Sea Turtle Guardians


October 12, 2020

Photo Courtesy : Umeed Mistry

  • Nikita Mamik, Taira Malaney
  • Forest Guards,Sea Turtle,Conservation Film crew, Documentary, Story, Andamn Nicobar Islands, Marine World, Wildlife

???Our love and concern for animals should go beyond those within our personal environment. We should see the world as a whole, see nature in its entirety and realise the importance of humans being part of the animal world and animals being part of theirs. It is only in this way that we can prevent the complete destruction of our environment and perhaps, ultimately, of ourselves.???

– Virginia McKenna OBE

Over the past few years, the Emaho team has been filming ???The Turtle Walkers???, a story about one man???s lasting legacy to explore and protect the sea turtles of India. This film has taken us to some of the remotest sea turtle habitats in the country. On a recent trip to the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago (off the east coast of mainland India) in February 2020, we had the opportunity to interact closely with the forest guards of the islands. During that experience, it dawned on us that there are many kinds of marine heroes, quietly working to protect the ocean and its creatures all over the world. Though we cannot possibly capture the stories of each and every one of them, we can share some highlights from it. Here is our attempt to shed light on the marine heroes we met during a two month shoot in the islands earlier this year. They are a team of people who consistently work to protect marine life, but oftentimes do not get the credit they deserve: the forest department.

A little background before we jump into the story: Conservation efforts in India (as with many other countries) have traditionally been focused on the land and terrestrial ecosystems. It is only in recent years, as we learn more about the marine world and the threats that face it, that we have turned a deeper attention to the protection of coastal and marine ecosystems. The government???s marine conservation efforts in India are managed by the forest department. In places such as the Andaman and Nicobars (with over 500 islands), you can imagine just how much of an undertaking this is.

These islands are teeming with terrestrial and marine wildlife. They are visited by four of the seven species of sea turtles in the world: hawksbills, greens, olive ridleys, and the most ancient of them all – leatherbacks. You would think an area so vast would be hard to monitor, but the forest department, along with the marine police and coast guards, have managed to do a phenomenal job. Over the years, they have constantly and diligently provided support in protecting and monitoring the wild coastal and marine habitats. And of course, this includes the sea turtle. Between October and March, female olive ridleys come up along the vast stretches of coastline of middle and north Andamans from Cuthbert Bay all the way up to Diglipur, to lay their eggs. Due to threats of consumption by local dogs and poachers, the forest department monitors and protects the eggs in hatcheries. Once the baby hatchlings emerge from the sand, they ensure that each hatchling makes its way safely out to sea.

After a month-long stint filming leatherbacks on an island further south, we gradually made our way through the dense Jarawa tribal reserve, hopping on and off the ride-on vehicle ferry. We crossed Baratang, Kadamtala, Rangat and had our first halt at Betapur in Cutbert Bay. Here we met Mr. Shibroy, who is the camp officer, Mr. Mohammed Iqbal who is the range officer, and Mr. Rassogi who is the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the region. These kind men, along with their team of forest guards helped us with getting the filming permissions, locating the turtles, and achieving the shots we needed for the film. Our days began at 8pm, as nesting largely takes place late at night. During this period, our crew took turns to rest in between turtle walks. The guards however, walked through the night. When a turtle came up, they would signal us with their torches to come over. And then began the (long) wait, until the turtle found the right spot to nest. Sometimes, she got lucky with the right spot in the beginning, and in thirty minutes or so had laid her eggs, covered them up, and gone back to the sea. Everyone was happy. Other times the turtle would dig repeatedly for hours, before finding the right spot to nest, and perhaps even return to the sea without nesting.

The very first night was the most difficult. We waited for a turtle to choose her spot for over five hours. While our team struggled in the cold night to keep awake, the forest guards appeared undisturbed. They returned periodically to check on her, and then continued on their rounds. Once the turtles finished laying, the guards gently removed the eggs, and placed them in the hatchery. This beautiful endeavor was a sight to see. The diligence with which they performed this ritual was something we had never personally experienced.

After several nights filming in Cuthbert Bay, we headed up to Diglipur. That is where we met Augustina.

Photo Courtesy : Umeed Mistry

Augustina is a Nicobari woman, from a hunter gatherer tribe in the southern Nicobar islands. She is the forest ranger at Ramnagar beach in Diglipur. Augustina has a team of four guards who work the night shift and four who work the day shift, collecting the eggs on the beach and transferring them to the hatchery. One of the things that struck us about Augustina were her baskets. She taught the forest guards to make baskets out of thatch in a traditional Nicobari way. These neat little baskets were used by them to collect the eggs. At night, we would see the outline of the guards as they walked on the beach with a stick. Hooked onto the end of it were the baskets, swaying back and forth. They almost looked like characters out of a children???s story book!

Photo Courtesy : Umeed Mistry

Ramnagar had the highest nesting we had seen, with 8-10 turtles coming up on an average night. On one night, we counted 15 turtles, all coming up to nest on a tiny 400-meter stretch of beach. By that point, we had finished filming the turtle???s nesting process, and were focused on getting them as they entered the water, and swam out. It was a tough job, because it was really dark on most nights, and the turtles would take off as soon as they hit the water. The visibility was only good in certain spots of the shallow waters, so timing and luck was of the essence.

One night around 11pm, a turtle was struggling to find the right nesting spot. She dug and dug for hours. We sat and waited, hoping that she would start laying her eggs soon. She was on her sixth attempt, with several half-dug out holes trailing behind. We received a signal from the guards on the other side of the beach, and went off to film the next turtle. Several hours passed by (we filmed 5-6 other turtles that came and went), and the first light started appearing in the sky. By this time, the nesting had stopped. The beach was empty, except for this one turtle who continued to dig.

Photo Courtesy : Umeed Mistry

As the sun rose across the horizon, Augustina came down to the beach along with the guards who did the day shift. We all sat together around the olive ridley, waiting for her to lay her eggs. At around 9 o???clock in the morning, she finally began to lay her eggs! We celebrated and marveled at the dedication and strength of this creature to keep persisting. It had been 10 hours, and as Augustina told us, this was the record for the longest nesting that they had ever encountered at Ramnagar beach. For us, it was a special moment, to sit around the mother turtle with the forest ranger and guards, watching the moment unfold together.

Photo Courtesy : Umeed Mistry

Our experience filming ridleys with the forest department of these islands is something we will never forget. Just a few weeks of sleepless nights searching for turtles was hard enough, and we could never imagine doing it everyday for years and years. Sea turtles have remarkable powers of navigation and they nest at the same beaches where they hatch. They migrate up to two thousand kilometers from their feeding grounds to mating grounds. Each year there are more and more turtles becoming victims of entanglement, boat strike, and poaching. We salute these heroes who work tirelessly each night to ensure that the turtles who migrate long distances, can safely nest when they reach the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

*We would like to thank the forest department of the islands for supporting us through our filming of sea turtles in the islands over the past two seasons. A special thanks to Mr. Rassogi (DFO, Mayabunder), Mr. Paul (DFO, Hut Bay), and Mr. Manoj. C (SP, South Andaman) for helping us obtain the permits and providing logistical assistance throughout our filming schedule in the islands. We look forward to our next visit.