IN­DIA’S VOLCANOES

Largely closed off to tourists, the vol­canic is­lands of Nar­con­dam and Bar­ren of­fer some of In­dia’s most pris­tine and ex­otic dive sites. But th­ese is­lands are fac­ing a grim re­al­ity, and it’s time for divers to step in and in­ter­vene

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By Umeed Mistry

The first is­lands in the An­daman chain to wit­ness a new day dawn­ing are In­dia’s two vol­canic is­lands – Nar­con­dam and Bar­ren. Th­ese two sen­tinels stand alone, fur­ther east­ward into the An­daman Sea, with Thai­land be­ing the next great land­mass

500 kilo­me­tres away. Bar­ren and Nar­con­dam are lo­cated along the north–south trending vol­canic arc ex­tend­ing be­tween Su­ma­tra and Myan­mar, with Bar­ren still erupt­ing to this day.

The two volcanoes are iso­lated moun­tains in the An­daman Sea, with the foun­da­tions of Bar­ren Is­land rest­ing more than two kilo­me­tres be­low sea level.

It is only nat­u­ral, there­fore, that both the ac­tive Bar­ren Is­land and the dor­mant Nar­con­dam Is­land have aroused cu­rios­ity and a sense of ad­ven­ture in those of us who like to wan­der. And with the bu­reau­cratic and ad­min­is­tra­tive whimsy re­gard­ing vis­its to th­ese is­lands – mak­ing them some­times ac­ces­si­ble, and at other times off-lim­its to civil­ians, tourists and div­ing ves­sels – th­ese are ad­ven­tures for the tak­ing, should the op­por­tu­nity arise!

Un­der­wa­ter, Bar­ren goes from long, seem­ingly empty, black sand­flats to near ver­ti­cal drop-offs cov­ered in mas­sive gor­gonian fans

BAR­REN IS­LAND

There are many things that are un­pre­dictable about a visit to Bar­ren is­land. Some­times the is­land is quiet, al­most serene against an ab­surdly blue sky and a placid sea. Other times, a gi­ant plume of ash and smoke rises from its caldera, blot­ting out the sun, rain­ing ash into a sea that roils with crazy cur­rents.

The eastern and south­ern side of the is­land have trees that have colonised the parts of the land­mass that no longer are af­fected by the lava flow. White-bel­lied sea ea­gles, feral goats left there by Bri­tish sailors, bats, rats and crabs in­habit th­ese ar­eas. The west­ern side, in di­rect con­trast, is an ash-brown lava slope end­ing in jagged rocks at the ocean’s edge.

Un­der­wa­ter, Bar­ren goes from long, seem­ingly empty, black sand­flats to near ver­ti­cal drop-offs cov­ered in mas­sive gor­gonian fans. A sub­ma­rine cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the is­land re­veals grot­tos, weird geo­met­ric rock for­ma­tions, slopes and ridges car­peted in pur­ple soft coral, sheer dark drop-offs that have no vis­i­ble bot­tom, and shal­low coral gar­dens that sparkle in the sun­light. There are days when the vis­i­bil­ity is so good, and the wa­ter so still, that a manta ray near the sur­face can be spot­ted while ob­serv­ing coral-cov­ered shelves 60 to 80 me­tres be­low. The black sub­strate is some­times al­most devoid of life, un­til the next cor­ner where, sup­pos­edly, the high min­eral con­tent of the lava flow­ing into the wa­ter has cre­ated a bay of some of the most healthy and fast­grow­ing coral in the en­tire An­daman chain.

One part of the dive, a site called Wash­ing Ma­chine, has divers cling­ing to the wall, their fins flail­ing to­wards the sur­face in an up-cur­rent that threat­ens to shoot them up and over the shal­low an­thias-cov­ered ridge. Round the next cor­ner, just 30 me­tres away, ex­haled bub­bles are swirling down­wards along the steep drop-off, dis­ap­pear­ing into the blue-black. Manta rays al­ways seem to be around Bar­ren, some­times soli­tary and other times in small groups. Whether they are tran­sient vis­i­tors or year-round res­i­dents is hard to say, be­cause no­body has spent the time div­ing Bar­ren through the year. Dive boats tend to visit th­ese some­times treach­er­ous wa­ters only in the calmer months of Fe­bru­ary to May.

NAR­CON­DAM IS­LAND

Nar­con­dam, green-and-gold in the morn­ing light, is the more be­nign of the two volcanoes. A dense for­est has grown over the en­tire mount – dor­mant since hu­mans have been record­ing its his­tory. A small po­lice out­post on the rocky eastern beach stands guard to pro­tect this re­mote is­land lost to time. High up in the trees over­head roosts the only pop­u­la­tion of the ex­cep­tion­ally-rare Nar­con­dam horn­bill – a beau­ti­ful bird that some­how came to ex­ist only on this is­land. The horn­bill shares its is­land home with pi­geons, sea ea­gles, fly­ing snakes, lizards and ro­dents by the thou­sands. The lit­tle hairy mam­mals emerge in huge num­bers at dusk and have struck up a live-an­dlet-live sta­tus quo with the po­lice­men, who have lit­tle choice in the mat­ter.

Un­der­wa­ter, Nar­con­dam is a lit­tle more for­giv­ing than Bar­ren. The is­land’s sides don’t drop off as pre­cip­i­tously, and coral seems to have colonised most of its un­der­wa­ter cir­cum­fer­ence. Gi­ant boul­ders have come to rest on some parts of the reef, form­ing in­cred­i­ble un­der­wa­ter to­pog­ra­phy. Huge schools of big­eye trevally and bar­racuda have made their res­i­dence here, along with the va­ri­ety of other reef fish found in the An­daman chain. While coral bleach­ing has left only skele­tons in the first 10 me­tres of wa­ter, the deeper reefs are in­cred­i­bly vi­brant and di­verse. The pres­ence of huge gor­gonian fans and the big­gest bar­rel sponges in the An­daman Is­lands are in­dica­tive of the cur­rents that some­times tear through th­ese wa­ters. Here too, manta rays and the oc­ca­sional whale shark make an ap­pear­ance.

Whales and dol­phins are of­ten sighted sail­ing to Bar­ren and Nar­con­dam. Depend­ing on the time and tide, th­ese reefs can teem with pelagic fish, or sim­ply host their reg­u­lar reef res­i­dents. Fish­er­men’s tales speak of large num­bers of sharks that used to in­habit th­ese wa­ters. But th­ese are sto­ries that haven’t been cor­rob­o­rated by the divers from Have­lock Is­land and Port Blair (the cap­i­tal of the An­daman Is­lands) who have vis­ited th­ese two is­lands with in­creas­ing fre­quency over the last decade. Bar­ren and Nar­con­dam have watched over this part of the An­daman Sea for eons. But their re­al­i­ties have changed sig­nif­i­cantly in the last cen­tury, and are rapidly chang­ing fur­ther. Poach­ers from Thai­land and Myan­mar reg­u­larly visit th­ese poorly-pa­trolled is­lands. And as reg­u­la­tions for vis­it­ing yachts and lo­cal dive op­er­a­tors are tight­ened, divers and tourists with the po­ten­tial for in­ter­ven­tion are kept out of bounds. Th­ese two is­lands have been sep­a­rated from the main An­daman chain through the ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory of the for­ma­tion of th­ese is­lands. Given that the An­damans it­self is a hotspot for bio­di­ver­sity and en­demism, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity should be en­cour­aged to study th­ese two is­lands thor­oughly. But so far, beyond ter­ri­to­rial brag­ging rights and dis­cus­sions about mar­itime se­cu­rity, Bar­ren and Nar­con­dam are, for the most part, ig­nored. How­ever, as plans for tourism devel­op­ment in the An­daman Is­lands are quickly un­fold­ing, the fu­ture of th­ese is­lands re­mains to be seen.

But their re­al­i­ties have changed sig­nif­i­cantly in the last cen­tury, and are rapidly chang­ing fur­ther. Poach­ers from Thai­land and Myan­mar reg­u­larly visit th­ese poorly-pa­trolled is­lands.

A plume of ash and smoke ris­ing in the dis­tance while a swim­mer en­joys the un­der­wa­ter sights of Bar­ren

ABOVE A stun­ning split-shot of Bar­ren is­land

ABOVE Beau­ti­ful corals rest­ing on Nar­con­dam’s seabed

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