A life of turtles, trails and deep-sea tales: Ecologist Kartik Shanker
A magical hour spent watching an olive ridley decided what he would do with his life. Now 52, Shanker has spent decades working on sea turtle biology and conservation. He’s still as amazed by them as he first was, he says.
On a moonlit night at Chennai’s Neelankarai beach, Kartik Shanker fell in love. He had waited for her for a year. He was giddy with excitement, he says.
He saw a sand trail first. The olive ridley turtle didn’t even know he was there. As he watched, she dug a hole in the sand, laid her eggs, covered them up, flung sand around as a camouflage. And then she was gone, back into the deep blue sea.
It was in that hour, he says, that he realised what he wanted to do with his life. Now 52, Shanker has spent decades working on sea turtle biology and conservation. Currently a professor of ecology at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, he is also a founding trustee of the NGO Dakshin Foundation. And author of books for children and adults. (One of his best-known is From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast (HarperCollins; 2015)).
Growing up in the Rishi Valley boarding school in Andhra Pradesh, Shanker says he always loved animals but originally wanted to be a doctor. “I didn’t get admission into a medical college. I guess that was for the best for everyone,” he says.
He was 19 and studying for a degree in zoology when he had that first brush with the turtle. To protect the eggs from dogs and people, he and some fellow students set up a hatchery. During nesting season, they would move the eggs to the hatchery and, once the turtles had hatched, release them by the shore so they could toddle off into the sea. The group also began conducting walks for students and local residents, talking about conservation, and teaching people what they should and shouldn’t do at a hatching site (look quietly; don’t touch; no loud noises; no flash photography).
“I got emotionally and intellectually invested in ecology and conservation then,” Shanker says.
After a Master’s in zoology in 1991, he went on to do a PhD at IISc on the ecology of small mammals in the shola grasslands of the Nilgiris. He then joined the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, as a postdoctoral fellow and studied sea turtle genetics across India.
He worked for a while at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust & Centre for Herpetology, Mahabalipuram, and later at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. He joined IISc as a professor of ecology in 2006.
In 2010, in another turning point, he learnt to scuba-dive. “It was simply spectacular to see a turtle in water for the first time,” Shanker says. On land, even small turtles seem to struggle. “You see them huffing and puffing and grunting. They seem ungainly and uncomfortable. But in the sea, they are the epitome of grace,” he says.
Over the years, Shanker has followed sea turtles around the subcontinent. In 2001-02, he and his partner Meera Anna Oommen, 47, an interdisciplinary scientist and co-founder of Dakshin, spent several months at the Galathea National Park in the Nicobar Islands (now itself threatened by an international shipping project), tagging and measuring leatherbacks and collecting tissue samples and other data. Shanker has also worked extensively in the Andaman Islands.
But all that exciting field work is just a few weeks a year. The rest of his time is spent teaching, mentoring students, analysing data and writing. He is encouraged, he says, by the fact that diving has taken off as a hobby. “The more kids take to it, the more likely that some of them will become interested in marine biology, ecology and conservation.”
As for him, it’s still a thrill just to be on a beach at night, watching as these mysterious marine creatures trundle onto land in the moonlight.