A beautiful morning sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. About a mile from the shore a fishing boat chugged the water towards us. It was Yoayelas boat, our field assistant who sailed early in the morning from Karmatang on Middle Andaman Island to pick up the rest of the expedition team — the elderly and experienced Alexander, young Harshada and not-so-young Shrish, Elrika and myself. All had different agendas; Shirish and Harshada were to survey little birds — the edible nest swiftlet, Elrika and I were to survey seagrass meadows, dugongs and coral reefs, and Alex, Yoayela and Sawda were to captain our vessel and see us through the expedition.
We sailed from the German jetty in Mayabunder, on Middle Andaman Island. As the boat moved past a white patch of sand, a group of terns flashed through the air. I quickly pulled out a pair of binoculars from my bag and pinned them to my eyes to get a closer look at the flying birds. A few dodged and fought for bits of a silverside shoal, while others flew away from the boat.
The first halt was Interview Island, a wildlife sanctuary, and our first dive of the expedition. We loaded our SCUBA gear and descended slowly to collect data to assess the condition of the coral reefs. We had surveyed these reefs in 2009 but in 2011 due to sudden rise in sea surface temperature there was a breakdown of relationship between corals and plant (algae), which live inside the coral body resulting in whitening of coral skeleton called “bleaching”. We had heard that the bleaching had been severe and killed the coral in the region, but we were hoping that the situation was not as bad as we were told.
As I settled down to collect data, I saw colourful reef, but different than what I had seen earlier. Few branching shape corals had died turning into rubble and other massive coral boulders had lost their coloration. I was stunned but then continued the usual protocol that we follow to collect data —swimming for 50 m above the reefs for counting fish, and taking a lot of pictures of the corals to see if they are healthy.
The next island we surveyed was South Reef Island, once vibrant with life, but now left with few live corals and fish. We surfaced after an hour of data collection, entered data in the computer and settled to spend the night in a quite corner. We headed further south and surveyed the southern side of Interview Island. The site was deeper and we were on the edge of the reef. On one side was a patch of sand and on the other massive boulders of big corals, as well as giant clams, sea anemones, nudibranchs and a great population of fish. Most were brightly coloured and their shapes varied from box to oval to round. There were boxfish, the angelfish, the butterflyfish and the batfish. Also to be found were the surgeonfish, damselfish, squirrelfish, and goatfish. My favourites were the clownfish, dogfaced pufferfish, fire lionfish, emperor, and the squirrelfish.
Seeing this site gave us hope that we had begun to lose during our previous dives. In the afternoon we explored coastal caves with Shirish. There were many tiny swiftlet birds in most of the caves, flying around. But those, which fetch high value — a nest of white-bellied swiftlet were rare.
In one cave we sighted an endemic Andaman barn owl, a species previously known to be occur only from Little Andaman Island. Though the reef was affected by the impact of bleaching due to increase in sea surface temperature in 2011, I was heartened to see lots of reef fish and colourful corals growing up through rubble.
At one site near Paget Island, we saw hundreds of sea cucumbers and at another place we sighted a group of lobsters under a rock. While we were just ready to dive off Reef Island, fifty yard ahead of us, two light-coloured blotches of grey appeared. We waited for a while and saw a pair of dugongs surfacing to breathe. When we crossed Reef Island and headed towards West Island in the north, many common dolphins swam towards our boat.Near Craggy Island, while sampling underwater, we heard a sound similar to the smashing and grinding of crockery. We looked around and found an army of enormous fish, which had bulbous scarred heads, tiny eyes and jutting beaks with teeth called bump-head parrotfish. These giants were feeding on corals like undersea buffalo grazing on rocky pastures. They were biting and munching the corals, ingesting algae living inside the coral and at the same time excreting white plumes of pulverized corals.
Our days began with the rise of the suns first ray and ended with the last. We had started from the eastern side in middle Andaman, circled to northernmost islands in the Andaman archipelago, and returned to middle Andaman after surveying Interview, North Reef, South Reef, Point, Padjet, Reef, West, Landfall, Latouche, in the west, and East Island, Delgarno, Excelsior, Smith, Ross, Avis, Craggy and Sound island along the east.
Seventeen reef sites, fifteen islands, nine coastal caves, our little local dingy, seven of us, eight SCUBA cylinders, breathing compressor and tons of adrenaline rush. And in the background the pristine white dappled sunlight, dugongs, dolphins, extensive sea grass patches, colourful reefs, coastal caves, swiftlets, bats, snakes and an electric blue sea. I am sure, if there is a place like heaven, this is what it would be like.
Credit: Vardhan Patankar