field notes by Rahul Muralidharan
01. the ghost crab
Pooja and I were walking in Elliot’s beach in Besant Nagar. She spotted it first. I have never seen a ghost crab stray away this far from the sea. Maybe, it walked. Maybe, someone carried it along with their bags. He was so slow. For the first time, it was easy to catch a ghost crab. Standing under the massive floodlight near the police booth, late evening, I looked at his eyes. An alien. Like a dragonfly his eyes were compounded and covered by a heavy (rubber?) lid. It seriously looked like one of those exercise balls that bounce up and down. I jumped into his eyes. Men in Black. Independence Day. Why do we perceive aliens this way? Only seconds had gone by. I left. I had to. Maybe, he survived. It will be lovely to meet him again.
In coastal Nellore, there’s an isolated village with not more than 300 people living there. Lakshmipuram. Usually, back home at Chennai, the beach crowds up during turtle walks. It is not easy to shut down the noise and notice smaller things. This village has so much space.
That night, we were releasing around thirty hatchlings. Twenty nine scuttled away easily in to the sea, but one baby was just so slow. He crawled towards the large flashlight that we used to guide them. Everything was so bright and contrasted under the big flashlight. The light bounced off the sand and lit and shadow-ed every fold on the hatchling. I followed it and watched the formation of scutes on its carapace, everything so clear and defined. Noiseless.
Suddenly, something moved next to me. A ghost crab. What if it eats the hatchling? I was too scared to let them get close to each other. But, I realized these crabs are not so easy to film and it was only because of the light source behind it that I actually noticed him. I bent down and saw it was holding on to some kind of orange plastic piece. I hope it didn’t eat it. The hatchling diligently kept to its pursuit. Dusting off the sand on its eyes with its flippers, it slid on its belly towards the waves. I sat there for some time, just like the baby turtle, my belly on the sand, and watched them.
03. the current.
The sea was calm in Injambakkam. The waves extended out in arc formation like hundred of arms and scooped up the hatchlings to take them home. The long shore ocean currents in Chennai, either travels towards north or towards south. When the current shifts direction, the sea becomes very turbulent. In Kovalam, this April, we were trying to release seventy hatchlings. The group had fishermen, volunteers, new visitors and their children. That night, the sea just stood like a massive menacing wall. Don’t you dare come inside it yelled. There’s a line (maybe imaginary) beyond which a hatchling has to crawl to be easily swept in by a wave. As the hatchlings moved towards the wall, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and displacing everywhere was echoing in my head. The children were singing Happy birthday to you. First, twenty hatchlings were pushed away. We carried them closer to the waves. Then, ten of them stayed ashore, even attempting to hide, we took them closer to the sea. Five remained for a while. We took them closer and a wave took them home.
1. Ghost Crabs are of the genus Ocypode, common shore crabs in many warm countries. In Greek, ‘ocy’ means fast and ‘podos’ means foot, ocypode - ’fast-foot’. They live in deep burrows on sandy shores, comprising of a long shaft with a chamber at the end, sometimes these have surprise entries and exits. Their multi-utility allow them to breathe on land as well as underwater, where they release their eggs. With four pairs of tough legs, these crabs scurry so fast when running from danger that they use only the first two pairs of legs, letting the other two fly behind them. It’s their transparent bodies and protruding eyes that tempts us to call them the Ghost Crabs.
2. Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) The average length is 70 cms and the adults approximately weigh 45 kgs. After reaching sexual maturity, when they are about 12 years old, the females travel back to the shore they were born and nest. Yearly, they visit the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent during the months of December to April. Olive Ridleys prefer nocturnal nesting in order to avoid predators and hot sand. It takes around 48 to 52 days for the ash-gray and black hatchlings (about 6 to 7 cms) to emerge from the nest that was dug into the sand very carefully by their mothers.
The author is a marine biologist based in Chennai. He blogs at Okeanos (Ocean).