The Zai Whitaker column | Tragedy on Great Nicobar; a story of the 2004 tsunami in two parts
The 15-metre wave came with a roar of rage. Saw Agu remembers the sound, and the accompanying sound of breaking trees as the water bulldozed its way through the forest.
— With Dr Manish Chandi
Some conversations get embossed in one’s heart, and this was one of them. I was with Saw Agu of ANET, the Madras Crocodile Bank’s field station in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We were talking about his almost unbelievable adventure on Great Nicobar, during the December 2004 tsunami.
“What a terrible time for you,” I’d said. “What horrors you suffered!”
“Yes. I was so worried about where the others were, what was happening to them.”
Having heard his story in detail, this sounded like the response of a saint.
For the background to this, we need to rewind to 1978-79. The Sea Turtle Man, Satish Bhaskar, was on our field-studies team at the Madras Snake Park, and had finished a now-famous eight-month sea turtle survey in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He was locating sea turtle nesting areas and levels of exploitation, so that a conservation plan could be drawn up and presented to the government. His report on Great Nicobar Island, in one of our Hamadryad newsletters, mentions that “about 80 leatherback excavations were found at the beaches that straddle the mouths of the Alexandria and Dagmar rivers”.
This was one more reason to set up a field station in this amazing biodiversity hotspot. It finally came to fruition in 1989; ANET, the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, was established at Wandoor on South Andaman. Over the next 15 years, many more surveys and studies were underway. Apart from the four species of sea turtles that nest on the beaches of the archipelago — the green, leatherback, hawksbill and ridley — there were numerous other reptiles: some endemic, found nowhere else. Young researchers arrived from universities to undertake path-breaking field work, and many were assisted by one of the Karen field assistants from ANET, many of whom are from the Karen community. The Karens were brought to the Andamans by the British in 1925 for their forestry operations, and their knowledge of the archipelago’s jungles and backwaters is legendary.
Dr Ambika Tripathi from Orissa was one of these sea turtle researchers, and Saw Agu his field assistant. It was Christmas 2004, and they were on the Galathea river, way south of the Alexandra and Dagmar, in fact right at the southern tip of Great Nicobar island, which is just 180 km from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The sandy cove at the mouth of the Galathea , South Bay, was a leatherback nesting beach and the base of one of ANET’s annual camps. It was called Point 41, because it was located 41 km south of Campbell Bay on the trunk road. Most of the island is part of the Great Nicobar Biodiversity Reserve and one of the last great wilderness areas of our country.
The leatherback nesting season was at its peak. Like all sea turtles, the female comes on shore to a sandy beach, to nest. This is usually a nocturnal activity and involves digging a nest hole about 18 inches deep, laying her eggs, covering it, and then creating a “false nest” by digging another (shallower) hole and covering that one too. This is done to fool predators; who said reptiles are dumb? But predation is on the rise because of the numbers of stray dogs — a growing concern around all India’s sea turtle beaches.
Ambika and Agu set off after dinner on their nightly turtle walk, leaving the four “Pune birdwatchers” sleeping in the camp. These were tourists who had asked to accompany the leatherback team south to Great Nic. They would watch birds, they’d said, while Saw Agu and Ambika did their turtle stuff. There were also two forest guards, using the camp site while on official duty.
The two exhausted turtlers returned just before sunrise, got out their sleeping bags and mosquito nets (for sandflies) and were soon fast asleep. But a couple of hours later, they were jolted awake by a tremendous juddering and shaking of the earth. Agu must have known immediately what it was; small earthquakes with magnitudes of about 4 are an annual feature. But this was different. He would later find out it was over 9 on the scale. Running to the beach, he and Ambika found the others were there too, and the group watched as the sea receded further and further… and then rushed back, scattering their belongings on the beach. The quakes continued, the sea ebbed… and then again that explosive rush of water.
Instinctively, Agu knew two things: there was little time left, and they had to get to high ground. ‘Run! Bhago!’ he urged his companions, pointing to the hills behind them. But unfortunately, as happens so often, crucial time was lost as they began collecting valuable personal belongings to take with them. By the time they left, things had got worse. They looked back to see their camp site being swallowed up by the sea. As they got to the road, the forest check post crumbled and was washed away.
Agu led his companions to the bridge over the Galathea, the highest point of which was still above water. His plan was to head towards Chingenh village further along the road. It was near the base of a ridge, from where he could get them to higher ground. Wading through chest deep water they crossed the bridge and reached the large peepal tree on other side.
But then he realised they would never make it; the water was rising too fast, and the big wave would soon be upon them. They had to climb the peepal, and fast. He and the forest guards helped the others, and soon they were all at least five metres off the now rapidly disappearing forest floor. They waited.
The 15-metre wave came with a roar of rage. Agu remembers the sound, and the accompanying sound of breaking trees as the water bulldozed its way through the forest. Large old trees came down like matchsticks — including the one they were on. His next memory is of being thrown down into the swirling, dark, smelly water, as if by some merciless giant hand. Stunned and injured, he called out to the others, assuming they would be somewhere near, in the mess of water and tree debris.
Part 2 of this column appears on 27 September.
Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology
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