Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is one of India’s best-kept secrets. At the southernmost tip of Indian territory, far away from all civilisation, leatherbacks, the world’s largest sea turtles, crawl out of the waters in the dead of night to nest on its silver shores. This coast along the southern bay of Great Nicobar is India’s and Southeast Asia’s largest known leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting site.
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is made up of over 300 islands (only 38 inhabited) located at the southeastern edge of the Bay of Bengal, and separated from mainland India by about 1,200 km. Great Nicobar Island is the southernmost of the lot, accessible from Port Blair by a two-day journey on a cargo ship that sails only twice a month on an unreliable schedule. Eighty per cent of the island is demarcated as a reserve forest. Galathea sits on its southern tip. From here, Sumatra (at 148 km) is closer than Kanyakumari. This seems like the end of the world, at least to a city-bred person like me.
After a two-day journey on a cargo ship, wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, a crew of filmmakers and I land at a port near Campbell Bay, the small and only town in Great Nicobar. As we take the road from Campbell Bay to Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the Indian territory, we quickly realise that locations along the coast are marked by the number of kilometres they are from “Zero Point”, a small market near the port. Today, we are going to “41” where the forest department’s camp to safeguard the leatherback turtle’s nests is stationed. At some point, we cross the last school, and then the last police station on the edge of the country. By now we have left all worldly comforts — electricity, running water, phone network, toilets — far behind. A small shop, where forest officials would have one last cup of chai, once marked the “end of civilisation” but it was swept away by the 2004 tsunami. Along the road, naked stumps of trees stand as reminders of the monstrous disaster. Seventeen years later, the scars of the tsunami still follow us everywhere.
Within its demarcated 110 sq km, the Galathea Wildlife Bay Sanctuary hosts diverse habitats. The sanctuary is shaped by the Galathea River that originates on Mount Thullier, the island’s tallest peak at the northeastern end of the island, and empties on its southern bay. This teal river cuts through hilly tropical evergreen rainforests and marches towards a coralline coast. The rainforests shelter several species including the endemic Nicobar tree shrew (Tupaia nicobarica) and the Nicobari scrubfowl (Megapodius nicobariensis). Just before the river meets the sea, it feeds mangrove-lined marshlands and lagoons that shelter saltwater crocodiles. But the silver beaches that form at the river’s mouth are its most spectacular habitats. They are India’s and Southeast Asia’s largest nesting site for leatherbacks.
The leatherback is extremely sensitive to light pollution. Galathea, with no electricity or civilisation, remains one of its last bastions. Three other species — olive ridley, hawksbill, and green sea turtles — also show up to nest here. During peak season (November to January), the beach is crammed with undulating nesting mounds. Now add birds, predators, scuttering crabs, and sea snails to the mix and you get a shore at the edge of the world that’s busier than a city centre.
We get off the road at “41” and soon realise that our final destination is still an obstacle course away. First, in the fading light, we wade through hip-deep waters of a magarnalla, a lagoon named after its most populous resident, the saltwater crocodile. Next, we must hike through a squelching mangrove forest to reach the banks of the Galathea River. Two forest guards on a dingy now paddle us across the eerily quiet waters. Then, we hike some more, to finally reach a narrow strip of shore that faces an endless ocean.
A rundown wooden shack set up by the forest department, and smells of pungent fish curry, welcomes us. We dump our luggage and set up tents under the stars. The moon has given us a miss, instead, a blazing Milky Way rises from the sea and disappears into the rainforest behind. Barefoot, I step on to the wet sand and it lights up like a firecracker. The sparks are caused by marine plankton that emits light when disturbed. I look up and a shooting star cuts through a constellation. Galathea is already making my head swirl, and my knees weak.
At the crack of dawn, the coast changes moods. The sky is painted in shades of red and rust. A soft mist floats above the roaring waves. Suddenly, a forest guard announces that he has spotted movement along the shore. We run! A little sand mound at a distance suddenly bursts with volcanic frenzy, and then palm-sized leatherbacks stick out their pointy noses. Tiny flippers follow. I count at least 40 leatherbacks scampering out of the nest. They are heading straight in the direction of the sun and soon disappear into the sea. It’s an intense, overwhelming sight. Isolated, untouched Galathea feels like a personal paradise.
The tsunami and its aftermath
This paradise, however, sits on a ticking seismic clock. Minor earthquakes that send mere shudders across the landscape are common. But in 2004, on the day after Christmas, the third-largest earthquake ever recorded hit the Indian Ocean near Sumatra, giving rise to gargantuan waves that slammed the coasts of nine countries killing over two lakh people. Galathea, one of the closest points to the epicentre, saw waves as tall as six-storey buildings batter the coast. Ninety per cent of the mangrove forests were killed. Several rainforest trees were scorched due to excess salt that entered the soil, leaving behind ghostly stumps. At the former wildlife camp “41”, seven of the eight people there died.
The tsunami was merciless, but the earthquake caused an irreversible seismic shift. The entire archipelago tilted. While islands on the northern end of Andamans rose a little, parts of the southernmost Nicobar islands were submerged, altering a sensitive habitat forever. The beach across Galathea that had hosted leatherbacks for centuries was claimed by the sea.
A coast heals
However, a mishap led to unexpected consequences. The only bridge over the Galathea River that connected Campbell Bay to the sanctuary, snapped, cutting off all contact. Only rescue teams on missions could now fly in on helicopters. The near-complete isolation provided the coast with a rare opportunity to heal. Mangrove seeds travelled through tropical waters to colonise the coasts. New beaches slowly inched back. Amidst ruins, around ghost trees, a forest regrew. Then in 2009, for the first time after the tsunami, a coastguard helicopter saw leatherback turtles on the coast. A road was reconstructed by 2017, allowing researchers and the forest department to return, and the monitoring of turtle nests resumed. Today, the number of leatherback nests is almost comparable to what Galathea Wildlife Bay Sanctuary hosted before the tsunami dealt its blow — a warm reminder that if nature is left alone, it will find a way to heal and provide. Yet a new threat is lurking around the corner.
A new looming threat
An ambitious development plan by NITI Aayog that includes an airport, a port, a rapid transport system, and a trade complex is set to change this unsullied landscape. In January 2021, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) denotified the entire Galathea Wildlife Bay Sanctuary for the construction of a transhipment port. This could sound the death knell for this pristine habitat. “Without Galathea we aren’t sure where the leatherbacks and other sea turtles will nest. Will they adapt? Will they find new sites?” asks researcher Muralidharan M, field director with Dakshin Foundation. Galathea has rebuilt itself from one of the worst natural disasters recorded in human history. Will it survive this human intervention?