Sea Turtles Return to Mumbai Beach After 20-Year Absence

Hatchlings can finally cross Versova Beach to the Arabian Sea following cleanup.

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A baby Olive Ridley sea turtle crawling on the beach.

Aneese / Getty Images

Two decades after they were last spotted nesting on Versova beach in Mumbai, Olive Ridley turtles appear to be returning to the shoreline that was once drowning in plastic waste. Workers volunteering during a regular cleanup campaign last week spotted more than 80 hatchlings crawling towards the Arabian Sea—an historic moment for a place previously buried under millions of pounds of trash.

The dramatic turnaround at Versova started in 2015 when a young lawyer and environmentalist by the name of Afroz Shah witnessed a depressing sight from the windows of his new oceanside apartment.

"I shifted to my new apartment two years back and saw plastic on the beach—it was 5.5 feet high. A man could drown in the plastic," Shah told CNN. "I said I'm going to come on the field and do something. I have to protect my environment and it requires ground action."

Determined to make a difference, the young eco warrior began rallying the local community to take part in weekly cleanups along the 1.5-mile long stretch of beach. What started at first as only Shah and his 84-year-old neighbor collecting garbage quickly blossomed into more than 1,000 volunteers. The United Nations (U.N.) later declared the effort the "word's largest beach clean-up," with Shah and his Versova Beach Clean-Up Project removing more than 11 million pounds of trash from the shoreline over a 21-month period.

You can see dramatic before-and-after scenes of Versova in the video below:

When news of the turtles reached Shah and his team, they contacted conservation officials and rushed to the scene. To ensure each hatchling reached the sea without incident, they camped out overnight and kept guard over the procession.

While the return of at least one nesting turtle is good news for Versova, Shah is determined to continue the shoreline's transformation into a habitat that appeals to all marine species. In addition to weekend trash clearing, he's also spearheading the planting of more than 5,000 coconut trees. (The area was previously a coconut lagoon.)

"I am an ocean lover and feel that we owe a duty to our ocean to make it free of plastic," he told the U.N. in 2016. "I just hope this is the beginning for coastal communities across India and the world."