Kartik Shanker says working at night is demanding as well as irresistible.
Kartik Shanker says working at night is demanding as well as irresistible.

Turtles, torches, naps on a beach: The life of a nocturnal ecologist

Working at night is simultaneously demanding and irresistible in some primeval way. For all of us, that sudden sighting of a creature in the narrow beam of a torch is a pure rush, unlike any other, with little other sensory distraction

An ecologist’s day begins at the crack of dawn. The intrepid young woman or man dons a set of camouflage and boots, grabs binoculars and notes, and sets off into the forest searching for birds, butterflies or snakes. The quest is interrupted by a herd of passing elephants, and punctuated with leeches and ticks and mosquitoes. Well, that’s one kind of ecologist anyway.

In my first tryst with ecology, the only time I saw the crack of dawn was when we worked late. Sometimes we woke up because the dew had drenched our sheets while we slept on the beach. Sea turtles nest at night. And so our work day began between 8-10pm. Our work wear was shorts and flip flops. No threat of leeches or ticks. Or elephants.

In the late 1980s, continuing the tradition of stalwarts such as Romulus Whitaker, founder of the Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank, some friends/peers and I conducted turtle walks along the coast of Chennai. We had just started the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, and collected eggs to prevent them from being poached and relocated them to a hatchery. Many of us worked through the night and attended college or work the next day (as SSTCN’s volunteers continue to do even today). We were mentored and inspired by Satish Bhaskar, who had covered much of India’s coasts, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and beaches in West Papua, documenting sea turtle nesting sites.

I can still remember my first nesting Ridley. Spotting the tracks on the beach, we followed it till we caught sight of the giant turtle. I recall the incomparable thrill of seeing this wild animal in the middle of a perfectly urban beach. As motivated as we were, as romantic the idea of college students in a conservation programme, as passionate are turtle people the world over, the entirely nocturnal schedule is a biological challenge. There is something quite strange about ending your day with coffee and breakfast and then taking a very long nap. Waking to lunch, and perhaps napping again.

After a brief interlude, I returned to research on sea turtles in the late 1990s, with a project on the mass nesting Ridley population in Odisha. We would set off in a boat to the island where the nesting occurred, a small sand bar, and spend the night tagging and counting turtles. Over the past 10 years, my research team has monitored Ridleys at Rushikulya in Odisha. When arribadas (mass nesting of sea turtles) occur, the beach is packed with thousands and thousands of nesting Ridleys. Researchers stumble around, counting them and collecting other biological data. You run into forest guards, tourists, VIP visitors. Everything looks different in the morning. The turtles are gone, but the track-covered beach tells the tale.

Studying leatherbacks in the Nicobar Islands was even stranger. Often we would hear them before we saw them, their long fore flippers slapping against their sides. We would eventually see silhouettes of the ancient creatures dragging themselves ashore. We’d watch while they dug cavernous pits with their elephant-ear-like rear flippers. Our team on Little Andaman Island monitors the beaches each winter. Some of the turtles we have tagged have migrated as far as Western Australia and Madagascar. A bit bizarre, the thought that this giant mariner we caught a moonlit glimpse of on a remote beach is chomping on jellyfish half an ocean away.

Sea turtle biologists are not the only nocturnal ecologists. Many of my students work on frogs, lizards and snakes. Much of their work gets done by torchlight in the rain, in wet, muddy, leech-infested forests. Not to mention those who work on nocturnal mammals and birds.

Working at night is simultaneously demanding and irresistible in some primeval way. For all of us, that sudden sighting of a creature in the narrow beam of a torch is a pure rush, unlike any other, with little other sensory distraction.

Perhaps nothing captures it as well as being underwater at night. There is something quite mysterious and charming about night diving. One sees many creatures that are invisible during the day—nudibranchs and octopuses, parrot fish sleeping cocooned in their own mucus. Moonlight filtering through from above, swirls of bioluminescent algae that light up as you move through the water, the weightlessness, the sound of your breathing—at times like this, you wonder about how much there is to learn. The darkness that is a shroud can be your greatest guide.

Kartik Shanker is an ecologist and a professor at Indian Institute of Science. He’s author of Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast.

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