Gahirmatha – An Unfinished Journey (2009)

Gahirmatha  –  An Unfinished Journey (2009)

The ever-effusive Google, god of instant gratification for impulsive travellers and armchair researchers,  is stumped for sites when I query for Gahirmatha.  All I get is sketchy Wikipedia and repetitive sales spiel by tour operators whereas  what I am looking for is specific information on whether the turtles have turned up  yet this year on the secluded beaches of Orissa coast. I also need to know how to get there. Visions of Olive Ridley armies invading Gahirmatha on a clear moonlit night have been haunting me for weeks now, thanks to a program I watched on the National Geographic channel.  Liquid crystal images of these giant creatures depositing their precious eggs in trenches dug so lovingly yet clumsily with that most unlikely and unwieldy of implements –  flippers, make me yearn to see them in shell and limb.

Maternity ward of Olive Ridleys

The documentary had shown a colony of turtles all in a state of trance, each laying as many as three to four hundred eggs, covering the trench and sweeping the sand with their flippers to erase any traces and waddling back to the sea, without glancing back even once.  So much for parenting in animal kingdom you might say. But then, they’ve done it for thousands of years, journeying almost ten thousand miles across continents and oceans all the way from South America.  Orissa coast hosts as many as eight lakh turtles every year and the offsprings born here journey to the same beach year after year once they reach their adulthood, to continue the cycle of birthing in the same spot their ancestors had chosen eons ago. Considering that turtles may live up to a hundred years or more, that would be many journeys per turtle lifetime! In the same league as Kumbh Mela and migration of wildebeest and zebra in Africa, this is one of the great spectacles on earth, primordial and mesmerising!

But if Google doesn’t oblige, how to find out where to go, when to go, how to reach, where to stay? Asking fellow travel fiends does not turn up relevant information.  So I decide to take a chance and be at Gahirmatha on a full moon night in February. Olive Ridley nesting time is usually between November and March and so February seems a good time to go.


So here I am on the clogged highway from Bhubaneshwar to Paradeep, moving at, well, tortoise pace.  Behind, beside and ahead of my vehicle are numerous open lorries laden with sooty iron ore in heaps.  It takes five hours to cover the 130 odd kilometres to Rajnagar in Kendrapara district.  At Rajnagar, the only boats available to ferry you to Bhitarkanika National Park are run by the forest department.  And not surprisingly, they are just basic and cramped, but you soon forget the discomfort and focus on the lush green on the banks and the teeming life in the river.  Bhitarkanika is a deceptively calm, muddy-looking river festooned with mangroves on both banks. But look closer and you’ll find it is infested with crocodiles.  Every few yards, you come across ten footers stretched out on the banks sunning themselves.  Bend down, and you see ripples  on the water which transform themselves into crocs when you follow their trail. Baby crocodiles, barely larger than garden lizards stare at you curiously as your boat sails past. Spotted deer, wild boar, jackal, an occasional four-foot  high crane and several migratory birds populate the banks, of course at a safe distance from the crocs.

Dangmal forest guest house deep inside Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is paradise itself, as much for its location deep inside the drop-dead gorgeous lush jungle resonating with bird calls as for the precious glimpse of pristine life sans electricity.   However, I am told I can’t go to Gahirmatha beach in the evening since I hadn’t taken prior permission to travel at night and in any case, one can’t spend the night on the beach, turtles or no turtles.  But I am free to wander around the moon-dazzled  Bhitarkanika jungle as long as I pleased provided I don’t step on slumbering serpents (the concern is for the serpent, not me) or stray into waterbodies hosting crocodiles and monitor lizards.

Very early next morning, when visibility is near zero and the river is blanketed in thick mist, we set sail for Gahirmatha. After about three hours, we spot a looming island on the horizon – Wheeler Island,  yes, the same one from which the Interceptor missile was test-fired recently. We steer clear of this defence area towards Ekakula where we dock almost mid-river. A walk along a wobbly bamboo bridge almost half a kilometre long finally brings me to my dream destination, the mouth of Maipura river, the favourite maternity ward of Olive Ridley turtles on planet earth.

Mangled by trawlers

Except that the dream turned out to be a cruel nightmare.  On the beach there were about a hundred giant Olive Ridleys which appeared to be in a labour-induced trance, but on closer inspection, turned out to be dead carcasses.  Mauled, mangled and maimed by fishing trawlers, their bodies had been washed ashore by the tide.  It is an indescribably sad sight that jolts you awake to the extent of damage human greed can inflict on defenceless fellow creatures that inhabit our planet.

A uniformed forest guard blocks my way and almost snatches my camera. After a lot of arguing and cajoling, he relents and lets me take just a couple of pictures. He tells me how these gentle giants perish by the thousands every day, caught and maimed by fishing trawlers.  On the horizon I spy about a dozen trawlers.   “What’s the coast guard doing? “ I wonder. “What can a couple of coast guard boats do against thousands of trawlers? Commercial trawling is big business madam, what are a few thousand turtles before the allure of the big bucks that tiger prawns bring in?”

Any stray turtles that may have escaped the trawler nets are often confused by the flashing lights at Wheeler Island and end up going in circles. The upcoming port at Dhamra will no doubt drive these away for ever.  I turn back inconsolably saddened by the unfinished journey of these gentle giants.

(Published in Indian Express on March 22, 2009)


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