Breaking the Surf – ‘The essential turtle walker’

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

Olive ridley laying eggs at Gahirmatha, Odisha. Image: Bivash Pandav

The essential turtle walker

Any account of sea turtles in India must begin with Satish Bhaskar, a pioneer in every sense of the word. I first met Satish in 1988, the year we started the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) in Chennai. He used to come with us on a few turtle walks, and would often walk a 10 km stretch south of the hatchery by himself. This was a season when we used to find a nest or two a night if we were lucky. On one particularly good day, 31 January if I remember correctly, we had found four nests and there was great excitement. At the hatchery, we were busy digging nest pits to relocate the eggs. We saw Satish walking towards us with a bulging backpack and his typical smile, saying, ‘Hey, I got six nests, man!’ Not expecting this bonanza, he had only carried a couple of the cloth bags that we often used to collect the eggs. The third nest was in one pouch of the backpack, the fourth separated by newspaper, and the fifth in his shirt, which he had removed to pack the eggs. I have no recollection of where the last clutch was, but he had brought them all back safely.

Satish was already a legend then. He had started work with Romulus Whitaker, the founder of the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank. We also knew that Satish had worked in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Lakshadweep, in Odisha and in fact, most parts of the mainland coast. He had visited Papua on a leatherback survey, and had along with C.S. Kar from the Odisha Forest Department, attended the first world conference on sea turtles, where he was taken by Jack Frazier to a bar, the details of which have never been entirely revealed.

Satish was a student of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai in the early 1970s. As an army child, he had lived in many different parts of the country and, when he finished school, was given the option of joining the army or taking up engineering. Satish chose the latter but never really engaged with it. He spent most of his day swimming on Elliot’s beach and elsewhere along the Chennai coast, experimenting with body surfing and snorkelling. One day, he met Siddhartha Buch, a keen naturalist, who suggested that Satish visit some sanctuaries to pursue his interest in natural history, and gave him a letter of introduction to a forest department officer in Karnataka. Satish never made the trip as he had little money, and gave the letter away to friends. He met Buch again, and this time, was sent to meet Rom Whitaker at the Madras Snake Park.

It was around this time that Rom and his friends started the turtle walks in Chennai. Pretty soon, Satish was a part of their group and one of the first residents of the newly formed Madras Crocodile Bank. Rom recalls that Satish would stay in shape by carrying huge sacks of sand from one end of the campus to the other. Rom was a dedicated herpetologist, and since his primary interests were snakes and crocodiles, believed that someone needed to focus full-time on sea turtles. He persuaded Satish that he could become India’s turtle man, and they started planning a series of surveys.

As a preface to his first report in the biannual journal Hamadryad, the editor wrote:

Between 1st and 22nd March 77 Mr Satish Bhaskar, field officer of the Madras Snake Park, joined a survey team from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute on a visit to several islands in the Gulf of Mannar. He wished to learn about the status of dugongs and sea turtles in this area.

What an understatement that would turn out to be. During this trip, Satish saw several dead turtles (greens, hawksbills and ridleys) and a couple of live dugongs. In 1978, they started planning sea turtle surveys around the country. The first of these was a trip to the Lakshadweep, where Satish stayed for several months visiting a number of islands. Satish hitched rides with a fishing crew, finding his way to remote uninhabited islands such as Suheli Valiyakara and Suheli Cheriyakara.

Green turtle accompanied by remora, Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Image: Adhith Swaminathan

Of the Lakshadweep, he wrote:

From a nature lover’s standpoint, India’s Lakshadweep islands, which is 120 to 200 miles off Kerala’s coast constitute a happy hunting ground, as do coral islands all over the world. The marine biologist, fisheries scientist, scuba diver and amateur snorkeller will find enough sea life to keep himself happily occupied indefinitely.

Certainly it was enough to keep him occupied. He wrote:

A small, streamlined shark traced a tight circle around me and swam off as I snorkelled near the reef a quarter mile from Kavaratti’s lagoon shore. Its speed, grace and almost imperceptible swimming motions are impressive. Off Suheli Cheriyakara, the crew of a fishing launch I was travelling in harpooned a manta ray with a 13 ft wingspan. Two turtles copulating at the surface narrowly escaped the same fate.

Satish was fascinated with Suheli, the two islands (Valiyakara, the big one, and Cheriyakara, the small one) with their relatively pristine lagoons and rich marine life, and exceptional densities of green turtle nests. The problem was that the main nesting season was during the monsoon and fishermen did not go there when the sea got rough. This did not deter Satish. He decided that the way around this problem was to get there before the monsoon and stay till after, a period of about five months. Rom Whitaker and the rest of their team helped make elaborate plans with regard to food, fresh water, medication and other eventualities but obviously not everything could be accounted for. He had no contact whatsoever with the mainland, but was given some distress flares by the navy. The navy also promised him some food supplies, an experiment in field rations, which did not arrive as expected before his departure. A week after he arrived on the island though, a ship anchored offshore, and two officers rowed ashore in their Gemini dinghy, somehow navigating the channel past the reef. They left him a good stock of rations, but he had to find a way to drag it all back to his camp, where he had rented a fishing hut from one of the fishermen at Rs 30 per month. Later, he dragged his supplies all the way back to the other end of the island when he found he was cohabiting with an entire family of scorpions including a brood of thirty to forty babies. At the northern end, he would see sharks swim close to the shore, within a few feet of him, especially when a dead whale shark washed ashore and provided a good and easy meal for them.

It is not entirely true that he had no contact with the mainland though. This report appeared in Hamadryad in 1982:

Satish is spending 5 months on Suheli on his own and reached the island in early May. His wife has had one letter from him; found in bottle by a Sri Lanka fisherman who forwarded it to her. Tracing its course we find that the ‘bottle-letter’ dated 3rd July has travelled a distance of about 500 miles in an estimated interval of 24 days. The letter reached Sri Lanka around 27th July.

Satish says that it was no walk in the park getting the bottle to float away from the island. The first few bottles that he threw into the sea kept washing ashore. Finally he started wading out, looking for rip currents that would drag the bottle out to sea. He would get into deeper water, holding onto coral or rock so that he wouldn’t get swept out. He would put a bit of money in the bottle to ensure that the finder would mail the letter, but after he started digging into his Rs 10 notes, it became too expensive. He also started attaching the bottle to a float, so that it would be more buoyant. Eventually, a bottle, attached to a piece of Styrofoam went cartwheeling out to sea. Maybe it was that bottle, maybe another, but one eventually reached a fisherman called Anthony Damacious in Sri Lanka, who sweetly mailed the letter to Satish’s wife with a note, a picture of his family and an invitation to Sri Lanka.

Satish even considered swimming the 1.6 km between the two islands, with a long sandspit in between. He thought it would reduce the distance and that he could rest on the sandspit. Wisely, with sharks and currents all around, he did not attempt this. But in later years, he would swim across from his isolated South Reef Island to Interview Island when he ran out of supplies. Satish was ready to leave the islands by September, but the boat that was due to pick him could not leave due to bad weather. Fortunately, he had enough rations as he ended up waiting nearly another month. By the end, it was just a few days short of five months.

Even today, not many researchers organize trips to these islands, giving some indication of the amount of enterprise it took thirty years ago. Subsequent to Satish’s work, there were no sea turtle surveys on these islands till 2001, when Basudev Tripathy worked there as part of a WII project, and found the same exceptional green turtle nesting densities in Suheli. These islands are seasonally used by fishermen and remain prime habitats for sea turtles and other marine life. In January 2015, I finally visited Suheli along with my researchers as part of our reef and bait fish research projects. Seven hours from Kavaratti and inhabited by just a few fishermen and a police outpost, the islands are spectacular and the diving exceptional. But an old green turtle track on the beach brought back memories of Satish’s exploits here. There is talk today of establishing tourism resorts at these islands, which may not have positive outcomes either for the people of the Lakshadweep or the biological diversity of these islands.

Satish then undertook a six-week survey in June-July 1978 of sea turtles in the Gulf of Kutch. He visited several islands, including Bhaidar, which he was to visit again later. He wrote of seeing turtles from the thirty-foot-high dunes near Dwarka. Dunes are today making a comeback in public consciousness as important coastal habitats, perhaps critical in protecting coastal communities from storm surges and even tsunamis. However, during the interim period, dunes have pretty much been flattened along the entire mainland coast of India. Satish returned to his favourite, Bhaidar Island, in 1981. On a bleak and rainy day in August, he set sail for the island with rations for five days, and two jerry cans of fresh water. Since the shallows extended quite far, his crew abandoned him about 1.5 km from the island and he waded ashore slowly and painstakingly. On the island, he found a bottle. He wrote:

A bottle containing a note embossed with the insignia for the Military sea lift command (Atlantic) of the U.S. Navy had been washed ashore a short while earlier. Half-expecting the bottle to be a device to test sea currents, with perhaps a reward awaiting its finder, I carefully photographed it and extricated the note which said:

Help me

Get me off this ship I am about to go crazy. I need help, please. Please return this letter and where found. Tossed July 12th 1981.

The message bore a name and a Massachusetts address. While the wording and the smell in the bottle strongly suggested that its late owner had been celebrating, here was a chance to learn something about the direction and speed of the currents the turtles nesting at Bhaidar might utilize or encounter – I had found the note exactly a month after its being cast out and needed only to know the exact location where it had been dropped.

His long association with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands began shortly thereafter. Satish visited the islands many times between 1979 and 1995, covering almost all the islands in the process. After an initial eight-month stint in 1978-1979, when he covered a large number of islands including much of South Andamans, Little Andamans and central and Great Nicobar, he returned in 1981 and then again in 1983-84 to cover the remaining islands. Starting with an extensive survey of Great Nicobar Island with Manjula Tiwari in 1992, he would spend the better part of the next few years in the islands, including his legendary sojourns on South Reef Island. He worked extensively in the islands between 1993 and 1996, surveying a large number of islands in the Andamans group and spending weeks or months on South Reef to tag and study hawksbill turtles.

In a tribute to Satish and his work, Rom Whitaker wrote:

In 1979, Satish visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the first time and, like so many of us, got hooked. Over the next few years, again thanks to WWF and other funds, he visited most of the islands’ major sea turtle nesting beaches. A near-mythical Satish- exploit of this period is his many months sojourn, over several years, on tiny South Reef Island on the west coast of North Andaman. He was studying the hawksbill and green turtle populations there. It was tough, with no freshwater, and of course, no food. Satish would swim the half kilometre of vicious currents to Interview Island and back to collect freshwater in a jerry can. Once he ran into one of the notorious feral elephants of Interview Island, who promptly charged him. As he ran down the forest path, Satish threw down his shirt which fortunately distracted the angry pachyderm. The next day he swam back to Interview to retrieve his jerry can and found his shirt in three pieces. He posted the pieces to his wife Brenda (back in Madras) with a reassuring note!

In 2013, Satish showed me the remains of this shirt, still in several pieces and preserved in pristine elephant stomped and ripped condition.

In between, Satish also covered Gujarat (December 1980 and August to December 1981), Kerala (April–May 1981), Goa (July 1981), Odisha, Andhra Pradesh (January–February, 1982) and West Bengal and Sundarbans (February 1983). He helped the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network in Chennai during the winters of 1989 and 1990, and conducted surveys for the estuarine turtles, Batagur baska, during April–May 1990 with Ed Moll, earning him the nickname ‘Batagur Bhaskar’.

A leatherback coming ashore to nest in Galathea Bay, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 2001. Image: Kartik Shanker

In 1984 and 1985, Satish worked on the leatherback rookeries on the northern coast or Bird’s Head Peninsula of Irian Jaya or West Papua in Indonesia. The beaches where he worked, Jamursba Medi and Wermon, were not logistically easy places to access. To keep in touch, Satish would swim out for 100 metres or so each time there was a longboat heading for Sorong, the nearest city on the coast; there was only one boat which passed by at intervals of about 20-30 days. During his first visit in 1984, Satish was marking these turtles with paint. But he eventually stopped as the paint did not stay on very long. He monitored a 17 km stretch singlehandedly, sometimes walking up and down, while on some occasions, one of his assistants would take him back to the camp in an inflatable. Satish counted more than 13,000 nests during that season, which is the most that has been recorded on that beach. He wrote:

Mesak trapped a wild pig in the jungle just behind the bench, and its stomach contained leatherback hatchlings – it was eating turtle eggs every night, so pigs have to be destroyed – anyway these pigs had been introduced from another part of Indonesia many years ago by the Dutch, so no harm destroying them. Every day between 50 and 130 leatherbacks are coming to nest, and this is not the peak season which passed in June-July, so this beach is the best in the whole of Asia for leatherbacks, and the second or third best in the world. Best of all was we followed two of the females out to sea after they finished nesting using the boat and I got some fantastic pictures from 20 feet away – of one leatherback coming up to breathe in the sea – these may be the first close-up sea photos of leatherbacks. Since that turtle was scared of the boat, it held its breath for very long (to avoid us) and when it came up it was quite desperate for air – so it didn’t surface quite as it usually would, but shot up at full speed – the photo should show almost half the leatherback exploding out of the water – hope it comes out well.

Satish returned the following year and started tagging leatherbacks; he tagged his first turtle in April and saw her again after fifty-four days and worried that he had missed her nesting in between, even though he walked the entire 18 km stretch every other night58. But he was also tagging turtles intensively on a smaller stretch of beach with little help. He wrote:

. . . so far I have only one forest department man to help out with things, but 2 PHPA gentlemen from Bogor are expected to stay 2-3 months with me soon. So far we have tagged only about 300 leatherbacks – we should be tagging something like 2,000 before the season is through if the minimum estimate I made last year (i.e. 3,000/season) is to be realized. At this rate we will fall short by perhaps 1,000 turtles but of course, the season is just getting underway now.

By the end of the seasons, he had tagged almost 700 leatherbacks and was encountering few untagged ones. I have been unable to ascertain how many leatherbacks Satish eventually tagged in Papua, but nobody else worked on these beaches till the 2000s when a local conservationist, Creusa ‘Tetha’ Hitipeuw, started monitoring them with the support of WWF and local Papuans. Sadly, Tetha passed away a couple of years ago after a sudden battle with cancer. The project was eventually supported by the National Marine Fisheries Service, USA, which also satellite-tracked the leatherback turtles from this beach. Again, Satish was there first and long before anyone else found the enterprise or motivation to work at what would turn out to be, according to his instincts, a very important beach for sea turtles.

When he started tagging turtles, it gave birth to a local legend that I heard when I visited the beaches twenty years later. It was said that a strange visitor from a foreign land visited the island and put metal on the turtles, and then using very powerful magnets, attracted these turtles away to his homeland. Hence the decline of turtles at these nesting beaches.

William Betz and Mary Welch, visited Jamursba Medi in 1991, and were told that recent nesting levels were only 25 per cent of that reported by Satish Bhaskar. They wrote:

The local people are concerned about the drop as well, but they still take as many eggs as they can. They fail to see the connection between their actions and the decline in the nesting population. Furthermore, they have made Bhaskar their scapegoat, claiming that his tagging program scared the turtles away or that the tags were designed to make the turtles follow him back to India! They claim that none of the tagged turtles have returned since, but in fact we observed two tagged turtles during our short stay on the beach.

Satish published one of his first overviews of sea turtle conservation in India in the Indian Forester, based on his original surveys. He had attended the World Conference on the Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles in 1979 and his paper at the conference was published in the compendium, Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles. This volume, (edited by Karen Bjorndal, a leading sea turtle biologist) remains a landmark document in the history of sea turtle biology. Bhaskar’s paper with C.S. Kar on sea turtles in India, is a classic compilation on the state of knowledge on sea turtles in the Indian subcontinent. Bhaskar published an updated version of the review at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute workshop in Chennai in 1984.

The extent of Satish’s work has to be placed in perspective. In 2000-01, the Wildlife Institute of India coordinated a sea turtle project with over $50,000 allocated for surveys alone and a total of about ten organizations working along the coast. With all of this infrastructure and money, the project mainly provided updates on information that Satish had gathered twenty years earlier. Certainly, more areas were covered and fresh data collected, but two things stand out. Nothing startlingly new was learned, and most areas had little additional research between Satish and this project. That the scale of work should even be comparable is itself astounding.

I have since met many of Satish’s college mates, who all enquire after him. There is a common sense of nostalgia and appreciation for someone who refused to follow the rules. Satish received a special mention as part of the Rolex awards for enterprise (he did get a watch), but little else in the way of formal acknowledgement of his work. In April 2010, during the 30th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in Goa, the International Sea Turtle Society presented him a Sea Turtle Champions Award for his outstanding contributions to sea turtle biology and conservation through his surveys. More importantly perhaps, he is revered as a turtle walker extraordinaire amongst the people who had the privilege to know him or hear of his exploits. Satish now lives in Goa with his wife Brenda. His children (Nyla, Kyle and Sandhya) who once helped him collect eggs from sea turtle nests are grown up and pursuing their own adventures.