive conservation effort in the year 2002. Today, these efforts have borne fruit and the turtle species is saved from extinction. SNM began the turtle festival in the year 2006 to spread awareness amongst people and to increase the conservation effort. SNM operates in the Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg coastal districts of Maharashtra for Olive Ridley conservation, a coastline of about 500 Kms. The villagers support in the form of volunteering for conservation activities and making homestay arrangements for city tourists at a nominal cost. They have also given up eating turtles and their eggs … a sacrifice which has paid off very well.

How they do it?

The female turtles dig nests in to wet sand near the sea. The nests are about 2 feet deep. Typically 12 – 15 females dig nests at different places on the same shore in an area spanning about 2 Kms. Each female lays about 140 eggs making a whopping thousand plus eggs in all nests together. After laying eggs the female turtle covers the nest back with sand. The conservationists follow the trails left by female turtles to find the nests. They open the nests carefully and remove the eggs noting their sequence in the nest.

Turtle nest covered with basket and jute bag

Turtle nest covered with basket and jute bag

A hatchery is constructed at a safe distance from the sea. It consists of hand dug nests. The reason of removing the eggs from the turtle dug nest and moving them in to a hand dug nest inside the hatchery is to protect the eggs from changing water levels on the shore due to changing tides. If water enters the nest the temperature inside the nest would change and the eggs would never hatch. The hatchery is a fenced area. The fencing runs few feet deep in to the ground to prevent predators from reaching the nests by digging from outside the fence. Inside the hatchery, the number of hand dug nests correspond to the turtle dug nests. Each hand dug nest is exactly similar in characteristics to the original turtle dug nest … same depth and diameter. The eggs are laid back in to the hand dug nest maintaining the same sequence as it was in the corresponding turtle dug nest. The nests are labelled by piercing a baton in the sand nearby with a number for identification. The volunteers keep a close vigil on the nests 24 x 7 for a period of 45 – 55 days till the eggs hatch and the hatchlings are released in to the sea.

How do they know that the eggs have hatched? 

The volunteers never open the nests. When the eggs hatch and the hatchlings begin to make their way out of the nest, the dry sand on top of the nest begins to seep in creating a hollow depression which is an indicator that the eggs have hatched. When the depression is visible, the volunteers cover the nest with a basket and a jute bag to prevent the hatchlings being spotted by aerial predators like vultures or eagles. The volunteers check the baskets twice the day to see if the hatchlings have come out and release them few meters before the sea. The baby turtles then begin to crawl in the direction of light towards the sea. This stage is very important for imprinting the shore topography in to the brains of female turtles as they would return to the same shore for laying their eggs on reaching maturity. The male turtles never return.

Curious Crowd

Curious Crowd

Due to large turnover of city crowd to see the hatchlings being released in to the sea, the volunteers of SNM have to put in extra efforts to manage the crowd by installing barricades at the release area. The crowd  is educated on site and instructions on house rules are given. No one is allowed to touch the hatchlings or come in their way while they crawl to the sea. It’s a delicate moment, the hatchlings are at risk due to sea waves throwing them back and someone accidently stepping over them not being able to see them through the waves … that’s why people are kept away as far as possible.

Releasing the Baby Turtles

Releasing the Baby Turtles

It is indeed an amazing moment to see the baby turtles make their way to the sea … truly a wonder of Mother Nature. A big salute to the efforts put in by the SNM volunteers for having played a phenomenal role in conserving the beautiful Olive Ridley turtle species.

Rajesh Deshpande © 2014.

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