Not being able to get into the water during my vacation meant that I prowled the beaches with my camera prying into the private lives of every visitor. One of my interesting encounters was with a cowrie. I’ve handled these shells now and then. When I was a child, I used to like the small white ones. I saw one lying on the beach, and I moved to pick it up. Then it moved!
It scurried across the sand, pushing itself with its claws. I tried to take a photo. As I moved the camera towards it, it hunkered down. The claws disappeared into the shell. I could see its eye stalks waving uncertainly (photo to the right, above). I drew back, waiting to see what it would do.
After some waiting, it decided to start moving again. Its claws came out, and it pushed itself rapidly across the sand with them. I brought my camera forward, and it scurried. The eyestalks remained on the camera, as I drew back and took the featured photo.
The defensive action of molluscs is to hunker down, and withdraw from the world. I found it interesting, that this one was curious enough to keep its eyes out.
The beaches of Neil and Havelock islands are fringed with coral reefs. They damp wave action close to beaches, and moderate rip tides. Swimming is fairly safe. Elsewhere, such as in Wandoor beach, I saw nets to mark out areas which are safe for swimming. Wandoor also had a couple of lifeguards watching the swimmers.
The main swimming beach in Neil Island is Bharatpur beach: a long and shallow beach which opens out into coral reefs. This is a busy beach, with swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving and boating. I saw a few lifeguards walking up and down the beach. It was low tide, and people were walking really far out in the shallow beach. It did not seem like lifeguards would be able to keep watch on such a scattered crowd. When I asked a snorkelling instructor about this, he said that all the instructors also keep a watch.
At other beaches the number of people was very small. The beautiful Sitapur beach is rocky, and there seemed to be only one natural pool where you can swim. There was a lifeguard’s shack, with a tyre tube hanging on a pole. As you can see from the photo, it is possible to keep an eye on the whole beach from there.
I did not look for a lifeguard on Lakshmanpur beach. This fills up at sunset with visitors out to take photos of the setting sun. I could see lots of families with children in the shallows, standing in ankle deep water with cameras. There were no swimmers. One child splashed out up to his neck, and was hauled back by his grandfather. Family groups are good for safety.
When you walk on the fine white sandy beaches of Neil Island, you come across a few spots which look like a bone yard. These are the remnants of dead corals. When you look at these heaps, they seem to be in movement. Is it real? You have to look closer to make sure you are not seeing things. Then you see that there is indeed movement. Crawling through the bones of the island is life that seems to have emerged from the sea to walk on land.
Ritchie’s archipelago lies a little east of Port Blair. This group of islands includes Havelock and Neil Islands, often considered to have some of the best beaches in the world. The white sand beaches, the clear water and the warm sunshine seem appropriate to the quiet lifestyle of the locals. I could imagine myself settling down to months of slow life here.
Walking along the soft sand one occasionally comes across patches of rubble like the one you see in the photo above. They are pieces of broken coral, the bones of the sea, piled up in these little boneyards. When I saw them I began to wonder about the geological processes which form these little bits of paradise. Although coral reefs are spread across the world, their total area is about that of the state of Maharashtra. In terms of area, this is one part in a thousand of the world’s oceans, but it contains a fourth of all ocean life!
Our understanding of coral islands such as Neil and Havelock comes from Darwin, the master of careful scrutiny and understanding. He figured that such islands are volcanic. In the shallows around these new islands corals begin to accumulate. As the volcanic cone subsides, the corals grow upwards and outwards in the shallow waters. If their upward growth keeps pace with the sinking of the island, then eventually they form the wonderful reefs we saw around the islands (there is a brain coral at the bottom of the photo on the right). Too slow, and they would become drowned reefs. The volcanic rocks which supported the initial growth are also visible around these islands, as you can see in the photo above. The coral reef system is young, only about ten thousand years old.
The Andaman islands have been through a geological catastrophe about a decade ago. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake which generated a devastating tsunami was centred near these islands. You can see its devastating effects on the coral ecosystem even today. The sea bed rose by almost a meter, popping a large area of corals above the water and killing them. The great diversity that one sees in scuba dives off the coast of these islands is a fraction of what was there even as recently as 2001. Coral reefs are also sensitive to a variety of easily avoidable man-made perturbations: dumping of untreated organic waste such as sewage and chemicals from agricultural runoffs and even sunscreen. A little awareness for the next few decades would be enough to let this ecosystem recover.
We had a harrowing morning trying to get tickets on the ferry to Neil Island, but we’re here at last. I had breakfast at our hotel and went to sleep. After lunch I went to the beach. Its a couple of kilometres of white sand, glowing in the sun. The tide was out, and I could see little pools in the rocks where birds were feeding. I wish I hadn’t put that long slash on my calf. I’m supposed to stay out of the water for a week, and I’ll be back in Mumbai by then. The weather is perfect, and I plan to walk right around the island, if that is possible. You would have loved it here.
We’d a great ferry ride from Port Blair to the island just after sunrise. Nice and cool. I stood up on the deck and spotted dolphins. Grumpy Old Man went to sleep after breakfast. I walked over to the beach. The water is crystal clear. Blue turns to green when the water comes in over the sand. White collared kingfishers and Pacific reef egrets were fishing in deep pools between corals. I waded out to one and got wet. The water’s warm and comfortable. It gets quite hot in the afternoon. Grumpy Old Man’s gone for a walk in the heat. I’m sitting under the trees, enjoying the cool breeze. You would have loved it here.
Farmers and fisher-folk going door to door, selling their produce or catch, was a common sight when I was a child. Direct marketing has had a comeback in recent times, with cooperatives of farmers bringing trucks of produce into cities directly to apartment buildings. On the beach destination of Neil Island in the Andaman archipelago, I saw a fisher man going door to door with an enormous fish (photo above). I don’t now what fish that is: the size of a large surmai, but neither surmai (a.k.a. king fish, or seer) nor tuna.
There were surprises in the fish market as well. As we passed the scrupulously clean fish market on an auto, a fisherman called out to the driver. He’d saved a large fish head for him. The auto driver bought it, and my aunt asked him how it is cooked at home. It turned out that they both had the same dish in mind: fish head cooked with lauki (bottle gourd). Meanwhile I’d had a look at what was on sale. Among the usually silvery pile of fish were others coloured a strange stippled brown. I asked for the names, but none of them rang a bell. The larger, lippy, fish was probably the tasty silver jack which I’d eaten grilled a couple of nights before. This is not the thing that Google recognizes as silver jack. Many of the fish were just called jungli-this or jungli-that (meaning wild). The fishermen were Bengali settlers, and they had just named the unfamiliar fish according to which of the familiar fish of the Bengal coast they reminded them of.
The fish market was in the centre of the island, and I passed it several times a day. The next time I looked in the catch was from the reefs around the island. The colourful schools of fish we’d seen darting among the corals were edible! Of course they would be; it was my assumption that they were just aquarium fish for display. The yellow fish with blue stripes had been pointed out as banana fish: clearly another made up name, since Japanese Manga was not very common on the island. I’d seen the red fish with blue and brown dots, but hadn’t bothered to ask what it was called. Clearly, a fish market in a coral island is much more colourful than a fish market in Mumbai.
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.