“Lights off!” bellows wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, as I watch his silhouette approach the waves in the dark. It is close to midnight. Above, the Milky Way stretches like a star-studded ribbon across the velveteen sky. Below, swarms of sand flies bite, leaving behind pustules that sting for weeks. Mukherjee, a crew of filmmakers and I are on the Galathea shore, a coast on the last island of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, where the forest department camps watch over leatherback turtles that emerge to nest. It has taken us a flight, a two-day journey on a cargo ship, a drive, a boat-ride, a hike and several permits to get here. We’ve left electricity, and civilisation, far behind. I switch the flashlight of my budget phone off, and in the blackest night, we wait.
The leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the world’s largest sea turtle, is a nocturnal nester. It spends its life at sea, but females travel over 10,000 kms from foraging grounds to nest on preferably undisturbed shores. Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, that stretches along the southern coast of Great Nicobar Island, is the largest nesting site in the country and the Northern Indian Ocean. An ongoing tagging project by Dakshin Foundation has recorded leatherbacks travelling over 13,000 kms from Mozambique and the Madagascar coast to nest here. But even after such an arduous journey, females can abort their plan just at the sight of a flashlight. They may look for another beach nearby to nest on, or return to same one a few nights later.
Mukherjee continues to stare at the waters. Minutes later, where waves break into pillowy surfs, a black bump bobs over the surface. Starlight bounces off her carapace, revealing neat ridges studded with white speckles. When she finally heaves her hulking body out of the waters, I gasp. A leatherback can grow up to seven feet long and weigh up to 700 kgs, all on a diet of mostly watery, translucent jellyfish. We retreat to the shadows to give her space.
The leatherback is not charming at first glance. She has an egg-shaped head, dented at odd angles. Her peculiar mouth has a ridge that makes it look like there is a fang sticking up from the centre of her lip. In the waters, she dives deeper than any turtle, as her wing-like front flippers cut through ocean currents. But now, she awkwardly slaps them together and drags her body forward, as if she is attempting a butterfly stroke on land. After 20 long minutes she covers a few feet. “It’s going to be a long night,” warns Mukherjee.