There are certain nights in the year when soft-shelled giants rise from the Indian Ocean. They have done so for millions of years. Approaching the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago, they wait for an opportune moment to swim ashore, clamber up their natal beaches — or beaches close by — and lay a clutch of eggs. They are leatherbacks, the earth’s largest, most wide-ranging sea turtles, and their ancestors survived the rise and fall of dinosaurs. Ocean currents and Earth’s magnetic field have guided their migration of over a thousand kilometers from the waters around Sri Lanka and Australia and quite possibly beyond.
Leatherbacks are spread across the globe, as are their nesting sites. Endangered for much of their range, populations are now hanging by a thread in some areas (especially along the Pacific Coast) while relatively stable in others. Most that arrive in the Indian Ocean breed between November and March; a few continue to arrive well into July. A female leatherback may lay four to five clutches of eggs before embarking on her return journey.
Dr. Kartik Shanker and his team of researchers and keen-eyed field assistants have been monitoring sea turtle nesting population along a seven-kilometer stretch of beach called West Bay, on Little Andaman Island. It is the night of January 6 and this season they have counted and measured 77 nests along the desolate stretch of tribal reserve that is off limits to the public.
My journey from mainland India to Little Andaman Island has taken weeks of permit applications, one hopping flight from New Delhi, two rides in ferry boats from Port Blair (the first turned back due to a sudden cyclone), hours tossing about in a dugout canoe (dhungi) with the sting of salt in eyes and taste buds, and, finally, endless night-hours on foot. And so far I have not spotted a single leatherback in over 30 kilometers of walking — spread over two and a half nights.
It’s now 2 a.m. on the morning of January 7, two days before this month’s full moon. I am completing my third round of patrol with filmmaker Rita Banerji and her assistant John Lakhra. Three field assistants are covering the second half of West Bay Beach. We split into two teams to increase our chances.
A rapidly blinking flashlight announces an arriving leatherback. It’s a faint signal, which means it’s coming from several kilometers away. We flash back: Got it, on the way. The tide is low, so it’s easy to race along the strip of compacted sand close to the waves. The flashlight is blinking again. Does this mean she is leaving?
I am grateful for light from the waxing moon — except for brief signaling, we cannot use flashlights (the other exception: crossing a creek that hosts estuarine crocodiles). After a good half hour of running, I see a shadowy form ahead. It is one of the field assistants, Kenny, who quiets us down before leading the way up past the reach of high tide. Ahead of him, Columbus, another field assistant, sits behind the leatherback, helping her dig. He crept up behind her undetected—stealth that has come with two years of practice. The rest of us have to stand back.
Her gurgling sighs are audible. Through binoculars, dimly, I see her head rise for another sigh before dropping back into sand. The vapors of freshly dug sand are mixed with a stronger scent, more pungent than seaweed. She is sitting in a shallow body pit that she created by flinging sand back with front flippers. She is still digging, so we must stand back ten meters away or she might desert the site. Carefully, slowly, her rear flippers create the gourd-shaped hole that will house her eggs for several weeks. Blind precision. Finally she goes into the trancelike state of laying some 80 eggs.
The documentation begins. Our cameras roll: Columbus, Kenny, and Tesoro count the eggs, measure the weight and diameter of the first ten, and measure the turtle herself. “This one looks kamzore,” Kenny whispers. She looks weak, he’s saying. At over two meters in length and a meter from her left front flipper to her right, she looks anything but kamzore to me.
So far, we learn, there are 78 nests in West Bay and it’s still mid-season. But about half the clutches have been destroyed by water monitors, the giant lizards that are the main egg predators here.
Will this clutch remain safe? Will the field teams install netting to protect nests in the future? Data from this season will help guide their conservation efforts.
Two hours later she covers her eggs and leaves us with all the unanswered questions. Her front flippers slam the sand, sending off sparks of bioluminescence. Ungainly on land, she enters the water and glides with ease.
Maya Khosla is currently co-directing the Turtle Diaries Project with Rita Banerji. The project is supported by an award from the Save Our Seas Foundation. Maya’s poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She received the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize for her book Keel Bone.