Ten days after cyclone Vardah travelled from the Andaman Sea over the Bay of Bengal to hit Chennai, we flew backwards along its track. The sky over Chennai was a clear blue. As the plane nosed up, I saw a few banks of fluffy clouds near the horizon. The sky below us was clear as our Airbus 320 reached cruising height. The flight to the Andaman archipelago would take almost two hours. The sky below me seemed clear; only a few stray fluffy clouds occasionally interrupted my view of the calm seas. But when I looked up, there was a thin layer of cirrus clouds very far above the cruising altitude of the plane. They looked dark against the otherwise clear sky. You can see them in the upper half of this photo. You can also see a few wisps of white cumulus clouds against the blue of the sea in the lower part of the photo.
The monotony of flying over the ocean was just beginning to lull me to sleep when the plane began its descent. As we came in over the outlying islands, cloud banks piled up ahead of us. The air was not as clear as it had been before. I realized later that clouds tended to mass up near the islands and coast in this season. As a result, the image of the coral atoll surrounding the island in the photo above was hazy, and I had to tweak the photo quite a bit to see the beautiful patterns in the water around the island. It was lovely to see the surf breaking far from the white sandy beach around the island.
The descent to Port Blair was fast, and I barely clicked a few more photos as we came lower. Almost the last photo I managed to take was a beach surrounded by corals. This is the featured photo. The water is so clear that you can see the coral reefs and the wide tongue of white sandy beach. I knew we were in for a great holiday.
On almost the last day of the year I got up to see a sunrise for the first time in twelve months. The fiery photo you see above is of a sunrise seen from Neil Island in the Andaman archipelago.
Sitapur beach is the place in Neil Island where people go to see the sunrise. The photo above is a panorama of this little crescent shaped beach in the early light of the dawn. We saw about a hundred people in the morning. The beach is almost deserted through the rest of the day.
One part of going to the Andamans is to spend time in the water and beaches. Another part is to walk through forests and swamplands looking for birds and local animals. Meaning to look for checklists of birds, I searched for “checklists” instead. The results surprised me.
There are more than ten kinds of birds which are endemic to this island group, and are found no where else. This includes four kinds of owls! The one species that I’ve had my metaphorical sights on is the Narcondam Hornbill. But I think this is also the one I won’t get to see, given than a trip to Narcondam Island, 262 Kms from Port Blair cannot be accomplished between sunrise and sunset. Since we have already ruled out the long side trip to the Nicobar archipelago, we will also miss seeing the Nicobar Megapode, and the endemic Nicobar species. Still, that leaves us with many hours tramping around the wilds.
Where there are birds there must be snakes. There is a list of more than twenty, including some venomous sea snakes and even a Krait and Cobra endemic to the islands. These are creatures I would not like to run into.
A great checklist was of marine molluscs. Unknown to the public at large, the Zoological Survey of India continues to do its slow job of collecting and documenting life in and around India. The booklet by Ramakrishna and Sen says that " they are more diverse and abundant in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast and in the inter-tidal area of … the Andaman and Nicobar Islands" So I think walks along the beach will show us shells we have never seen before.
Nudibranch, opisthobranch (look at the wonderful description of the pink sea slug in the featured image!) and polychaetes are two groups of marine molluscs which I might get to see on a dive, provided I’m not too busy staying oriented. The paper I’ve linked above shows animals with wonderful colouring. I wonder how much of the colour is visible underwater through goggles. Since I’ve never dived before, I think I’ll probably spend a lot of time thrashing around. I’ll be lucky to see any of these.
There is even a checklist of the mosquitos of the Andamans. Of the 3541 species of mosquitos recorded from around the world, in 112 genera, these islands contain 109 species in 25 genera. More than a fourth of all mosquito species in India can be found in these islands. That’s something to remember when I forget my anti-mosquito gel.
It turns out that I can travel 2644 Kms on a great circle without having to use my passport: from Mumbai to Indira Point, at the tip of the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman Sea. This is more than 6.5% of the planet’s circum-ference. Another 200 Kms, and I would enter Indonesia through Banda Aceh. Why wouldn’t we make a quick dash to this place in the last week of the year? The only possible reason, it turns out, is the practical one of fixing an itinerary.
The Nicobar archipelago is largely out of bounds to tourists. We could go to Car Nicobar, the northernmost of these islands, or Great Nicobar, the southernmost. Only Great Nicobar sounds sufficiently interesting; it is home to the Shompen tribe, and is a biosphere reserve with interesting birds. But it turns out that ferries are irregular, and perhaps go only a couple of times a week. There are helicopter flights which cost Rs. 13,000 each way, which is somewhat outside our budget. So perhaps we will skip Nicobar.
The Andamans are a more compact group of islands, so hopping from one to another should not be too hard.[Note added: This is completely wrong. The most difficult part of a trip is to find a seat on a ferry. Do this as soon as you book your hotel.] Flights from the main land arrive in Port Blair. The easternmost island in the map above is Narcondam. This is 262 Km from Port Blair. The westernmost island shown in the map is the North Sentinel, which is 54 Kms from Port Blair. Strange to realize that the Sentinelese reject contact with outsiders, so this island is an exclusion zone. Barren island, 144 Kms northeast of Port Blair has an active volcano. These distances can be covered by ferry. Baratang with its mud volcanoes is also close. Visiting Ross Island with its ruins of colonial era structures, now taken over by banyan trees , is probably a nice way to spend half a day. I’m also looking forward to the beaches of Havelock island, and taking my first lessons in scuba diving and looking at coral reefs. Nice way to spend the last week of the year, isn’t it?
Here are some links which I found useful:
Andaman and Nicobar Tourism
Barren Island ferries and flights
Getting to Baratang