| def: TURTLE WALKER
A turtle walker travels across long distances of wild and uncertain coastlines on foot, in the hopes of spotting a turtle. They often embark on these strenuous walks with very little guarantee of reward. Yet their zeal for discovery is what allows them to thrive in their search for these creatures. It is this passion that binds together the stories of turtle walkers across generations.
"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."
The above is an excerpt from an article written by Romulus Whitaker, one of India's leading Herpetologists and Conservationists and one of my personal childhood heroes. I remember these words resonating with me and creating an overwhelming sense of awe and intrigue. I had conjured up this almost super-hero like portrait of Satish, who's story seemingly oozed with exploration and a sense of adventure that I could only dream of. I recall actually questioning if it was even real. This intrigue propelled me to seek out the man Rom had written about so many years ago to get a closer glimpse at his life and hear his stories first-hand. The search finally led me to a small home in a sleepy village of Goa where I found Mr. Satish Bhaskar, a man in his late 70s - holding a bag containing his old wetsuit and flippers and waiting eagerly to take me body surfing to the local beach.
This early interaction and the subsequent encounters solidified in me the fact that I was spending time with a truly extraordinary individual. Learning more detailed accounts of his work in the field led me to discover a tremendous example of human endurance, patience and commitment to a cause larger than one's self. I was introduced to a unique breed of person who was able to channel his passion and love for the natural world into tangible positive action at the cost of personal comfort. The work requires extreme commitment, patience and endurance with no real guarantee of results. This stood out as a stark contrast of a way of life compared to how majority of the people around me today choose to spend their time. I saw many lessons in this man's history and wanted to learn how to incorporate such discipline and focus into my life.
After doing more research into this world, I realized that there exists today a young crop of explorers and researchers who continue to carry on Satish's legacy. It quickly became evident that they share too the same drive. What is it that fuels these turtle walkers across time to keep working tirelessly with little reward, far from the comfort of home? This was something I wanted to explore and unravel through time spent with these individuals.
The fundamental issue here is how we view our relationship with nature. Current trends show that we are choosing career paths primarily based on the earning potential. In this anthropocentric age, we humans consider ourselves and our existence as the most important aspect in the universe. But are we taking actions to ensure the survival of our species? Can we continue to exist without the support of nature? Moving forward, we need to change the way we see this relationship. We need to adapt our livelihoods to choose career paths that support rather than exploit it.
The islands also have a very unique cultural identity. They are home to hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Karen from Burma. Originally a very isolated people, the Karen were forced to change their way of life due to increasing development of the islands. As they move further away from self sustenance, so does their close connection to the environment. However, over the years, three generations of conservationists have emerged from the community. We see this in Saw-Thesoro's story. He has been involved in the current leatherback sea turtle research project for over ten years.
On a broader level, sea turtle populations visiting the Andaman and Nicobar coasts have undergone major pressures - both natural and man-made. Research indicates that sea turtles return to the same beaches to nest. When the tsunami of 2004 hit the islands, the Andamans were raised by one meter causing the reefs to be exposed. The Nicobar islands sunk below by one meter, thereby causing nesting beaches to get submerged. This has made it impossible for the turtles to access certain nesting beaches.
A few years ago, in a bid to commercialise these islands in the same manner as Maldives and Thailand, the current Indian government has started an aggressive drive to convert them into tourist hot-spots. To compliment the plans of beach villas and 5-Star resorts, the central government is creating multiple large-scale infrastructure projects including airports, ferry terminals, highways and power stations. Several of the demarcated areas for these projects are the very beaches that Satish and Adhith have spent their lives fighting to protect.
The administration has proven to be a formidable force that has fast-tracked construction permits, land deals and converted protected areas to commercial zones with little regard for environmental clearances. Forest officials have appealed to me to put pressure on the government to reconsider development projects. They believe that international pressure and outcry from local citizens may be their best hope.
With most research organisations fearful of losing valuable permits and access, few voices are speaking out against the work being done to systematically undermine our natural spaces. The Ministry of Environment in India is actively overturning the common people’s rights to voice their concerns about environmental policies. The aim of this film is to create a grassroots movement that speaks against the large-scale devastation of some of the last remaining wild places that remain in the country.
In India, conservation is largely focused on terrestrial ecosystems. However, this is also true for other countries around the world. Globally, approximately 3% of our oceans are protected. The UN intends to bring this figure up to 10% by the year 2020. Today, there is a fast growing movement to create marine protected areas across the world. I want this story to help build this movement.
Given the remote and sensitive nature of these islands, gaining access to visit, let alone film is near impossible. With the help of NGO partners, I have obtained permits to shoot in these places with the characters over the last 2.5 years. They have a plethora of research and information that they wish to share in order to protect the threatened turtle habitats. I intend to amplify their voices on a community and international level, to help preserve our environmental heritage.
Our story begins in the 1970s with a young man, and his obsession with the sea. Satish was a teetotaler, a real ascetic who, disenchanted by his engineering course, skipped classes to explore the ocean. With a simple underwater torch, and hours spent paddling in the water, began his journey to uncover the behavior of one of the world’s most ancient creatures: the sea turtle.
Over the next several decades, Satish surveyed 2/3rd of India’s coast.The man is literally a legend: Stories of his adventures are passed down through ‘old jungle sayings’ by young turtle scientists. For instance, during monsoon of ‘77, he got stranded on Suheli, an uninhabited island in Lakshadweep. Desperate to contact his wife, he sent 11 letters in bottles, using rip tides. One of these floated 700 km across the ocean to reach her. That year, an article was published in the newspaper, “‘Robinson Crusoe’ Satish Bhaskar, stranded on uninhabited island while studying green turtles”. Eventually he was diagnosed with neuralgia, a nerve condition characterized by extreme shooting pain, and his turtle escapades came to an abrupt halt.
Until one day, when Satish decides to write a book. As he unboxes old field diaries and slides, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia washes over him. Satish returns to survey the Andaman and Nicobars, in the Bay of Bengal, to see the turtles one last time. He visits South Reef, the main nesting site for hawksbill turtles in India, where he once camped for 9 months. Today, the species is critically endangered. Yet, Satish is confident he will find their nests.
As the island appears in the distance, the anticipation is palpable. Large swells prevent the boat from anchoring. Satish dives into the water, and swims to the island. When he gets there, he is confronted with a harsh reality. The 2004 tsunami exposed the coral reef, making it inaccessible for hawksbills. Anguished by this discovery, he frantically searches for signs of their presence.
On returning home, he is invited to attend a turtle conference in Lakshadweep, in the Arabian sea. The blue lagoons of these islands host various types of seagrass and algae, making it ideal for green turtles. Determined to see them, Satish accepts the invitation with plans to visit Suheli, where he got stranded in ‘77. Back then, this island was the main nesting site for endangered green turtles in the country. Satish wants to find out if it is still visited by them.
When he arrives, a cyclone hits, jeopardizing his plans. He decides instead to survey a nearby nesting site. He finds that the once uninhabited island has been developed into a hotel. Satish walks the length of the beach, only to find empty nests. Just as he is about to give up, he spots a green turtle in the lagoon and paddles out to enjoy a brief moment with it. He emerges, frustrated that his equipment scared away the turtle. As the cyclone rages, he meets with turtle researchers on the island, and learns that Suheli is being developed for tourism. Satish’s face falls; he is shocked to hear this.
Adhith is a young turtle researcher, conducting a long-term study to assess the post tsunami recovery of turtles in West Bay, Little Andamans. Each night, his team surveys a 14 km beach. Their data is used by the forest department to protect an animal that has existed since the dinosaurs: leatherback turtles.
This season records the highest number of nests in the camp’s history, with evidence that the leatherbacks are returning safely from foraging grounds across the world. Adhith compares Satish’s reports, and discovers the same numbers he found in the 1980s. After 12 years of research, he is excited to find that this population is recovering.
He visits the forest department to share his findings with the officer. The conversation turns, when the officer reveals the central govt plans to develop the beach into a tourist destination. Adhith is disappointed by this news. He hopes that his research will encourage them to reconsider. There is an uncomfortable silence, as the officer is afraid to reveal more.
Months later, Adhith is on Great Nicobar, the only other nesting beach for leatherbacks in India. Thousands of them appeared each year to lay their eggs. The team operated a research camp there, but it was destroyed by the tsunami. Their goal is to perform a study to reveal migration patterns of this population, and build a case for its protection. For days, they have no luck. The team is extremely frustrated. With the arrival of a new moon, dozens of leatherbacks emerge from the ocean, and they mount the satellite devices. Overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment, they watch as the last turtle swims away, carrying with her a hope of new discoveries that could help protect her vulnerable species.
After the telemetry study, Adhith visits Satish to show him a satellite video of the leatherbacks swimming thousands of kms from Madagascar to Great Nicobar. Deeply moved by this, Satish decides to travel with Adhith to present his data to the authorities, in a final effort to convince them to protect the critical nesting habitat of the leatherback turtles.
The Turtle Walkers explores the decay of an environment and the human body, over an extensive period of time. Satish’s return to field leaves him distressed by the state of turtle nesting sites. Even more, it frustrates him to realize that he is no longer physically capable of protecting them. When Adhith visits him, he sees an opportunity to pass on his legacy, and realize his goal through the next generation.
| GALLERY |
Taira is a Director and Editor based in Goa, India. She received her BA in Psychology in 2013 at Occidental College in Los Angeles, after which she moved to Andaman and Nicobar islands to teach a marine conservation course in the village of Chidiyatapu. There, she hosted regular film screenings to teach students about the marine world. Their positive response to this teaching method gave Taira insight into the power of film.
After completing a documentary film course at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking in 2016, Taira founded Emaho Films. Today, she is driven by the idea that positive storytelling can be used as a tool to educate and inspire change.
At present, Taira is co-directing Emaho's latest documentary film, The Turtle Walkers.
Krish Makhija is a 29-year-old cinematographer and independent producer from Bombay, India. Formally educated in Economics, he picked up the camera when he was 18 to start documenting the chaotic world around him. His love for stills soon led him to being an Assistant Director on television commercial, branded content and feature films.
He later began freelancing as a Director of Photography and assisting in the camera department until recently when he started a small independent production house, Mosambi Juice Productions in Bombay. He just finished his Masters degree in cinematography in Europe.
Krish was the Director of Photography for recent documentaries like A Living Legacy and The Call of Pashmina. He is currently filming and is the 2nd unit director for The Turtle Walkers.
Isabelle Couture is the executive producer of the film. Isabelle holds a bachelor's degree in communications (cinema profile) at UQÀM and has worked in the cinema and television production sector since 2005.
After ten years of work in a company (Les Films de l'Isle, Esperamos), she continued her freelance career as a producer, consultant and screenwriter. Isabelle collaborates with various production companies in Montreal on fiction and documentary projects, in single or serial format, for television as well as for the big screen.
Several of her productions have won awards in Canada and internationally. For example the feature film The Amina Profile by Sophie Deraspe, presented in international competition at the Sundance festival in 2015 and Miron, a man returned from outside the world by Simon Beaulieu, which closed the Rendez-vous du Cinéma québécois in 2014. Isabelle also worked alongside Hugo Latulippe on his series The Theater of Operations and his documentary Alphée des étoiles , which opened the Visions du Réel festival in 2013 and won the Audience Award there.
Isabelle is currently collaborating with Catbird Productions , Coop Vidéo , ACPAV and micro_scope .
Isabelle is also involved in her community by serving as vice-president of the board of directors of the Documentary Association of Canada, an organization that defends the interests of the documentary community. She is also co-president of the Quebec chapter of the association, DOC Quebec. In 2017, she was also welcomed to the board of directors of Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in America.
Nikkei Mamik is a producer from India. Formally educated in Music Management and Mass Media Communications from AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. With more than 10 years of experience in video and television production, Nikita has produced, assisted and co-directed numerous short films, television commercials, branded content and music videos in India. Amongst these is the award winning short film musical, Kya Subah Hai(2015) for MTV Exit Asia, Hyundai Elantra TVC (2016), and the short film, Tiger Woods of Bengal (2017). She had been pursuing her career as a freelance Executive Producer working with several India-based production companies until recently.
She is a full time creative producer, bringing with her a wealth of experience, business smarts and the ability to manage large scale projects with a ruthlessly friendly demeanor.
"Why do we do it? Well if with our films we could possibly bring about change, give hope, inspire or advocate a life of harmony amongst the people and the wild, why not do it? The animal kingdom deserves at least this much! If we can’t stop them from being born, then guarantee them some happiness, or a future! So....we can’t stop."
When she’s not working, Nikkei is a mum to all the stray animals that find her.
Shweta Raman Shweta is a 23-year-old filmmaker who has graduated in film and TV production with a specialization in cinematography from AAT College in Mumbai. She is an assistant producer and editor. In the past, she has been a part of multiple consciously driven, sustainable brands and projects. Her goal is to use the powerful medium of visual storytelling to have a positive impact on society and the betterment of this planet and its organisms.
In her free time, Shweta loves to listen to music, cook and learn about farming. Shweta is the assistant producer for Emaho's latest documentary film, The Turtle Walkers.