Leaving Andamans

A relaxed holiday ended roughly as it began: with the chaos of a ferry. A queue of people moved slowly up a gangplank to the ferry, where the harbour master and a ship’s officer checked tickets. Before that there were two people loading luggage. We gave them ours, and it seemed to be passed into a hold. Later we found that it was piled up in the main cabin.


An interesting thing about sea-going vessels is that everything is labelled. When you think about it you realize that on board an airplane also everything is labelled, but much of the labelling is in the area and equipment handled by crew. The largest space in a plane is passenger seating, and the labelling there is discreet. On the ferry we did not sit in the cabin, but preferred to go up to the deck. It took me a second to figure out what the "Sea Wage Air Vent" is (see photo above).

View of Sitapur beach from ferry, Neil Island, Andaman

We looked at Neil Island as we pulled away. The jetty and buoy which marked the scuba diving point fell away. We had our last view of Lakshmanpur beach (above), and then the whole island could be encompassed in one view (featured photo). The sea was wonderfully clear, and our wake had lovely blue tones in it. Someone excitedly pointed out a dolphin. We looked for one, and talked lazily about dugongs and sea turtles which we had missed. An hour later we were in Port Blair, and on our way to the airport. The year and the holiday were about to end.

A restful beach

One of the most restful beaches I found in Andaman was the beach in Neil Kendra. I was biased of course; a cut on my leg prevented me from entering the water, so I was a beach comber during my vacation. The Neil Kendra beach had no people at all. It is not a swimming beach, because it is fronted by corals and mangroves.

I did not pay much attention to mangroves before 2004. Then when extensive reports came in of how mangrove ecosystems saved villages from the tsunami, I began to find more information on these swampy backwaters of Mumbai. Today it seems to be an integral part of coast management, given that it not only protects the shore, but actually builds new area. Also, the coastal ecosystem around mangroves is extremely productive, since it harbours many kinds of fish.

Mangroves in Neil Kendra, Andaman

None of this was on my mind as I walked on the beach. My indoors job leaves me little time to walk in the sun. So I was making the best use of my vacation to soak in the vitamin D as I tried to work up an appetite for lunch. The roots of these trees formed beautiful traps which reflected in the pools of water below them. They gave me some nice photos.

Mangroves are like the kindergarten, seagrasses are the secondary schools, and coral reefs are the high schools and colleges for fishes! And, once [the fishes] graduate from university, they return to kindergarten to spawn! -Khun Pisit, cofounder of Thailand’s Yad Fon mangrove preservation project

I’m used to the mangroves of Mumbai. I’ve seen fisherfolk walk among them at low tide laying pots to trap shrimps, or harvesting previously laid traps. I’ve spent weekends near these mangrove swamps birdwatching. These are very popular with birdwatchers around Mumbai. The very fact that so many wading birds can be seen in such places means that there are fish and crustaceans here. In Mumbai one cannot be oblivious of the fact that builders constantly try to have laws and regulations changed so that they can build over these swamps.

Still, with India’s huge coastline, I’d expected that India would be among the top ten nations harbouring mangroves. It was a shock that it isn’t. Even more shocking is the fact that the Indian Forest Service reports that Kerala had 6 sq Km of mangroves in 2013! Only Odisha, West Bengal and Andaman have dense mangrove forests. Indonesia has more than twenty times as much of mangrove forests as India does. I guess if we bring up our children to eat fish, we should do a little more for mangroves.

Barnacles, limpets or gribbles?

The Leafless walked in from a walk by the beach to tell us about a log which had washed in. She said it was full of shells. I thought it might be barnacles. I finished my tea and walked out to look at the log.

It was a freshly broken branch of a tree, and it had been colonized by bivalves. Clearly these were not barnacles or limpets. Were they gribbles? I didn’t think they were. They could be piddocks; those are bivalves. But the piddock shells I got to see in a few days did not look like these. I wonder what these mysterious creatures are. Look at the movement of the shells on the extreme left in the 7th second of the video below: they look like real bivalves.

I wonder if anyone can help me figure out what they are.

How to spot a carnivore

If you walk along the beach and you find a group of people clustered around something that has washed up, hotly discussing whether it is a lobster, you would be sure you had fallen in with a bunch of confirmed carnivores.

The Leafless and The Family stopped at this head as I was taking photos elsewhere on the beach. I realized they must have come on something interesting, so I walked over. The Family thought it was some kind of a lobster. The Leafless asked "Wouldn’t it have claws?". I agreed with both, but it was a bit of a mystery, as we all took photos of this beautiful head.

Spiny lobsters, also known as langouste or rock lobsters, are a family (Palinuridae) of about 60 species of achelate crustaceans, in the Decapoda Reptantia. -Wikipedia

A little research cleared this up. Technically we’d seen the head of a spiny lobster. I think I’ve eaten them in France. I’m certain that The Family and I have walked around farmer’s markets where there were Langoustes on sale. Energized by this sight we order a lobster for dinner. It wasn’t available, so we settled for crabs instead. If you see a crustacean with a long spiny antenna and small or non-existent claws, it is almost certainly a spiny lobster.

Fish in a tide pool

On arrival at Neil Island we met a young auto driver called Suman. He turned out to be very articulate, and had a very pleasant way of explaining to us when we disagreed on anything: including fares. There were many pleasant auto drivers on the island, but of those we met he was the most articulate. Once we were at a loose end in Bharatpur beach, when we met him.sitapurrocks He asked where we wanted to go, and we said that we would go to whichever place he wanted to show us. He took us to Sitapur beach.

That was the first time we saw this beach, with its spectacular crescent of yellow sand, and the wonderful submerged layers of rocks. You can see the clarity of the water in the photo above. I think the rocks must have been heaved up in the 2004 earthquake. I loved the very eroded flat slabs of rock, some with holes bored by piddocks.

Rocks around Sitapur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

The tide was out, and we walked out over the bare rocks to peer into little tide pools. Some of them had tiny fish which would dart away as soon as they saw something looming above the water. Eventually I captured the featured photo by crouching low on a rock until the fish came to rest. Until I saw the photo, I hadn’t noticed the bubbles at the tips of the fronds of seaweed.

The beach was empty except for us and a French couple swimming in a deep pool among the rocks. We walked up to a distant rock fall and came back. Suman was waiting expectantly, and his face lit up when we answered his unasked question by saying this was a beautiful spot.

Eating in or eating out?

The little islands of Ritchie’s archipelago have small populations by Indian standards. Neil Island has a permanent population of about 3000, with about that many more tourists in peak season. A large fraction of the population runs restaurants. Signs such as the one in the featured photo were common. We also read one which promised " North and South Indian, Bengali, Continental, Chinese, Israeli and Bhutanese food". I had looked at these signs as indicators of where most visitors came from, but the reference to Bhutanese was a jolt. It is unlikely that there are many Bhutanese tourists here. Perhaps it is a nod to the fact that momos are popular all across the northern part of the country.

Typical beach eatery in Neil Island, Andaman

On our first day in the island, we came across this little stall on the beach. While we had a tea, the man told us about what he could get us for dinner. His recommendation was lobsters, and the price he offered was good. He insisted that The Family take down his phone number. If we ordered he would deliver the dish to our room in the hotel. Unfortunately, we never got around to ordering. There are too many walk-in options. What sea food we ate on the island was wonderfully fresh.

Reading on the beach

There were lots of animals on beaches and in the sea around Neil Island, but Lepus timidus were not among them. So the sign had to be in error. Also, as one of my nieces pointed out, the buoy is too big for any known hare. We saw many interesting signs on Bharatpur beach, but this probably takes the award for the zaniest mistake.

Glass-bottomed boats, Neil Island, Andaman

You can take glass-bottomed boats out of Bharatpur beach to see corals. Since the cut on my leg prevented me from getting into the water, I took this more distant view of the sea bottom. The boats had terrific names; two of the best are in the photo above. I liked "O. B. Sea Prasad", whose subtext every Indian will instantly follow. A gloss for others: affirmative action in India is mainly based on castes, and OBC stands for Other Backward Castes. This boat was probably bought using an affirmative action bank-loan. The name of the boat standing next to it is a really zany take on Santa Cruz. There may have been an effort at a pun: Santa Cruise, but it didn’t come out very well.

I loved reading on the beach.

A Beach in the Anthropocene

Walking on the beach, looking for odd sea creatures, I found that I was constantly shifting my angle of view so that I could take photos without including a lot of garbage. After some time I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t there an equally interesting story in the things I was trying to avoid? Take the featured photo: the tracks in the sand belong to molluscs and crabs, but the largest object there is a piece of long-lasting plastic garbage which has washed up from the ocean. It looked like a container of machine oil to me.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

You have probably read the same articles about garbage that I have, so you know about the continent sized floating islands of garbage in the middle of the world’s large oceans. The Andaman islands lie a little west of Myanmar, Thailand, Malayasia and Indonesia. As a result, garbage from these countries lands on the beaches of Andamans on their way to the Indian Ocean gyre. This is not a guess: it is the result of looking at innumerable labels on plastic garbage through a morning. You can verify it from the photos here.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman
Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

Garbage from India does not wash up in the Andamans. I guess that lands up either directly in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, or on the beaches of Lakshadeep and Sri Lanka. I grew up with romantic stories of messages in bottles found on beaches. Today the romance is gone; bottles are the most common man-made objects on a beach, as you can see from the photos above. The message that these bottles bring us are of the incredible waste that all societies produce.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

If the can of machine oil had an ambiguous origin, this gizmo almost certainly has come from a boat. Was it tossed overboard, or did it fall off because it was stowed carelessly? It does not really matter. It has come to rest on a bed of broken corals. By the time the corals weather down to the white sands of these beaches, they will have incorporated bits of this plastic. Even now, when we go for a swim we probably come out the water with bits of plastic clinging to us along with the sand.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

The kind of garbage you see in this photo is everywhere: bits of thermocol, little plastic containers. Industrial civilization produces them with such abandon that a little inattention on our parts can cause it to turn into a pollutant. Think of this for the moment: how often do you handle plastic packaging of any kind, once every twenty minutes? Is it possible for you to be mindful of where every bit of the packaging you handled in one day has gone? Even with the best will in the world, you will not be able to answer "yes". That is the tragedy of the anthropocene.

Bitten by a radioactive mollusc?

It’s not very often than I hear The Family yelp. When I did, I tore myself away from the ghost crab I was trying to photograph to check on her. She was holding a long conical shell and looking very white. As I rushed up to her I remembered a friend of ours who was working on poisonous cone snails. Was she holding one?

Fortunately, she was not. The creature in the photo you see above had been startled when The Family picked it up from the beach, looked out and used its pincers to explore its surroundings. That’s when I heard the sound from its surroundings. Once we realized that it was not poisonous, I took a few photos before putting it back. It was the second day of Christmas.

Ghost crab, Neil Island, Andaman

Meanwhile the ghost crab (photo above) would have disappeared. I saw it first as something scurrying over the white sand at the edge of my vision. I looked around and couldn’t see it. But then it moved again as I was looking at it. It didn’t like my camera, and kept scuttling away. Eventually, as it rested on a little stone, I managed to get a photo. Even in the photo it is hard to see it clearly. I’ve enhanced the contrast to make it visible. I’m sure I can see ten legs, but how many eyes does it have, and where?

When you look at the photo above, you notice the holes in the stone. What makes them? Jessica had some answers: in a much colder sea there are creatures called rock borers (duh), piddocks, and sponges.

Piece of a sea sponge, Neil Island, Andaman

I would not have believed this about sea sponges. But on the third day of Christmas my niece got for me a sea sponge on a rock. We admired it together. The branching filaments of the sponge allow it to sample the water that flows through it, and filter out food. I noticed that the rock on which it grew was full of holes. As for piddocks, I only saw these bivalves the next day.

Gribble holes in wood, Neil Island, Andaman

On the fourth day of Christmas, The Family and I admired this large piece of driftwood we had to cross. The beautiful surface has been created by living creatures. In the waters around the Andaman islands, the wood borers are mainly molluscs called shipworms (family Teredinidae) and crustaceans called gribbles. It turns out that there is an immense scientific literature on these, because of the harm they do to wooden structures. However, many of the papers are on the biology and physiology of these creatures. One of the few things I learnt was that shipworms and gribbles eat wood, but piddocks just make holes where they can sit safely. In the photo above you can see a few shells lodges snugly in holes in the wood; these are probably piddocks. Eventually I came across a post which takes you deeper into the world of wood eaters in the sea.

I think these were more interesting than partridges, turtle doves, French hens and calling birds. And no, The Family still hasn’t developed a mollusc sense.

The private life of a star

We walked out into a bed of dead corals at sunset, meaning to walk to a point where the corals were alive. The tide was coming in, and we had little time. But I got distracted. There were tentacles waving below the surface of the water. When I looked closer I saw a strange starfish, climbing up a submerged stone using all five tentacles around its round body.

Once I knew what to look for I could see them everywhere. They would usually have a bolt hole where they would retreat to hide or feed. Feeding consisted of pushing a couple of tentacles out of its cave and agitating the water around it. Presumably this enabled them to catch tiny organisms floating in the water. It looked like a child stuffing her mouth while out picking blueberries.