Paradise Memories

By Jordi Pagès

Jordi Pagès, a PhD student from the University of Barcelona who is working with Teresa, came over for a brief visit to the Lakshadweep.  These are his memories of the trip.

The day started very early. At 5.35 am Rohan and I left the apartment towards Bangalore. We had been waiting for the permits to come for several weeks, and at last our field trip to the Lakshadweep Islands was about to come true. We got onto the 2-helix plane to Agatti via Kochi, where we would meet the rest of the expedition: Nachiket, Rucha and Vardhan. The view above the Western Ghats was spectacular, and after stopping at Kochi and picking up the rest, we arrived in Agatti. But Agatti Island was not our final destination for that day. In less than an hour we were leaving again to Kadmat in a fishing boat. The sea was calm. Some flying fish welcomed us as we left the lagoon into the open sea. A group of dolphins showed us the great atoll of Bangaram after which the big bright moon lit the beginning of the night. The feeling of sailing into a new unknown ocean was amazing: the air was clear, bright, pleasant, not hot, not cold. Add a hot cup of ‘chai’ to the experience (I could swear it was only chai!), and the dream was complete.  After a while, the first lights of Amini, only 7 km from Kadmat, warned us that the journey was coming to an end. ‘Sometimes the trip for its own sake is as fulfilling as the destination’, Rohan had said some days earlier. This was now truer than ever. Finally, after some four hours we crossed the reef and entered the lagoon of Kadmat. The trip on that tuna fishing boat had been one of the greatest experiences of the whole trip. At the jetty there was the man who would guide me to the place where I would stay, on the southern tip of paradise. That day I woke up in Mysore, and, after having crossed some of the most crowded cities of the world (Bangalore) was now sleeping in one of the quietest places I have ever been.

The south Tip
The tip of Kadmat at night – the end of a world
Coconuts and moonlight
Coconuts and moonlight

That night I slept better than ever. The hot sun of the 10th degree parallel woke me up at 6.30am and, excited, I grabbed my camera and headed for the tip of the tip of the island to get a perspective of where we were. The southern tip of Kadmat Island was a magic, magnetic place. You have the feeling of being at the end of the world. Thinking about it now, in some senses it really is the end of a world – each of those islands is like a different tiny world in its own. Nachi told me that he once met a 94-year-old islander who had never ventured anywhere outside this 11km x 500m strip of sand and coconuts. Can you imagine the perspective of the world he would have? Going for a walk around the island I took a look at the rich fauna and flora of the emerged part of the islands: goats and coconuts, respectively. A rather simple nutrient-limited system, especially for the poor goats, which survive grazing the visually not so appealing coconut leaves. This simplicity contrasts with the spectacle of the coral reefs that thrive on the edges of the lagoon – and of course the spectacle of the seagrass meadows.

Grazed seagrass and a coral head
A seagrass meadow (Cymodocea rotundata) completely grazed by green turtles and a coral head

Indeed, the first days of our ‘expedition’ focused on assessing the seagrass. We conducted transects to assess canopy height, density, etc, to analyse the impacts of green turtle herbivory to the seagrasses themselves, but also to the rest of the system and even to local fisheries. My first impression was astonishing. The canopy height of those meadows was around 10 cm or even less, because of turtle grazing. The comparison to our Mediterranean seagrass (Posidonia oceanica), whose canopy can reach up to 1.2 m, was disproportionate. Despite this, Lakshadweep meadows have a lot more species than Mediterranean meadows – even after the effects of a hungry band of turtles. As we continued our fieldwork, I kept thinking of how similar and different things are between my study system in the Mediterranean and the islands. As you may know, in Lakshadweep islands, green turtle herbivory has transformed previously high canopy, dense meadows with high species richness and high fish counts into very sparse low canopy meadows with a lot less fish species and biomass. The process behind this is the loss of habitat structure for the fish to shelter. This type of interaction is very similar to what we find in the Mediterranean. There, the ecosystem engineer, the species which presses so hard that completely changes habitat conditions, is the fish Sarpa salpa, one of two herbivores of our system (yes it really is a complex assemblage). As I mentioned earlier, our meadows generally are around 70-100 cm high, but when herbivorous fish densities peak, canopy heights can plunge to 10-20 cm. What we have found is that this has cascading implications especially for benthic invertebrates such as sea urchins, which have disappeared from these highly grazed meadows. It is interesting how two systems such these, so far one another, can be so similar and so different at the same time.

The Potato Patch
At the Potato Patch: A coral reef full of life
Meyer's Butterflyfish
A butterfly fish of the species Chaetodon meyeri

After finishing some work on seagrasses, it was time for my first encounter with a coral reef. It was a spectacle. From the moment I put my head underwater my eyes opened as wide as oranges! I think I did not blink for the whole dive not to miss any fish, any coral or any turtle. This was amazing! The water was very clear, and very very hot (30ºC), at least for me, used to water maximum temperatures around 23ºC (and 12ºC now in winter). In that single dive, I saw more fish species than ever before in my whole life. This is not an exaggeration – it is the absolute truth. In Medes Islands Marine Protected Area, one of the best sites to dive in the northwestern Mediterranean, the maximum fish species richness recorded is around 70 species. That day, in Kadmat, we counted some 80 species of fish in a single transect! Moreover, it was not just the number of species that I found striking, but the biomass. The most extreme comparison is for the maximum size in Labridae from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The biggest labrids in the Mediterranean are Symphodus tinca, or Labrus merula, which can attain 50 cm at the most; in contrast in the Indian Ocean your Cheilinus undulatus can easily go beyond 200 cm. Another interesting comparison: we only have one species of damselfish, Chromis chromis; you have dozens and dozens of species of damsels. The sad thing was that more than the 90% of corals were dead because of a bleaching event caused by the increase in temperature in 2010. They told me that with all corals alive the number of species per dive would have been around 200! It’s good that I came in a bad year, because if not my eyeballs could have left my orbits. The day had been amazing, and it finished amazingly. While returning to the resort I found the sky unusually dark. These days it had been very bright at night because of the full moon, but tonight was completely black and the stars were out. It was incredible. The reason for this was a nearly total moon eclipse! As soon as I figured this out I rushed to my room to grab my camera and tripod and without having dinner I headed to the southern tip of to get away from the lights of the resort and take some photos. What a spectacular night for a spectacular day in the paradise.

A coral stonefish
A shy stonefish of the species Sebastapistes cyanostigma. It only lives among the branches of the coral Pocillopora
The moon eclipse
The moon eclipse some minutes after its maximum

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