A Full-moon Night with the Leatherbacks of Galathea
A moonlit night at the southernmost tip of the Indian islands in the company of giant Leatherbacks laying their clutches of eggs on shore, promises to be an experience of a lifetime.
The author recounts his adventure of seeing the endangered Leatherback turtles laying clutches of eggs in the Galathea National Park in Nicobar islands, the very same night that Mt Krakatoa erupted and caused a tsunami in Indonesia, some hundred and eighty kilometres away.
I had heard stories of sea-turtles coming to nest at various places in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, and there had always been that desire to see them for myself. I had infact planned to visit the Kalipur Beach in Diglipur in the last week of December 2017, but had to abandon the plan due to some work commitments. Kalipur, in Diglipur of North Andamans is well-known for the Olive Ridley turtles that come to nest on the beaches there. Almost a year passed by since the abandoned plan, when in December 2018, I got an official assignment which would require a visit to the southernmost island of India, the Great Nicobar island. So here was this opportunity where I could mix work with leisure and where my long-standing wish would finally get a chance of being fulfilled. Needless to say, the photographer in me was equally excited.
The beaches of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India are the nesting grounds of four species of sea-turtles — the giant Leatherbacks, the Green sea-turtles, the Olive Ridleys and the Hawksbill, the leatherbacks being the largest of these species. The status of the Leatherback has, in fact, been recently changed from endangered to critically endangered. In his article published in The Hindu on 7th July 2002, Pankaj Sekhsaria, a renowned journalist, quotes from a sea-turtle conservation newsletter, Kachhapa, which reports that ‘the total population based on the latest surveys of adult female leatherbacks that use the beaches in these islands for nesting exceeds one thousand individuals’ and further claims that only three other colonies in the world are reported to have more than 1000 individuals, clearly indicating that this island group is very critical for the long-term survival of this species.
It was a cloudy, rain-laden morning when my team started off for Campbell Bay in the Great Nicobar Island on the 12th of December 2018. Initially I couldn’t accompany the team. The team set sail aboard the ‘Campbell Bay’, one of the bigger ships of the Shipping Corporation of India run by the Andaman & Nicobar Administration for inter-island and mainland sailings. As the ship entered the open seas, lashing waves and gusty winds made matters worse and the team could finally reach Campbell Bay only on the 14th of December after spending about forty-eight hours on sea for a journey which normally takes around thirty hours. My journey to Campbell Bay was scheduled for the 18th of December 2018, but due to bad weather, the sailing was postponed to the 19th and then again to the 20th of December, when the ship could finally set sail. The weather being pleasant, the journey was comfortable. Ensconced in the comfort provided by the Deluxe Class cabin, I soon found myself in Campbell Bay at about 3 pm on the 21st, after just about twenty-eight hours on sea. We put up at the renovated wing of the Andaman Public Works Division guest house, bookings for which had been arranged in advance from the Assistant Commissioner’s Office, Campbell Bay.
For the next two days, being a weekend, no official work was possible. In order to make good use of the time, it was decided that we would take a chance at visiting the remote Galathea National Park on the southern fringe of the island the next night itself, i.e. on Saturday. Since it would be a full-moon night, we would stand a better chance at spotting the sea-turtles, and if we were lucky, we could even see the Leatherbacks. Visiting Galathea National Park would require obtaining permission from the Forest Department for the entry into the Galathea Forest Range and requesting help of the forest staff and boatmen stationed at the Forest Protection Camp at Galathea Forest Range to cross the crocodile-infested MagarNalah. Crossing the nalah would take us to the other side of the Galathea river, where we would have a better chance of spotting the leatherbacks.
While permission was being arranged from the forest department, we decided to visit the 13th mile beach, where, the forest department staff told us, two Olive Ridleys had recently come visiting. One had visited on the 2nd December 2018 at 12.20 am and had laid a clutch of 122 eggs. The other individual had come visiting on 17th December 2018 at 8 am and had laid a clutch of 109 eggs. These eggs had subsequently been transferred to a separate fenced area on the same beach so as to protect them against the stray dogs, wild pigs and birds which are a constant danger for these eggs. It is a fact that feral dogs account for destruction of nearly seventy percent of the eggs and hatchlings of the sea-turtles in these islands.
At the 13th mile beach. Eggs reburied by the Forest Department in a safe enclosure.
By the afternoon of the 22nd, requisite permissions had been arranged and we started on our visit to the Galathea National Park at about 2 pm in the afternoon so as to make it across the Galathea River while it was still daylight. We took the North-South road and aftervabout thirty-seven kilometres down the way, the road came to an end. One could see the sea down towards the left and, further south, the famous lighthouse at Indira Point could be seen in the distance on a piece of land jutting further out into the sea.
The road comes to an end. From this point on, we had to walk to the sea-shore.
At this point, we had to leave our vehicles at a spot where we would be able to find them the next day. It was now a walk of about three kilometres downhill to the forest protection camp at Galathea Range through mud and soil. The last stretch of about a hundred metres wound through dense vegetation. We could see that the ground here was always muddy and submerged in water, as strips of betelnut-tree wood had been tied together to build a make-shift bridge over which one could safely walk across the marshy terrain. On the way we learnt that the massive nest mounds of megapodes, birds endemic to these islands, were also to be found in the area. Soon we reached the seashore, where we found the forest staff waiting in their tents by the seaside. They had already been informed in advance. We found them making preparations for their dinner as no fires were allowed to be lit on the other side of the Galathea river and consequently cooking was not possible on the other side. We had some much-needed rest while the forest staff and the boatmen had an early dinner.
Dusk setting in at the Galathea National Park. We had to take a boat to the other shore. To the left is the open sea.
As we waited, the western sky turned a burning red. It was sunset-time and we were privy to one of the most exciting sunsets of our lives. Rich shades of orange and red had turned the sky into a flaming battlefield. The last light of the day was fading fast and it would soon be dark.
The western sky turns a flaming red
The boatmen were ready by now and we were informed that it was almost time for high-tide and crossing the nalah against the stream would become difficult. We could see a boat moored in the distance where the Galathea river met the sea. Hurried steps on the sandy beach brought us to the boat. Now we were a motley group of fifteen people and we realized that the boatmen would have to take us across in two groups. The water in the nalah was about knee-deep near the shore and we could only marvel at the brave boatmen standing in those crocodile-infested waters in order to push the boat into the water. While the first group crossed the nalah with ease, the second group had considerable difficulty because water had started flowing in due to the high-tide and they could make it to the shore only after a long time. This being a full-moon night, the moon could now be seen rising in the sky through gaps in the tree-tops just in front of us. I was in the first group crossing the stream and it was a treat to watch the moon rise and render everything into wonderful varying hues of silver and white while the boatmen struggled to get the other group ashore.
A considerable time passed before the other group could join us. We were now on the right side of the Galathea river, in the Galathea Bay and in the southernmost area of the Indian subcontinent with nothing but miles and miles of the open sea right in front of us. Our thoughts kept on racing to that fateful night of 26th December 2004 when these islands were ravaged by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. We learnt that on that fateful date, only a single forest staff stationed here had survived. We walked about three hundred metres, passed a culvert damaged by the Tsunami and came into an open space. With not a soul to give us company, we sat down to pass the night and wait for the gentle creatures of the deep to come ashore. The moon had now left the tree-tops far behind and was tracing its path further up in the sky. Being a full-moon night, there was considerable light all around and passing the night out in the open by the seashore did not seem a difficult proposition. We had been forewarned about the tiny mosquitoes that abound here and sure enough, once we had settled, we could feel their presence. Only the fact that we might not get to see any turtles kept bothering us. The coastline of the bay was a few kilometres long and these turtles could turn up anywhere. We just hoped for them to come, and to come somewhere close to us. It was still only about quarter past six. We knew we were in for a long haul and were prepared. Only the turtles had to come, and the sense of euphoria would get us through the night.
We waited and talked among ourselves. A few of us went further ahead. After about fifteen minutes spent braving the mosquitoes, we could see torchlights flashing in the distance. We paid scant attention as we thought it was too early to expect anything. After a few more minutes we could see one of the staff members rushing in our direction with the news that a turtle had been seen making its way beyond the shore to the sands. We rushed to the place with him leading the way. In the distance, we could surely make out something trudging in a straight line away from the shore beyond the high-tide level. We were electrified. All tiredness was swept away, and we rushed, one and all, towards the black mass making its way up the sandy beach. In the moonlight, it appeared as if a big black boulder, the size of a small car, was slowly moving up across the sands. We reached close and were elated to find that it was a giant Leatherback, about two and a half metres from the tip of its head to the end of its carapace. Others soon exclaimed that another one had come ashore a few feet away. It was a Leatherback too. Some of us rushed towards the newcomer while I stayed put near the first one.
The next few hours were a learning process. It was as if nature was giving us a practical lesson in natural history. We saw, we listened, we made notes in our minds and learnt that the best lessons in natural history that we could learn, or which nature could teach us would only be possible if we humans stopped meddling in nature’s affairs. And this lesson was taught us on a sublime full-moon night where we could see the turtles in all their glory with our naked eyes without the need for any artificial lighting.
Watching turtles and tortoises is always a lesson in patience. There can not be even an iota of doubt that these creatures are one of the gentlest ones living on earth. The first turtle we had seen had by now selected a spot up on the beach, safely away from the shore line and had now begun digging in the sand with its rear flippers. Both of the rear flippers would alternatively scoop out the sand and deposit it outside. One flipper would go in, smoothly scoop out the sand in one smooth movement and with a second’s rest, the other would follow. This went on for about half an hour by the end of which, a smooth circular hole, about a foot in diameter and about a metre deephad been created in the sand.
We could see a big black boulder moving up across the sands
The hole dug to satisfaction, the turtle set about laying eggs. The eggs came in batches of three or four. This continued until about one hundred and ten eggs had been deposited in that hole. The eggs were the size of billiard balls, perfectly round and had a rubber-like texture. Once the egg-laying was over, the turtle started covering these eggs back with the sand that it had scooped out while creating the hole. The front flippers would reach out, gather the sand and throw it behind in one smooth movement. Each effort was punctuated by a rest of a few seconds. While burying the eggs, it was slowly inching up and covering its traces to hide the place from likely predators. When the forest staff walked to us and asked us to show the spot where the turtle had laid eggs, we realised that the turtle had moved up and efficiently covered its traces. All this while they had been busy with the other leatherback. They were there to scoop out the eggs and deposit them at the same depth in a fenced enclosure in a designated spot on the beach so as to ensure their safe hatching. We pointed out the spot. The foresters digged in and found nothing. A few more tries, all at different nearby spots and the forest staff gave up. We realized that the turtle had succeeded in deceiving us, all of us who had been watching all this while, right under our noses. Thereafter, for the other leatherbacks that came that night, the forest staff picked the eggs as soon as they had been laid.
Forest staff picking up the eggs as soon as they were laid. These eggs would be reburied at a safe spot away from predators.
Meanwhile the turtle was still busy throwing sand all over the place. This went on for quite some time after which the turtle turned to return towards the sea. The whole process of emerging from the sea and returning back to the sea had taken about seventy-five minutes. As the turtle inched towards the shore, it was greeted by a wave which gently washed away the sand deposited on its carapace. Another step forward, and the turtle was now in the waters. The head went in first and then the carapace too slowly disappeared from view. The turtle had gone in the way it had come. Only the trail left on the sand was there to remind us of the natural history moment that we had been witness to.
Over the night, we witnessed three more turtles come ashore and lay their eggs on the moonlit beach about fifty to hundred metres away from the first location. They would carefully choose a spot high above the high-tide line, dig out a hole, deposit the eggs, cover the hole carefully and then trudge back to the shore only to disappear in the waters from where they had emerged.
Soon it was four o’ clock in the morning. The boatmen decided that it was time to leave. We walked back past the damaged culvert and came to the boat moored near the nalah. It was still dark and a quick sweep of the opposite bank with our flashlights revealed the tell-tale signs of a crocodile resting in the dark waiting for its prey. The light bouncing off its eyes gave away its location. We boarded the boat and keeping a safe distance from where we had seen those eyes, we arrived on the other shore and walked back to the forest protection camp at Galathea Range. We rested a while and as light started to break out in the eastern horizon, we made our way back.
The turtle covering the eggs after laying.
Later in the day, we learnt that Mt. Krakatoa had erupted that same night in Indonesia and a Tsunami had taken a huge toll of life and property. The northern tip of Indonesia happens to be only about one hundred and eighty kilometres from Galathea and we were indeed lucky to have been spared. We could only thank our stars. During the last Tsunami that struck these islands on that fateful day of 26th December 2004, the southern tip of Great Nicobar Island had been lost permanently to the sea and Indira Point, the southernmost tip, had gone significantly under by a staggering fifteen feet.
The experience that night had been an engaging one, and watching the leatherbacks come ashore to lay eggs was a learning experience like none other. Soon the baby turtles would hatch in about sixty-five days and the hatchlings would make their way to the sea on their own, with no one to look after them but themselves. Those who would survive would come back again to the same shores to lay eggs and ensure that their species continue to grace the face of the earth for times to come. We could only thank the forest staff who continue to carry out their conservation efforts in such remote, inhospitable and vulnerable terrains, far removed from all civilization, just to ensure that these endangered species stand an even chance at survival.