Islands of Hope – ‘Manjula goes to Galathea’ & ‘The perfect view’

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

Manjula goes to Galathea

Growing up at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondicherry in the 1980s, Manjula Tiwari spent many enjoyable days diving around the pillars of Pondicherry’s piers and helping maintain the marine aquarium for the marine life captured on the dives. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, Manjula wanted hands-on research experience and joined the Croc Bank. There she assisted with the crocodile research project on temperature sex determination and built marine tanks and caught fish for the tanks. Within a short while though, Manjula was busy planning a trip to the Nicobar Islands. It had been some time since Satish Bhaskar had last visited the islands, and many islands in the Nicobars had not been surveyed. Manjula prepared by discussing the trip and the islands and turtles with Satish. Still, this was a young woman in her early twenties heading out to these remote and challenging islands on her own. But once she was there, she says that she never felt uncomfortable and always had help from local assistants.

Image: Manish Chandi

Manjula surveyed the southern Nicobars with a local field assistant and a local Nicobarese boat and captain. When she didn’t have paper, she inscribed her notes on scaveola leaves. She walked the beaches, crossed crocodile-infested creeks and lived in the tribal huts en route. The creeks were often broad and deep, and prime salty habitat. The assistant ensured they crossed at low tide during the day. And in addition, he told her, ‘Madam, throw your life energy over to the other side before you cross the creek. Nothing can harm you then.’

There were of course some notable incidents. One night at Galathea, as Manjula looked for nesting leatherbacks, she turned on her flashlight as she approached the creek to ensure that she did not stumble into any salties. Suddenly she caught sight of two pairs of glinting eyes, huge crocodiles judging by the gap between the eyes. Suddenly, the eyes rose several feet off the ground and started walking towards her. Thoughts of monster crocs passed rapidly through her mind, till the creatures took shape – feral cows. A decade later, we encountered the beach cows at night by the creek and were equally startled by their presence.

Manjula carried out a second survey of Great Nicobar Island with Satish. Her surveys provided the basic information and impetus for the initiation of the monitoring programme there in 2000. Manjula went on to join the graduate program at the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, University of Florida, Gainesville, and worked on sea turtles in South America and Europe for her M.Sc before settling into her Ph.D on green turtles at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Manjula now works for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in San Diego, California, and her projects are scattered around the world in Africa, the Middle East, and West Papua, including at Jamursba Medi, which her one-time mentor made famous. She is also the long serving secretary of the International Sea Turtle Society.

The perfect view

We spent several remarkable months on Great Nicobar Island, There was no shortage of excitement during our time there. My partner, Meera, spent her time observing tree shrews as part of a behaviour study on these fascinating animals. Tree shrews are a unique Order of small mammals found in south and Southeast Asia. They had been previously classified as primates and were at one time considered to be the ‘missing link’ in the evolution of primates. The most recent genetic studies suggest that they might actually be most closely related to rabbits and hares. They resemble squirrels in size, general appearance and some behavior traits, but can be distinguished by their long snouts and the absence of long facial whiskers. The Nicobar tree shrew, Tupaia nicobarica, is endemic to the islands and very little is known about the species.

We visited Indira Point, the southernmost point in India. There is a lighthouse here, and a helipad for visiting dignitaries, mostly past presidents and prime ministers, whose visits are commemorated by huge headstones. Local legend has it that most of them die or are run out of office shortly after they visit! We pitched our tents in the shade of some casuarina trees, and I set off to explore the small beach. Satish Bhaskar had noted that hawksbills nested at Pygmalion Point, as it was then called; in one of his reports, he wrote that a hawksbill had nested on 4-5 April 1979 at Pygmalion Point. I was on the beach trying to get a sense of the place as he must have seen it more than twenty years earlier. And as if time had stood still, there was a hawksbill turtle nesting under a scaveola bush. I considered that a special connection to Satish’s time there.

Hawksbill returning to sea after nesting at Indira Point. Image: Kartik Shanker

She was an extremely small specimen, with a carapace of about 64 cm and laid only fifty eggs. At Indira Point, as with many of the other nesting beaches of hawksbill and green turtles, the offshore approach is littered with rocks and coral, and the turtles have to crawl over some very rough terrain before returning to sea. Ridleys and leatherbacks prefer open approaches and would never nest at beaches such as these. Just a few days later, we were on a boat and sailing past Indira Point, the southernmost tip of India, with truly nothing south of us till the Antarctic. We stopped for lunch in a little bay called saphed balu or white sands, with blue water and corals, where leatherbacks, green turtles and hawksbills nest occasionally. Finally we reached Kophen Heat, on the west coast, one of the major leatherback nesting beaches of Great Nicobar. Here, we stayed near a Nicobarese settlement and were looked after by Mathe Budda, relic of the Ghat Road Engineering Force – someone who stayed behind because life was peaceful and the view perfect.

Despite its pristine beauty and untapped bounty of ecological information, few ecologists have spent much time in the Nicobars. The logistics of getting and staying here are not easy. Add to that the high incidence of cerebral malaria and poor prospects of medical attention, and it is not surprising that only a few intrepid explorers have made this their home. Those pioneers – Satish Bhaskar, Ravi Sankaran, Manish Chandi – travelled all over the Nicobars, paving the way for future generations of ecologists to seek answers in these remote outposts. Many more will arrive because of the lure of untapped knowledge and exotic biological mysteries. Some will leave because their projects are completed or their patience worn thin. And some will stay longer because life is peaceful and the view, indeed, perfect.

Image: Manish Chandi