April 17, 2012
I am shin-deep in blackness. The water feels warm; its current pulls firmly. Ripples of flashlight-silver are racing into the dark all around me. Here along the banks of the Rushikulya, in India’s east coast state of Orissa, the river mouth opens into an estuary over two kilometers wide, and tides sweep in from the sea. It is close by—I can smell pungent salts.
There are eight people standing alongside me—sea turtle researchers, local boatmen, fishermen, photographers and field assistants from Ganjam, a village bordering the river. We are bound for a sandbar I call Turtle Island (researchers call it the Rushikulya sandbar), which is wedged between the river mouth and the Bay of Bengal. But our means of conveyance, a boat the men moored along the riverbank hours ago during high tide, is now mired in muck. Water levels have receded too low for it to float. Like everyone else, I have volunteered to help dislodge it.
Something starts scratching my left leg with the force of a sharp fingernail. Cold terror might have taken hold if I was alone, but with so much company it’s easier to remain calm, even curious. The creature stops for a moment, perhaps drifting off, and then comes at me again, sure as a second knock on the door. It feels needy. Its insistence feels like the clawing equivalent of pleading.
Someone prompts the next push—“One! Two! Three!”—and we each throw our might forward, my contribution slight compared to the seaworthy men around me. The boat slides a few inches. A gasp of exasperation escapes one of the field assistants beside me.
A male voice speaks in Oriya from the opposite side of the boat. I can only understand fragments of Oriya, the spoken language in Orissa, which resembles my mother tongue Bengali.
“Hey, Mayo, where’s all your strength gone?” Amrit Kumar Mishra, a researcher, is teasing one of the field assistants he hired for the turtle season. Amrit works for Kartik Shanker, one of India’s leading herpetologists based in the Indian Institute of Science.
Mayo chuckles shyly as he replies. “Hatchlings are all around us—”
“Don’t worry about them. We have enough to take care of when we get there. . .Just shut off your light.”
Hatchlings! I point my headlamp down and flip it on. Sure enough, a newly hatched sea turtle with long, wing-like flippers is propelling itself through the shallows. It is less than seven centimeters in length, with a head and neck slightly smaller than half of my thumb. A swirl of current sends it careening away before it pivots back toward me with determination; its head up for air. For an instant, both flippers remain tucked tight to its sides, a gesture of expert maneuvering that looks too mature for an infant. Then it pumps closer. Arriving, it attempts to climb the vertical wall of my leg, heading for the light, its claws gripping, scraping, with that fingernail force. Immediately I switch off my headlamp. My rush of feelings is a blend of pride and incredible tenderness.
I traveled here with filmmaker Rita Banerji as a part of the Turtle Diaries Project. Getting here from New Delhi took two hours of flying in a small commercial airliner, six and a half hours in a hired taxi and a hike through rice field and marsh, past lapwing cry and cattle moan. Orissa is one of four major regions in coastal India where sea turtles still thrive—the others are the Andaman and Nicobar Island group, the Lakshadweep Islands and the western state of Gujarat. We have spent months documenting sea turtles, research and conservation efforts in India.
It’s been a long journey of learning. My role of project writer seemed like a dream until I realized it involved days of waiting for permit applications in sweltering heat outside government offices, carrying tripods for miles, crossing crocodile-infested creeks, drinking tea with salt where sugar is unavailable and, in moments like this, pushing boats through darkness. Luckily we have left the crocodiles behind in the Andaman Islands; there are none we know of in Rushikulya.
Earlier this evening we visited the Sea Turtle Hatchery, perched above these riverbanks, above the level of highest tide. Vipro, son of a senior field assistant, Damru, collected handfuls of hatchlings. They are bundled in the folds of his shawl, strapped around his shoulders like a baby carrier.
Now the team must give up its struggle. We clamber into a different boat. The boards are wet and my footing slick, so I sink into a pile of fisherman’s netting, the only available seat. Rita squats next to me with her camera trained on Vipro and his bundle. Mayo pulls a cord. The motor hammers into action, and we lurch forward.
The river roils past, turbid as creamed soup. Motor blades blast water into a foamy white stream trailing behind us. Amrit lights his flashlight and points into the darkness gliding past. Hundreds of flying fish leap into the air in response. They arc back down and leap up again. As if the flashlight is a match and the fish sparks from some steel-gray fire, seething and licking beneath the river’s surface.
Turtle Island is the denser darkness looming ahead, a slim sandbar two kilometers long by about three hundred meters across. This past February, over eighty thousand female olive ridley sea turtles, Lepidochelys olivacea, crawled out of the sea, onto the island. The phenomenon is known as the arribada, the Spanish word for arrival—arrival from the sea. Each year, with a scale of mass nesting that still defies scientific understanding, thousands clamber up the shores of Orissa and coastal Mexico.
The mad scramble of sea turtles was once even greater. “You could have run a whole mile down the beach on the backs of turtles and never set foot on the sand,” reported Archie Carr, the father of sea turtle research.
“Such numbers work to saturate the beach with eggs. . .It swamps the predators,” explained Murali Dharan, a researcher who also works with Kartik Shanker.
Assuming an average of one hundred eggs per female, the over eighty thousand nests created along Rushikulya’s beaches, all within the span of three days this past February, could host well over eight million eggs. But even as the arribada advanced into its second night, female olive ridleys found ideal nesting grounds atop the nests of others that had ascended before them. No menace was intended; they were acting purely out of urgency, out of hormonal drive wrapped in darkness. Turtles were digging up each other’s nests, leaving crushed eggs strewn across the sand. I saw one female with yolk splashed all over her carapace.
Many more eggs would be doomed. A few weeks after the arribada, a storm hurled high waves across one third of the island, inundating the sand and destroying another great swath. Unknown thousands slipped from the comfort of incubation to salty oblivion. How many have survived since is anyone’s guess.
Rain, flood, and rolling erosion of sand will eventually reunite Turtle Island with the mainland—which will grant access to all manner of hyenas, jackals, and dogs hungry for fresh eggs. But that will be seasons ahead.
It’s a five-minute ride from the mainland banks, where our first boat is still stuck. We are approaching land. Conversational fragments are filled with urgency.
“Get ready. . . . Big bump soon.”
“Okay, now! Come out—jump! Whose bottle?”
I grab my water. The sea is close; I can smell its tepid breath. Rushes of air are palpable as slaps of salt-drenched silk. There is a rapid-fire exchange between researchers and field assistants, most of which escapes me.
“Where are the buckets?”
“They are not here. . . .”
“You always forget!”
Another volley of exchanges follows. Amrit’s knowledge of Oriya gives him authority over his dozen field assistants, five of whom are with us this evening.
Someone sweeps a flashlight around, and I catch a glimpse of Vipro. The boy is holding his precious bundle, poised for relocation. We are off. Sounds of wind and our feet crunching across sand fill the air. I am sinking with each step, trying to catch up with the crew. Reverberations of the boat’s engine are still humming in my ears, rattling my bones. My struggle feels dreamlike, my behind wet from the netting where I sat.
“Where will you deposit the hatchlings?”
Amrit’s voice is steady. “This way. Come this way.”
He grows animated when we arrive at the waves. “See there—the bioluminescence? How it shines during this time of the year? It is perfect. It is the natural guide for hatchlings.”
Below us the tumbling hiss of surf turns fluorescent-white. It pulls back under the next mounting wave—which glows with identical brilliance while it crashes. These momentary bands will light the hatchlings’ way. Set on the ground, they scatter. Rita and I document the release, the assistants, the waves, and the small beings braving their way in. Each puts a flipper forward, and then another, a clumsy, staccato echo of the female sea turtles that crawled out of the depths weeks ago. For male hatchlings this trip is first and final. For females, it is hopefully going to be one of many visits. The scaly rustling of their struggle is soft compared to the crack and boom of advancing waters.
Now the surf is all over, crashing on them, mercilessly rolling them round and round and devouring their tracks. It sucks back out to sea, leaving the debris of living and non-living—shell fragments, plastic bottle-caps, a fisherman’s float and the flailing hatchlings. Some are right side up, extricating themselves slowly from the sea-saturated sand. Others are upside down, flippers waving, their bodies helplessly entrenched in the grip of the mire. Vipro and Mayo begin turning them over one by one. I stash my camera away and join the two.
“You can leave them,” Amrit chides us gently.
But we cannot seem to stop. A taller wave crashes against us and pulls back; our heels sink into sand. Now all hatchlings are lost to the flare and suck of water. Searching the waves, my flashlight catches something, but it is gone too soon for me to be sure it’s a baby sea turtle popping up for air and not a piece of flotsam.
We walk the full length of the island. Amrit picks his way along the high tide line, just above the reach of waves, in order to avoid trampling the thousands of nests further above. I follow. Walking in his footsteps, which have compacted the wet sand, is easier than walking outside them. A few hatchlings are crawling away from their nests.
“This is not mass hatching,” he complains. “This is only a few of them. We need a sunny day so hundreds and thousands can emerge.”
This is the forty-seventhnight after the arribada. Clouds and drizzle punctuated the day. Most hatchlings are probably squirming underground, waiting for higher daytime temperatures, one of the cues that tells them it’s time to emerge.
Amrit sweeps the slopes with his flashlight. One hatchling has stopped to rest. It swivels purposefully toward the light, plodding down with that heart-rending gait. I feel the strong urge to step out of my role as documenter, to scoop it up in my hands and carry it closer to water.
As if reading my mind, Amrit says, “Rescue is good. But we should not make their journey too easy. This walking is what makes them remember. Right now this one is imprinting on the sand. If it survives to be adult, it will come back and find this place.”
We have doubled back the two kilometers, completing the field team’s first inspection of emergence. The sea breeze is still warm, in the seventies, the air misty with spray. Back at our starting point, the team members spread their shawls out on the sand for a few hours’ sleep. Amrit tells me I too should rest.
His name transports me to an ancient sea turtle myth, dating back over 3,500 years. The myth is a part of the Rig Veda, India’s oldest religious text. The gods and demons wanted to turn the ocean into Amrit—ambrosia—the milk of immortality essential to them all. Both parties joined forces in churning the ocean to create the milk. (Versions of the story say they churned the Milky Way.) Their stirring rod was the great mountain, Mandrachal. When it began to sink with its own weight, the God Vishnu turned into a sea turtle and dove under Mandrachal. He held the mountain on his back and the ocean was eventually churned into ambrosia.
Now I sit beside the sleepers, hugging my knees. The sky is awash with stars. This blackness is the edge of two worlds, its substrate forever punched and punctuated by the thud and back-sizzle of endless waters. Between waves, the silence presses in, peppered with smaller sounds. Constellations of sand grains, fine enough to lace the spray, are spattering against my backpack. My face, hair, and neck are gritty with sand that prickles and moisture that sticks; my slippers and rolled pant cuffs are crammed with wet sand. It is the stuff of eons; I am inundated by dreams of the past. This night is one with all other nights like it, nights sought out by the earliest beings.
“We discovered that the oldest [olive ridley] populations. . .are actually sitting right here in the Indian Ocean. . .when we compared our sample with the global data set,” Kartik Shanker explained during a recent interview at his office in the Indian Institute of Science.
So this is no ordinary blackness. I am sitting at the edge where marine meets terrestrial, present meets past. This ecotone between sea and sand is the edge of moments millions of tidal cycles ago, before human footprints marked the world’s shorelines, before the Indian subcontinent collided to become one with Asia. This is the edge of moments: forty million years ago, when the earliest olive ridley turtles departed for sea—ninety million years ago, when the earliest leatherback turtles departed—206 million years ago, the time of dinosaurs, when ancestral sea turtles first tasted the salt of oceans. They dove into the blue and thrived. And their survivors returned, like domed promises, to lay eggs on solid ground.
April 18, 2012
Dawn: 5:00 a.m.
Light is creeping across the skies; the field team is awake. Tying a scarf around his head, Amrit points to a set of dark dots. It is a steady procession of hatchlings. Twos and threes are trudging out of the river.
“Where are they coming from?”
“They are coming back. At night they are attracted to the brightest horizon, over the lights. Now they will go for the morning light.”
Amrit has been assisting in a series of light disorientation experiments, working with the other researchers in Kartik’s group: Murali Dharan, Ema Fatima, and Sajan John. Not surprisingly, they proved that hatchlings are attracted to the brightest part of their horizon. Given the choice between bioluminescent surf and the glow over a horizon of lights from factories, villages, and roads, most hatchlings will choose the latter. When those are blocked off, they quickly reorient toward the sea.
Now the advancing eastern light has outcompeted the mainland’s glow. To spend all night walking, and then swimming, in a direction exactly opposite to their destination in the sea—only to have to double back the entire distance—is an astonishing expenditure of energy for a baby turtle.
“How long do hatchlings have before they need to eat?”
“I think it is about forty-eight hours.”
If baby sea turtles fail to arrive at their foraging grounds, like the ocean’s floating mats of seaweed, then they will starve. The prospect horrifies me.
“Can we help them, Amrit?”
He complies. We walk along sand bordering the river mouth, where hatchlings are beaching themselves, crawling out glossy and clean as polished stones. We collect them one by one and tuck them away into the fronts of our shirts, held out to serve as baskets. Soon we are soaked through. Our pockets too, are full and soaked. They keep coming—there is no way to get them all.
Wings whistle overhead. A horde of crows is circling, calling, hoarse with feverish excitement. The air is soon thick with crows. A russet-winged Brahminy kite swoops down, claws first. It flips a hatchling over and begins tearing into it. The yolky pouch attached to its stomach, that energy-rich packet that would have powered its journey to foraging habitats in the sea, is the first to go. I wave my arms and shout. Clamping the hapless hatchling in its beak, the kite takes off.
“It is nature,” Amrit shrugs.
But the town lights that drew the hatchlings riverward are not nature.
We walk our prickly loads back to sea and deposit them about fifteen feet from the waves. I stand guard against the birds. Other hatchlings join our herd. Within minutes they are all lost to sea.
The entire beach is a-bustle with predatory birds ecstatic with the abundance. I fight an urge to race up and down, screaming them away. I feel torn. A part of me knows most of these hatchlings have been handicapped by disorientation. They are running far behind schedule through no fault of their own. Another part of me agrees this is “nature.”
Many hatchlings are flipped over and ripped apart. I can’t look. Miraculously, many taste the waves.
Mass hatching has begun. Where a few hatchlings surrounded our boat last evening, there are hundreds today. The river mouth is full of little heads popping up for air. It is more and more evident that most are swimming east, heading for the mainland banks instead of out to sea.
News of mass hatching has spread. Senior members of the Forest Department are on their way from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa’s capital city. A team from the United Nations Development Project has arrived. Amrit and his team of field assistants are leading the visitors across Turtle Island, making sure the remaining nests are not trampled.
I turn on my flashlight to scan a circle around myself, and then stop. The sand is buckling in two places. Up pops a steel-gray head. Within minutes, another, a third, and a fourth emerge in quick succession. Now countless hatchlings have surfaced from one nest. They clamber atop one another, they shift and squirm, they spread flippers wide, testing their wingspans. One wipes the side of its head with a flipper as if to remove the sandy encrustation around its eye.
More begin popping out of the second nest. Another one is wiping its eye. As young as the gesture looks, it is probably ancient—and practical. The hatchlings must see to move. I sink to my knees. They smell rubbery. They are twinkling with sand grains. It’s hard to believe flippers thin and soft as mango peel will fly them miles through ocean currents.
“There is a danger of being too turtle-centric,” I remember Kartik warning me.
I feel unashamedly turtle-centric now. These creatures have all my attention, all my sympathy. I find myself worrying about how few will return. One in every thousand: those are the odds.
And these days the sea turtles are fighting even more odds. Climate change appears to be making an impact. Ema Fatima has spent the past few years inspecting sea turtle eggs, working with Kartik. Most hatchlings in Rushikulya are apparently emerging as females. The sex of a sea turtle depends on sand temperatures around the incubating egg. Above a certain pivotal temperature, the eggs all turn into females; below it they are born as males.
“Now in certain kinds of animal communities, female biased sex ratios are definitely better than male biased sex ratios,” Kartik explained. “But over a period of time. . .female biased sex ratios can lead to other kinds of demographic and population effects that can lead to declines of populations. . .”
If the balance of males is tipping downward, the future of olive ridleys in Orissa is uncertain—or worse.
Now eighty-four have emerged from the first nest. Dozens are in the process of surfacing from the second. The remains of their collective struggle are gentle dents in the sand, dimpled by flipper-prints. A third spot in the sand has begun to shift. I scan a few meters further. A forth, a fifth, a sixth circle squirms and bulges. The sand is alive. Hundreds are pushing their way out. Flush with the ground, they pause—as if the very taste of air stuns them.
Suddenly the first two batches begin their crawling frenzy. They look like wound-up toys. All the metabolic fires of their yolk are programmed precisely for this moment. They swivel around deftly. A vast majority of them begins moving toward the glow of lights over the mainland. I dial Amrit’s number.
“Almost all are going the wrong way—Can I do something?”
“Be a Pied Piper. Hold your light low.”
It works. They turn and follow my light. Now they are crawling over each other, flipper over flipper, sibling over sibling. Hundreds gather around my light. The shuffling mass is three-deep, four-deep, scraping against my feet, against the smooth glass covering of my flashlight bulb. I am surrounded. I look carefully behind me to make sure the area is clear of hatchlings. I take a few long steps back, keeping my light low. They continue to chase my light with dogged determination, and I continue my backward march in slow motion. After what seems like an eon, we are among the waves.
April 19, 2012
Dawn: 5:00 a.m.
A sickle-shaped moon has pulled out of the sea. During the long night, Ashis Gharai, a UNDP official, joined me with Kalu, a laborer who works for the Forest Department. We have been working together in parallel, spaced fifteen meters apart: three flashlights guiding batches of hatchlings. Ashis and I discover a way to prevent them from straying back once they arrive at the shoreline. We lead them over a one-meter drop in the sand—and they keep going. It’s a leap of faith, but I am assuming the drop obliterates their view of the unnatural lights behind them.
We spend our hours leading hundreds over the drop off. It’s a lot of time saved. We no longer need to stand in the waves lighting their way. They follow us, tumble pell-mell, right themselves instantly and move on into unknown depths without turning back.
Finally, the pale gold of eastern light balloons over us, revealing a beach covered with thousands of hatchlings. My heart sinks. Obviously our efforts were miniscule compared to the grand scale of disorientation around us. My field of vision was so filled with the sight of baby turtles in their slow charge toward flashlights that I failed to see beyond—or refused to.
The sound of nearby gunfire shatters my pessimistic thoughts. Standing outside their tents on the mainland, rangers from the Orissa Forest Department are firing into the air to chase off crows, kites, herons and fishing eagles. The birds circle at a distance, screeching their protests.
Children hired by the Forest Department are arriving by boat. They dash around collecting what is left of the hatchlings, depositing them into water. There is a wild, untrained air about the children. They grow shrill with excitement. A little girl puts a baby ridley on her back, another runs to recover one she just tossed into the waves. But when they are done beachcombing, the sand is quiet, emptied of all but flipper trails and footprints.
Despite the tragedies, the world is still a place where miracles can happen. To one side of us is the unknown fate of hatchlings still swirling in estuarine currents. To another are the darker questions regarding the survival of sea turtles in a changing world. And then there are children who may grow up to understand their role in saving sea turtles.
A few hatchlings will be lucky. They will survive the schools of marauding fish and swim past, drawn into opposing currents. They will swim with instincts as strong as they are ancient. They will swim without knowing how much their bodies crave the safety of seaweed rafts floating far beyond sight. Some will arrive at the rafts.
The waves that return are returning empty. And the ocean, harsh parent of the hatchlings, feels like home. Ashis extends his right hand, and I shake it.
“Good work,” he muses.
“Hope the children can join us next time,” I tell him.