Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 4, June 1-15, 2018

A pioneer of sea turtle biology

by Karthik Shanker

This is a tribute to Satish from Rom Whitaker as narrated toJanaki Lenin:

Satish Bhaskar is a pioneer of sea turtle biology and conservation in India. Satish conducted the first surveys in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, in Orissa and in fact, most parts of the mainland coast of India. His surveys and sojourns on many uninhabited islands in Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep provided the first (and in some cases, only) information on sea turtle nesting on these beaches. His published and unpublished reports have formed the basis for current sea turtle conservation initiatives and it is thanks to his data that interventions were made possible to protect beaches in the Andaman Islands which were otherwise slated for tourism development.

Satish started with a survey of the Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu in 1977. In 1978, he visited the Lakshadweep and surveyed several islands. He then surveyed the coast of Gujarat, and, later that year, the Andamans for the first time. Over the next few years he would survey most of the mainland coast of India, including the states of Kerala, Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. In 1982, he revisited the Lakshadweep islands, spending several weeks alone on an uninhabited island. In 1984-85, he spent some months in West Papua, then Irian Jaya, and was the first outsider to visit some of the villages on that coast; he was, of course, the first to survey Jamursba Medi and Wermon beaches. In the early 1990s, Satish focused his work on the Andamans and monitored the hawksbill population on South Reef Island for several years.

In 2000-01, the Wildlife Institute of India coordinated a large UNDP-funded project on sea turtle conservation in India. Sea turtle surveys were conducted in every state by different institutions. Remarkably, in most instances, these surveys provided the first update on Satish’s original work done a decade or two before. Satish and C.S. Kar from the Orissa Forest Department attended the first world conference on sea turtles. Kar and Bhaskar’s paper in the Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles (edited by Karen Bjorndal) serves as a comprehensive and still relevant account of sea turtles in South Asia. Satish was an intrepid explorer and untrained biologist, but inspired a generation of researchers and conservationists. He has set a so far unmatched example of tireless, passionate effort to fill our huge gaps of knowledge in sea turtle status, distribution and biology in India.

He retired a few years ago and is no longer active, but deserves to be recognised for his lasting impact on sea turtle biology and conservation in the region and beyond. In April 2010, the International Sea Turtle Society awarded its annual Sea Turtle Champions Award to Satish in recognition of his pioneering surveys and research on sea turtles in South and Southeast Asia.

In the early 70s the Madras Snake Park became a local hangout for young folks from nearby campuses like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), AC College of Technology, the School for Architecture and Madras Christian College. One of them was a soft-spoken engineering student named Satish Bhaskar. He was a teetotaling non-smoker, a real ascetic compared to the rest of us. His passion was the sea, and he spent more time swimming than in the IIT classroom. It’s not for nothing that his hostel mates called him Aquaman (privately)!

I was concentrating on crocs at the time. At the same time, we also wanted to know the sea turtle status: which species come to Indian shores, where, when and in what numbers. So, we really needed a full-time sea turtle man.

Opportunely (for the turtles), Satish was getting disenchanted with his IIT course (after finishing most of it) and yearned to be a field man with a mission. The Snake Park had a tiny research budget, but it was enough to hire Satish as Field Officer (Rs. 250 a month) and get him out on his first few survey trips. When the fledgling WWF-India saw the good work he was doing for endangered sea turtles, Satish landed his first grant which really set him in motion.

About this time, the Madras Crocodile Bank was being born and Satish was its first resident. He helped to build the place (in between the sea turtle trips) but funds were so tight and sporadic that there were times when he had no work. So what did he do?

He kept in shape by filling a bag of sand, carrying it to the other end of the Croc Bank, dumping it and starting again! Villagers still remember Satish hoisting a 50 kg sack of cement over his shoulder casually as if it were no more than a sleeping bag. This was the training that made him so tough in the field; it enabled him to walk most of India’s entire coastline, more than 4,000 km, over the next few years looking for sea turtles, their tracks and nests! He loved going to remote places which few Indians have the stamina or stomach for. “To him, swimming in shark-infested waters was the most normal thing to do,” declares Shekar Dattatri, who has known him since the early Snake Park days.

In 1977, Satish conducted the first surveys in Lakshadweep and zeroed in on an uninhabited island, Suheli Valiyakara, as the place for a focused green sea turtle study. The only problem was that the main nesting period is during the monsoon and no one goes there when the sea is so rough. In 1982, Satish left his wife and three month old daughter, Nyla to maroon himself on Suheli for the whole monsoon, from May to September. It meant making elaborate preparations, like calculating the amount of food he would need. We sat with Satish and talked about things that could go wrong during this isolation – chronic toothache, appendicitis, malaria were just a few sobering thoughts. The Coast Guard provided some signal flares and there was talk of a two-way radio but eventually Satish just set sail and that’s the last we heard of him till September.

Actually that’s not true. A few months later, his wife Brenda back in Madras, received a loving letter from him. He had launched his message in a bottle on July 3rd and 24 days and more than 800 km later it was picked up by a Sri Lankan fisherman, Anthony Damacious, who very kindly posted it to Brenda along with a covering letter, a family picture and an invitation to visit him in Sri Lanka. The ‘bottle post’ was very romantic, but of course Satish’s spin was that he was trying to see if he could study ocean currents using this technique!

An emergency situation did arise on the deserted isle, and one that none of us could have predicted: a huge dead whale shark washed up on Satish’s little island and started rotting. The nauseous stench became so overpowering that our intrepid sea turtle man had to move to the extreme other end of the tiny island to a somewhat precarious, wave lashed spit of sand.

That year the monsoon abated late. So though Satish was packed and ready to go home by September 1st, (after 3 ½ months with only turtles and a radio for company), the relief boat from Kavaratti Island, over 60 km away did not arrive. Satish had run out of rations and legend has it that he survived on milk powder, turtle eggs, clams and coconuts for weeks. Fortunately, the lighthouse on neighbouring Suheli Cheriyakara needed servicing and a Lighthouse Department ship, the M V Sagardeep, arrived on October 11th. As Satish clambered aboard, Capt. Kulsreshta’s first words were, “Take him to the galley!”

For a person with a gargantuan appetite, Satish could live on very little. On a trip to the Nicobars, Indraneil Das and he ran out of rations and water and they still had a day’s walk ahead of them. The former was half-dead when they ran into a party of Nicobarese who tried to feed them but Satish politely and firmly declined saying they had just eaten and didn’t allow Neil to eat either. Later he pointed out that they had nothing to repay the poor people’s kindness! (This trip yielded five new species – two frogs, two lizards and a snake.)

On another occasion, on Little Andaman, Satish had again run out of rations and was surviving on “only biscuits and vitamins for 4 days.” He came upon an empty Onge tribal camp with some freshly barbecued turtle meat. He took some of the meat and left two biscuit packets in exchange mainly to avoid a spear through his back! Just counting the number of times he ran out of food in remote areas, we suspect that he deliberately starved himself to see how far he could take it.

Through the 1980s, again thanks to WWF and other funds, Satish visited many of the islands of the Andamans. His were the first recommendations on sea turtle nesting beach protection. These helped give the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Forest Department a solid conservation basis to resist the efforts of big business and other Government Department interests in “developing” beaches for tourism.

By this time, Satish’s work was being appreciated by sea turtle biologists worldwide. Papers on the species inhabiting this region were very scarce indeed and his publications helped to fill that big gap. In 1979 Satish was invited to give a paper on the status of sea turtles of the eastern Indian Ocean at the World Conference on Sea Turtle Conservation, in Washington D.C. In recognition for his contributions to sea turtle conservation, Satish received a fancy watch and award from Rolex in 1984.

When Ed Moll came to India to do a freshwater turtle study, Satish became a key collaborator. He surveyed extensively for a highly endangered Batagur baska which nests on coastal beaches along with olive ridleys. Sadly the Bengalis have eaten the terrapin to near extinction and there are no known wild nests in India. It was at this time that he was nicknamed “Batagur Bhaskar” – Courtesy: Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter.

(Inputs from Aaron Savio Lobo, Allen Vaughan, Arjun Sivasundar, Atma Reddy, Manish Chandi, Manjula Tiwari, K. Munnuswamy, Nina and Ram Menon, and Shekar Dattatri.)

(To be concluded)

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