Islands of Hope – ‘Travels in the islands’ & ‘Engineering surveys in the islands’

Copyright: Excerpted from ‘From soup to superstar: The story of sea turtle conservation along the Indian coast’ with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

South Reef Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Image: Adhith Swaminathan

Travels in the islands

Satish Bhaskar, who I introduced in the very first chapter, is a pioneer of sea turtle biology and conservation in India. From the late 1970s onwards, Bhaskar conducted the first surveys for sea turtles in most parts of India including the Lakshadweep Islands, Gulf of Mannar, Gujarat, Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. In 1982, he famously revisited the Lakshadweep Islands, spending several weeks alone on an uninhabited island. In 1984-85, he spent some months in West Papua, then called Irian Jaya, surveying Jamursba Medi and Wermon beaches, and was the first outsider to visit some of the villages on that coast.

But it is for his work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that he will be best remembered. His surveys and sojourns on many uninhabited islands in these islands provided the first (and in some cases, only) information on sea turtle nesting on these beaches. Satish’s long association with the Andamans is both legendary and inspiring. His compiled report on the 1979 survey, which covered an eight month period from September 1978 and May 1979, was astonishing, to say the least. The editor’s note preceding Hamadryad 4.3 said the following:

Satish Bhaskar has been with the (Madras) Snake Park for over three years, involved mainly in the study of sea turtles on the Indian sub-continent. He is a self-made marine biologist, in his element when being circled by sharks or stung by jellyfish . . .

So, since we can’t think about anything but the Andamans, and because we feel Bhaskar’s report is a valuable contribution to science, it seems appropriate to devote the entire September ’79 issue to his survey.

Satish’s accounts begin with the remarkable words: ‘In the interest of brevity, it will be better to list the areas and islands not surveyed.’ After a brief listing that included the North Andamans, the west coast of the Andamans that was part of the Jarawa reserve, and the southern Nicobar group, he says: ‘Practically all the remaining sandy coasts in the Andaman and Nicobars were visited.’

Satish arrived in the Andamans by ship in September 1978, and set about surveying the islands in the South Andamans. He was hosted initially by Captain Dennis Beale, who started tourism in the islands, but soon found lodging in the YMCA. On one of his first trips, he had a boatman drop him off at Tarmugli Island. Despite the boatman’s warnings, Satish attempted to cross the mangrove swamp at one end of the island after walking around the island and surveying its beaches. He got hopelessly lost as night fell, but eventually managed to find his way to the beach. Finding his way back to the point where his luggage was stowed, he ended up having to cross a couple of creeks. In one of his first reports back to the croc bank, he wrote:

Some bad news. The Camera’s had it. While it’s not yet ‘done for’ (the shutter mechanism is fine) the spring connected to the cocking mechanism appears to have got rusted because of a brief dousing it received while I was swimming a creek which came in my way.

From September 1978 to May 1979, he covered South Andamans, Little Andamans, and most islands in the Andamans group (except North), central Nicobar and Great Nicobar. Bhaskar first surveyed South Andamans between 7 October and 4 November 1978. He found that killing of sea turtles had been rampant before the implementation of the Wildlife Act in 1972. Sea turtles were actively hunted by fishing communities in Wandoor and other small towns. Wandoorii was the principal ‘turtle depot’ and Bhaskar found thirty-four green turtle skulls there even a year after the ban. Local estimates of the catch ranged from five to twenty during fishing days before the ban. Most turtles were caught by harpooning by the Bengali fishing community.

During that survey, he covered much of the coast of the main island of South Andamans (apart from the Jarawa coast), most of Rutland, twelve small islands off Wandoor (the Labyrinth group) and the Twins. On the Twins, he found twenty-three sets of fresh hawksbill tracks, and a green turtle carcass. The islands, then known as ‘kachua tikeri’ (turtle island) were remote, but fishermen made the journey of several hours from Wandoor to collect turtles and eggs. Bhaskar also found evidence of nesting on Rutland and several of the smaller islands.

In a series of letters from this trip, Satish narrated a variety of fascinating encounters, including with a shell diver called Tuna from Havelock. Tuna and his crewmates had been caught in a cyclone and drifted after the boat engine failed. They reached Burma after twenty- three days without food, all unconscious by then. Satish questioned him about sharks:

He’s encountered sharks on numerous occasions while diving and has seen a Bengali dismembered to death off Herbertabad. No.4, but when I questioned him about sharks, the first incident he related was about a co-diver who grabbed his neck and hung on in terror when approached by a ‘monster’ – which was a dugong! This was in the channel where I saw the croc bubbles.

Leatherback turtle returning to sea after nesting. Image: Adhith Swaminathan

Bhaskar surveyed Little Andaman Island between 29 December 1978 and 5 January 1979. He covered much of the coast looking for tracks and excavations and also interviewed the settlers and Onges. He found a large number of leatherback excavations and small numbers of the other species. Bhaskar finally observed his first leatherback nesting on 31 December at West Bay beach, a beach that is today our primary monitoring site. He wrote:

I’ve just returned from Little Andaman today after 8 days there and it was unbelievable … And two hours before New Year I saw my first nesting leatherback! She had finished egg laying and was camouflaging the nest area when I saw her. I tried barring her path to the sea by standing in front of her but she kept coming on and I had to step aside.

In a chapter in a CMFRI collection on the ‘Mariculture Potential of Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ that he co-authored with Whitaker, he proudly stated: ‘This is the first occasion in 50 years that leatherback nesting has been observed and recorded on Indian soil’.

What is notable is the excitement this discovery of leatherback nesting generated. Given the disappearance of scattered leatherback nesting from the mainland, and the lack of knowledge of the islands, this was very exciting at the time. Bhaskar noted then that the main nesting beaches were located on South Bay and West Bay, which is largely the case today as well, with monitoring programmes at both beaches. On the interaction with the Onge tribal communities, Bhaskar believed that traditional hunting may have no impact on the population ‘because of the antiquity of this interaction, and the small scale’ on which it occurred.

Another legendary Satish story occurred on this trip. In general, Satish travelled light. Apart from a few clothes and bedding, he was usually well stocked on biscuits. Often he would run pretty low on food, but the biscuits did come in useful during his survey of the Little Andamans. He wrote:

Most of the leatherback nesting takes place on 8 km long west bay which is about 1½ days walk from the nearest human presence at the lighthouse construction site which in itself is quite remote. I had travelled 3½ days without seeing a human footprint. Coming back, I ran into an Onge tribal camp, occupants missing, and green turtle meat roasted and just begging to be eaten, which I surreptitiously did (never having eaten turtle before and being quite famished – had eaten only biscuits and vitamins for the past four days). I left two biscuit packs for the Onges to salve my conscience, actually mainly to reduce chances of stopping a spear if found out!

Apart from various aspects of sea turtle nesting biology, Satish remained a keen observer of the local culture, and often wrote about their customs. On one occasion, he wrote:

A hunting party of Onges had set up camp by the seashore. The Onges were not present. A green turtle had been freshly roasted over a fire and carved up. Many portions had been carefully wrapped among the leaves of a Crinum asiaticum plant which grew nearby, and placed over the still-warm embers of the fire. A few choice parts – portions of what appeared to be liver and flippers – had been roasted (the liver incompletely so) and placed on an elevated grating made of sticks below which another fire had been made. The turtles’ carapace was found nearby. Its outer aspect was charred black. A monitor lizard prowled about the site and entered the hollow space below the empty carapace.

Image: Adhith Swaminathan – “This image was shot on West Bay beach of Little Andaman Island in January 2019. We came across a carcass of a leatherback turtle that was hunted for its meat while she had emerged to nest. This was the first time in the 10 years of monitoring that we encountered a leatherback being poached for its meat.”

Satish also wrote about human exploitation of turtle meat and eggs. It is not clear how he felt about it at the time; on the one hand, he was quite happy to partake of a few eggs and meat when required and therefore did not consider it fundamentally wrong; on the other, he did feel that wildlife laws had to be enforced or turtle populations would decline beyond redemption. At Betapur, he also met a man named Rosappa, who told him proudly that few sea turtles nested there because he had removed every single sea turtle nest he had encountered on the beach in the past ten years. Prior to the legal ban in 1977, turtle eggs were reportedly on sale at Port Blair and Diglipur. About exploitation of turtles for meat, he said:

The Green turtle and the Hawksbill are the species usually eaten. People of most communities will eat turtle. They include Bengalis, ‘Ranchis’, Tamilians, Andhraites and Karens as well as the descendants of settlers and the tribals – Nicobarese, Onges, and Great Andamanese. The Leatherback is apparently killed only for its oil – whether for medicinal purposes or for fuel was not ascertained. Turtles found nesting do not often escape slaughter. Two labourers found and killed a nesting Hawksbill on 4 or 5 April, 1979. On my arrival at Pygmalion Point on 6 April the Hawksbill was hidden under the sand, where I found it accidentally while digging for eggs.

Satish also visited central Nicobar and Great Nicobar on this trip. He found the Nicobars absolutely fascinating. On one occasion, he was camping at Trinkat Island and was woken at 5 a.m. by a small crocodile gaping at him through the mosquito net. He wondered if there were instances of crocodiles attacking sleeping persons and noted that if the crocodiles that woke him got any bigger, he might head home. In central Nicobar, Satish injured his knee, and nearly passed out ‘10 km from anywhere’. The knee became sore and stiff, and unable to bend it, Satish spent several frustrated days unable to dive or jump on boats going to interesting islands.

Satish was rightly concerned about human habitation and development, which constitute the principal threats to sea turtles in the islands today. He felt that the leatherback beaches near the mouths of the Dagmar and Alexandria Rivers had become vulnerable because of the construction of the East–West road from Campbell Bay to Kophen Heat. Satish would have been happy to know that the road fell into disuse after a series of landslides and when we visited, we had to go there by boat. The Nicobari hamlet was still there, as was Mathe budda, a ‘ranchi’ who had arrived with the General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF) and stayed. Unfortunately none of them would survive the 2004 tsunami.

He also wrote of the ‘Galathea river, about 40 km by road south of Campbell Bay, there exists a one kilometre long sandy beach which straddles both sides of the river mouth. Substantial nesting by three species – Leatherbacks, Greens and Ridleys (or Hawksbills) occurs there.’ The beach would become the site of study and tragedy many years later. When I visited Great Nicobar, local people still remembered him fondly. We worked for several months at Galathea, though no green turtles nested there any longer.

Despite this monumental survey, Satish felt there was still much to be done. Many of these lacunae, he would fill in the coming years. In 1981, he returned to visit Great Nicobar and Little Andaman Islands again with his Karen team (including Saw Uncle Pa-Aung, Saw Ladi and Saw Nelson) with WWF providing the princely sum of Rs 6,750. Bhaskar visited these islands between January and March of that year. Given the logistics involved, he actually only spent nine days on Great Nicobar and six on Little Andamans, but this was sufficient to confirm these as significant leatherback nesting beaches. On Great Nicobar, he found that many leatherback nests and most ridley nests had been marked by stakes by the Nicobarese, indicating that these had been predated by animals or collected by the Nicobarese themselves. On Little Andamans, he found the same number of excavations on West Bay (eighty) and South Bay (ten) as he had on his previous visit. He also recorded an immature leatherback of an intermediate size in Hut Bay on 1 March 1981, a rare record for any part of the world even today. That turtle was killed and eaten by settlers (another rare occurrence). In 1984, funded again by WWF, he returned to the islands and finally covered the North Andamans and other Andaman islands. During this trip, he visited Landfall, the northernmost of the Andaman Islands, but did not find much evidence of nesting (thought some nesting has been recorded there on subsequent surveys). Alcock, in 1902, had recorded nesting in Little Coco Island, part of Burmese territory and only 38 km away. Bhaskar visited a number of islands on this trip including Interview where he recorded the capture and consumption of hawksbill turtles by Telugu and Karen fishermen. In one instance, the Telugu fishermen presented the hawksbill to the Karen in exchange for getting their boat towed to Mayabunder. The Karen apparently also ate boiled hatchlings when they could get them.

Bhaskar also visited South Reef Island for the first time during this visit; this was already known as ‘turtle island’ amongst the locals. Bhaskar documented hawksbill nesting during his survey and established the island as a significant hawksbill and green turtle nesting beach; he found over 350 hawksbill nests on ten islands with nearly half on South Reef and North Brother. Apart from revisiting a number of islands in the southern Andamans group, Bhaskar also returned to Little Andaman Island where he documented sixty-four nests on West Bay; on this trip, he also discovered leatherback nesting at Jackson Creek, north along the coast from West Bay.

A few years passed before he could return to the islands, but he remained occupied with his surveys in Papua, and mentored the SSTCN in the late 1980s. In 1991-92, he returned for a survey of Great Nicobar Island with Manjula Tiwari, a young enthusiastic field researcher with the Croc Bank. That year, he started his monitoring on South Reef Island, which he would continue for several years. South Reef is a small boat-shaped island, about 500 m long and 100 m wide, located a kilometre and a half from Interview Island. The island was mostly forested and had a few clearings with camps established by divers and fishermen. Only small boats could land, and even that only during relatively calm weather. Bhaskar would be dropped off with supplies and he’d spend several weeks by himself on the islands. On occasion, he swam the entire kilometre back to Interview Island for freshwater. Between 1993 and 1995, Bhaskar continued his monitoring of South Reef Island sand and surveyed other islands periodicallyiii. Between May and November of 1995, Bhaskar spent most of his time on South Reef Island. That was to be his last trip to the islands.

Satish’s time in the Andamans is unparalleled. His published and unpublished reports have formed the basis for current sea turtle conservation initiatives and it is thanks to his data that interventions were made possible to protect beaches in the Andaman Islands, which were otherwise slated for tourism development. He wrote prolifically, detailing all his trips in his reports and articles for Hamadryad. He also wrote widely and engagingly in other journals and magazines. In 2012, we carried a profile of his work in the Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter, which included a tribute by Rom Whitaker along with a list of his publications and surveys.

Engineering surveys in the islands

(Left to Right) Uncle Paung, Harry Andrews and Shwether on a crocodile/turtle survey. Image: Manish Chandi

In the mid-1970s, another engineering student became tired of the drudgery of courses, and started volunteering at the snake park. Harry Andrews became a regular at the park and on turtle walks, and started exploring the areas around Madras with Satish Bhaskar and others. Since he was one of the few who had a motorbike, he was able to get around easily, an invaluable asset. By the 1980s, Harry had become a central figure in the crocodile bank and eventually became the curator. As an engineer, Harry had skills that were particularly useful, and crafted thermistors that would be used for measuring nest temperatures. By the early 1990s, however, the Andamans bug had bitten Harry as well. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Trust (later changed to Team) had been registered in 1989 with Zafar Futehally as the third trustee, but activities started in earnest in 1993. Rom did the begging rounds in New Delhi resulting in grants from the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Five acres of agricultural land near the sea was bought and four researchers’ quarters were built at this time, and a series of surveys were initiated including sea turtle and crocodile surveys.

Harry went on a five-month long survey with Satish and Allen and was introduced to the other Karen. Harry attributes the tradition of working with the Karen to Satish’s strong bond with them. Over the next few years, Harry conducted a series of crocodile surveys, often wading in chest deep water across creeks at night, using a torch to look for eye shine. On one occasion, surveying the west coast of the Andamans with Satish and Uncle Pa-Aung, they came across hundreds of mating turtles, the most Harry had seen, but they had to beat a hasty retreat because a group of Jarawas started shooting arrows at them. Harry was also present with Satish on Smith Island on a night when there was a mini arribada with about 200 ridleys coming ashore.

Between 1996 and 1999, Harry conducted yearly sea turtle and crocodile surveys along both coasts of the Andamans. He and Manish Chandi mapped and logged a variety of information and hoped to initiate multi-disciplinary surveys in future years. During this time, ANET’s infrastructure also grew; the ANET office building was constructed and the kitchen refurbished with a grant from the Netherlands embassy.

In 1999, Harry did a reconnaissance survey of Galathea beach, which Satish had identified as one of the important beaches for leatherback monitoring. Along with Manish Chandi, Agu and Allen Vaughn, they visited the east and west coasts of Great Nicobar. Agu, according to Harry, fell immediately in love with Galathea and was delighted to set up camp and work there. Harry set up the long-term monitoring programme in Galathea with Agu, Glen and Shreyas. This programme would carry on for the next five years till the tsunami. He also set up camps at Rutland and Cuthbert Bay which would be operational for a few years.

Harry spent more than a decade working on the islands, and collected a number of stories from his friends and acquaintances. His friend Percy Myers told him about the British holding tanks for turtles, where his mother would buy turtles off one of the sentries. And he also heard stories about Galathea from his friend Susheel’s father, perhaps the earliest information that one has on this beach:

He used to be there in the late ’50s or something. And he used to talk about thousands of turtles coming to Galathea. So, every season in December, they would come to Great Nic. And halfway they would go by truck and tractor and stuff like that, and then trek, with supplies and water carriers. And they used to stay on Galathea, during Christmas time. There were some nights when the entire beach would just be black with turtles. And he’s the one who told me – you get these tunnels [in] waves … You know the waves come up like that and surfers go through … and he used to say you can see huge turtles.

Harry Andrews played an absolutely critical role in the growth and development of ANET. He planned and supported the sea turtle surveys by Satish Bhaskar, Manjula Tiwari and Arjun Sivasundar, and numerous other researchers who worked at ANET. Harry was the link between Satish’s seminal surveys and the long-term monitoring programmes that would come later. The National Biodiversity Strategy plan for the islands was prepared by ANET under his leadership, as also the State of the Environment report and a compilation with Vasumathi Sankaran of the Indian Institute of Public Administration.