Following a turtle in the Andaman waters
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
A mini-series on animals I had mini encounters with.
It was the 6th day of underwater diving in Havelok Island, in Andaman in 2011. I’d finished my Scuba Diving certification the previous day and was eligible for a ‘fun dive’, where the instructor is confident to let you off with a junior instructor.
In scuba you ALWAYS dive with a buddy. It’s a safety rule. My buddy diver was my super-light sister, who had 3 kg weight strapped to each of her leg so she’d not float up to the surface. She was struggling with her buoyancy and we had to make frequent stops mid-dive. At one such wait, I spotted a turtle swimming 3 feet under me.
In the 6 days underwater, it was the first time any of us students had seen a turtle.
Andaman and Nicobar Island have one of the densest ecosystem underwater in India. It’s home to living corals and a plethora of sea creatures - Sea cucumbers, octopus, starfish, jellyfish, lobsters and some of the world’s brilliantly coloured fish, popping against the clear blue waters.
It's also home to the rare-to-spot turtles.
To follow or not to follow was the question, as the two folks behind me did not notice my frantic pointing in its direction. The answer came to me in a split second as I decided to embrace this rare opportunity and break the buddy code.
Shadowing the turtle’s moves from above, I realized that its effortless glide was quite speedy. I flapped my legs faster to keep pace. Unaware of my presence, it appeared be purposefully headed to work, bagpack on its back, trying not to be late.
Streaks of sunlight in the water caught parts of its body and everything about it looked familiar from books yet intriguing one-on-one. The pursed lips and sombre expression, the odd stubby shape, the etched patterns on its shell, the hexagonal design on its head, the paddling feet, hardly breaking a ripple in the water. Would it swim differently if it knew that a human was looming above it? I swam with it to gaze more at it. When the turtle turned left, I turned left, when it turned right, I turned right. I felt light and free and transported from reality, making me wonder if I was dreaming.
Its shark-bitten left forearm came into focus, a sign that it was real.
“They say, don’t follow a turtle. You’ll get lost,” a little voice told me. It was more than a couple of minutes before I heeded to the voice and tore away from the synchronised swimming. I turned and made the failed attempt to retrace my steps in the water that has no paths, corners or turns.
When the surroundings began to look more unfamiliar, I gave up and made my way 15 meters up to break the surface of the sea. I looked around to gather my bearings. My jetboat was about 500 meters to my right where the frantic junior instructor was looking for me and trying to keep an eye on my sister at the same time. I had to cut through a coral patch with an oxygen cylinder on my back, risking ripping my flippers on them, to reach a rather relieved duo, who were possibly holding back an urge to tell me how stupid I had been.
Three species of marine turtles – Hawksbill, Green turtle and the Leatherback are found in the Andaman. An internet search tells me that I was probably following a Hawksbill.
On other dives in other parts of the world, I have spotted a few turtles adding a couple of extra stars to my dive experience. But, this shark bitten Andaman turtle was a special dive buddy. Swimming with it made me feel like I was an animal of the sea.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT TURTLES
Turtles are reptiles. The earliest known member of this group date from the Middle Jurassic making turtles one of the oldest reptile groups and more ancient group than snakes or crocodilians.
Turtles are ectothherms or cold-blooded, which means that their internal temperature varies according to the ambient environment. Turtles are are amniotes like birds and mammals and they breathe air and do not lay eggs underwater, although many species live in and around water.
They have colour vision and exceptional night vision but poor movement abilities on land.
While typically thought of as mute, turtles make various sounds, often short and low frequency, from the time they are in the egg to when they are adults.
Turtles have demonstrated a long term memory of about 7-8 months and learn and remember better when in a group.
And, lastly, there are 356 known species of Turtles alive today and some are highly endangered.