Velas – Village of Turtles & More!By Jayesh Paranjape
There are some wildlife spectacles or events around the world that are a must-see or must-experience for a wildlife enthusiast like me. Be it the Great Migration at Serengeti in Africa, Brown Bears feasting in Alaska, King Penguin rookery at St. Andrews Bay or the Olive Ridley Turtles nesting and hatching in Orissa. As a kid, I had heard about the Olive Ridley Turtles who swim for thousands of miles and make their way to the Gahirmata Beach in Orissa to lay eggs and dreamt of visiting this place one day. I always wondered how it would be to witness an Animal Planet-like moment when tiny turtle hatchlings, make that journey from the hatched egg to the sea.
|Photo: Anshul Khandelwal|
Of course I had never heard or imagined that the Olive Ridleys also had sporadic nesting sites across the western coast too. In 2008, when I was working with Sanctuary Asia (a leading wildlife magazine) I received an invitation to attend the first ever ‘Turtle Festival’ at Velas village in Maharashtra. It was almost like a dream come true. Unfortunately due to busy work schedules, I never got a chance to visit the festival. Since then, every year during March & April, my Facebook newsfeed was occupied by photographs of turtle hatchlings being released and making their way to the sea. In 2012 after a short stint in the UK where I studied responsible tourism management (and often spoken about the eco-tourism model of the turtle festival in Velas), I returned to India and got a chance to visit Velas for the turtle festival! And I got so hooked on to the whole concept that I have been visiting Velas every year since then.
|Plus Valley at Tamhini Ghat|
We started our journey from Pune early on a Saturday morning. We decided to take the Tamhini Ghat route from Mulshi which is the shortest route to reach Velas by road (around 180 km). The road condition was a bit dodgy, but the stunning views of the valley made up for the bad roads. After a 4 hour bumpy ride through the Tamhini Ghat-Mangaon-Mandangad-Bankot route, we finally arrived in Velas for lunch. We were welcomed by Sunil Darge and his family who were to be our hosts for the next 2 days. After a quick round of chai, we set out to explore the village.
Velas is the quintessential Konkani village with low thatched sloping roofs, spotless and clean dung-smeared courtyards, narrow roads lined with jackfruit trees and backyards full of coconut, betel nut, kokam and mango trees. Velas is the birth place of Nana Phadnis, one of the most influential ministers of the Maratha Empire during the Peshwe administration. There is a small ‘smarak’ or shrine dedicated to him at his birth-house. Apart from this, there are 2 temples one can visit while in Velas - Shri Bhairi-Rameshwar temple built by the Peshwas and the Mahalaxmi temple which also plays host to a slide show and a film screening in the evening during the turtle festival.
After a sumptuous home-cooked lunch, which was served on banana leaves, we headed to the Bankot Fort which is around 5 km from Velas. The fort which is strategically located overlooks the sea as well as the Bankot creek of the Savitri River. The view from the fort is stunning, particularly if you visit it early in the morning or late afternoon. A consistent historical timeline or the origin of the Bankot fort is not known. The fort was known to be under the control of Adilshahi and later in 1548, the Portuguese took control over it. The Marathas, under the leadership of Kanhoji Angre took control over Bankot and rechristened it as Himmatgad. When the British took over the fort, the name was changed to Fort Victoria. With its stunning views of the sea and the river, the Bankot fort is a must-visit while one is at Velas.
After exploring the village and the fort, we headed to Velas beach to see the release of the turtles. The release of turtles happens twice a day – at 6 am and 6 pm. The protection of eggs and marine turtle conservation in Maharashtra was started by a Chiplun based NGO called Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) in 2002. The conservation story goes something like this. In February 2001, SNM found evidence of around 35 turtle nests at Velas. Unfortunately they also found that poaching of turtle eggs was quite high as egg poaching is a traditional practice for some communities along the coast of Maharashtra. Add to this, predation of eggs by stray dogs, jackals and crows. In 2002, SNM decided to undertake protection and conservation of turtles at Velas. In first year they protected around 50 nests of the Olive Ridley Turtles and released more than 2700 hatchlings in the sea. Every year, volunteers from SNM patrol the beaches for evidence of nests in the months of December & January. They manually shift the eggs to a protected & barricaded patch on Velas beach and recreate the nest conditions here. Nature takes its course and in around 50-55 days, the eggs hatch and the turtles are ready to make their way to the sea. In 2008, SNM joined hands with the Gram Panchayat at Velas, the residents of Velas village and the forest department office to organize the first ever Turtle Festival. The local community agreed to open their homes and provide accommodation and home-cooked meals to the tourists who come to the festival. They also agreed to donate a part of their earnings and their valuable time and energy for the cause of turtle conservation. The turtle festival at Velas is one of the few examples of community-based eco-tourism in our country.
In the evening we were lucky to witness the release of more than 40 turtle hatchlings. It is an amazing experience to witness the first walk of these turtles. The Olive Ridley Turtles are an endangered species named for their olive green colour. These turtles migrate thousands of miles once every year for arribada i.e. to lay eggs on the same shore where they had hatched around 15 years back! When the eggs hatch, the hatchlings make their way to the sea and in the process the large quantities of magnetite in their brains helps them to read the Earth’s magnetic field so that they can navigate back to the same shore to nest. It is estimated that approximately one turtle survives to reach adulthood for every 1000 that enter the sea. What a fascinating species!
|Photos: Anshul Khandelwal|
|Photo: Anagha Bodas|
After experiencing the release we came back to our homestay and enjoyed a piping hot meal of jackfruit vegetable with lots of coconut, rice bhakri and of course the Konkani prawn curry made by Sunil’s wife. The next day at 6 am we were back on the beach and saw another 2 hatchlings make their way to the sea. As these two hatchlings made their way to the sea, they were followed by cameras. After lunch we started our journey back en-route Harihareshwar. The ferry boat ride from Bankot to Bagmandla is worth a visit. On the short ferry ride you can sit atop the viewing gallery and beat the heat with a kokum sarbat (juice) which is sold on the boat along with hot yummy wada pav.
When we reached Pune, I slept peacefully and dreamt of those 2 hatchlings. I dreamt that they had survived against all odds, reached adulthood and had come back to Velas for nesting. After my first visit in 2012, I have gone back to Velas every year for the Turtle Festival and convinced more and more people to join me on these trips! At Velas it is not just about the turtle festival but so much more – the rural life, the food, the history and most importantly the people.
This article was first published for Citadel Magazine, Pune Edition and republished in 'Routes & Trails' July 2014 issue.