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Baby Sea Turtles Spotted on Mumbai Beach for the First Time in 20 Years

Though conservationists are celebrating the apparent success, the creatures may not be as rare as once believed

Turtles on Versova Beach (Afroz Shah)
smithsonian.com

Late last week, officials in Mumbai, India, announced that for the first time in 20 years sea turtles have successfully nested on one of the city’s beaches, reports Agence France-Presse. Witnesses say roughly 80 tiny olive ridley sea turtles climbed out of their nest on Versova Beach and begin stumbling toward the sea.

The nesting comes after three years of cleanup on the highly polluted beach by a group of volunteers led by lawyer and environmental activist Afroz Shah. Shah tells Darryl D’Monte at Mongabay that the mother turtle was seen laying her eggs in the area two months ago. The cleanup group and fenugreek growers on the beach then kept watch. At 9 A.M. local time last Thursday, a volunteer witnessed the turtles hatching. Shah and his group visited the site and protected the turtles as they headed for the water. They kept the hatch secret until afterwards to keep the tiny reptiles safe.

“This is indeed very good news for our Versova beach. The 80 olive ridley turtles hatched in the morning and made a dash towards the sea,” Shah tells The Times of India. “Earlier, this beach was very dirty, with piles of plastic trash. No sea turtles were hatching here as garbage is a huge hurdle for them to cross. But now, thanks to the Clean Versova Beach drive, we are all happy and blessed to have seen these newly hatched olive ridley turtles.”

As D’Monte reports, Mumbai officials were initially skeptical about the hatch, and some conservationists worried that the news was a publicity stunt since no shells were visible at the beach or in their photos. An investigation by the forestry department, however, found a pit that had been planted over with fenugreek and contained turtle shells as well as 20 dead baby turtles.

“Methi [fenugreek] was grown over the undetected nest. We discovered the empty egg shells the next day,” N. Vasudevan, of the forestry department says. “The hatchlings were looking for a route to the sea and crawled sideways into the adjacent pit, from where people helped them out. We have not cordoned off the area but are keeping a watch. These may have been happening on a regular basis and we may have missed out on sighting them. Turtles normally lay eggs in October, which hatch in early January, two months later. Sometimes, this gets delayed.”

According to the AFP, the forestry department will continue to monitor the area for other nests and prohibit beach excavation.

While some areas on India’s coast are great for turtles—Odisha hosts one of the world’s largest mass-nesting turtle grounds—the beaches in the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, are in dire shape. The Times of India reports that 80 to 90 percent are too damaged or polluted to host turtles.

Sumedha Korgaonkar, a PhD candidate who is studying the olive ridley turtles of Maharashtra tells D’Monte that she does not think the nesting is as significant as it seems—and the turtles may have been covertly nesting up and down the coast. “For me, this is not big news of a sighting for the first time. It is a common misconception to imagine that these creatures are shy and deterred by human activities along the coast,” she says. “We may have ignored their presence because hatchlings usually emerge at night, beyond the high-tide line.”

She urges people to learn the signs of turtle nesting and to watch for tracks of turtles entering and leaving the beach to help keep better tabs on Maharashtra's turtles.

Whatever the case, the turtles need the attention. Despite some encouraging increases in numbers in recent decades, climate change, development along beaches, fishing gear entanglement and hunting for eggs and meat still threaten the world’s sea turtle populations. The IUCN currently lists olive ridley turtles as vulnerable.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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