We were belly down in a Dead-man’s Float over the blue waters of the Andaman Sea, hovering over a brilliant coral reef splattered with dancing colours. A pair of striped Banner Fish waved their elongated fins in welcome, with the elegance of rhythmic gymnasts performing with ribbons. Embedded in the corals, the wavy furls of clam shells shimmered like gem-encrusted African violets. We were hypnotized by the languid sway of sea ferns, the moss green antlers of Staghorn Coral, barrel-sized Giant Clams that squeezed shut in self-defense and leathery sea cucumbers disguised as driftwood… there was a whole new world…throbbing, gliding and playing hide-n-seek all around us.
“Nemo”, cried our snorkeling instructor, breaking our reverie, as he pointed to the orange and white clownfish darting in and out of the tentacles of a sea anemone. If a mere pixel-sized section of the reef at Mahuadera on the fringes of Wandoor’s Marine National Park kept us enthralled for hours, imagine what the 572 islands of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands have in store for you…
The 2000 sq km stretch of fringing coral reef is one of the largest, most complex and fragile ecosystems that support marine life. While glass-bottomed boats are the most popular mode of marine exploration, they offer only the tepid comfort of window shopping. In contrast, snorkeling and scuba diving compare to the joys of a big splurge!
The clear aquamarine waters of Jolly Buoy, Red Skin and the 15 islands that dot the 280 sq km Marine National Park abound with four species of turtle – Green Sea turtle, Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridleys and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. Every year between December and February, the beaches in North Andamans lure tourists to witness the amazing spectacle of turtle nesting. With 92% forest cover, the Andamans teem with rare butterflies, egg-laying sea snakes reptiles, exotic birds like the Megapode and Hawabill and endemic flora and fauna unseen elsewhere.
Eons ago, these islands formed an unbroken mountain chain extending from the Lushai and Arakan in Myanmar to Sumatra in Indonesia. Its location at the junction of two continental plates thousands of leagues below the seabed led to geological disturbances, causing this mountain range to sink and sever from the mainland, thus creating the Andaman Islands. Today, only the ‘camel-back humps’ of submerged peaks are visible.
According to legend, the monkey god Hanuman used these islands as a stepping stone when he flew across the seas to Lanka. The Malays called it Handuman, from which its present name is derived. Trade prompted the Cholas to set sail for South East Asia with goods of commerce and epic lore. The Tanjore inscription of 1050 AD mentions Nicobar as Nikkavaram or Land of the Naked.
Home to hostile tribes, surrounded by seas all around, these virgin islands remained forgotten for centuries, save passing references by foreign travelers. It was the British who first developed it as a harbour base to assist ships in distress. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the Andamans gained notoriety as a penal settlement that echoed with the far cries of freedom.
In the warm glow of the sunset at Chidiya Tapu, memories of the last few days seared through our minds… Snorkeling at North Bay – our first encounter with the deep, walking barefoot at Corbyn’s Cove – Port Blair’s only beach, nature hikes through Mt Hariett National Park, enlightening trips to museums, the bustle of Aberdeen Bazaar, local handicrafts of shell and pearl, boatmen with lanterns on nightly crab-hunts, the old saw mill at Chatham Island, the Japanese bunkers of World War II… it all came back in a flood.
The poetic ruins on Ross Island, once described as ‘Paris of the East’, now hunched like a frail old man; overgrown roots creeping like gnarled veins across its wrinkled skin. The sheer irony of the gallows atop Viper Island; the edifice was crumbling, yet the wooden beam for the hangman’s noose had survived!
And the most defining landmark, the Cellular Jail – a symbol of valour, sacrifice and struggle for Indian Independence from British rule. Built by the blood, sweat and tears of six hundred convicts who laboured relentlessly for a decade, now only three wings of the colossal seven-pronged prison remain. Dusk had silently slipped on a cloak of darkness and we returned to Port Blair to catch a boat the next morning…
The Makruzz was the quickest way to Havelock Island in Ritchie’s Archipelago, a hub of marine adventure. Shooting out of Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty, the swanky boat covered the 50 km distance in under two hours, cutting travel time by half. The mini-cruise liner sliced through the inky water causing schools of flying fish to burst forth in silvery sparks as they skimmed off the surface into infinity.
Soon, we docked at Havelock’s main jetty – village number 1 where we bumped into an old friend Louve. An avid angler, he was here to grapple with tunas, barracudas, marlins and giant trevally. ‘Andamans is the final frontier for Sportsfishing my friend’, he shouted, as our taxis revved away. We drove down the island’s eastern side past a profusion of resorts to the Government-run Dolphin Resort, easily one of the prettiest locales. A row of cottages overlooked tree-lined lawns and an endless stretch of shallow turquoise waters. Post lunch, we were off to discover what was once a hunting base of the Great Andamanese tribe.
‘The island has two men rods (main roads)’, spoke the third generation Bengali driver in his lyrical accent. Most settlers in the Andamans were people from the coast of Bengal and Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after the ‘71 war. Relocated into colonies numbered for convenience, the settlers renamed these enclaves after their gods – Govindnagar, Radhanagar, Lakshmanpur, Sitapur, Bharatpur… The mixed nomenclature continues to this day, peacefully co-existing with islands honouring British heroes of the 1857 Mutiny – John Nicholson, James Outram, Colin Campbell, Henry Lawrence, John Lawrence, William Peel and of course Henry Havelock and James Neil.
Soon, we were on the ‘second’ road to Radhanagar or Beach No.7 on the island’s south-western side. We could see why it was ranked as the best in Asia. A crescent-shaped beach of feathery white sand ringed by tall padauka (Bullet Wood) trees, Radhanagar’s main attraction was the Barefoot Resort.
Rated amongst the world’s top 30 eco-resorts, Barefoot offers a luxurious mix of plush accommodation, exotic spa treatments, gourmet cuisine and marine adventure. We trekked from Radhanagar to Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach, littered with gigantic trees uprooted by the ravaging tsunami of 2004. Here, a group of amateur divers went through their introductory sessions. Barefoot Scuba, Dive India, Laccadives and the dozen other dive shops at Havelock offer a wide range of courses. Most day trips include 2 dives with packed lunch. After a detailed briefing, Divemasters led teams to remote, virtually unexplored sites like Barracuda City, Dugong Dungeon or Turtle Bay around Ritchie’s Archipelago.
While Havelock, the heart of all tourist activity, brims with resorts and restaurants, Neil is the quintessential soul of Andamans and chugs to a lazier beat. Cheaper lodging options and great seafood make the isle a favourite getaway for budget travelers seeking peace and quiet. Most of these thatch and bamboo ‘resorts’ hire out cycles and basic diving gear to enable leisurely explorations. At Lakshmanpur 1 Beach or Sunset Point, a narrow channel separates Neil from Havelock, where dugongs swim in shallow waters. Just past the natural stone arch at Lakshmanpur 2 Beach, the sea recedes at low tide and the submerged reef exposes its hidden treasures… a chance to see corals, shells, ornamental fish and brittle stars, on foot!
From being a land of aborigines, to a harbour base, a penal settlement, a tropical paradise and now a Mecca for marine adventure, the Andamans has reinvented itself each time, braving the test of time, calamity and war. The legacy of the Andamans lives on, with the imprint of North Bay’s palm-fringed lighthouse immortalized on the back of a twenty rupee note.
Getting there: Located 1000 km to the East of India in the Bay of Bengal, Port Blair is connected by regular Jet Airways flights from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) and passenger ships run by the Shipping Corporation of India (60-72 hrs).
When to go: Though October to May is the main tourist season, the perfect time for scuba diving is between December and April, when the waters are clear and the visibility great.
For Marine Adventure, contact: