Postcards from a distant island

Meenakshi Poti| 11.3| Field Notes

Lakshadweep left this marine researcher captivated, both underwater and over land;
Meenakshi Poti

For four months last year, I had the opportunity to live on the islands of Lakshadweep. Imagine,
from walking between throngs of people in the shadow of concrete towers, I was transported to a
place with turquoise water as far as my eye could see, coconut tree skylines and a handful of
people I would get to know by name.

Today, thousands of miles away from that wondrous abode where the sea, the sky and the
inhabitants seemed to care for me like I was one of their own – my bond with the islands has
only grown stronger.
Lakshadweep is India’s smallest union territory, located in the Arabian Sea. It is an archipelago
of 36 islands — 12 atolls, three reefs, five submerged banks and ten completely uninhabited
islands. Before my time there, I had never been to an island before. I applied for a research
permit, and two months later, I boarded a ship from the port of Kochi. It took two days to reach
the Agatti and Kalpeni islands, where the population is a mere ten thousand.

I was there to study the foraging habits of endangered green turtles – a species that is relatively
under-studied compared to Olive Ridleys and Leatherback sea turtle populations in India. Green
turtles are the only herbivorous sea turtles. They feed predominantly on seagrass found in the
shallower parts of the sea.
In fact, the region around the Lakshadweep islands supports the largest population of green
turtles in the Indian subcontinent. But the situation here is quite complex. Fishermen blame the
decline in their catch on these foraging turtles. They believe that fish stocks have fallen because
the seagrass meadows – which act as fish nurseries – have been overgrazed. This has led to an
increase in fisher-turtle conflicts in the recent past.

 

My focus was on studying how the decline of seagrass in the lagoons would influence the turtles’
diet. I mapped the seagrass distribution across the Agatti and Kalpeni lagoons, and sought to
understand how their diets shifted in areas where the seagrass densities were low. An
understanding of the green turtle foraging ecology is integral to their conservation, because of
their endangered status.
Every day in Lakshadweep, I would wake up early, as it gets uncomfortably hot after sunrise.
But for me, it wasn’t only the heat that urged me awake, it was the excitement to get to my
‘office’ and observe foraging green turtles over seagrass meadows, busy fish over the reefs, rays
flying by and an occasional shark. I would speed down the narrow streets of Agatti on my
dilapidated Ladybird cycle, with my research equipment – snorkel, mask, flippers, weights,
GoPro, and makeshift writing pad – sticking out of the front basket.

Weaving past bunches of busy hens and galloping goats, I would arrive at Jaffer’s house. Jaffer
played the role of friend, boatman, chef and island newspaper. I hired his boat, Nihla Fathima for
my work in the lagoons. She was a high-tech, swanky thing, with great speakers (I often heard
Coldplay and Dire Straits while Jaffer was cleaning his boat).

My dives involved taking counts of seagrass in the lagoon – quite a challenging task as it
involved laying transects and plots all across the lagoon. Each plot would take me a minimum of
three hours to finish, as I would “duck dive” to the base of the lagoon to take seagrass counts by
laying down small subplots made out of PVC pipes. Despite the rigour and intensity of
snorkeling for close to six hours every day, I enjoyed my fieldwork thoroughly.
After I surfaced from my dives, I would have lengthy conversations with the rest of the boat
crew – mostly in broken Malayalam, hand signals and my facial expressions – which would
leave them endlessly amused. All of them were involved in pole-line tuna fishing, but they
would make some forays out on the water for tourists too.

They would lay out a plate of khaddi (assorted snacks) for me after I surfaced from a dive, with
fresh lemon juice, kattan chaiya (black tea) or tender coconut water. Sometimes, Jaffer would
make delicious fish biryani while I worked underwater. (Although I went there as a vegetarian, I had no choice but to switch to a fish and chicken diet as vegetables, shipped from the mainland,
are not very easy to get a hold of. Once, we spotted carrots in the local store after several weeks,
but they refused to sell it to us as these were “advance booked carrots”.)
After long days out on the water, I would spend the evenings on the beach, chatting with the
women and children, with a cup of kattan chaiya in hand. The women of Lakshadweep are quite
reserved and are not allowed to swim in the azure waters that surround them because of their
religious beliefs. They were always curious about what I saw underwater, and would imagine the
marine wildlife in their backyard through my stories and descriptions. Later, when I was alone, I
would reflect on the stories that were exchanged with wonder.

There were so many special moments I wanted to share with my family and friends back at
home. But throughout my time on the islands, I had very limited internet and network coverage.
I’m not too talented at photography, so I documented whatever I could through art. I decided to
make postcards to send to people back home. This way, I would remember the features of the
organisms I was seeing or the landscape I was living in vividly.

Each postcard took me around a week to make, because I would usually be exhausted after
fieldwork. The first set of postcards never made it to my friends – I was so disappointed. So I
decided to write inland letters instead. I sent letters to some friends and my family. Funnily,
some of them reached long after I returned from the islands! As for those handmade postcards, I
feared losing even more somewhere over the sea, so I handed them over in person, once I got
home.


I can easily say that some of my closest friends now, I made in Lakshadweep. Even though I
haven’t been back for a year, I still receive messages from the locals to enquire about me and my
family. And of course, I still paint, write and dream of Lakshadweep.
To read more about sea turtle and marine conservation projects, visit www.dakshin.org

This article was originally featured in Nature inFocus

Quest to find an elusive snail

Fieldnotes | Anisha Jayadevan | 9.1

I will remember the smell of fishing harbours for a long time to come. It threatens to overwhelm at first. Then, it jostles for competition with other sensory assaults: shouts of fishermen auctioning their fish and people declaring their bids; loud colours of saris, lungis and fishing trawlers; the cries of fishermen on their boats passing crates of fish to each other and the ‘thud!’ as the crate lands on the floor of the harbour, hundreds of people busily doing things. My thoughts are interrupted, suddenly- a group of fishermen obscure my view and hastily tell me to move out of the way as they haul a large yellow-fin tuna away from their boats. The floor of the harbour is wet, parts of it speckled with fishscales that glimmer dimly. The wetness clings to my sandals.

I am with Bharti DK, a PhD student of the Indian Institute of Science and Sajan John, a researcher with nuggets of wisdom about everything under the sun and the sea. Bharti’s quest to find an elusive, unassuming marine animal has brought us to the fishing harbours of Kerala. She wants to find out how this animal disperses and how such dispersal might shape its populations. Bharti holds a shell in her hand, a conical shell with spirals and a delicate minaret. It is the former home to a snail called Conus, one of the species that she is interested in. Conus is usually found ten metres into the sea and sometimes caught as by-catch by the fishermen. “Have you seen this shell?” we ask the fishermen. Some of them peer curiously at us from their boats and ask us what we are there for.

They point us in the direction of heaps of fish and other marine life they are not interested in. There are people sorting these heaps. Fish that can be sold go in one pile, the rest go in another. A few of these people enthusiastically look for Conus, throwing us any shell that vaguely resembles it. For a short while, our quest becomes their quest. I am easily distracted. Above us, the sky is a blur. There are crows, brahminy kites and egrets circling the boats. Every now and again, one of them swoops and steals a fish from the boats. Sometimes a fight breaks out between the birds as they pilfer each other’s catch. We prod the heaps of marine refuse with a stick, looking for Conus.

Some of the heaps still writhe with life. Hermit crabs stumble out in a daze. Sajan points out some beautiful creatures called sand dollars. They are flat and round and fit in the palm of my hand. I look closer and notice patterns of petals etched on them. I quickly pocket them to add to the growing hoard of nature’s treasures in my room, little knowing that the pretty creatures would gently fill my bag with a putrid odour and metamorphose into a brown, unrecognisable slush.

In one of the harbours, a big, burly fisherman followed by an entourage of his colleagues, towers over us and asks us what we want. Sajan explains at length. The fisherman disappears into his cabin and comes out holding a shell. It is a species of Conus called Textile Cone which looks like porcelain etched with fine zigzag lines. However, like most other shells we found, its inhabitant is absent. Back in her laboratory in Bangalore, Bharti will extract DNA from Conus snails from different locations. From its DNA, she will be able to understand the genetics of each population, and find out how related populations are to each other. Some Conus species travel long distances as larva, while others are sedentary. Bharti wants to find out why this is so, what it is about each species that determines how far its young travel. She will use the genetic relatedness of populations to estimate how far a species’ larva travels.

The logic is simple : the further the larvae travel, the more will be the genetic relatedness of separated populations. The fishermen sometimes ask us to come aboard their boats where fish are still being sorted. Picking our way across boats, we see fishermen lolling on their sides, tired from their sojourn at sea. Some of these boats have spent many days at sea, going as far as Pakistan. Not bothering to get up or shift from their reclining positions, the fishermen ask us what we want, and pass around the Conus shell that we show them. Often they make us run in circles: fishermen of the smaller fishing boats tell us to go to trawlers; the men of the trawlers send us back to the small fishing boats. This has been the general routine in the six fishing harbours we have gone to from Thiruvanathapuram to Kozhikode. Each time we near the harbour our driver announces, “The smell has come!” We don our hats, roll up our pants and let ourselves be enveloped by the bustling masses of people.

The harbours are intriguing with all their activity, but it is sad that my first introduction to many beautiful creatures of the sea is when they are lying lifeless on the harbour floor. Here are marlins with their enormous, jagged fins which look like they jumped straight out of someone’s imagination; here lie eagle rays with little heart-shaped depressions on their bellies; sharks that look sinister even in death; pearly-white, translucent squid oozing out their black ink; plump yellow-fin tunas—their tiny yellow fins contrasting sharply with the grey of their bodies. Before the fishermen return in their technicolor boats when the sun’s rays are still only an hour old, the harbour is in a lull. Then, in a few hours, the activity in the harbour touches fever-pitch and then lapses again into a sleepy restfulness. People from big hotels, exporters and fishmongers arrive at the scene and wait for the arrival of the fishing boats. Some of them form little knots and watch the sea. A few fishermen sit by their boats and mend their fishing nets as the sun rises over the harbour.

Once the boats dock, a flurry of activity ensues. Boats are cleaned; barnacles scraped off; smaller fish sorted out; bigger fish bodily dragged out of boats, pulled through a mass of humanity and then auctioned. As soon as a new load of fish is brought to the harbour, a crowd of people surround it and an auction starts without preamble. Once done, the crowd dissolves and forms at another site. We stand out amidst the throng. The fishermen allow us to interrupt them to ask them about the shell. “Have you seen this shell?” We ask over and over again. “Do you know where we can find it?” After this frenzy of activity the pulse of the harbour slows. Fishermen laze in their boats, tell each other about the day’s happenings and catch a few snatches of sleep. Some gather for a game of cards in the shade of the harbour. As we come away from the harbour, I am reminded of the fishing markets in Asterix comics, always bustling with activity and incident. We learn towards the end of our quest, that there is a separate fishing season just for Conus and other ornamental shells, and we had come at the wrong time. That may be another chapter in Bharti’s quest. As for me, I am content with the opportunity this quest allowed me, to peek into the lives of fishermen, entwined as they are with those of the fish in the ocean.

Anisha Jayadevan is doing her MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, deliriousdandelion@gmail.com.