“A big fat crocodile stirs through the creek, eight Nicobar pigeons perch, tonnes of terns take flight, white-throated kingfishers flit above the ground, mantas swim swiftly in the shallows, a few hundred small-sized fish swim-in-and-out of the coral crevices, introduced spotted deer stand ass-to-ass-to-ass on white sandy beaches. Inside the thicket of the forest, their hooves remain stuck in the alluvium of new accretion”.
In a perfect world, I would go camping every week. The thrill of packing only the bare essentials and living it up in the great outdoors — coastal forests or in mountains or on the beach is as liberating as living out a wee-hour dream. And what better than camping inside a Marine Protected area? That’s right! This year, I got a chance to spend my birthday at Jahaji, a pristine beach in Rutland Island, which is a part of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMNP) in South Andaman Island. I was accompanied by my friends and colleagues- Naveen Ekka, Zoya Tyabji, James Tirkey, Ledhu Kunjur and Sebian Horo who work at the Andaman and Nicobar Island’s Environmental Team (ANET), a local NGO working towards conservation of the island biodiversity. Rutland is the biggest Island in MGMNP with a total area 137 square meters. Most parts of the islands are uninhabited, but some part of the island has a Ranchi community settlement. Though my visit was without any purpose, per se, my colleagues were visiting the Island to collect data on plants from permanent plots that researchers from the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS) have set-up.
I was visiting Jahaji after nearly a decade. My last visit to this island was with fellow researchers, who like me, wanted to experience the island. I was dawdling through my early 20’s and as a city boy, I had only heard of pristine beaches and rainforests, but never experience the feeling of seeing one. Though we had stayed only for a day, my memory of the island was fresh. The vast stretches of white sandy beaches against the backdrop of the rainforest. Love at first sight—is how I would describe my last experience back then. And here I was, almost after 10 years visiting the same place once again.
After loading tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, grocery and daily needs, we set out on a Karen dugout dinghy called ‘MV Khlee’, from North Wandoor beach, located along the main Port Blair Island in South Andaman. It was early morning of December and the new sun had sparkled gold across the ripples of the gentle sea. As soon as the boat engine started thumping, we were treated to an impeccable view of skies kissing the ocean — the perfect fuel to our hibernating systems. During the boat ride, we crossed some spectacular islands such as Gurb, Chester, Redskin, Alexandria and Jollybuoy Island, which are part of the Marine National Park. After about 2 hours we reached a sandy beach called ‘BadaKhadi’.
A few colleagues got off to hand over our research permits at ‘Badakhadi’ forest camp office and to inform forest guard about our plan of stay, while the rest of us wandered aimlessly on the shores of ‘Badakhadi’ as we waited for our colleagues to return. Jahaji is a protected area and entry to tourists is strictly prohibited. As researchers, we were lucky to have got permits from the Forest Department within four months of waiting. To the north of Badakhadi, there is a rocky outcrop, which is known for nesting of terns. Hundreds of terns and many swiftlets flew-in-and-out of crevices and when we were just about to leave, a pair of bBeach thik-knee birds appeared from somewhere, perched for some time and took flight in the direction of Jahaji beach as if they were telling us, “Hey, see you at Jahaji!”
As soon as our colleagues returned from the camp office, we left for our final destination, Jahaji beach, in Rutland Island. The journey between Badakhadi and Jahaji is another two hours by boat. Though it was blazing hot by now, the sea was exceptionally calm. At the first sight of Jahaji, watching the seagulls gliding at their own pace in a clear blue sky, I could not help but think of Black’s lyrics, “It’s a wonderful wonderful life“.
Jahaji beach is almost 2 kilometres long, with white sand, and emerald blue-green-sapphire blue waters that sparkle against the backdrop of tall Mahua trees. On reaching closer to the shore, we donned our snorkelling apparatus and got into the water as swimming to the shore is the only way to get to the shore. The water was crystal clear and we could see the sandy white bottom right from the surface, which was 4-5 m deep. We swam close to the boat and perpendicular to the coast, skin-diving intermittently checking for signs of seagrass or other marine life. After playing in the water like children for a while, we swam towards the breaking waves and crossed over to the shore.
Once at the shore, we found a comfortable spot to set up our tents in the midst of the Mahua trees. James set out a fire on few rocks and cooked a quick meal of rice and egg curry, while Vishal, Naveen and Sebian who grew up on Rutland Island kept us enthralled with stories of their experiences on the island. All of them belong to the Ranchi community, originally from Jharkhand near Bihar, but who have been settled on Rutland island for the past 50 odd years. The history of ‘Ranchi’ community is interesting. British got them to the islands for logging and for a range of other manual labour. After independence, these communities settled in-and-around villages in the Andamans, including Rutland island. Their population is around 65000 according to 2011 population census and being forest dwellers, they have a good knowledge of the forest and thus most field assistants working with NCBS belong to the Ranchi community.
On our first night in Jahaji, we didn’t sleep early, running on the adrenaline of our adventure. Jahaji is one of the preferred nesting beaches for giant leatherback turtle, and November and December is the ideal season for sighting the leatherbacks so we walked the entire length of the 2 km beach with the hopes of sighting nesting leatherback turtles. Unfortunately, we did not see a single turtle, but gigantic tractor-size tracks of a turtle gave us an opportunity to imagine their size. Returning back to our campsite, our discussions gradually ended in snores as we fell asleep in our respective tents.
A sneak-peek out of my tent flap gave me a view of the clear sky through the branches of the mahua trees. The moon had risen, and apart from a few clouds, the sky was studded with stars. I was awoken by guano – bat droppings, on the roof of our tent. In pitch darkness, I fumbled and covered the tent with tarpaulin and went back to sleep. I woke up again when a rain shower drenched my tent. I had to take refuge in my colleagues’ tent.
In the morning, we were woken up by the cacophony of birds – including the incessant call of a white-bellied sea eagle. With a pair of Celestron binoculars and a backpack full of essentials like quick snacks, Swiss knife, notebook and camera, we went birding for hours deep in the coastal forest. Altogether we sighted 24 species of birds. Among the most common were the Green Imperial Pigeons and Drongos (Andaman and Racket-tail Drongo). Vernal hanging parrots, and many long-tailed, as well as Alexandrine parakeets, flew from one branch to another, while Orioles and Chestnut-headed bee-eaters perched on treetops. The highlight of the trip was the sighting of a fulvus-breasted woodpecker and a flock of Nicobar pigeon which are relatively rare birds in the Andaman Islands.
In the afternoon we visited different region within the same forest. The meandering path took us to the area where the National Centre for Biological Sciences researchers set up 1 X 1 hectare permanent monitoring plots (a rectangle that is marked with markers) to long-term monitor changes in forest tree communities.
These plots have been set-up in the year 2012 and ever since then researchers and field assistants collect monthly data on forest structure, species diversity, biomass, carbon stocks and nutrient cycling patterns. James and Vishal, local lads of Badakhadi, collected monthly data on seedlings on the plots as part of their job, while Zoya and I strolled around the plot and in the forest. At one instance, I ended up alone in the forest, nearly forgetting where I was. The word that best described the scene was ‘desolate’ or ‘lost’. I felt small, an unidentifiable soul perhaps. Tall trees such as Aglaia andmanica, Diospyros oocarpa, Rothmania pulcherrima rose towards a cloudless sky and a dense. understory forest lay beneath. The undergrowth was dense with shrubs, and saplings, in dense tangles of weeds and vines. Signs of wild boar scat and marks of deer hoofs could be seen everywhere. After spending an entire day in the forest, intermittently seeing deer, agamid lizards, flies and bees, and observing the variety of forest fruits, we returned to comforts of our den just before it turned dark.
At night, once again we spent time on the beach, mesmerized by the white sand and water that seemed two shades darker, despite the bright moon. We walked from one end to another again, but the leatherback turtles kept eluding us. Though we did not see a single nesting turtle or a crocodile, we did see many signs of nesting turtles gone by on the white sand.
The next morning, we left to explore the island by foot. The aim was to walk to the lighthouse and back, which was built after the tsunami of 2004 and its still being used as it has a solar-powered light. Stepping over the occasional fallen tree and tonnes of dead coral rubble, we walked for hours.
The walk back to our campsite was even better than we imagined. The afternoon heat had mellowed down, and as the tide had receded, we had to walk on the exposed intertidal rocky shore, which was a treasure trove for small animals. Rocky crevices are playgrounds for animals of all class and phyla, from crustaceans to Mollusca. Morey eels were hunting small fish, while juvenile reef fishes hid. Hundreds of brittle stars and crabs were crossing the pools trying to find safety in crevices. The sun was low on the horizon, and the orange sky was an ideal backdrop for photographs. Walking on the rocks took us much longer than expected. Towards the end of a long walk, there was not a single sound except the occasional whooshing of the wind and the call of an owl. The jungle became denser as daylight faded. Soon darkness descended and at the end of our daylong journey, our pace became slow.
It was around 7.30 pm when we finally reached the base camp. Once there, we relaxed with some rice beer. Relishing our simple dinner of boiled rice and potatoes and fried fish, we had the feeling of being in heaven. The temperature had begun to drop so we retired to the comfort of our sleeping bags, but not before taking one last look at the amazing full-mooned starry night sky. We woke up early next morning feeling very fresh and rejuvenated and set out to pack up our tents before our return journey.
We decided to take an alternate route back, that goes via Twins Island, which is approximately 16 nautical miles from Rutland island. These islands are known for their Manta ray aggregation sites — our hope was to sight a shoal of mantas as they swam freely and fed on planktons between the two islands. On reaching the channel, we stopped the engine and scanned the surface of the sea from one end to the other. The blazing heat of the afternoon, added with the reflection of the sea made the day seem hotter than it was. We saw some movement in the water and within minutes we saw a magnificent animal circling our boat. Without wasting a second, I immediately jumped into the water and swam with the gentle giant. In the joy of swimming with the manta, I almost forgot that I was drifting into the deeper end of the channel. By now, my other colleagues who were also swimming with mantas had gone back to the boat.
Our next stop was a shallow site where we attempted all sorts of somersaults and snorkelled to experience the hustle-bustle of the reef. The shallow reef had a number of young individual of corals known as recruits. As we descended a few metres under the sea, a few hundred small-sized fish commonly called as yellow snappers surrounded us, like rush-hour commuters coming out of a subway. Many of them had blue and yellow stripes as if they were wearing a school uniform.
As the boat hummed on ripples of the open sea, we all found a respective comfortable spot on the boat. There was no sound except the thumping of the diesel engine. For three hours, we kept riding the waves, and by the time we reached north Wandoor, the pale stars were sliding into their places, the whispering of birds was hushed, the air was filled with the cacophony of cicadas, and the not-yet-darkened world appeared infinitely larger. The trip was over, but memories from our four days at Jahaji continued on, like the ceaseless call of the Andaman barn owl from the Garjan (Dictocarpus sp.) tree nearby.
An edited version of this article was first published in Nature in Focus.