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I’ve just got off my flight at Port Blair and am squinting at the sky.
The sun is already pretty high up and it looks like it’s at least nine o’clock in the morning. But my watch tells me its six-forty-five! On second thoughts this isn’t strange. Port Blair is the capital of the Andamans and even though I’m technically still within India, I’m actually closer to Thailand!
Fortunately, people here speak Hindi so I quickly manage to organize a rickshaw to where I’m going to stay while in the islands. Richard D’Souza (the ex-Conservator of the Andaman Forests) has organized my staying with the Bishop of the Andamans. I’m nervous about being a house guest here considering it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the inside of a church. I’m certain I’ve forgotten all the rules and protocols but I play it cool when I’m introduced to all the different ‘Fathers’ and ‘Sisters’.
They are a happy laughing bunch of clergy though – constantly poking fun at each other –and they quickly put me at ease. They’ve thankfully even ignored the semi-clad picture of a young woman printed on my T-shirt that I’ve stupidly forgotten to change before I got here.
‘So you must be tired, are you planning to sleep now?’ asks Bishop Alex.
I am tired. I’ve been changing flights and catching small bouts of sleep at different airports for the last fourteen hours to get here. But I’m also highly wired. I’m finally here! In the Andamans! Mention you’re here to anyone and no matter who they are they are instantly jealous. How can I possibly think of wasting time sleeping in a place like this!
‘No, Father, I’d rather go and check out a few places while I can.’
Father Alex decides it will be a good idea if I go visit Ross Island. It’s just a twenty minute ferry ride from Port Blair. A motorcycle is quickly arranged for me to take me to the ferry. ‘Jolly will be waiting to pick you up at one so you can have lunch with us, ok?’
Jolly is the motorcyle rider.
At the jetty I get my first hit of the Andamans. Blue water. From a light azure in shallow places to a deep turquoise in the deeper areas. And, in between, every other shade of blue you could possibly think of. I can’t believe it. I’ve seen places like this in magazines and always thought those photographs had to be doctored. Photoshopped. How can water be so mesmerizingly coloured that you just want to fall into it! And then taste the different colours.
But no one is falling into it, or tasting it at the moment. Apparently I’m the only one not colour blind. But then I’m also the only one single here. There are a few families around but over ninety percent of the visitors have paired into honeymooning couples. They are too busy falling into each other’s eyes to be falling into the water. I sympathize with them and thank my lucky stars that my mother isn’t here. I would never hear the end of it until I had stolen someone else’s bride.
Ross Island was the administrative headquarters of the British in the Andamans. Now there are nothing but ruins. The old buildings are already half engulfed by massive strangler figs. The island is beautiful to walk around no doubt. But there are hundreds of tourists, and besides, there’s not much for me to do here anyway. No wildlife (besides the tame peafowl and spotted deer). And even if there were any birds I’ve arrived a bit too late in the day to sight them.
In the evening I visit the Cellular Jail to see the ‘Sound and Light’ show. The show, however, is in Hindi and I’m bored after a while. So I walk out quietly midway. Of the two hundred odd spectators, I’m the only one to do so. My exhaustion finally catches up with me when I hit the bed.
Next morning I’m picked up by a taxi and dropped at the jetty where I find the famous catamaran. For once the hype is true! The big boat is slick. Very cool. It floats on two blade like fins with a huge arch in between. Floating this way it obviously defies some of the laws of physics, though I can’t tell which. The boat has huge glass windows and is fully airconditioned. I love it. I settle down in my seat. Once the boat starts moving though I realize I’ve nothing much to do really. The view is the same…water, water and more water. The idiot I am, I’ve left my novel in my luggage. I resort to oogling the newly married brides instead.
The boat, thankfully, is fast and in an hour and a half we’ve reached Havelock Island. My plans are to spend the next three days here, doing my open water diving course. Richard has arranged for me to stay at the forest guest house and I take a rickshaw from the jetty straight to it. I have a massive airconditioned room to myself. The bathroom is big enough for ten plus me.
Most of all I love the view in front of the guest house. I’m right across one of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever seen: white sand and the same amazing blue water that follows me anywhere I travel in the Andamans. Only this beach is even better since there aren’t any other people on it. There’s also a lovely sit-out made out of cane right on the beach. Every night I’ll sit here all alone enjoying the cool sea breeze and the water – now black – shimmering in front of me.
My diving theory session starts in the evening so I spend the afternoon swimming. The water is warm; it’s not as clear as that surrounding the Lakshadweep islands but it still has some interesting reef fish. A pale-coloured goby peeking out of a burrow catches my attention. I’ve seen a fish just like this in one of David Attenborough’s shows.
The goby, he explained there, will always be in partnership with a shrimp. The virtually blind shrimp builds the burrow and is a tireless housekeeper constantly excavating and cleaning its home. The goby lives with the shrimp and does not work but is tolerated since it serves as the shrimp’s eyes. The shrimp keeps in touch with the goby with its long feelers. As long as the goby is half out the burrow, the shrimp will pop out every now and then to dump its trash outside the entrance. But if the goby retreats suddenly, the shrimp will dash back as well. I’d seen all of this on TV.
Could this be the same goby and shrimp partnership? I held my breath and watched through my swimming goggles. The goby remained outside and then, lo and behold, there was the shrimp! He dashed out from behind the goby and tossed a few cloudy objects outside the burrow. To test the partnership, I moved towards the goby. The goby retreated and the shrimp promptly dashed inside as well!
I’m doing my diving course with ‘Dive India’ and I meet other trainees at my first theory session: Daniella from Chile and Karolina from Germany. Karolina reminds me of actress Anne Hathaway except that she’s very tall. Over six feet, she towers over even me! Our instructor is Vijay. He’s the kind of person who grows on you. Always calm, friendly and very funny. He makes the theory sessions that I was dreading surprisingly enjoyable! I learn all my equipment that evening. Regulators, buoyancy suits, pressure gauges, shoes, fins, wetsuits, masks, etc.
Next morning I’m back. I get on the motor boat and we head out from Havelock beach. Vijay explains a few things on the boat over the sound of the outboard motor and I distractedly listen to him. I already like what I see. The endless flat blue water is bordered on one side by land chock-a-block with trees. I’m reminded of the movie, ‘The Lost World.’ It could certainly have been shot here. I greedily absorb the gorgeous scenery and resist the urge to snap away with my camera. There’ll be time for that later. Right now I have to listen to Vijay’s instructions.
The boat eventually comes to rest in a shallow spot very close to the forest. ‘Come on guys, into the water,’ orders Vijay. I’m excited. Nervous excited. I’ve got two women in my group though, so surely I’ll do well I think to myself. Daniella is extremely worried. On the other hand, I am a good swimmer. I have to do better than her at least. Turns out I’m wrong. As Vijay instructs us one at a time I find I’m the last to get things correct! Besides this isn’t like swimming at all. It’s more like dancing with two left feet on a boat rocking out at sea.
‘Lie on your back, Rahul…on your back. Don’t move away from the boat. The current is pulling you away. Inflate your BC. The button on your left. No no…the weight belt clip has to go from left to right.’ Vijay is calmly dishing out his instructions to me. I’m on the verge of snapping ‘Goddamit Vijay, can we go a little slower please? This stupid cylinder keeps pushing me forward!’ Then I notice the two girls have already sorted themselves out. Damn you, you lying Daniella!
I’ve barely get the hang of things and Vijay wants us to do exercises underwater! I take off my regulator underwater as instructed, then reposition it and push it back into my mouth as I continue blowing bubbles. My mind is a complete jumble.
Remember the instructions, Rahul. Never hold your breath! Now take off your mask and put it back on. Remember you might have to do this if Karolina kicks it off your face with her long legs when you’re fourteen meters underwater. Oh no, I’ve got a cramp in my leg from kneeling on the floor. Straighten that leg. Breathe normally. But how the hell am I supposed to breathe normally underwater? The compressed air is extremely dry. What happens if I start coughing fourteen meters underwater? I obviously can’t rush to the surface. Even if I make it to the surface, at best I’ll still have painful nitrogen bubbles in my blood. At worst, my lungs will simply blow up. Do I really want to do this? Dammit, that Vijay’s signalling to me again. Follow him. Dive deeper. Now my ears are making squeezing noises.
Surprisingly, just fifteen minutes into the water and I’ve got the hang of almost everything. I continue diving deeper and blowing into my nose every now and then to clear my ears. Vijay alternates between reminding us to clear our ears, making the ‘Ok’ sign to check that we are not drowning as yet, and pointing out fish that we’re now beginning to see. Daniella has nearly killed herself by almost putting her hand on a small sting ray. Not her fault, the ray was the same colour as the sand it was hiding in. The sea bed slopes gently and we follow it, diving deeper as we go. Soon we’re at a small coral reef. The coral are all dead but their skeletons still serve as homes and hiding places for a vast number of fish. And the fish are gorgeous, of all shapes, sizes, and with the most gaudy colours. I’m now insane with pleasure and excitement, so distracted with happiness that I’ve forgotten that I’m ‘breathing normally’ underwater!
I can’t identify any of the fish as yet so I try to memorize them. But it’s hard. There’s dozens and dozens of different species here and their colours, patterns, shapes and sizes are all merging into kaleidoscopic images in my brain. Later, Vijay will help us identify the fish we can remember by going through his reef guides. So those striking cream yellow and black-striped disc shaped fish with extremely long dorsal fins were Bannerfish. Yes, yes, that massive half open shell was a giant clam.
And what about that lone fish that kept coming back to take a small bite out of Karolina’s calf? That’s a Damselfish and he was trying to drive us away from his patch since he harvests his algae there. A large light brown seacucumber slowly creeps along the sea floor eating mud through one end and excreting it continuously from the other. Brilliantly blue, black and yellow cleaner wrasse zip around among the dead corals. They are about the size and shape of my little finger and they’re looking for customers – large fish that they will service by picking the lice and ticks off them. Shoals of goatfish nose around on the bottom of the sea bed. Their chin feelers certainly make them look very goatish.
‘So, how long do you think we were underwater,’ asks Vijay when we surface and float on our inflated BCs. ‘About forty-five minutes,’ he answers himself, knowing none of us has kept time. Forty five minutes! I can’t believe I was breathing air underwater that long!
We get back on the boat and unzip our wetsuits. The water wasn’t cold actually. 28 degrees centigrade. On land that would be uncomfortably warm. But water sucks heat out of your body 25 times faster than air. As our boat moves to a new spot we shiver and try to warm ourselves in the sun. Karolina, Daniella and I have huge smiles on our faces.
‘The learning curve in diving is very steep,’ Vijay explains in response to my telling him how I almost thought I wouldn’t manage when I first got into the water. We’ve dropped anchor again very close to the forest. It’s a splendid location where trees are growing on cream colored soil. Vijay lets us warm up for an hour. The real reason for the break though is to give us time to clear as much nitrogen out of our system as possible.
This time we enter the water falling back off the boat. Then we swim quickly to the front of the boat and grab the anchor line. ‘Relax. Most divers use a huge amount of air right at the start of the dive. So take your time catching your breath,’ instructs Vijay.
‘And if we’ve got to pee?’ asks Karolina.
‘Pee in the water…it will have the added advantage of keeping your warm!’ Vijay replies.
There’s a slight current here so we dive down using the anchor line. Daniella hangs back and holds on to Vijay’s hand. She’s having trouble equalizing her ears. Karolina and I reach the bottom. This time we’ve dived to a depth of fourteen meters. Six more than our last dive. The coral here is completely bleached. Much of it lies in pieces strewn all over. It looks like a place hit by a tornado less than three days ago.
But there’s still plenty of fish and they are all alive and kicking. I see Nemo! Yes the clown anemonefish from the movie Finding Nemo. Actually there’re several of them. And they’re all bathing in their own personal mass of writhing tentacles. The famous sea anemone and anemonefish partnership! I’d read many times before about how the anemonefish remains safe from predators so long as it sticks close to the venomous stings of the sea anemones. The anemonefish itself is immune to the sting of the sea anemone since it secretes a protective slime all over its body.
But this was the first time I was actually getting to see this! The anemones looked very striking with their bold brown and white curvy bands cutting across their body. I would learn later that these were false clown anemonefish. I admire one as I hang in the water only a foot away. Unlike most other small fish, it seems uncannily confident about itself as it swishes its body from side to side well within the protective tentacles of the sea anemone.
I stretch out a finger towards it. The fish remains least concerned. The expression on its face can only be read as a direct challenge to me: ‘Come on here you big bubble blowing thing and I’ll teach you a lesson or two!’
I decide not to take Nemo up on his challenge and swim away. Vijay is pointing out a dead parrotfish lying on its side. He points again at the hard parrot like mouth, then picks up a piece of dead coral and makes a biting action with his fingers. ‘Yes, it eats coral, I understand Vijay.’ We swim ahead. Now Karolina and I keep pointing out stuff to each other and then giving each other the ‘Ok’ signal to say, ‘Wow, yes I saw it too!’ Sea urchins are in plenty. They’re all hiding in the coral now that it’s daytime and only the few black spikes (like the quills of a porcupine) sticking out of crevices give them away.
A giant pufferfish – the same pale colour as the sand – is lying very still on the sea bottom. But unlike the parrotfish it is very much alive. We swim to within three feet of it. The pufferfish swivels one eye to fix on me. I know that this club-shaped fish can suck water or air to blow itself up into a balloon when threatened by predators. I’d never seen one this big though. Blown up, this one would probably be the size of a small swiss ball!
Vijay points at a wispy translucent fan-shaped object on the sea floor. He stretches his hand to within three inches of it and then snaps his fingers. The wispy fan vanishes. It’s a tubeworm and it reminds me of something I saw in the movie, ‘Avatar.’
More anemonefish. But these are a different species. They are brilliant red and black and aptly named Tomato clown anemonefish. And Clarks clown anemonefish. And then I find another one of Nemo’s friends. A Moorish idol. And there’re plenty of them zipping around among the coral. I sneak up on one to study it closely. My God, it’s an exact replica of the animated movie fish! It’s very similar to a bannerfish in shape and colours but its face is an unreal caricature!
That night I’m lying in bed but it’s impossible to sleep. My head is buzzing with all the excitement of my first two dives underwater. It’s ten thirty and I know I must fall asleep right now if I want to wake up early enough to go birding before my diving tomorrow.
I fall asleep eventually and am suddenly wide awake five minutes before my alarm, which is set for 4.30., can go off. I raid the fridge for my breakfast. Frozen fried fish and a few cold chappaties.
The fried fish is symbolic. It represents the final victory of my cook. She is a small dark lady who under my demand has been frying fish for me every single meal. At the first meal I had finished off all the fish. She had retaliated by making more fish for the next. Which I devoured just as easily. She hit back harder with yet more fish. And I had polished off that as well, though now she was beginning to get the upper hand. Last night was the final battle: almost twenty pieces of fried fish. She smirked when I told her to keep the three remaining pieces for breakfast the next morning. She had finally won the war!
Cold fish in my stomach, I get onto my hired cycle and pedal away along the road to Kalapathar. The sun is already peeking out from the horizon. This is ridiculous. A sunrise at 4.45 am and that too in winter! Yes the Andamans are on Indian time since they belong to India. But being closer to Thailand they should rightfully should be in a different time zone.
Three kilometers into my cycling the food shacks, thatch lodges, and betulnut plantations have all but disappeared. Replacing them now is a beautiful evergreen forest liberally sprinkled with tall trees. Many of these gigantic trees have huge buttress roots, testimony to the fact that the monsoons hit pretty hard here.
I try to identify the bird calls I’m hearing, but some of them aren’t like anything I’ve heard before. There’s the metallic sophisticated call which I correctly identify as that of the Racket tailed Drongo. There are plenty of them here. But there’s also a screechy squeak that I assume belongs to a hornbill. It doesn’t. I find the perpetrator of the call eventually.
A pair of Long tailed parakeets. They are green like all other Indian parakeets. But they have striking pink cheeks that make them look like they put on a bit too much makeup. I also spot some kind of a green pigeon in a tall tree. I struggle to identify it and then realize suddenly that the same tree holds at least another thirty of them, all very well camouflaged among the green leaves!
By six the sun is already shining reasonably high above the horizon, so I head back. The cycle ride is fabulous. Barely any traffic on this road and I’ve got the forest on one side and the amazing beach on the other. My last bird sighting is that of a big eagle sitting on the top of a tree. It has its back to me but its head is creepily twisted a hundred and eighty degrees to fix its suspicious eyes on me. I know it’s a Crested serpent eagle, but which one? It seems darker. The Andaman crested serpent eagle perhaps? The eagle flies off irritated.
Day two and it’s going to be my third underwater dive. The dive site is named Parr Ridge. We descend as usual along the anchor line to prevent us getting swept away by a reasonably strong current. When we reach the bottom at eighteen meters, the current has almost disappeared. The bottom is full of small but very beautiful fish. Among them is a large rectangular Bluering angelfish. Vijay motions us to move along the ridge so we don’t get lost. Up ahead a black coloured Featherstar is waving out a few of its many arms. It’s an echinoderm closely related to the starfish and Vijay explains later that it was waiting to hitch a ride on us!
As we swim further we reach an area with large coral. Some of the coral here are still alive and among them are some very big fish. Square tailed groupers and Baramundi groupers eye us suspiciously. They are over two feet in length and they swim away when we get too close. Vijay points out to a large object fixed to the seabed. It’s the size and shape of a large cauldron: a Barrel Sponge.
Karolina spots two large Lionfish hiding among the coral. I find Lionfish very interesting and I stay back a bit to observe them closely. Like the clownfish they have a cocky air of confidence about them and with good reason. Lionfish are covered in long venomous spines. And it’s not just the long spines that make them look strange. They have a potato-shaped body, hardly a tail to speak of, very thick lips, and large eyes that make them look evil.
Identifying reef fish is in many ways very similar to identifying birds in a forest. The best way to go about both is to identify first what group the animal in question belongs to. For this you have to first separate the specimen’s distinguishing characteristics from the ones that are highly variable. Colors are generally unreliable in group identification. Beak shapes, fin shapes, and body shapes to some extent, are much more helpful in this regard. For example, utter the word ‘bee-eater’ to a birdwatcher and the image of a bird with a long pointed bill and an equally pointed thin tail will pop into his mind (never mind what colour it may be!).
Once you know what group an animal belongs to, then you use its colors and body patterns to find out what species it is. As I look around I’m pleasantly surprised that I can at least classify many of the reef fish into their correct groups. The Sweetlips have elongated bodies that are rounded on the dorsal side and flat on the ventral side. They also have prominent lips. I’ve identified Brown sweetlips and Spotted sweetlips.
Triggerfish are more typically fish-shaped. They have formidable heads with a strong looking beak for a mouth. My favorite among them is the Clown trigger. It is most gaudily painted with black, yellow and white colors. Surgeonfish are flattened laterally so much they appear two-dimensional! My favorite among these is the Powder-blue Surgeonfish. It’s again an exact replica of that very forgetful fish from Finding Nemo!
Of course every once in a while we find something that spells itself out loud and clear. Like when Vijay suddenly gesticulates wildly at the sea bottom and we notice a very venomous banded sea krait nosing around among the coral!
Our fourth dive is at a place called The Wall and with good reason. The edge of this reef is not a gentle slope but a sheer drop into the pitch black of an abyss. Thanks to movies like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Deep Blue Sea’ I’m still uneasy in places like this. At one point Vijay swims off the reef and gestures to us to follow him. I do and then suddenly realize when I look back that the reef is gone. I’m now in featureless waterscape!
At this depth I can barely tell the difference between up and down. I could quickly get lost here so I keep a close watch on Vijay. He’s doing back somersaults! I try the same. At first it feels a little strange but then as I get used to it I realize that it’s effortless. We’re in water I tell myself. The rules that work on land don’t apply here. I could be standing on my head watching fish! Diving isn’t like swimming either. Don’t forget the whole idea is to sink if you want to see something! Actually the whole idea is to be neutrally buoyant so you float at any given depth effortlessly – in essence be like a fish!
Most divers have a problem being too buoyant so they use weight belts. I am the only one not using one. Vijay tells me it’s because I have hardly any fat on my body. Muscle is heavy and sinks. I’m flattered! But it’s not all good news for me. Muscle tissue is an oxygen guzzler. The end result, I’m the first one to surface as I’ve exhausted all the air in my cylinder at least ten minutes before Karolina and Daniella have finished theirs. Back on the boat they’ll torture me with descriptions of fish that only they got to see in the fifteen extra minutes they were underwater.
Vijay scans the rock face of The Wall for a while until he seems to have found what he was looking for. It’s an electric clam. It’s only a couple of inches across but astonishingly it has a kind of a blue neon light that continuously dashes across its body. A few minutes later I see my first moray eel. It’s well hidden in a crevice and only its head is visible, resembling that of some unreal monster. The eel continuously moves its lower jaw as it oxygenates its gills. Sharp teeth line the jaws. But surprise! Moving fearlessly in between those lethal jaws is a small dainty cleaner shrimp. The eel’s personal hygienist!
Just before I begin to surface, a huge shoal of Yellowback fusilier surround me. They are typically fish shaped and the size of mackerel, except that like every other reef fish they are strikingly coloured. The shoal forms a semicircle three feet away from me. They swim synchronously. I can swear that I am in one of David Attenborough’s wildlife films!
The next morning is my last day at Havelock. My second last dive is going to be to a depth of 25 meters. Eighteen meters is actually the limit level of my course so I’m a bit apprehensive but also extremely excited about diving so deep. At 25 meters we absorb nitrogen so fast that we have only minutes at that depth. As I strap on my gear, Vijay runs through a few instructions. ‘When we hit 25 meters some of you might suffer from nitrogen narcosis. I’m going to use sign language to ask you to solve simple arithmetic problems. If you find yourself unable to answer, ascend a couple of meters. Got it?’
I’m not sure I’ve got it but I dive anyway. It’s slow going with the ear squeeze and as I descend down the anchor line I face backwards looking up at the shimmering surface of the water. The underside of our boat now gets smaller and smaller as I dive deeper into what looks like a massive light blue cathedral. The bubbles coming out of my mouth rush to the surface expanding all the way to the top. It is a most beautiful sight and by the time we’ve got to the sea bottom I’ve totally forgotten Vijay’s instructions. He looks visible annoyed as I respond to his sign language with a look of utter surprise and total incomprehension on my face!
As we swim ahead we notice a huge dark coloured grouper fish slowly swimming to maintain his position above a large rock. He looks bigger and heavier than me but before we get to within ten metres of him, he grumpily swims off. Massive mounds of rock dot the sea bottom and hanging around the rocks (obviously sheltering from the current) are shoals of snappers – hundreds of them.
They all look jobless. Above the rocks are Giant trevally. Each one of these formidable silver fish is over two feet in length and they number almost a hundred as well. They are swimming directly into the current. They look jobless too! I’m spell-bound by the scale of all this life surrounding me. In this vast immense body of blue water with its shoals of giant fish, I am nothing but an insect buzzing around in a football stadium.
Before my last dive I’m treated to a sight of dolphins diving out of water. Our boat man follows them and at one point we have one swimming right in front of our boat. I’ve seen dolphins before but never so close and never in such clear water. ‘Look at that baby dolphin…he’s playing with us, he’s playing with us!’ shouts Vijay with glee on his face as the baby dolphin leaps clear out of the water. Karolina and I are ready to dive in with our snorkels but the dolphins are zipping around at the speed of light. ‘Don’t jump. You won’t see anything. They have to be swimming slowly for you to see them,’ Vijay explains.
My last dive is going to be what Vijay calls a ‘Drift Dive.’ We descend using the anchor line as usual, but this time we aren’t going to come up at the same spot. Instead, we will drift with the current and admire the fish along the way! By the time we surface we will have drifted over a kilometer away from the boat.
The coral here is all dead as well, but the place is still buzzing with fish life. There are tons of the usual different species of surgeonfish, angelfish, and triggerfish. I’ve learnt by now that most fish will let you get very close to them as long as you move very slowly. I relax my body and my breathing and am rewarded with getting my face within inches of many them.
I’ve also begun to notice that fish have characters that you can almost immediately relate to. These aren’t the lifeless fish you see in the fish market or the jaded ones you’ll find in a small aquarium. These have active social lives. And each one reacts in a different way to your intrusion on them. You have fish that are very curious about you, fish that couldn’t care less about you, and fish that are just plain irritated to see you! A memorable new spotting for me is that of a Batfish. It’s a dorsoventrally flattened disc shaped fish that looks taller than it is long. It must be over a foot across.
When I surface fifty minutes later I take one last look at the sea bottom before I climb into the boat. A huge shoal of Yellowback fusilier is swimming in the light blue water five meters below me. I feel a pang of sadness in my stomach. I can’t believe I won’t be doing this for a while again.
By the same evening I’m in busy Port Blair again. I’ve decided to spend a few days exploring some interesting places around the port town. On the first morning I take a bus to Wandoor to visit ANET. ANET was setup over fifteen years ago by Romulus Whitaker to study reptiles and other wildlife found in the Andamans. It’s a quiet charming place like Rom’s research station in Agumbe that I visited eight months ago. Definitely a place to stay at when I come back to the Andamans!
The next morning I’m birding in a beautiful forest right next to the gorgeous beach of Chiriya Tapu. I’ve pestered Ajay Saxena (the Chief Conservator of Forests in the Andamans) to take me there. Ajay is one of those rare government employed forest guardians who actually loves being with nature. He has also gone out of his way to drive me the thirty odd kilometers to Chiriya Tapu. He wears white sneakers, light blue jeans and a backpack in which he carries the different lenses of his camera.
The forest I’m admiring is actually part of a biological park where Ajay has been building massive enclosures for shifting animals from their very frugal quarters at the zoo in Port Blair. He calls the monitor lizards, saltwater crocodiles and a wildboar by their names. In the two hours we spend in the forest we discuss his new ideas for the biological park, argue over parakeet species and woodpecker species, and analyze why I’m not married as yet!
The next morning is my last day in the Andamans. I leave early for the Chatham jetty and take a ferry across to Bamboo Flat from where I negotiate with a rickshaw to take me to the top of Mount Harriet. Birding on this trip involves sticking my upper torso out of the rickshaw and frantically slapping my driver’s neck for a halt when we see something interesting! The forest lining the winding road is incredible and awesome. I spot wood pigeons, yellow bulbuls, plenty of Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Racket tailed Drongos, and a pair of bizarre looking black woodpeckers. The jet black woodpeckers look like brilliant crimson Mohawks.
As my flight takes off the next morning I have my last view of the Andamans. I’ve spent eight days here and it was not enough. If I had more time, I would surely have travelled up the Andaman trunk road all the way to Diglipur. The drive would take me through untouched rainforest where the Jarawa (one of the Andaman’s most feared tribes) still survive. Or perhaps I could have even visited the remote island of Little Andaman.
But I’m not too bothered about it. Even before I had landed I had written this off as a recce trip, just like I’d done with the nine odd other trips I made last year travelling to different wildlife sanctuaries across India. What’s different about this trip though is that it is the only place I feel a strong longing to return. I will. Soon. Yes, for once, all the hype is true!