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Olive Ridley Turtles

Ridleys and Roubles at Morjim beach

Guided by ancient memories and a faint throb of a familiar trail, patient Olive Ridley turtles are struggling to hold on to a sliver of beach at Morjim, silently surfacing once every year in October or November to burrow the sand and lay eggs.

The silent, almost surreptitious visit comes at a time when tourism activity is nearing its peak in Morjim, also referred to as Little Russia because of the infatuation Russian tourists have for the beach village, located some 35 kms north of Panjim.

But can tourism and Olive Ridleys, an extremely shy and endangered species of turtles, co-exist on a beach known for its bustling nightlife and boom-boxes?

According to Sujeetkumar Dongre, an environment expert, the unusual cocktail of turtles and tourism can actually thrive, but with a responsible approach. “Turtles add to your economy, not the other way … but sensitive planning is essential,” Dongre told Streets.

Dongre is the deputy programme co-ordinator for the Centre for Environment Education, a green NGO. He said that locals in Morjim were convinced that the olive-coloured turtles which waddle up the shore once a year “are good for them.” Because more turtles mean more tourists and therefore more business.

But Dongre also says that over time, exploitation of Morjim might have tilted the balance against the Olive Ridleys. “Turtle nesting and road connectivity has brought an influx of tourists, hence the conflict. So the question is who should benefit, tourism or the turtles?” he says.

Morjim was one of the more ‘virgin’ beaches of northern Goa until a bridge over the Chapora River opened the tourism floodgates to what was once a sleepy fishing village.

Now it’s a favoured beach haunt for Russian tourists and its nightlife scene is slowly giving other popular beach destinations like Baga and Anjuna a run for their money.

Not very good news for the 45-kilogram Olive Ridleys, who also prefer the beach at night, but only to crawl up quietly like soldiers on a stealth mission before burrowing a pit in the sand and laying eggs, about a 100 at a time.

While in 2001 there were 33 turtle nesting sites at Morjim beach, the year 2011 reported only 11, the worst since the turtle conservation movement formally started in Morjim in 1996.


Fact Box  

{Why do Olive Ridley sea turtles return every year to lay eggs at Morjim Beach? Once the hatchlings emerge from the nest and race towards the sea, guided by the reflection of the moon and stars, the geomagnetic field of the area, the scent and visual cues get imprinted on the hatchling. This enables them to return to the same nesting beach where they were born year after year. This phenomenon is called ‘natal homing,’ a reptilian form of GPS.}

Olive Ridley sea turtles are an endangered species and they are awarded the highest degree of protection under the Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. So much so, that stealing the turtle’s eggs or in any manner disturbing them or their habitat is a punishable offence.

How much of this legal jargon is actually implemented is a different question. Take the tourism department’s decision to increase the number of beach shacks on Morjim beach from eight last year to 11 this year even as Pamela Mascarenhas, deputy director at the Goa Tourism Department, says that care was taken to ensure that the allotted shacks were “further off” from the beach’s turtle nesting site.

Dongre says that as long as restrictions such as no high-mast lighting, no loud music and an enforced distance of 40 meters between the shacks and the turtle nesting site are maintained, “turtle tourism is a sure possibility.”

Dongre’s optimism is shared by Kartik Shanker, a former president of the International Sea Turtle Society. “Goa has a unique model. It has managed to mix turtle conservation with the tourism, which benefits the local community,” Shanker said, adding that turtle conservation has to be balanced with other priorities.

That may be true. But considering the 66 percent drop in Morjim nesting sites over the last decade, Goa’s tourism party isn’t very much fun for turtles.