It’s 7 am. As I stand near the edge of a jetty close to the river Bahuda, which is on the border of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, I watch the tiny hamlet awaken; the fishermen prepare for the sea, hurling nets into their boats for another day of fishing.

I await one such boat. My four field assistants; Madhu, Judhishtr, Surendra and Shankar are busy striking a deal with one of the fishermen for our work, not to fish but to look for turtles in the sea. “Please wait here, if they see you, they might charge more,” was their advice to me. As the negotiations go on, I stare into the ocean for another day of turtle spotting, for a bumpy ride in probably one of the windiest days this sea must have witnessed.

After half an hour, my assistants return and we get ready to go. I toss my backpack into the boat which contains my GPS to navigate the path, my field notebook, data sheets and the other tools necessary for this exercise, and we head into the sea.

During the transect, there is ‘systemic’ division of labour; Surendra holds the GPS and guides the boatman to be on the correct transect path, Madhu fills the data sheet(s) while Judhishtr and Shankar look out for turtles on either side screaming ‘30-60’, ‘50-90’ to Madhu, as the engine drowns every other sound on the boat. My job is to supervise and make sure that their attention is on the turtles.

Pavan jyada hai, aaj jyada koincho nahi dikhega (The wind is too strong, we won’t see a lot of turtles today)’ is what they tell me. I am hopeful I’ll get to see some turtles, for the trip from Ganjam was a long one and it wouldn’t be a morale booster if we returned without any sighting. As the sun starts warming us up, all of us strain our eyes, focusing our attention to spot any turtle that surfaces. As we move further offshore, our first turtle bobs its head up and nose dives, all within seconds, followed by another and then another. Soon there are turtle heads bobbing over the water surface while my assistants shout their approximate distances and angles from the boat. After years of training, their visual estimates are good, with relatively narrow error margins. True we did not see as many turtles on that day compared to Rushikulya, but it was a rewarding trip nonetheless.

The sea rocks our boat and I worry I might fall off it. Not as intimidating as the scenes from the movie The Perfect Storm but still close enough. Behind me, the boatman seems to be at ease, occasionally looking to the sky, wondering if the heavens are going to be any kinder.

I focus on the turtles swimming close to us. Some look like they are riding the waves. Despite strong currents, these animals are adept swimmers, drifting and floating on the surface, arching their heads up as they breathe in a gush of air and diving as our boat approaches closer.

Our boat manoeuvres along the path shown on the GPS, and the turtles continue to make their occasional appearances. And suddenly, I spot two of them, in an awkward position, one clinging on to another. A mating pair! I finally see what the turtles come here for; these congregations are primarily for sea turtles to find mates and they remain close to the shore for months. It’s a wonderful sight, the male balancing upon the female, rather holding on to her, as other turtles swim around, looking for an opportunity to mate with her instead. Madhu tells me he has, at times, seen three turtles together!

Our boat journey ends after 5 hours of a rollercoaster ride and as usual, after a hard day’s work, all the assistants doze off at the drop of a hat.

Author: Chetan Rao