On the descent into the airport at Port Blair I looked out at an unfamiliar town and got a quick impression of lots of wetlands around it (see the featured photo). The Andaman islands are closer to Thailand than to India, but remain on Indian time. As a result, the sun sets by 5:30 in December. The Family and I did not want to lose this first afternoon on the islands. Shaktivel had promised to meet us at the airport so that we could go birding immediately. It turned out that he’d planned to take us to the wetlands I saw from the air. This is called Sippighat.
It is a wonderful area for water birds. In the first few minutes we had a couple of lifers. But then I noticed that there were trucks dumping mud into the waters in an attempt to reclaim it. Shakti told me that this was farmland until the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake dropped it below the level of the sea. I hadn’t bothered to look at the geology of the Andamans till then. But now it clicked.
We were on an island which sits at the geologically active boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates. Three or four million years ago, their collision fractured the plates and created the Burmese and the Sunda microplates. This tectonic activity threw up the island chains. The slow subsiding of the extinct volcanic cones has created the wonderful coral reefs which I saw first from the air. Even now, as the Indian plate is sinking under these volcanic islands, elastic strain is being built up in the continental plates.
This strain was partly relieved by the 2004 earthquakes along the Indo-Burman plate boundary. The Andaman islands were repeatedly shaken by enormous after-shocks, each a major earthquake on its own. Sippighat and its wonderful birds (which I will list later) were just the first consequence that we saw. A dry account of the geological catastrophe of 2004 can still inspire awe. A five minute period, almost exactly twelve years ago, shifted the islands downwards by about a meter and changed rice fields into the watery landscape where we now stood.
The calm swampy land glowed in the light of the setting sun. Continental plates shifted catastrophically to create the seemingly peaceful photo you see above: a landscape full of egrets, plovers and bitterns. It would take me the better part of a week to begin to appreciate how much ecological stress persists even today. But this impoverished ecology is much more diverse than what I normally see in Mumbai.