Sea, Sand, Flippers
|An Indian Humpback Dolphin, Sousa plumbea, off the coastal waters, overlooked by Konkan hills.|
For the first time in my explorations I find myself wanting to express this feeling, for I am as much in awe as in search of words. I have always maintained that mountains moved me. Sahyadrica’s tagline was ‘belonging to the mountains’ – the name itself means ‘of the northern Western Ghats.’ That has changed over the years, of course, but even as I wrote about the coastal region where land and sea meet, even as the sea inspired me, even as the coast offered me a diversity of experiences in various shapes and forms of marine organisms and coastal communities, it is mountains that captured my wonder and awe whenever I stood at the foot of one before climbing to the very top. It may be because the coast doesn’t challenge me the way a mountain does, or so I thought. That is a thin line I walk, for even if I am comfortable on a boat in the high sea, I am not underwater, which is why what remains the last frontier for me to explore is the surface.
|A rocky shore (showing intertidal rock pools) and the sandy beach in the distance at Anjarle.|
A bigger world lies under the sea. Bigger than all the combined biodiversity on land. But this is where my limitations lay: I only merely skim the surface of the coastal waters. Even so, this was enough to enamour me with what the sea contains. As the summer progressed, I was able to visit Anjarle beach in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra when I was made aware of Kasav Mahotsav – Turtle Festival – celebrating a phenomenal event that takes place every year. Organised by Maharashtra Forest Department (Mangrove Cell), Mangrove Foundation, Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra - Chiplun, Anjarle Gram Panchayat, Mangrove Co-management Committee and Turtle Friends of Anjarle, this event is to bring together people from all walks of life – local coastal communities and city dwellers – to protect, conserve, and celebrate the hatching of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles that lay eggs every winter. By the month of March, the eggs hatch, and like butterflies the hatchlings start their journey by crawling across dry sand – blind but wilful, defenceless but determined. They crawl through the odds with their four butterfly-winged flippers till they can use it to fly in the deep blue sea.
|A two-dimensional view of a vast ecosystem, with a snout breaking through.|
And they swim towards deeper waters, away from land and shore, where everything is invisible but when submarine organisms breach the surface. For my eyes that see not underwater, the dimensions suddenly change. For eyes that are used to a three-dimensional world, this space is new and difficult to adjust to. The surface of the sea, with or without waves, is a two-dimensional world. The water is blue but opaque, barely visible beyond a foot underwater. What dwells underneath remains invisible till it breaks through. On one occasion while exploring this two-dimensional surface from a small boat, we were witness to a pod of dolphins breaching as they hunted along the nearshore waters off the Anjarle coast. They would rarely pop their heads out, only being able to be seen when they surfaced to spray their blowholes as they breathed before disappearing into the invisible depths for several minutes, only to emerge again a few undetermined yards far from where we floated. They did, however, stick to about 300 meters from the shore, allowing us to determine that it was a small local pod of about 5-7 individuals, some a darker grey than others of the typical dolphin colour, one among them was a subadult that swam close to its mother. Watching little palm-sized turtles that would grow over 2.5 feet in length weighing 50 kg crawl to the sea as is their wont, and watching the 9 feet long Indian Humpback Dolphins breach the surface all around us, moved me in a way the mountains – or tigers – haven’t.
|A mother and a calf Indian Humpback Dolphin, so named for the 'hump' on the back leading to the dorsal fin, emerging to catch breath.|
And I still cannot put my finger on it, but I’ll give it a try. I felt an emotion swell up – of sorrow but joy, of anxiety but wonder. The sea is so beautiful, I thought. And I thought how precarious the coast is. So small a space, yet so crucial. Anjarle is one of the many coasts from where dolphins are sighted, but one of the few where sea turtles come to nest. While nesting of Olive Ridleys along the eastern coast is a spectacular phenomenon where over 500,000 females visit the shore to lay eggs each season – called mass nesting, or arribada for ‘arrival by sea’ in Spanish – the western coast has small pockets of beaches – usually beaches exposed to the sea as opposed to coves or bays – where they come to nest. This makes the west coast Olive Ridleys a rather rare phenomenon to witness.
|The Olive Ridley Sea Turtle egg enclosure.|
What made it worse was scavenging by dogs that would dig and destroy nests and people who poached eggs to eat. Up till 2000s, nesting had significantly reduced. Had it not been for the local organisations that conduct Turtle Festivals, and government support to protect these threatened species, sea turtles would have become history along the west coast. Over the years, their concerted efforts has seen an increase in turtle nesting – more females visiting and many more eggs hatching. The communities who started turtle conservation patrol the beaches day and night, waiting for the females to arrive in winters. Once she lays eggs, they would collect them carefully in baskets and transfer to a protected enclosure in a natural setting, right along the sandy beach, such that no dogs or crows got to the eggs. In early summers as the hatchlings emerged, they would be loaded in the basket and released a few yards from the waterline, such that they reached for the sea themselves after living a sheltered life.
|Capturing faces of dolphins as they feed is rather difficult - here is a fleeting glimpse of a smiling dolphin as it breaks to the surface, possibly also to take a good look at us visitors.|
Slightly offshore, the dolphins interact more directly. When the fisherfolk lay out nets to catch pomfret, the dolphins tease through the net using their long snout and pry fish out of it, feeding off on, at times, a large chunk of the catch. When I asked if this resulted in retaliation, I am told by the turtle protectors that it once did, but now, with increased awareness about protecting such endangered species, skirmishes where dolphins get trapped and die due to drowning are rare; the fisherfolk now untangle and cut nets to set them free. I took their word for it, for while I couldn’t confirm such coexistence in the face of a loss of livelihood, I witnessed fishing vessels skirting along where the pod fed, indicating some level of coexistence, probably under the watchful eyes of a conservationists from within the same fishing community who were looking upon the sea as a sanctuary they share with marine wildlife.
|An Olive Ridley Sea Turtle hatchling, Lepidochelys olivacea, heading out to the sea, leaving its|
first and perhaps last flipper prints in the sand at Anjarle.
The turtle hatchlings, if they’re male, will never touch the shore again, and if they’re female, they will return only 15 years later. So much would have changed by then. I wonder if the dolphins who will live to see over fifty generations of turtles hatch and leave for the deep would be witness to this change, would testify to the future voyagers of what once was and will be. Or will they themselves leave the shore in search of greener shores where fishes jump on a splash of their fluke? Only time will tell. When we arrived on the shore, we came without expectations of being able to see anything unless we pried through every burrow in the sand, day and night, and peered into the rock pools at low tides, my father armed with a fishing net and a small photo tank. Neither the ‘boat ride’ offered definite dolphin spotting nor was turtle hatching assured. A disclaimer on the Turtle Festival poster read: ‘It is said that nature waits for no one. Changes in the climate affect the hatching period of eggs … We choose the days based on the tentative hatching period of the turtles. However, in the end, seeing the hatchlings depends on your luck and their wish. Thus, while coming please do not expect to see the hatchlings with a 100% probability.’ With sudden cooler climate due to weather patterns changing far off into the Arabian Sea and farther off in the Indian Ocean – the playground of turtles and dolphins – even as we enjoyed this brief and last respite before the oncoming and forewarned heatwaves – the turtle hatching, a temperature-dependent event, was delayed. The last batch hatched two days before our visit.
|Three of the 5-7 members of the pod, fishing in the near-shore waters.|
In the meanwhile, the dolphins, like tigers (for I am too used to looking for and seeing tigers in the jungles), from my two-dimensional vantage (unlike the forests of tigers), huffed as they politely emerged from the depths. In their company I felt a calm that the beating sun could not diminish, a fondness for these distant creatures of the depths. Over time I became used to hearing them instead of seeing them, for their blow was subtle but loud. Naturally, they weren’t comfortable in our company, and probably thought exactly opposite of how I felt. Then, on the morning after, as the turtle expert checked each nest, he came, a glove in hand, to the batch of eggs laid on January 21. Removing the basket revealed two tiny turtles, hatched sometime post-midnight, eager to touch waters. It was a cold morning – cold in the Konkan during March might not mean much to most, but there was an unusual chill in the air, a reason why turtle hatching was delayed – overdue by ten to twenty days over the regular 50-60 day incubation period, which, I was to learn, is not unusual if the weather is cold. With a few visitors around to see them leave for the sea, this was the moment that connected me to the sea.
|Little turt facing the very first wave of the sea.|
Here are two itty bitty turts, I thought to myself, a few yards for me and a hundred flippers for them to the vast sea, and here I am, looking at them make their very first journey. A journey for a marine reptile that begins on land, sand sticking to their delicate scaly bodies. And they slowly headed to the sea – always facing west, blind, sand stuck to their face and shell and flippers. The air was cool, a gentle breeze flowed from the sea. Somewhere in there, I thought, dolphins are jumping of their own joys. When the turts reached the waterline, a wave swept across their bodies, washing them off the sticky sand, revealing their subtle colours. Their eyes were only barely open. The receding wave sucked them towards the sea, but a following wave pushed them back on land, about twenty-flippers-long behind. And they faced this at least five times. Unrelenting, they marched on – pushing their bodies by raising their head up with the help of front flippers, and pushing forward with their back flippers, maintaining a slow but steady pace. They reached a point where the waves left froth on the sand, covering them with it, getting washed with the next wave, and trudging along, and getting splashed with froth again. After a few uncalculated minutes, the turtle experts decided to release them in knee-deep waters, helping them reserve their energy to swim instead.
|Taking a deep breath, familiarizing with the scent of the sea or perhaps the sand or perhaps us, before taking the leap into the sea.|
Over many years, the turtle experts have designed a protocol on how to incubate and release hatchlings. While incubation is mostly natural, it is done in an artificially dug pit to protect eggs, and the release is timed such that the success of little turts reaching the sea is higher. Every few hours, these nests are monitored, and released whenever they emerge. For visitors, the timing of witnessing the release is 6:30 AM and 6:30 PM. Only those that hatch around this time are seen by visitors. If turtles hatch at midnight, they are released immediately, for to wait for six-and-a-half hours will only waste their energy as they remain trapped under the cover, lowering their chances of survival in the open sea. And so it was that on the second morning of our stay, only two hatched early in the cold, and I was there to bid them adieu.
|The last crawl.|
I think this is it. This is why I cannot express myself. For within twenty minutes, they were gone. A singular fleeting moment with an ephemera. I saw one raise its head as it paddled forward, and that image bore deep into my mind. If all goes well for them, it is likely that they will never be seen by humans again. If all goes well: that is where my anxiety lies. I could draw many parallels between seeing a tiger and a turtle, but we’re talking about a palm-sized turt and the largest waterbody ever known to exist. The chance of survival for a hatchling, according to the Olive Ridley Project – an organisation that works for turtle conservation – is estimated at one in a thousand. We were witness to two hatchlings of 143 that mother turtle had laid. By these statistics, it will take ten mother turtles to produce only ten offspring that will live on to become adult turtles to keep the traditional instincts of homing intact, finding way to Anjarle among the few turtle nesting beaches of the west coast of India as their mothers did.
|A darker gray individual swimming past our boat.|
The Indian Humpback Dolphins, on the other hand, would nurse their calves offshore, not far from the beachgoers and fish-catchers, both – humans and dolphins – sharing waters and catch with humans striving to coexist. Too many motorized boats, too many nets, too much of waste effluent from the Jog River emptying near their habitat, will harm the dolphins in the long run. Observing the world as it exists was a rare occasion where I felt relief. It exists fine enough, I thought – and I did not let my thoughts ponder over how better it could have been. This is it. And that could be another reason why I cannot express myself, for feeling gratitude often puts my mind at ease: the turtles and the dolphins and the fishes and the many ghost crabs and swimmer crabs and the anemones and the slugs would continue to exist provided the world around them does not invade their space but shape around them.
|Two little turts heading to the sea.|
This intricately beautiful world is so precarious, I also thought. So delicate, so calamitous. Olive Ridleys are among the many reptiles that show temperature-dependent sex determination. In other words, it is the temperature of the nest, influenced by the ambient temperature as the embryo experience as it develops that determines the sex of the hatchlings. Eggs incubated below 28°C usually turn into males and over 31°C into females, with temperatures consistently above 35°C being lethal for the babies. Usually, a nest is a pit where such gradient exists within it, leading to a mixture of sex ratio as the turtles emerge. This naturally balances out the sex ratio of adult turtles, making the period of egg lying in the cool month of January and the hatching period as the temperatures increase towards March an important factor that not only determines the sex of the hatchling but also their survival. The dolphins, on the other hand, are more impacted by human activities, particularly pollution. Although found across the coastal waters of the tropics, most populations are distributed along mouths of estuaries. I’ve seen them at the mouth of Thane creek while traveling from Mora Bunder Jetty to Bhaucha Dhakka, and have heard of their presence around the mouth of the Gad River in Sindhudurg. All of these estuaries also empty effluents into the sea, increasing the threat to dolphins.
|Rocky shore and intertidal pools on a high tide. These pools are teeming with life during low tide.|
Anjarle has a lot to offer. A small rocky outcrop in front of the Kelshi Lighthouse offers a birds-eye-view of the sea. At its foot is a small stretch of rocky shore, forming many pools during low tide. I stood on the ledge looking at this rocky shore one evening as the hightide flooded the surface, determined to return at low tide to take a look at this habitat-in-transition. During low tide, the rocky shore forms pools – called intertidal pools or rock pools – which serve as a haven for a diversity of marine life – fishes, crustaceans, molluscs, algae.
|Close-up of a spotted Glass Shrimp, Palaemon pacificus, an inch-long, rather common shrimp of the intertidal pools of the Konkan coast, photographed and released.|
Some spend their entire lives in here, some get trapped during the low tided and return to the open sea with the hightide. This is a world within a world, it is complete. From the delicate glass shrimps to the giant lightfoot crabs, the Anjuna anemone to giant gobies, everything here flourished. I peered into these pools for countless hours, but found no sea slugs, nor could I explore the vast mangroves of the Jog River. Something left for some other time.
|The large Ghost Crab, Ocypode (possibly O. ceratopthalmus), is nocturnal, found scuttling across the intertidal region of the sandy shore looking for dead marine creatures washed ashore during high tide.|
The sand itself is a unique ecosystem. Every morning after the low tide, the beach was covered in tiny sand bubbles created by the small ghost crabs as they filter-fed on fresh organic content washed ashore. As the day progressed and movement of people increased, the shore seemed barren, devoid of life, save the edge of tree line where Common Sandpipers trot. Instead of bird and crab trails, footprints and bullock cart prints and unruly car enthusiasts would make their mark – also a reason why turtle eggs need to be relocated to a safer location. After evening as humans emptied the beach, the larger ghost crabs would emerge from their invisible burrows deep in the very sand a vehicle would rev on. At night, with their long, stalked eyes, they scoured the intertidal region for washed dead fishes – one was found feeding on a dead Shaw’s Sea Snake in the morning, safely in its burrow. If they sensed danger, they buried themselves in the soft sand created by the retreating tide, and pop an eye out waiting for danger to pass. These fast runners disappear within a blink, and merge well with the sand they call home whether in sunlight or moonlight.
|Waiting for the tide to take it home - to the sea.|
Long after the turtles disappeared into the blue waters, the dolphins dived in the depths, the crabs buried themselves in their sandy abodes, and the rock pool fishes waited for a ride back to the sea, I felt the need to write about this, so this is it. I’m not sure if I expressed how exhilarating it was watching little eager turtles and content dolphins, and everything in-between. Being descriptive helped me fill this gap in my mind with what I experienced and how I felt.
|Watching the hatchlings leave for home.|
It is fascinating how different explorations feel between land and sea and the space between the two. Interesting how different ‘field’ is for different people working towards protection of species and ecosystems. How different it is when treating species and their interactions with humans. Yet, deep down, it all comes down to how intimate a connection is between a human and a non-human being. This is it, I think, this is that connection I found with the turtles and the dolphins. Even if for a fleeting moment.
Sahyadrica continues to be on hiatus as I near completion of a large piece of work on central India. I hope more updates, including about many more insects and unruly ideas come in the latter half of the year.