Largely closed off to tourists, the volcanic islands of Narcondam and Barren offer some of India’s most pristine and exotic dive sites. But these islands are facing a grim reality, and it’s time for divers to step in and intervene.
The first islands in the Andaman chain to witness a new day dawning are India’s two volcanic islands – Narcondam and Barren. These two sentinels stand alone, further eastward into the Andaman Sea, with Thailand being the next great landmass 500 kilometres away. Barren and Narcondam are located along the north–south trending volcanic arc extending between Sumatra and Myanmar, with Barren still erupting to this day.
The two volcanoes are isolated mountains in the Andaman Sea, with the foundations of Barren Island resting more than two kilometres below sea level. It is only natural, therefore, that both the active Barren Island and the dormant Narcondam Island have aroused curiosity and a sense of adventure in those of us who like to wander. And with the bureaucratic and administrative whimsy regarding visits to these islands – making them sometimes accessible, and at other times off-limits to civilians, tourists and diving vessels – these are adventures for the taking, should the opportunity arise!
There are many things that are unpredictable about a visit to Barren island. Sometimes the island is quiet, almost serene against an absurdly blue sky and a placid sea. Other times, a giant plume of ash and smoke rises from its caldera, blotting out the sun, raining ash into a sea that roils with crazy currents. The eastern and southern side of the island have trees that have colonised the parts of the landmass that no longer are affected by the lava flow. White-bellied sea eagles, feral goats left there by British sailors, bats, rats and crabs inhabit these areas. The western side, in direct contrast, is an ash-brown lava slope ending in jagged rocks at the ocean’s edge.
Underwater, Barren goes from long, seemingly empty, black sandflats to near vertical drop-offs covered in massive gorgonian fans. A submarine circumnavigation of the island reveals grottos, weird geometric rock formations, slopes and ridges carpeted in purple soft coral, sheer dark drop-offs that have no visible bottom, and shallow coral gardens that sparkle in the sunlight. There are days when the visibility is so good, and the water so still, that a manta ray near the surface can be spotted while observing coral-covered shelves 60 to 80 metres below. The black substrate is sometimes almost devoid of life, until the next corner where, supposedly, the high mineral content of the lava flowing into the water has created a bay of some of the most healthy and fast-growing coral in the entire Andaman chain.
One part of the dive, a site called Washing Machine, has divers clinging to the wall, their fins flailing towards the surface in an up-current that threatens to shoot them up and over the shallow anthias-covered ridge. Round the next corner, just 30 metres away, exhaled bubbles are swirling downwards along the steep drop-off, disappearing into the blue-black. Manta rays always seem to be around Barren, sometimes solitary and other times in small groups. Whether they are transient visitors or year-round residents is hard to say, because nobody has spent the time diving Barren through the year. Dive boats tend to visit these sometimes treacherous waters only in the calmer months of February to May.