ISLAND ADVENTURES

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!

Andaman Islands_ picture Tanvi Vaidyanathan

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.

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Island beauty, rains simply added to the charm of the place

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Home!

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.

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Post-sampling

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.

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Enter aExpedition team: L to R: Tanvi, Elrika, Uncle Bernie, Saw Da, Saw Agu and Vardhancaption

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!

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This is how we roll in our free time!

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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!

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Dried fish, Our Saviour!

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.

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Anchors down or celebrating a successful summer?

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!)

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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.

 

 

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Meet my new companion—Gulmohar

Gulmohar flowers announce the arrival of monsoon. Its bright red colours are
a harbinger of good times.

Triban Btwin 3

B Twin Triban 3 road bicycle

My harbinger of a good time has been my recently purchased bicycle. It is a kind of bike that is popularly known as a road bike. With a sleek and sexy body, they are the elites of the cycling world. They are the gatekeepers against which others are judged.

The bug of purchasing a real road bike came to me when a friend offered to sell his old Colnago steel frame road bicycle. The offer was made just before I was leaving for the field to the Andaman Islands and on my return, I found that the bike was no longer available. With a bit of disappointment and the feeling of failure, I started searching for road bikes that are available on the Indian market. On some occasions, I would stay awake reading reviews about different bikes, and on others, I would try bicycles at different bicycle shops.

After two months of searching, I was unable to make a decision as there were too many options available on the market, and the only one that stood out was out of my budget. I contacted some veteran cyclist Lena Robra, Shrdha Rathod and Ashok Captain and got their opinion on a few models that I had shortlisted. I test rode a variety of bikes and decided that I will go with Focus or Marin bicycle.

It was on this journey of reviewing bikes that I came across the second-hand bicycle Triban 3 by Btwin. I jumped at the opportunity and contacted the owner, Akarsh Agrawal. We decided the place and time where we would meet. The test ride was not as smooth as I had expected, but what I saw was fairly close to what I was expecting– an alloy body, carbon forks, Shimano Sora shifters, an aggressive road bike position and a sturdy body. Without wasting any time, I sealed the deal with Akarsh who was generous and gave me a lot of other essentials that go with the cycle including a torch, tube, saddle bag, pump, puncture kit and so on.

On my return, I took it to the nearest service centre, and since then I have been riding the bike with the confidence of the Winner of the Tour de France. When the bike was new, I didn’t want to name it, but as I got comfortable, I thought the name is must. After all, a name means nothing, and a name means everything. To name a thing is to invite it to enmesh itself in your mind; to compress the essence of a gestalt into a single suggestive motif, from which it can be revived at will.

After much contemplation, I called my bicycle ‘Gulmohar’ after one of the most common flowering trees in Bangalore. In addition, the area where I cycle—Sahakar Nagar, Yellahanka, GKVK campus, has lots of Gulmohar trees. With flat roads and relatively less traffic, the cycling is a fun-filled activity.

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To me, Gulmohar is a dream that floats around the fringes of my imagination, a eulogy of the efficiency, technological triumph, and sheer beauty draped in bridal red. Riding Gulmohar brings me to the same feeling of elation that comes with gliding over colourful reefs. Gulmohar reminds me of re-committing myself towards a fitter life, and thus a beginning for new things to come.

I am sure I am not the only one with “Gulmohar” out there, but every bicycle lover probably feels the same way about the bicycle they own.


 

Posted in Random | Tagged ,

“What not to do in the field”: A how-not-to guide to field biology

Nitya Prakash Mohanty is a wildlife researcher working on the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal. His ongoing PhD study examines the Indian bullfrog’s recent introduction and subsequent invasion on the archipelago, far from the frog’s natural home on the Indian mainland. Nitya regularly writes articles in forums outside academia, to share fascinating stories of and from the wild and provides behind-the-scenes peeks into the glamorized world of wildlife and its research.   

‘Guest post by Nitya Mohanty’


 

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Fieldwork at the edge of the sea

They say field biology is not easy. To spend months on end in isolated corners of the world, battling hostile weather or amassing tonnes of data must require true grit. Yet, every year universities churn out hundreds of field biologists who churn out knowledge based on their studies in forests, seas, and mountains. Before even dreaming of setting foot in the field, a biologist must train in concepts of study design, statistical analyses, equipment, and read a pile of research about his or her subject. But no amount of theory or demonstrations can prepare one for what awaits them in the field.

In my daily attempt to survive in the field, I have had more use of tales of ‘epic fails’ than of ‘mic drops’. One of the first mistakes I made in the field, a few kilometres into my first proper trek, was to ask how far the destination was. Straightforward as the question may seem, the answer demoralized the troop and sapped us all of any curiosity of the wildlife around. Another bright member of this group, who had packed a year’s supply of apples for a weekend trip, did not fare too well either. But, only a few acts of courage go beyond the decision to fast during a long trek. On the command of unearthly forces, a friend of mine relinquished the earthly necessities of feeding herself, while traversing the Western Ghats on foot. Though she didn’t miss out on much (read soybean dinners), we nearly missed out on her life. During this trip, I picked up many a wonderful memory along with a treacherous parasite – a tick, in the most unscrupulous of places. The experienced scarred me on many levels and made me nominate leeches as my favourite parasite, in the bloodsucking category.

 

'The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite', Ashwini V Mohan

The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

Some field experiences come with the potential to inflict more than just a scar. A dear friend once made the mistake of trusting an armed forest guard to look out for one-horned rhinoceros while he set out collecting their dung. On the distant approach of the dung’s creator, the guard took off without as much as a warning shriek. My friend’s peripheral vision and superior arboreal skills helped him escape a two thousand kilo death. But some acts of trust do not pan out as well. In the long lasting tradition of craving food, while inebriated, two gentle souls once craved the wrong snack – a toxic puffer fish. Alas, their departed souls crave no more. Then again, some people are just plain lucky. A wildlife biologist would not have even graduated when in his early field days he picked up an unsuspecting snake early in the morning. “A cat snake!” he declared, educating us about its non-venomous nature. A friend with little more than just affection for snakes identified it to be a highly venomous Saw-scaled viper, just as the snake started moving to the heat. The cold-bloodedness of the snake, captured in the wee hours of the morning, helped my friend remain unharmed and un-fanged.

'When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper' _Ashwini V Mohan

When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

With countless hours to spend in the field, there is a time for individual stupidity and then there is a time for collective stupidity. Some agile minds of my cohort where able swimmers too and decided to jump into a lagoon together. Only the lagoon had sharks. Another group of acquaintances repeated the same feat, with saltwater crocodiles. A large group of people sometimes lulls one into a false sense of security. While stepping across a fallen tree after a long day’s trek, each member of our group gripped a nearby sapling for support. I was the last one to cross and thankfully, snapped out of daydream just in time to avoid grabbing a Malabar pit-viper which had been on the sapling all along!

But by far the silliest thing I have done in the field is devoid of any confrontation with the wild. Upon completing a morning’s line transects counting deer, a colleague and I drove to pick up another team of two at the end of a nearby transect. We became restless as their scheduled time of arrival started veering way off the schedule. On hearing some movement near the clearing where we expected them, I called out in an inimitable code – a simple hoot. Pat came the reply of two hoots. We hooted back and forth for almost an hour in the anticipation of our impending meeting, and then the calling stopped abruptly. I called out in desperation for a while, only to find the missing duo approaching from the opposite direction. I may well have had communicated with poachers for the better part of that morning.

There are of course way too many such instructional tales to recount. In the face of a vast variety of life to study, field biologists come up with a vast array of harebrained schemes to look much less smart than they actually are. If there is a code in the field one must follow, it is not to laugh at a colleague’s mistake; rest assured you will outdo them. Mic drop.


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Of butterflyfish and angelfish and their distribution

In our recent paper, just out of the oven, we make a case that latitude and live coral independently determine the species richness of butterflyfish and angelfish communities in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

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Vibrant coral reef at Cabra island

The idea for this paper started in the year 2015 when an intern Sowjanya Chandrasekhar started exploring the huge dataset, that my colleague Elrika D’Souza and I had collected in 2012 & 2013. Though we had collected data on all reef species, Sowjanya picked only two groups for their aesthetic elegance and their overall importance to the coral reef ecosystem. The butterflyfish are known as indicators of the health of coral reef ecosystem, whereas angelfish are dependent on reef habitat for structure. The initial plan was just to make a checklist of butterflyfish and angelfish. After the painstaking task of going through thousands of pictures, field guides and monographs, Sowjanya identified 30 species of butterflyfish belonging to four genera and 13 species of angelfish from 9 genera.

The idea further developed after a conversation with Aniruddha Marathe, my colleague and flatmate in Bangalore. Aniruddha works on how elevation gradients impact distribution on ant species in Arunachal Pradesh. Though there are no direct similarities in ants and fish, commonalities of distribution gradients in elevation and latitude were a good enough reason for us to work together. Meanwhile, Sowjanya was accepted for the James Cook University Master’s programme, whereas I left for the field and spent most of my time in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to collect 2016 bleaching related data.

After exploratory analysis, a few questions that piqued our curiosity were: Why certain species are found only in some areas? Why is the distribution of some species patchy? Is species richness higher in the islands that are closer to the Centre of origin of the coral reefs? And most importantly, how do natural disturbances alter the patterns of species distribution? The fact that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have 6 to 13 ° latitudinal gradient was a good enough reason for us to follow-up on these questions. With scattered information of a dataset spread across 75 sites and 51 islands, we explored the relationship between 1) species richness and latitude,  2) species richness and important benthic variables i.e., live coral, dead coral, algae, 3) species diversity and latitude, and 4) species diversity and benthic variables for butterflyfish and angelfish.

The initial findings were interesting and the results met most of our predictions. We found that live coral cover and latitude were the best predictors for explaining variation in the distribution of these fish communities across the A & N archipelago. This is probably because of the high dependence of these two fish groups on the live coral cover and Nicobar’s geographical proximity to the Coral Triangle, which is considered to be the centre of origin of coral reefs and supports high biodiversity.

While it is great news that these fish groups are surviving despite repeated catastrophic disturbances, loss of coral structure or habitat is still the greatest threat to these species. Yellow teardrop butterflyfish, with two sightings in the Central Nicobar region and North Andaman region and Three-spot angelfish, with one sighting in the South Andaman region, are especially vulnerable as they were observed only at select locations. Our results show that despite the high dependence of butterflyfish and angelfish on live coral cover, reduction of live coral cover due to series of disturbances (tsunami, bleaching) events had limited influence on species richness of these two fish groups, indicating that broad geographical trends are important in explaining variation in species richness for butterflyfish and angelfish groups.

The manuscript writing took almost six months. After lots of discussions, debates, and endless arguments over coffee, we submitted the manuscript to the journal Coral Reefs.  We were relieved when we got to know that the manuscript is in a review. Unfortunately, the decision of the editor, Dr. Michel Berumen was to ‘reject’ the paper, but the suggestions and feedback we received were very useful. We incorporated all the changes and then sent out the paper to the journal Marine Biodiversity as per the suggestion by Dr. Berumen.

To our dismay, the paper was rejected once again. However, this time the journal was keen on receiving a fresh draft after addressing all the comments. We quickly got our acts together, and addressed all the possible comments raised by the reviewers and provided an explanation for the few comments that we were unable to address. Finally, after several iterations, the paper that came out of this collaboration is rather interesting, especially in times when more corals are being damaged due to global climate change and human impacts. This paper is a rare example of practising geographical ecology in marine systems.

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Emperor angelfish, (Pomacanthus imperator)

We look forward to your criticisms, comments and perspectives on this work. Thank you for taking time to read the paper and a blog post!


 

 

 

 

Posted in Science reporting, Underwater

On the wild side

“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”.

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Camping team on MV Khlee vessel

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.

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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’.

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A rocky outcrop near andarkhadi beach in Rutland Island

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!”

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A pair of beach thick-knees strolling on the rocks

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“.

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A view of Jahaji beach

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.

 

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Snorkelling and skin diving to explore the shallow bottom of the sea

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.

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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.

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A view from my tent

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.

 

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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.

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A fulvus breasted woodpecker

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.

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James taking measurements of plants

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.

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Rainforest canopy at Rutland Island

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.

A turtle tracks on sandy beach of Rutland Island

Tracks of turtle on the 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.

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A view of pristine beach of Jahaji

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.

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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.

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Morning view of the forest from a camping site 

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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in Travel

An Island Life for me

Part writer. Part mermaid. Sitara is always on the lookout for portals to other worlds where all the fun stuff like magic and dragons exist. This is her account of an island life.


Guest post by Sitara Hussain. 

Yours truly, in between dives

Yours truly, in between dives

Ever since I can remember, living on an island has been a distant dream. Something to fantasise about until reality dragged me back to whatever task I had at hand, be it homework, household chores or my desk job. Until the tables turned one fine day and I found myself on Havelock Island to train and work as a dive-master.

 

Just another day at work.jpg

Just another day at work

 

I was so excited about the idea of staying on an island that I didn’t stop to worry about what that actually meant. I knew to expect no cellular service and very limited contact with the outside world. I resigned myself to eating fish 7 times a week. And I was expecting to meet a multitude of new people, memorise and forget their names in a fortnight. But what I didn’t realise was that living the dream meant that I no longer enjoyed the luxury of a warm bath. A lack of privacy, because sound travels on a small, quiet island. And an endless stream of creepy-crawlies who became my roommates. Being a sheltered city-slicker, it took me a while to get used to having to share a bathroom with the multiple residents at the divers’ accommodation. And then, there was always the chance of an encounter with a snake. I was uncomfortable and I loved every bit of it.

I spent my days training, diving and studying, spending some wonderful hours learning how to survive underwater. I found out how to be weightless and loved the feeling of being suspended mid-depth. I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of fish species and my mind reeled trying to identify them. As part of my job, I found myself having to talk constantly – small talk to keep our dive shop’s customers entertained, boat briefings, dive site briefings and post dive debriefings. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m not the kind of person who talks too much. But where I struggled the most was trying to frame complete sentences in Hindi so I could converse with the Karen boat boys. The only Hindi I knew was what I learnt in school and from Bollywood films. And those sources definitely did not provide me with an adequate vocabulary to answer all the questions they would ask. How they laughed at me! But over the few months that I spent working with them, they did learn to decipher my broken sentences. This more open, sociable me was a revelation. For the first time in my life, I was spending more time around people instead to finding a corner to read my books.

How I spent my day off (1)

How I spent my day off

The best part about working as a Dive-master was that I got to relive the exhilaration I felt the first time I went for a dive. I assisted the instructors as they taught beginners to dive. Some of them were excited to get a glimpse underwater. Many of them were understandably nervous. But there was always one person in the group who was simply terrified. More often than not, I’d be assigned to give my full attention to that one person while the instructor handled the rest of the group. It began with training in shallow water, to get the customers comfortable with the equipment and procedures. After that was completed, we’d all head out together to deeper water to begin the dive. The hardest part was convincing a frightened person to suspend all sense of self-preservation and put their heads underwater. Almost immediately, their heads would shoot back up and they would ask to cancel their dive. With a little more persuasion, they would try again. Eye contact was key. Somehow, these strangers would put all their trust in their divemaster or instructor and allow themselves to be guided underwater. At first, they would grip my hand with all their strength. But as we descend and the pressure underwater increases, the pressure of their grip would decrease. I once had a customer who let go completely and glided around all by herself. The fear in her eyes was replaced by pure joy and wonder as she lost herself in the moment. It was such a magical moment for the both of us, an experience I lived through with various people in their own different ways.

Traded a desk job for this

Traded a desk job for this

I consider the 5 months living, training and working in Havelock to be the best decision I’ve ever made. Not only did I learn a new skill, I learnt so much about people and about myself. I made friends with folks from all walks of life, and from all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with.  I’ve always loved the ocean, and now I know it just a little better. Marine life was always a magical world beyond reach, but now, it feels closer to me than ever. Which is why I urge anyone who shows the slightest interest in Scuba diving, to take the plunge. Because, with every fibre of my being, I believe that once you strap on a tank, carry some weights and sink below the surface of the water, it changes you in the best possible way.


Thank you very much to Sitata for taking the time to share her island experience.

 

 

Posted in Guest post | Tagged , , ,

I found an obese sea star!

Well, maybe not the fattest individual, but definitely abnormal. I have never seen such fat individual of any species in the wild. If you don’t believe me take a look at this fat sea star. Yeah, that’s right, get into the habit of calling them sea stars – makes you feel so much better than calling them ‘starfish’ as they are not similar to fish in any aspect.

Fat sea star_Vardhan Patankar

A sea star which I call it as an obese sea star

While on a routine data collection dive off Havelock Island in South Andaman, I found this individual lying on the reef like a toddler toy on the floor. The abnormally huge size of the sea star quickly caught my attention and I spent next 10 minutes taking pictures and observing the animal. Later, I googled by typing keywords ‘fat sea star’, but couldn’t obtain a single image of anything that looked even close to the individual I observed. The information that google search provided was rather curious. Take a look at the screenshot:

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In addition, I also asked a few of my fellow marine biologists about the sea star and sent a few emails to scientists studying these animals. A few speculated abnormal growth and others mentioned that the fatness could be due to toxins in the body of a sea star. Later, I emailed an expert who is an Invertebrate Zoology staff at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and requested help with identification. As per the expert, this species of fat sea star belongs to genus Thromidia in the family Mithrodiidae and are closely related to Ophidiasteridae family.  In coming season, I am planning to take a few extra measurements of the species as per the suggestion of the expert who believes that the species could very well be the range extension.

Fat sea star 1 _Vardhan Patankar.JPG

A sea star species belonging to genus Thromidia

The observation has raised my curiosity and I am keen to know more about the species distribution in our waters. If anyone has seen similar species or any such abnormal fat looking animals in the wild, then do share your experience, pictures or write-ups.


 

 

 

 

Posted in Character Portraits, Underwater | Tagged , | 2 Comments