If you’re up for field-based science, Indiana Jones style, one of the world’s wildest, most remote, and most radical research stations is the place for you. Meet the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team, who are ready to host you in their living laboratory – India’s Andaman Islands, where the waters are bursting with life, and indigenous tribes are living stone-age existences, totally isolated from the modern world. (Text & Images by Umeed Mistry and Tasneem Khan)

Exploration or fantasy? Documenting volcanic underwater caves, pillars and walls and the life they harbour at The Brotto, on Barren Island (Image by Umeed Mistry)

I look down from my safety stop. This is one of those idyllic April mornings in the Andaman Islands. Shafts of sunlight dance down towards the depths, shimmering off a shoal of passing fusiliers. The ocean breathes peacefully, and I can see all the way down to the reef below.

From this perspective, the damage wreaked by the elevated water temperatures of 2010 is very evident. My memory of this dive site from five years ago is a far more vivid rendering of what I now see. But, as the ocean teaches us over and over again, everything changes and life prevails. Four-year-old stands of a variety of Acropora are already bringing vibrant patches to the grey-green, algae-covered skeletons of the reef that once thrived here. Clouds of bright orange Anthias cluster above these young coral stands, and ever-increasing seasonal numbers of butterflyfish and grouper bring colour and movement to my bird’s-eye view. While the reef is undeniably damaged, our dive was by no means a disappointment. A school of juvenile catfish, some moray eels, a turtle and a curious batfish kept us entertained amidst the general melee of this South Andaman reef. And we have come to love the ever-changing land and seascapes of this South Asian island chain, observing its cycle of destruction and rejuvenation over the last decade.

A crinoid perched on the edge of a steep drop-off on Barren Island. Commonly known as feather stars, these seemingly passive filter feeders position themselves strategically to draw nutrients from the current (Image © Tasneem Khan)

MYSTERIOUS, REMOTE, AND INCREDIBLY PRECIOUS

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) are India’s most eastern frontier, and a spectacle both above and below the water. Over 500 islands span 830-odd kilometres from north to south, islets and rocks, each a peak of the submerged mountain range that connects Myanmar to Sumatra. They form an archipelago of immense biological diversity with a high degree of endemism – a volcanic creation hemmed in by ocean boundaries, enclosing a wide range of ecosystems in a very confined space.

The Andaman Islands have always held an aura of mystery, isolation and wonder. Stories of the ancient indigenous communities, anecdotes from explorer’s logs across centuries, war and occupation, black waters and ocean monsters have embellished travellers’ tales.

The emerald isles are an extravagant living laboratory with open ocean, shallow seas and reefs, sandy beaches, rocky shores and sea caves, mangroves and wetlands, littoral forests, giant lowland evergreens and hill-top forests. While each of these systems is a world worth exploring, the intricate connections between these habitats have fascinated explorers, photographers, scientists and travellers alike.

Some of the first documented underwater forays of this, one of the largest reef systems in South Asia, were conducted in the late 1980s by Jacques Cousteau’s team from the famous Calypso. Several subsequent documentations followed – by naval divers, sailors, shell divers and fishermen.

The coral reefs of the Andaman region successfully survived the massive bleaching event in 1998. However, a combination of the 2004 earthquake and the 2010 bleaching event have affected it substantially. The islands support a growing fishery and tourism industry and also harbour some of the few relatively undisturbed and biologically diverse coral reef ecosystems in this corner of the world. It is imperative, from both an environmental and a socio-economic perspective, that these reefs and resources are utilised sustainably and conserved. And so, it is important to understand the responses of these ecosystems to climate change and man-made pressures, as well as the critical factors that determine their recovery.

The Andamans have increasingly gained popularity among travellers, catapulting into global consciousness with the news of the Banda Aceh tsunami. Within a year of December 26, 2004 most of the damaged infrastructure had been rebuilt, and the islands saw the beginning of a second giant wave, this time of tourism, development and research.

A HUB OF RESOURCES, A MELTING POT OF IDEAS

Back aboard our dunghi everybody seems in good spirits. Some, like Dr. Naveen Namboothri, are researchers studying coral recruitment. Some, out for a bit of R&R, are wildlife biologists studying the endemic bats or birds of the island. And others are photographers documenting the health of the reef for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET). The conversation quickly moves to the rejuvenation of the coral in the area. We observed a number of new recruits on the dive and are heartened by this. Sahir Advani, a researcher profiling the islands’ grouper fishery can barely contain his excitement at the sizes of the many Plectropomus groupers on the reef. A few years ago the groupers from this site had been fished out. And so, chatting away about Montipora, Serranidae and the camera housing for the Canon G15, we make our way back to the ANET research station in North Wandoor.

ANET is the largest and most well-established, non-governmental, non-profit research and education trust on the islands. ANET’s founding trustees recognised the natural wealth and potential for research in this unexplored archipelago back in 1988. What they couldn’t possibly have envisioned at that time was the current extent of ANET’s initiatives.

In a stunning piece of natural art, fringing mangroves stand against another stunning island sunset at Eastern Mayabunder, Middle Andaman Island (Image © Tasneem Khan)

From its inception as a Centre for Herpetology, ANET has today become a hub for interdisciplinary work by scientists, students, designers, educators, artists and policy makers, exchanging ideas and working together. Being the only interdisciplinary, multi-institutional field station for island ecology in the Bay of Bengal, ANET brings the required tools, from electricity to expertise, to the places where science, education and conservation need to be carried out. The resulting pool of knowledge and energy provides space for learning without boundaries, and helps spawn the out-of-the-box thinking that leads to cutting edge work, regardless of the field.

Back at the base, Dr. Naveen Namboothri supervises the cutting of floor tiles. Naveen is a marine biologist, socio-ecological practitioner and a founding trustee of the Dakshin Foundation. He is also a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Sciences. He will use these pieces of tile as controlled substrate for his coral recruitment study. With the bleaching of coral reefs in the Andamans, Naveen wants to know if population demography and marine protected areas enhance recovery of coral reefs.

Life is abundant in the deep blue. In the waters of Barren Island, an oceanic manta ray, as curious as the Homo sapien (Image © Tasneem Khan)

He says, “I am convinced that the reefs here are unique and deserve much more attention. Contradicting conventional patterns of reef distribution and structuring, the reefs of the Andamans seem to be distributed and structured rather uniquely. To a marine ecologist they provide a fascinating challenge in understanding why these reefs are structured the way they are. Thanks to ANET, I now look forward to establishing a long-term coral reef monitoring programme as well as support for other academic efforts in the Andaman Islands.”

One such academic effort is the Treasured Island Project, geared towards education and ecological literacy of local students across the islands. Over the last year, ANET, along with The Dakshin Foundation, embarked on a long-term project to introduce “place-based learning” in the islands – where students grasp various academic concepts experientially, by engaging with their immediate surroundings. For a teacher, the ANI offer a multitude of ecosystems that can be used as classrooms and living laboratories to teach a range of subjects.

ANET, along with design students from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, revised and re-illustrated the original textbook, Treasured Islands, by Sunita Rao, educator and conservationist. Identified as a useful resource by the Department of Education, these revisions were made in keeping with the National Council for Education, Research and Training syllabus. The final book is visually stunning, shatters the mould of books that have become the norm in Indian schools, and is tailored specifically to students of the ANI – using local references and highlighting the aspects of the archipelago.

At 4pm we drive down to the Wandoor fish-landing jetty with Sahir Advani. His work involves profiling fishing practices for sustainable local fisheries. These islands have witnessed booms, and the inevitable collapses, of multiple fisheries. It has taken Sahir many months to forge a relationship of trust with the fishermen we are about to meet, who are distrustful of strangers asking questions.

“My first encounter with the amazing marine life of these islands was in 2008 – I did my scuba certification on Havelock. When I was asked to travel to the Andamans in 2011 and develop a research project, I jumped at the chance. After interacting extensively with fishing communities throughout the islands, it became clear that there was a significant grouper fishery that was poorly understood and required a closer look.

Read the rest of this article in Issue 5/2014, AA No.79 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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