Originally posted on r/nosleep 4 months ago.
I still have nightmares about what happened at North Sentinel Island a year later.
My therapist, a fifty-three year old woman with a smoker’s cough and blunt attitude who specializes in PTSD, was the one who told me that writing down what happened to me would give me the proper closure I needed to move on.
A year ago, I was working for National Geographic; thanks to the age of Instagram and Flickr, my photos went viral within a click of a button, and the people at National Geographic loved it enough to hire me on a six-month contract.
I was ecstatic; fresh out of College, and this is what I landed? I couldn’t stop boasting about it to friends and family.
My first (and last) official trip was to India. As a woman growing up in Seattle, Washington – I never really got to travel countries; school and work got in the way. This was the perfect opportunity to allow me to do so.
The plane ride was dreadful; it was long, there was a set of crying twins behind me, and the sleeping pills would not kick in. I resorted to wine, which only made me feel more agitated, and in the end, I gave up on sleep all together.
Our hotel was situated on the lower side of India, close to some islands. Our first night was spent with our translator, Patel.
A couple of beers in, the topic of North Sentinel Island came up. Patel had our attention the minute he uttered this sentence: “The island is approximately the size of Manhattan and home to the most dangerous tribe in the world: the Sentinelese Tribe.”
“Great, when can we go?” Our leader, Joseph asked. He was the one to take risks and put lives in danger for that ‘perfect’ story – it was rumored that a couple years ago his partner and him had gone out to shoot in Africa and Joseph left him in the middle of the jungle. Only Joseph had come out alive, nobody knows what happened to his partner.
Patel shook his head and laughed, “you cannot go. Civilization is banned – it is the most isolated place on earth.”
I leaned closer, tipping over a beer bottle. I hurriedly scrambled to pick it up, and smiled sheepishly.
“Is it nearby?”
“That does not matter – you cannot go! You will die.”
I watched as Joseph and Patel bickered back and forth, secretly pulling out my phone. Sure enough, there were enough Google hits about the background of this place.
I read through the article; there were two major instances. The first was with a plane, according to Google; flight MH370 – an airline in India attempted to make contact and their plane ended up being shot down by flaming arrows. The second instance was a boat that ran ashore on the island, and the Natives killed both occupants instantaneously. It was evident that the Natives on this island did not like outsiders.
I nudged the man beside me, Connor. He had a couple years experience on me, but for some reason Joseph still referred to him as a ‘newbie’.
“How much do you want to bet Joe’s gonna go, and drag us.” I stuck out my hand and watched as Connor hesitated.
“5 bucks,” he said, shaking it.
“Hey, Kaleigh – find Vanessa, I want to discuss some stuff with you all,” Joseph said to me as he ordered another round of beers.
I searched the small bar for Vanessa, a blonde twenty-five year old partier who claimed all her best work was done when she wasn’t sober.
As usual, she was mingling around with the locals, dancing and having a good time. I got up from the table, walking towards her. Grabbing her by the waist, I told her Joseph wanted to talk to us, that it looks like we were taking a detour on our planned trip.
“Great,” she said sarcastically. It seemed like whenever Joseph did things like this, the feedback wasn’t always positive.
The small motorboat jumped along the waves, gliding in the water. The closer we got to the Bay of Bengal, the more my heart raced. North Sentinel Island is one of the Andaman Islands in this Bay, lying on the southern part.
The boat slowed down.
I took out my camera and instantly began shooting. At one point, I wasn’t paying attention, I just let my hands do the work; sometimes my best shots were ones I wasn’t even paying attention to.
We weren’t close enough to the Island, but the view was already breathtaking; the water was a clear sapphire color, a secure ring of submerged coral reefs were covered by a thick mangrove jungle – this was outcast paradise.
I looked through the lens, we could see the Island now but we made sure not to get close to it. From the corner of my eye I thought I saw movement, and I whipped the camera to the left.
“Hey, I don’t think we should get any closer,” I said setting the camera down.
Vanessa looked at me and grinned, “what are you, scared? We are so far, they can’t get to us,” she said, dipping her feet in the water, splashing around.
“You know in 2006, this place made headlines after the Tribe murdered two fishermen who illegally approached the island – so now they have a 3 mile zone imposed around the island. Currently, we are at 5 miles.” Connor said speaking up. He put his earpods back in his ear, and continued to jot notes down in his book.
He was weird like that; often spitting out facts and then going back to doing his work as if nothing had happened.
The boat continued to move closer; we were about half a mile out of what was allowed.
“I’m going to grab the equipment, then we can go swimming.” Joseph said reaching down to grab the wet suits. His plan was to swim as close as possible to shore and get secret shots of the Island and the Tribe.
Vanessa’s feet continued to splash in the water, one big splash over another. It became irritating, I used my stern-but-polite voice: “hey Vanessa, can you please stop splashing? I don’t want unwanted attention on us,” I said still looking through the lens of the camera.
Suddenly, she stopped. “Thank you”, I muttered, turning around to give her a smile.
My camera fell from my hands, hitting the floor of the boat.
Vanessa was gone.
“Vanessa!” I yelled, grabbing the attention of Joseph and Connor.
Each of us ran to the side of the boat, holding on until our knuckles were white as we searched the depths of the water for her. I reached out into the water yelling at Joseph, “where is she!”
I couldn’t hear his response; something had pulled me under.
I thrashed around, trying to free my arm from whatever was holding on to me; opening my eyes underwater, the salt water burned my contacts, blurring my vision. I continued to thrash and kick the deeper I went, cutting myself on coral reefs.
A splash above me, the grip loosened on my arm; whatever was holding on to me had let go, but I was bleeding and I was in the ocean – I didn’t even know if we were in shark territory, but regardless, it wouldn’t be long for sharks to smell it and a feeding frenzy to begin.
I swam under the boat, coming face to face with Vanessa’s dead body. An arrow had gone through her right eye, and another through her chest – I could see a part of the hollows of her eye, pieces of skin floating around. I let out a scream underwater; I needed to get out of here.
Connor’s body was next; his arms were hanging by threads of skin connecting to his torso, deep gashes exposing some of his bones were all over his body. His eyes were open, his mouth in a gaping ‘O’ as he floated beside me, his body rising to the surface.
I needed to get air; my lungs were going to burst. I swam to the edge of the boat, grabbing Vanessa’s body to cover myself. I was able to get her on the surface enough to take a couple breaths of air; I couldn’t see anything – Joseph was screaming, his screams getting further and further away from me.
The Natives that had attacked our boat were now dragging him away; he too, was thrashing in the water, a pool of blood trailing behind him. This was my chance; I could get into the boat and head to safety.
I grabbed on to the edge of the boat, slowly raising my head. No arrows (yet) – they seemed to be focused on carrying Joseph away. I hoisted myself up. The cuts on my arms and legs were much deeper than I had imagined, I knew I was losing blood fast. Grabbing some of the wetsuits, I tied them above the major cuts, trying not to scream out.
Lying on the bottom of the boat, I waited. I watched the sun set, and then rise. The tide had taken me away from North Sentinel Island. I was grateful Joseph had left his GPS behind; I was able to find my way to shore.
It was almost two days by the time I got back to safety. I had lost a lot of blood; I was in the hospital for days, questioned by authorities, and finally allowed to go back home. I emailed National Geographic explaining what had happened, and that I wasn’t able to get any photos.
That was a lie, I had gotten two photos; it was when I wasn’t paying too much attention to what I was shooting, before Vanessa was attacked. I still look back at these photos here and here, shuddering.
To this day I wonder if Joseph had deserved whatever was done to him on the island; after all, the locals told us not to go near North Sentinel Island, and we didn’t listen.