Tanvi Vaidyanathan is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, UBC. Her PhD is on the conservation of incidentally caught marine organisms, using the case study of seahorses in India. When not in front of a computer, she can be found on the nearest beach, camera in hand. She posts on Instagram as @ostentatiousoxymoron
Guest post by Tanvi Vaidyanathan
Working primarily on marine policy, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer, on field, with Vardhan and Elrika over the summer of 2012. Any illusions of an easy summer were shattered when within hours of landing at the base I embarked on data entry involving the Abudefdufs’, Epinephalus’, Chaetodons’, Cephalopholis’, and Zebrasomas’, to name a few, thrown at me! I quickly settled into the routine of data entry with Elrika. While over time I became familiar with the scientific names, the common names continue to elude me!
Spending a summer at the ANET base was quite a challenge, as it possessed everything I was terrified off, crabs, snakes and lizards the foremost amongst them. While Vardhan and Elrika were out sampling the region in and around the Wandoor Marine National Park, I spent the first few days brushing up on my SCUBA skills and embarking on what would result in a marathon Advanced SCUBA!
My first trip with them was out towards Duncan Passage. While the guys did a minimum of around 2 dives a day, I got to snorkel for one and dive during the other. Responsibilities included marking the GPS locations and kitting up. Originally it also involved the monitoring of filling the tanks and that was exciting to be a part of the process from the filling to the de-kitting. Days on the dunghi with Uncle Bernie, Agu and Saw da were always action-packed. Days traditionally started at 5 am, with a quick run to the islands for an early morning stomach cleansing (with the added joy of beware of crocodiles signs to read while at it!), followed by tea and rusks and the first dive of the morning. Lunch was all but done by 9 am, with food comprising of any fish that Saw da could capture.
Rapid improvements could be observed in his spearfishing skill as the number, size and frequency of fish on the boat improved. 0ur second dive by 1 pm latest and the remainder of the evening was spent in locating a suitable fresh water source so that we could freshen up and sit with the data before sunset. In the absence of a computer, data had to be entered by hand, followed by a photography session to ensure that even if the pages got wet the data was saved! The dives at North Cinque and off the Sisters were simply breathtaking, with every kind of fish imaginable and of course scratching seeing a turtle underwater off my bucket list. Everyday additional entertainment was provided courtesy of the search for fresh water, with every bath location more exotic than the previous. While there were a couple of false alarms, the dugong eluded us, and the one-day we were actually lucky enough to see seagrass the heavens opened up, I guess it was a sign! After about 5 days of living off the Dunghi, with 6 of us strategically crammed during sleep hours, we returned to the ANET base.
It felt good to be back on land, but mighty strange. We were faced with real-world problems of power outages and water shortages and seemed more crippled dealing with it than when offshore. The week was largely spent entering the data and preparing the action plan for the remainder of the summer. It was during this time that I realized I seemed to be missing some data, which then sent me off on an obsession that would keep me occupied for most of the summer. We were getting a little too comfortable on land, and after procrastinating our second trip by a couple of days we were off again, this time it was towards the North Passage. Starting from Ross we steadily made our way northwards. I was faced with the additional challenge of the dunghi lacking a ladder on this trip. Every dive and snorkelling opportunity now got a whole more challenging and exciting as I found a different way to climb the boat at every stop. Attempts included climbing on the rudder at the back of the boat, being manually lifted out of the water, having the boat slightly tilted to one side and well finally me making it over and flopping on to the boat like a freshly caught fish. There is a good reason that my middle name should have been “Grace.” Amidst cheering, sweet-talking and finally threats of being left behind by Vardhan I managed to make it aboard.
The second trip had spots as stunning as the first. Giant puffers, barracudas and groupers, anemones, eels, sea snakes, nudibranchs and the usual suspects including the clownfish, the butterfly fish, the parrots… You name it we saw it! The diving was spectacular with a ton of smaller fish, and corals like the brain corals, stone corals and branching corals in reasonable shape and showing decent (Fine, we’ll quantify that! On a scale of 1 to 5, lets say 3!) recruitment in quite a few of the sites we dived at. On our way in search of a reef, we did manage to get very lost and, well with a degree of exaggeration nearly land up in Burma! The standard of cooking during the second trip had really improved, and as each of us got into a routine the dunghi became home! This trip, however, had the added challenge of dealing with the turning winds! 6 people under a tarpaulin during the night was not a lot of fun, and daily prior to sleeping we would come up with an emergency plan in the event of a rain, which Elrika and I would have to hastily execute in the middle of the night!
While the visibility of the water was progressively deteriorating, it also gave us the opportunity to observe other organisms. In our last dive at Guitar, we had a deluge of nudibranchs and a whole lot of lobsters curiously looking out. The plethora of life in the region still has me spellbound! During the course of our trip, we also learnt the value of fish in any form, as we managed to barter some dried fish ( I must have been the happiest to see it go!) for a quick recharge of Vardhan’s camera battery!. The dugong, however, continued to elude us!
The summer opened my eyes to the world of possibility for work in the region and I hope to return soon. In addition to entering data on the fish species in the region, the three of us would also sit down and rate various coral parameters on a scale of 1 to 5. The beauty of each site still stands out and it quite often blew our minds, resulting in our site names even being named “Amazing!” While people say going in with no expectations adds to the charm, going in with the expectations I did the Andamans lived up to everyone! The work being carried out by Vardhan and Elrika was every bit as exciting and innovative as I’d imagined it to be. I learnt a lot over the summer, from trip preparations, logistics, man-management and dive preparations, to the actual data collection, data entry and hopefully soon the data analysis.
On the personal front I had three major achievements too, I can now fold a sleeping bag (without that desperately lost, painfully helpless look which resulted in Elrika folding it for me at the end of watching me attempt for half an hour), I can mostly climb the boat without a ladder (throw in a croc and I’m pretty sure I will now do it!) and of course the fact I can kind of sort of free dive (from not breaking the water surface, 5 meters is a miracle!). It was one amazing adventure, and while the work involved everything from sharpening pencils, lifting tanks, and everything else imaginable, the summer was one great all-round learning experience that I would not trade in for anything (despite the sand fly bites that left me limping with oozing sores!)
After surviving the snakes, the lizards, a tsunami warning, the crabs, stingrays, I finally came home limping and freezing during a 43 degree Celsius day in Chennai. My conqueror? A SET OF STAIRS!
The good news, despite being at each other’s throats for most of the summer, we all returned to the mainland intact (well mostly at least!).
Post script: I was finally certified an Advance SCUBA diver after 35 days and 3000 wisecracks from Vardhan.