Velas ( Ve- laas) may seem like a yet another fishing village on the western coast of Maharashtra. About 220km away from Bombay, less than hundred houses made of the locally available laterite stones, sloping roofs standing amidst palm and beetlenut groves comprise this sleepy hamlet. The Arabian Sea lashes onto the beach nearby which, typical of the region is lined with suru trees. But the village isn’t so, it is the Village of the Turtles. It significance lies in being part of the biodiversity of the region and the role its inhabitants playing in conserving it. For, every winter the beach of Velas becomes a nesting ground for various turtles including the endangered Olive Ridley Leatherback, Green turtle and Hawskbill species. These eggs hatch after a period of 80-90 days and the locals take it upon themselves to make sure the eggs hatch and the young ones enter the brave new world safely. The best part is that the locals invite everyone to witness this spectacle each year as a part of the Velas Turtle festival that commences from 28th February 2015.
The pioneering efforts of a local NGO – Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra has borne fruit and since 2002, each year all the nests on the western coast at Velas, Murud, Harnai, Dapoli and other sites are carefully protected and conserved. Both biological and human threats have been minimized and every year many hatchlings begin a new life on the shores of the Arabian. Over the years, this festival has become a major attraction and over 200 tourists descend upon this quaint konkani village every weekend. Around 20 households throw open their houses/spare rooms for tourists at a nominal charge which includes all vegetarian meals(though fish/chicken can be organised at certain households at an extra cost). These homestays are a great way to connect to the locals and get a glimpse into their lifestyle. The facilities are basic, dormitory style with a common, clean toilet available for about Rs. 300-450 per head/night. Though some like Sunita Sakpal provide private rooms (09130266152). I stayed with the Sakpal Family. Ms. Sunita provides two private rooms and one hall for groups along with meals. She has a nice courtyard and well built toilet and bathroom facilities (along with hot water) Call her on09130266152 or 02350220247, do give her my reference.
The SNM and Kasav Mitra Mandal staff will maintain a calendar detailing the number of eggs hatched and also likely dates. Although many tour operators organise all-inclusive trips to Velas, this post is aimed for the solo traveller or a small group that wishes to enjoy this spectacle on their own.
All the eggs laid on the beach are collected and placed in a common hatchery which is barricaded from all sides and is guarded throughout the day. Each morning at 0700 and evening at 1730-1800 the baskets covering the lid are open to check if any turtles have hatched, if they have they are counted and carefully laid in another basket and taken closer to the water. They are then gently placed on the sand and they slowly make their way to the water. Their first baby steps are not only endearing to watch but also important if it is a female, as she records in her memory the site of her birth only to return here after 15 years to lay her eggs.
On my last visit, I was disappointed to notice such unruly behavior by many tourists present whose sole aim was to capture these moments on their fancy DSLR cameras and gather likes on Facebook. The tour operators were not seen giving any instructions and participated in this tomfoolery too. The turtles follow their instinct and don’t need cheering least of all blessings of Ganapati Bappa.
Planning your trip: To witness about 3 sessions of this unveiling, you must depart from Bombay/Pune on Friday night. The only ST bus headed to Velas from Mumbai Central ST Depot departs at 1230 am and reaches Velas by 730-8. The ST stand at Velas is a fifteen minute walk from the beach so one has to typically rush to witness the spectacle on the first morning. It is quite a bumpy ride but costs only about Rs.250 or so. The SNM staff will charge a nominal Rs. 50 as entry fees at the beach.
The first day can be then spent visiting the nearby Bankot Fort or lazing around in the shade of the house you are staying at. The cliffs and the mangroves around are home to several birds including the star of the Konkan coast – the White Bellied Sea Eagle, Kingfishers (commong, white breasted), Ibis, the majestic Brahminy Kite, bee eaters, fly catchers and many more. Do visit the estuary formed by R. Savitri which holds possibilities of many good sightings of winter migrants.
In the evening you may attend another session at the beach, watch a brilliant sunset and walk back to the village as darkness takes over to watch the fireflies glow in the darkness all around.
At nights the sky lits up with several stars and one can indulge in some stargazing if the moonlight permits.
Next morning, after another session on the beach, you may climb up the cliff onto the southern end for a breathtaking view of the beach and the surroundings around.
Return Journey: The return ST bus leaves at 9am but you may skip that and take the ferry from the nearby Bankot jetty to Bagmandla Jetty to reach Harihareshwar onto the other side. From here you may either take an auto to Shrivardhan from where many buses to Bombay ply or you may take a very interesting(but long and tiring) coastal route up north.
Climbing up the coast: From Harihareshwar take a share auto, get to Shrivardhan from there head to the small town of Borli and from there take a share auto to Dighi. Dighi is a small port town just across from Murud. Take a connecting ferry to Rajapuri Jetty, Murud, the impregnable Murud Janjira fort appears on your left. At the jetty, get down and take an auto to Murud Depot. From there, take a bus headed to Alibaug and then at Alibaug finally book yourself a ticket to the ferry going home. The ferry companies (PNP, Ajanta) run connecting buses to Mandwa. At Mandwa, your final boat ride of the day will take you to Gateway of India and just like the visitors to India, in the times of the Raj, you will enter our city through Apollo Bunder, as the sun sets over Gateway of India.
For Driving down: Follow NH17 until Mangaon and then turn right towards Harihareshwar at Mhasala. At Bagmandla, go to the heavy vehicle ferry that can transport a Tempo Traveller and a Car at a time over the Savitri estuary and from the other side – Bankot(Vesavi) which is about 3km away from Velas.
Biking down: Bike transfers are allowed between Rajapuri and Dighi, so you will have to bike down until Murud following the Wadhkal-Alibaug-Revdanda-Murud route and then from the Rajapuri jetty, cross over to Dighi and from there bike down to Borli-Shrivardhan-Harihareshwar and Baghmandla to cross over yet again to reach Velas.
If you have more days at your disposal, you can visit the scenic Diveagar beach near Borli or go further south towards Dapoli, Guhagar, Ganpatipule.
Velas Marine Festival is a fine exmaple at combining conservation efforts with tourism. Although uncontrolled tourism can be quite harmful to the cause. The tour operators that organise such tours must enforce the standard rules that are applied at such sensitive places. No litter, shouting, no flash photography are some of the basic ones. But as individual travellers, if we take it upon ourselves to set an example, it will go a long way in spreading awareness about responsible tourism and encouraging many such activities.
Photos by: Athira Menon
Text by Rushikesh Kulkarni for Breakfree Journeys