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!


 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Influence of singer on you

One of my more irrational fears is that, someday, one day, maybe on Monday I will get delusional and forget all the memories I have made. The thought alone terrifies me, but even in my seemingly ludicrous anxiety, one thing I will instantly recognise—the voice of Leonard Cohen.

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Leonard Cohen ((photo by Michael)

When I first heard his songs, I was sure I was listening to the bellowing of a gentleman behemoth, and ever since he has always been a constant companion on my music playlist.  You know, the kind that knows we don’t live in the black-and-white world that at our core, we are a little bit lonely and a little bit of a loser. He knows and doesn’t judge, instead, sings about our success and failures and the best part is he makes our failures more beautiful than success.

His voice is what you can relate to–the kind that knows we don’t live in the black-and-white world that at our core, we are a little bit lonely and a little bit of a loser. He knows and doesn’t judge, instead, sings about our success and failures and the best part is he makes our failures more beautiful than success.

He sings straight to your heart because he articulates the feelings that you didn’t even know you felt. He riches right into your rib cage and pulls out that trembling organ, telling your organ that you have much more functions other than just pumping blood flow.

“And I thank you,

I thank you for doing my duty.

Your keepers of truth, guardians of beauty

Your vision is right, my vision is wrong

I’m sorry for smudging the air with my space”     

                                                                                     —Leonard Cohen

He soothes your heart and makes you laugh, he heals your soul and transports you to abstract thoughts, where grit thrives and even grotesque is poetic. His voice is like books of a Japanese author, Haruki Murakami— dream like—too unreal, yet real in every sense, both thoroughly original.

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Leonard Cohen (photo by Michael )

No wonder why people call him the Godfather of gloom!  Continue reading

Posted in Character Portraits, Random

A day at ANET field station

This year, a summer intern from IISER Tirupati, Narola Harsh helped me with my fieldwork. Despite having an interest in physics, he somehow landed at ANET field-base to assist me with my work. Harsh stayed at ANET for 20 days. This is Harsh’s account of his stay at ANET.

Guest post by Narola Harsh

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Narola Harsh in front of ANET library

Unlike on the mainland, I didn’t really need an alarm to wake up as Benjamin, a stout-fancy-colourful rooster who was also patron to most other chickens you would see around, was very punctual with his routine.

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Benjamin giving wake up call just outside my cottage

I’d get out of bed, open the window and see the sun shining quite high for eight in the morning. Strangely, my cottage had two doors on opposite walls and large windows on the rest of the sides. It is most probably a Karen-style cottage.

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Karen-style cottage at ANET field station in the Andaman Islands

I’d bathe and head to the kitchen which, apart from being a regular kitchen, serves as a good TT and hula-hooping point, viable gym and occasional dance-floor. Post-breakfast, I’d go to the library which is apparently the only place here with a lock on the door and is locked every night as well. The library used to be my regular workspace here throughout my stay and the best part about it is that, due to the wooden floor, you can hear people coming in and going out. If you’re more careful, you can tell precisely who the person is no matter where you are sitting. In addition to the reference books on various topics, this place has a shared bookshelf which has collections ranging from nationalist (or rather anti-nationalist) Arundhati Roy to Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt.

 

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ANET library

Next to the library is a small ground where we’d play volleyball in the evening, generally starting around five-ish and going till the ball is no longer visible. To be honest, that was the best pastime during my stay.

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Volleyball session at ANET

Volleyball was occasionally followed by quick workout sessions next to the kitchen that I never really joined. Later in the evening, I’d go back to the library, and stay there until dinner time. Post-dinner we’d go to the mangroves, capture a fish and set up a device that records the sounds the fish made, which is otherwise inaudible to humans. After an hour or so, we’d collect the device and that would be the end of a regular day.


 

 

Posted in Guest post | Tagged , ,

Capturing the Eye of a Crocodile Fish


“Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes. Behold these eyes and thou shall recognise, The crystalline lattices of constellations to adore, Mirrored in the eyes of the piscivore.”

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Blue striped travellies cruising on the reef

The shallow sea flattens. Slowly, you descend and in the hustle-bustle of the reef, you cruise, weightless and neutrally buoyant. Thousands of fish move in and out of coral crevices looking at you. In that strange world, you are the outsider. You are the thing that does not belong, a bizarre alien, perhaps.

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Lyretail orange Anthias guarding territory on the reefs.

You swim past a feather star and an octopus and are looking at the shapes and patterns of different corals when suddenly, you notice a crocodile fish nearby.

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An octopus watching hustle-bustle of the reef.

It blends well in the bright colours of coral polyps and camouflages into its surroundings. You hold your breath for a moment and look carefully at the fish’s face, and you are rewarded with the rare gaze of a crocodile fish, as hypnotic as a revolving prism of a magic ball.

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A rare gaze of the crocodile fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti)

When your eye catches the eye of a crocodile fish, you see a pattern. You notice that the fish’s eyes have a spherical latticework of thousands of crystalline lines with two distinct layers—the inside is dark, and the outside is thin and light— both separate, yet holding each other.

Both layers are captivating, but for some reason, you are unable to decide which layer to look at. The outer layer looks like it’s reflecting, while the inner layer is absorbing. The outer layer meanders like a flowing river, whereas the inner layer gives the eyes an illusion of depth. You notice that the textured globe of those eyes is opaque, and there is a lot more happening in the eyes that you can feel but cannot see. The more you gaze into the fish’s eyes the more they seem to reveal.

 

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In the world of eyes, these are true standouts. 

 

You begin to understand that the light-carrying fibres of the outer layer must be arrayed to optimise the fish’s ability to capture fast prey of small fish. As you gradually shift your gaze, the shape of this dark pupil also shifts—like the eye of a predator dilating when prey comes into view.

Soon you start noticing other fine details—the infinite amount of spines on fins, the rough texture of the fish’s body, the bearded roughness of its face, it’s camouflage, shape and it’s size.

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The eyes of a crocodile fish. They have frilly abstract iris lappets, which help them improve camouflage.

You start to think of what you know of the fish. You know that these biological star sapphires take longer to mature than most other fishes, but considering that they don’t have natural predators, their lifespan is quite long by fish standards. Their larvae float for weeks before they decide to settle on a coral reef and it takes almost a year for them to reach adulthood. Considering its predatory nature, in that one year it must have snared hundreds of small crabs and fish, and will have survived a gauntlet of larger predators swimming above it on the food chain.

You realise that you have spent a lot of time observing this fish without taking a single picture. So you adjust and readjust the focal length, the shutter speed and the intensity of the strobe light. You look through the LCD screen of your camera. After going back and forth between clicking images and viewing them on the screen, you capture what you think is the ‘perfect image’ of the fish’s eye. Though aware of your presence the crocodile fish does not move even an inch. You realise that you are a matter of indifference to the fish, some alien, or just some strange fish emitting short bursts of light. That’s when crocodile fish lifts off, instantly darts in pursuit of capturing something only it sees.


 

Edited version first published in Sanctuary Cubs magazine.

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