Home Conservation Field Reports The Leatherback Story

The Leatherback Story

June 2012: January 11, 2012 – “We can leave at twelve o’clock,” announces Tesoro, a senior field assistant at the remote Leatherback Camp on Little Andaman Island.

 A female leatherback returns to sea, leaving metre-wide tracks. Female leatherbacks may return two, four or even upto seven times to nest before heading thousands of kilometres south for oceanic pastures rich with the jellyfish they need to replenish themselves after the marathon effort. Credit:Adhith Swaminathan  

He means midnight. As always, patrolling the beach in search of leatherback sea turtles Dermochelys Coriacea begins hours after the sun has extinguished itself and its long golden trail across the Indian Ocean. West Bay is plunged into darkness deepened by the forest cover.

There are two good reasons to leave late. One is that six of the seven turtles we saw this past week were on the beach after midnight. The other reason has to do with crocodiles. Sitting at the dining table, Tesoro laughs about one of his field experiences from the past year. “We got into the water this high,” he points to above his knee. “Two eyes were glowing just ahead. So we rushed away!”

One night past the full moon, this month’s highest tide of 2.24 m. will peak some time after nine p.m. The waves and white surf are already climbing, erasing our footsteps on the sand as they close in on their high point. By midnight the moon will be high. Waters will be receding, making it easier to cross the many creeks that bisect our seven-kilometre stretch of beach – including the crocodile creek. It is normally ankle deep and a few metres across. Tonight it will grow several times as wide and engorged with incoming seawater. Tesoro and two other field assistants at Leatherback Camp, Columbus and Kenny, will lead us across.

Learning about the leatherback

The team was trained to monitor leatherback turtles by Dr. Kartik Shanker, Naveen Namboodiri and Adhith Swaminathan, who will be back in West Bay soon. Meanwhile, the field assistants have led us to seven leatherback turtles in about as many days since our arrival. Each time, Rita Banerji and I stood back to document the ancient reptile whose ancestors survived the rise and fall of dinosaurs – and lived in a time long before the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia.

The name leatherback comes from the turtle’s soft, leathery shell (carapace), which grows to well over a metre in length. It is the largest among sea turtles. It is almost as wide from one end of the wing-like front flipper to the other.

A female leatherback is seen here with the satellite telemetry unit affixed to her carapace. The author documented a young team being trained by Dr. Kartik Shanker, Naveen Namboodiri and Adhith Swaminathan to monitor the leatherback turtle in the Andaman islands. Credit:Maya Khosla

The field assistants go through their quiet, methodical routine of counting eggs, measuring diameter and weight, replacing eggs in the sand, tagging and measuring the turtle and her distance from the shoreline. Back at the Leatherback Camp, they enter the data and figure out if the turtles have been here before – and when. Female leatherbacks may make nests six or seven times before heading thousands of kilometres south for oceanic pastures rich with the jellyfish they need to replenish themselves after the marathon effort.

Camp living

The field crew began turtle counts in December. A total of 84 nests lie along the seven-kilometre beach in West Bay – all created this season. Tonight we are hoping to witness a leatherback crawling up to dig nest number 85.

Snatches of Hindi music from Kenny’s cell phone fill the night air. The camp is set under forest cover close to the beach in West Bay, miles from any cell phone reception, human habitation, dhabas and ration shops of Hut Bay, a small port town perched on the eastern edge of Little Andaman.  Getting here took half a day in a dugout canoe (dhungi) rocking about under rainy skies. Boating is much faster than the day and a half of trekking through the creeks and forests separating Hut Bay from West Bay. 

With mild variations, our routine has been the same all week.  We dine on rice with fresh-caught snapper or some smaller fish netted today by Tesoro, with Kenny in tow. Dodging the crabs underfoot and the low-flying bats above, we walk out of camp to wash at the nearby creek by torchlight, looking out for dog-faced water snakes that prowl the shallow riffles. We return to pack rain-jackets, cameras, odomos, neem oil and dettol. The last two are part of our arsenal of defenses against the biting sand flies.

January 12, 2012

It is a little after midnight. The silence around camp is spiced by wind-churned leaves and the constant rustle of hermit crabs. We venture out, turn off all torches and are blinded by blackness. Eyes gradually adjust to the dim glow, the wan light of a cloud-covered moon sprinkling light across the beach.

Sands that are blond by day are now a dim off-white. The incoming surf shines silver-green with bioluminescence. Darkness is good cover for leatherback turtles to make their momentous journey on land – though there are always exceptions. One arrived just before dawn and departed hours later –  in broad daylight! It was a rare event. “Your fate,” the field assistants declared.

The team members are seen here measuring the diameter of the leatherback’s eggs. Between bouts of digging, the female raises her head, takes in air and drops back into the sand. She creates a gourd-shaped hole using her rear flippers to house her eggs. Then she carefully buries her eggs and also creates a camouflage – another nest-like area of digging and churning, and another, to fool predators. Credit:Adhith Swaminathan  

In this light, any knot of deeper black within the darkness could be a turtle. I have never seen one emerging from sea. Kenny, Columbus or Tesoro have signaled to us about each arriving leatherback. Typically, we are kilometres away. At best we arrive on time to witness the female digging out her body pit, a shallow area where she will begin further digging to make her nest. I am hoping to watch this legend crawl out of her ocean home.

We enter the big creek and sweep lights across the ripples. Feet sink in sand. The pace is slow, the awareness heightened. What is normally an ankle-deep creek some five metres across now sprawls some 50 m. across, knee-deep at the deepest. Light from the turbulent waters glances back. No sign of crocodiles tonight.

A palpable sense of relief pervades the group as we emerge from the creek’s far side, sweep lights around to make sure, then switch off torches. Sounds dominate in the absence of light – the crash and back-sizzle of sand, the regular crunching of footsteps. Kenny and Columbus are soon far ahead.

We arrive at a landmark – a tall pine shaped like the gigantic ghost of a Christmas tree. This is the halfway point; the team splits here to increase our chances of finding a turtle. We will now patrol the beach in two teams. Tesoro, Columbus and Kenny will walk to the far end of the beach and send signals. A slow blinking light means time to patrol towards them. A rapid series of blinks can be translated into “Turtle here – hurry.”

The well travelled

Leatherbacks probably evolved to make such risky trips across sand under the cover of darkness. At best they can only be slow, equipped with caution and dogged determination. Heavy and unaccustomed to land, they have to take long pauses between strides. After laying their eggs above the high tide line, they cover them and lumber back to sea, pausing to catch their breath with deep sighs.  In an ideal beach like West Bay, they could emerge anywhere anytime.

January is a peak nesting month for leatherbacks, which can move in anytime between the months of November and July. Guided by ocean currents and the earth’s magnetic field, the turtles migrate into the Indian Ocean from waters around Indonesia, Australia and perhaps even beyond – as revealed by Kartik Shanker’s satellite telemetry studies last year.

The leatherbacks’ range is global. They can be found hunting under the icebergs of Newfoundland and in the tropical waters of Costa Rica and the Caribbean. They nest in Gabon, Africa, in Costa Rica, South America, in Florida, North America and in Indonesia, and they used to nest on both east and west coasts of India. Leatherbacks frequenting the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago are the only remaining members of their species that nest along the Indian coastline.

January is a peak month in the leatherback nesting season, which can move in anytime between the months of November and July. Guided by ocean currents and the earth’s magnetic field, the turtles migrate into the Indian Ocean from waters around Indonesia, Australia and perhaps even beyond. Credit:Adhith Swaminathan

Some populations are sinking rapidly, so leatherbacks are endangered. Other populations are still hanging by a thread in some areas (especially along the Pacific Coast) and relatively stable in others. Tragedies like the 2004 tsunami, which had an enormous toll on human lives, also hit the sea turtles hard. Some thousand nests on Great Nicobar Island were destroyed that year.

“One of the reasons that we started this programme here in Little Andaman was that once the beaches were washed away there in Galathea, those turtles had to be nesting somewhere,” Dr. Kartik Shanker explained. “We thought that there was a chance that some of those turtles or many of those turtles may have been nesting somewhere in the Andamans… it’s not such a great distance for them.”

Yes, it’s a turtle

Scanning to the north with binoculars, I spot a round rock in the waves. The first heart-leap of faith says “Turtle!” But it is not moving. I scan south, the distant crescent-moon of shoreline heavily curtained in steel-grey and black. North again. The rock that riveted vision is moving this time. The head is raised for a moment, then lowered. She is some 30 m. away from where we are sitting. John (field assistant and Rita’s camera assistant) too is alert. We remain silent, motionless. An incoming leatherback is extremely cautious; if she detects us, she will abandon her effort immediately. 

But she does not abandon. She continues lumbering up the sandy gradient to perpetuate her species. I count the steps as she climbs with the simultaneous gait used by all returning leatherbacks – four flippers swinging forward at the same time. She takes five steps, then a pause, then seven. There is no sound but the swish of sea.  The minutes crawl while her tracks create a metre-wide mark darker than the surrounding sand.

It takes her 15 minutes to climb past us. We crab-walk some distance north of her to alert the other team with flashing lights pointed away. Far away, they are flashing back. They are on the way.

The field team fastens a satellite telemetry unit. Left to right: Kartik Shanker, Tesoro, John, Umeed Mistry and Adhith Swaminathan. Credit:Maya Khosla

We can only move closer to her when she begins laying. Driven by reproductive hormones, leatherback turtles go into a trance-like state while they lay eggs – but not before. Now the sand is flying as she shovels it away, creating her body pit. Columbus arrives first and creeps up behind her. And we follow, standing back a good 20 feet (6.09 m.).

Her sighs echo those of the sea. The front flippers are now rooted to the spot. Turn by turn, her rear flippers scrape a deep, urn-like vessel out of the moist sand. She is creating a chamber
for her eggs.

Between bouts of digging, she raises her head, takes in some air and drops back into the sand. The vapours of freshly dug sand are mixed with a stronger, heavier scent, more pungent than seaweed. Carefully, slowly, her rear flippers create the gourd-shaped hole that will house her eggs for several weeks. It is blind precision.  Finally the shiny eggs are dropping. Three, four at a time they fall and roll atop each other. Our cameras roll. She begins the elaborate process of burying her eggs and we step away while the sand flies again. She creates a camouflage – another nest-like area of digging and churning, and another, to fool predators.

She may return two, four, perhaps even seven times to nest again. Laying many separate clutches of eggs reduces the chance of losing them all. Keen-eyed predators like water monitors may grab all the eggs she laid tonight. Or they may survive.

Leatherback hatchlings have to make a perilous journey from their nests to the ocean. They are extremely vulnerable even if they make it and few survive to adulthood. Credit:Adhith Swaminathan

Parting from us, the leatherback’s front flippers slam the sand, sending off sparks of bioluminescence. As ungainly as she is on land, she can certainly fly through water.

For information and a new video clip on the Turtle Diaries Project, please visit: https://saveourseas.com/projects/turtle_diaries

Communities and organisations involved with India’s Turtle Action Group, TAG, can be viewed at: https://www.seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=385.

by Maya Khosla, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 3, June 2012


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