Edited version first published in Sanctuary Asia.
When you think of coral reefs in India- Andamans, Lakshadweep, Gulf of Mannar and Gulf of Kutch is what comes to mind, but there are other regions that are largely unheard of and neglected due to their inaccessibility. One such area is Angria Bank, located approximately 65 nautical miles offshore from Vijaydurg, Maharashtra along the west coast of India. Angria Bank is a submerged plateau, which means, it is a shallow region that has formed during the holocene sea-level rise thousands of years ago. Historical records indicate that the area was a stronghold of Kanhoji Angre, who served as one of the first Admirals under the Maratha Emperor, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Angre used the submerged bank as battleground where he fought against enemy ships and protected the Maratha empire from foreign invasions.
Even though visiting Angria Bank has always been on the radar, the real impetus came when in July 2019 the former Additional Chief Conservator of Forests, Mr N. Vasudevan convinced us to visit the area. Even back then it appeared to be a far-fetched goal, but with encouragement from the Country Director of WCS-India, Ms. Prakriti Srivastava, we progressed towards executing the expedition Angria.
To begin the process, we approached all seaworthy boats along the coast of Maharashtra. A few agreed, but no one gave a definitive answer. We then reached out to several research institutions and pitched the idea of a joint expedition. Dr M. Sudhakar, the former Director of the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE) had the immense foresight to understand the significance of the expedition. He agreed to partner with us by providing the support of their research vessel FORV Sagar Sampada, 72.5 m long ship built in 1984 that is equipped to carry out multidisciplinary research expeditions from oceanography and marine biology to fishery science. Having secured this component essential to the expedition, we approached partner organisations and individuals who would contribute to the success of the expedition. Our team organised a tentative itinerary, survey plan, expedition team and necessary SCUBA and research equipment on a one-week notice. On 16th December 2019, we assembled at the Kochi port to board FORV Sagar Sampada and spent 2 days planning finer details of the expedition. By the time we got the clearance from the port authority and boarded the ship it was noon of 18th December. Loading of SCUBA tanks, dive gear took almost 3 hrs, and by 5 in the evening we were officially onboard the ship. The Captain of the vessel, Mr. Pradeep Chanan, and the Chief Scientist of the expedition Dr Hashim Manjebrayakath who works with CMLRE along with 29 ship crew members welcomed us onboard.
The ship had all necessities onboard, which included fancy cabins, helicopter pad for safety air evacuation and all means of recreation- from table tennis to a TV room. The kitchen was stocked with fresh supplies of vegetables and meat along with fruits and variety of beverages. As the ship is operated by the Shipping Corporation of India, under the Government of India, we had to follow the fixed timings for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After a brief introductory session, dos-and-don’t and a tour of the ship, the Captain announced that we will be leaving the port with the first ray of light. While the ship stayed anchored at the port, we got into the planning phase that was ahead of us.
Journey into the sea
Next morning, we were up before dawn. A beautiful morning sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. About a mile from the shore a small speed boat approached us with great speed. It was a pilot boat that was escorting us out of the Kochi harbour. The officers in their uniforms seemed busy as they conversed loudly over their walkie talkie with the ground staff who were pulling up long ropes and a metallic anchor. The senior aged ship Captain was manoeuvring from the main deck of the ship, “Port forward and aft, port forward and aft”, a common vernacular used when the ship leaves the port.
Within 15 minutes of leaving the port, we sighted a pod of dolphins. Marine mammal experts in our group, Abhishek Jamalabad and Avik Banerjee identified them as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. They swam freely displaying, playing, idling and feeding. We were captivated by these mammals and the serenity of the surrounding sea. The estimated journey to Angria Bank was 52 hours, which gave us ample amount of time for planning and preparation. After 6 hours and 30 nautical miles, the cell phone range had dropped and so did the sight of land. We were far beyond internet searches and android apps. With a gentle breeze and a relatively smooth sea, Sagar Sampada moved at a steady speed of 7-8 nm/hr.
For marine mammal survey, we used double observer survey method to look-out for dolphins. During these surveys, two primary observers (one each on the port and starboard sides) used the Big Eye binoculars mounted on the vessel bridge to observe, identify and count birds and marine mammals; whereas other observers used handheld binoculars and assisted the main observers in spotting individual dolphins. We took turns for the marine mammal survey in shifts till dusk but had no luck in sighting any dolphins. The night came in early and soon we were sailing in darkness under the canopy of a million stars. Cirrus clouds, constellations of stars, long strides of flying fish, dark blue water and pleasant swaying of the ship was mesmerising. By the second day, we had crossed the continental shelf and the colour of the water had turned much darker. Occasional terns, a few ships at a distance and the endless sea had engulfed us. We continued our lookout for dolphins and other mammals though the Big Eye binoculars. The wind was against us; we were still several hours from reaching Angria Bank. The occasionally flying fish would glide above the surface for long distances by touching the water surface intermittently. We spotted many gulls, petrels and skuas and finally in the evening we were lucky to spot a pair of pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and a bottlenose dolphin that spent almost 10 minutes riding the bow.
On our third day, it felt as if we were in the middle of the ocean. The sea was exceptionally calm. The texture and colour of the water was clear, a wonderful blue. At 10 in the morning, the captain announced that we were going to reach Angria Bank in 30 minutes and our eyes kindled with excitement.
Time spent at Angria Bank
As the popular saying goes- in military operations, nothings goes according to the plan, perhaps that saying is apt for field biology as well. In thirty-four years of operational history of the research vessel FORV Sagar Sampada, no work has been carried out that involved SCUBA diving and as none of us had ever dived off from a big ship so we had to learn everything through trial and error. As per the dive plan, the first group of divers got ready for an exploratory dive. In excitement, one person jumped off the ship with all SCUBA gear and others followed, however the outboard engine did not start on time drifting all divers in different directions on the water surface with strong currents. There was overall panic, with people in water and people onboard, luckily the inflatable engine started working. Just when we were about to dive, one of our colleagues got stung by a jellyfish and we had to abort the dive. After giving the first aid treatment for the sting, we changed our dive plan and followed a strategy that involved getting down the pilot ladder into an inflatable boat, lowering of the SCUBA gear into the smaller inflatable boat, and then search for respective sites via hand handheld GPS and depth finder.
On our first exploratory dive, it took us nearly 30 minutes to find a site where the depth was less than 28 metres. As we plunged into the crystal-clear water, everything seemed quiet and we couldn’t hear anything other than the sound of breathing in the form of bubbles. Once we hit the bottom, we were greeted by a school of giant silver-fin jacks and barracudas that appeared dappled in the sunlight. A curious groupers were gliding past and at the sea bottom, there was a symphony of multicoloured reef fish. We continued swimming in the dense thicket of reef edge. There was a profusion of colours- vermilion red, canary yellow, citron orange, royal purple and an electric blue sea. We watched grouper fish and snapper fish jostle for space amongst the coral crevices, as if they were in a game of musical chairs, moving-in-and-out of coral crevices. After 18 minutes and 2 safety stops, we surfaced with a big smile pasted on our faces.
Execution of surveys
Navigating an unmapped habitat meant that there would be limited scope for predicting what was underwater. The average depth of the bank was more than 25 metres at most sites, which constrained the time we could spend underwater. As per the dive & survey plan, five of us were involved in data collection, while one person remained on the inflatable rib to maintain contact between the dive team and FORV Sagar Sampada. Every person was responsible for completion of assigned tasks. Besides filming and taking pictures of marine biodiversity, we were involved in laying transect tapes, collecting data on reef fish, invertebrates and corals and algae found at Angria Bank.
The reef we observed was different compared to the reefs we were used to diving in. A few sites were full of corals and marine life, whereas others were covered with dense macroalgae. Corals were found everywhere, interspersed with algae and sand, and on many dives, we got hit by cold water currents and intense swells that were difficult to manoeuvre. After every dive, we took a good one-hour safety stop by following our dive computer safety algorithms. Every day we got to witness something new and unusual and the visibility stayed unchanged. At many sites red whip corals rose up like lilies beneath the fans and a host of small fish went about their business in between. There were thousands of fishes and invertebrates of different shapes and sizes and colours- all busy in rigmarole of their daily life. Grouper fish were most abundant at most sites. Eagle rays swooped in, moving like lofty birds of the sky. Large tunas and sharks cut the water above us as we crawled through underwater rocks to avoid being blown away by raging currents. Morey eels, scorpionfish, wrasses, and thousands of fish kept looking at us as if we are alien in their space.
Refilling of SCUBA tanks, lowering the gear to the inflatable boat, washing cameras, dive gear, data entries and intense discussions on improvising based on experience of previous dives took most of our evening and dinner sessions. Oranges, dry fruits and desi farsaan kept us going between the dives. Post dinner the ship was manoeuvred across the length and breadth by following structured transects. We used the Electronic Depth Profiler (EDP) onboard the FORV Sagar Sampada and mapped the floor of Angria Bank. The bank was found to be ranging in depths from 16m – 32m revealing an undulated bed, whose average depth was recorded to be 24m. The edges of the bank recorded having a sudden change in depth from 28m to about 70 – 300m.
Sea of change
After few days, the weather had changed. The wind had picked up and the waves were hitting the ship from the starboard side. We stayed strong and undeterred, and regrouped with a new dive plan. As per the new plan, we had to buck-up in terms of our reflexes, especially while lowering the inflatable boat to entering the water column from the inflatable boat. The most experienced amongst us dived whereas; others gave support in planning the dives. The surface currents were strong, but once we hit the ground, the sea was mostly calm. We continued our surveys by exploring new sites. Our days began with the sun’s first ray and ended with the last. Every day we would complete survey and exploration of three to four sites. At few sites it felt as if we were in the middle of an action packed James Bond movie: big fish chasing small fish, sharks cruising in search of prey and fish moving in and out of coral crevices like rush hour commuters coming out of a subway. Whereas at others, all we got to see was sand and vast stretches of macro algae, but even then, gentle swaying of algaewas as enthralling as seeing many fish underwater. On one occasion the strong bottom current swept us along and drifted us away. When we surfaced from the dive, the inflatable boat or the big ship was nowhere in sight. We held onto each other’s hands and legs to make a human chain to ensure that we were not swept farther away. To our luck the boat spotted us through the binoculars and came to our rescue. Whereas another time, we surfaced very close to the ship and we scrambled to get ourselves out of the way and far from the vessel in search for the inflatable boat. Luckily the inflatable boat was close by and we were rescued on time. As the days went by, it felt as if diving every day is a new normal and the stable land is out there somewhere, marked on the map far away. At the onset of our 3rd dive trip of the day, the propeller of inflatable boat fell off and the expedition ended, but our enthusiasm stayed.
The return journey comprised of discussions revolving around the time spent at sea, watching the sunrise, listening to the sound of the waves, engaging in inspirational discussions, marvelling at the grace of the marine wildlife we witnessed. The expedition bestowed us with a unique window to explore the reefs and associated marine life that is still intact and thriving. We completed 66 dives and observed more than 1500 corals, approximately 5000 reef fish, 500 plus invertebrates, many dolphins, sharks, sting and eagle rays, endless stretches of algae and colourful reefs. Our team added to several new records and got a glimpse of once unknown marine life that exists out there. With 14 expedition team members, 16 SCUBA cylinders, 6 underwater cameras, 39 crew members, 79.5 m long FORV Sagar Sampada, tons of adrenaline rush in the background of white dappled sunlight, dolphins, and an electric blue sea we returned back to Kochi harbour.
While the reefs around the world, including that of Great Barrier Reefs, are grappling with coral mortality due to climate change, storm, cyclones and series of bleaching events, how the reefs and marine life at Angria Bank have thrived is a real mystery. We have now put together this information in the form of report, but there is plenty to be done. What we know today is that mysteries of Angria Bank are as deep as our oceans. The hope is that the expedition findings will highlight the importance of conserving this unique ecosystem and create a roadmap for its conservation.
 Captain explained “man overboard” as an emergency but the whole operation involved diving.