As you float over the liquid realms, a deafening silence engulfs you. The sun bounces off the sparkling surface of the surf, playing hide and seek with your eyes. Hide-and-seek it is, for little can you imagine what lies beneath, until you peer into the tranquil blue waters through the glass-bottomed boat. Or maybe one of those magnificent marine denizens decides to surprise you with a flip in to the air! That’s the vibe that refreshes you as you float about on the azure arenas of Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park- fun and frolic just like its denizens.
Extending from Rameshwaram to Tuticorin, marine majesty takes on new light at the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park. A part of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, the marine hotspot is one of the richest areas in terms of marine biodiversity. This is owing to its mix of marine, intertidal and shore habitats consisting of estuaries, mudflats, mangroves, beaches etc. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve was the first Marine Biosphere Reserve in Southeast Asia, established in 1980. The park in itself constitutes part of the Mannar barrier reef which extends over an area of about 560 km2. The national park consist of 21 islands and these are divided into the following groups, together constituting about 6.23 Km2 of area:
- Tuticorin group of 4 islands
- Vembar group of 2 islands
- Kilakarai group of 7 islands
- Mandapam group of 4 islands
All islands except those of Kurusadai, Musal and Nallathanni islands are uninhabited.
The park holds a strong natural history relevance. The Pearl Banks of Pinctada Fucata and Pinctada Radiata have traditionally been a pearl-harvesting abode. Today, the national park status does not afford this, but tourism is being unveiled as a huge opportunity, thanks to the abundance of natural and wildlife beauty.
Marine Life of Gulf of Mannar
The mix of marine ecosystems makes the waters of the reserve a biodiversity haven. On one hand there is the tropical coral reefs ecosystem with its active polyps and bountiful colours. This, interspersed by sea grass, mangroves, salt marshes and algal communities creates a great home for a plethora of flora and fauna to thrive. All in all, the park provides shelter to ~3600 species of flora and fauna, many of which are untouched and unexplored.
The intertidal areas are dominated by mangroves belonging to the Rhizophora, Avicennia, Bruguiera genus. Sea grass is another prolific species, about 12 species exist here. In fact the shallow waters of Kurusadai contain three species of sea grass not found anywhere else in India. About ~150 species of sea weeds too are found in the waters. There is one endemic plant, a flowering herb called Pemphis acidula on the park lands. Another dominant tree species which is an introduced species is the Prosopis genus tree species, found on land.
The Gulf of Mannar itself has recorded some ~117 species of hard Coral*. These are home to some of the wonders of the marine world, tiny and big. The Mandapam group of islands is especially famous for their pretty coral formations. In terms of invertebrate marine life, a host of molluscs, Bivalves, Gastropods, Cephalopods, Sponges, and Echinoderms etc. form the lower rungs of the food chain. Turtles, Pearl Oysters, Sea Cucumbers, Dolphins, Sea horses, Barracuda, Herrings, Whales, Dugongs, are also commonly seen. Dugong or Sea Cow is the star of these seas, feeding on the abundant sea weeds and sea grass that thrives here. Amongst dolphins, the Bottle nosed dolphins and Spinner dolphins are common. The pristine waters are home to the largest mammal on earth, the Blue Whale. Other whale species include Fin whale, Humpback whale, Sperm whales, Mink whale, etc. One can enjoy the colourful fish such as Butterfly fish, Parrot fish, Clown fish, Snappers, Squirrel fish etc. flit about daintily, some 500+ species of fin fish exist here. Some of the largest sea turtles call this natural abode their home- the Green turtle, Olive Ridley turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Leatherback turtle, and Loggerhead turtle.
The mishmash of ecosystems also invites a number of birds, both resident and migratory. Some beautiful migratory birds that birder flock here for are the Crab plovers, Red knot, Red-necked Phalarope, Broad billed sandpiper, Long-stoed stint, Bar tailed godwit, and the Dunlin.
Places to visit
Apart from a leisurely boat ride over the crystal clear waters, Dhanushkodi, Rameshwaram and the surrounding places of Marine National Park offer a number of avenues for tourists.
- Adam’s Bridge or Rama Setu, Dhanushkodi: A 50 kilometre long bridge that supposedly once connected India with Sri Lanka, this is the modern-day version of the Rama Setu. An erstwhile chain of coral reefs and sandbanks reminds us of tales of the Ramayana, wherein the bridge was built by the “Vanara” or monkey army of Rama and was used to rescue Sita from the evil Ravana. The bridge is believed to date back to 1, 25,000 years, and believed to be completely above the sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in AD 1480. Today, this place offers surreal views with sand-beds and coral reefs.
- Pamban Island: Also called Rameshwaram Island, this is the pilgrimage centre. This place too finds mention in the Ramayana. Today the island itself is a great relaxing beach destination with sun, sand and surf.
- Rameshwaram Temple: The flavours of spiritual essence and architectural allure blend so well at Rameshwaram Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Every year, devotees flock to this place of worship, it being one of the 12 famous “Jyotirlingas”. Much of its piety is attributed to the belief that it was Lord Ram himself, who installed the “lingam”. It is a preferred place to seek salvation, by absolving one’s sins with a dip in one of the twenty-two holy water bodies.
- Ruins of Dhanushkodi: The Church and Railway station of the yesteryear days of Dhanushkodi were destroyed in a cyclone, and today stand as a remnant of the past. A walk through these ruins is an interesting affair.
What to do
- Drift along the seas: Quite literally! Hire a glass-bottomed boat at Mandapam with the requisite Forest permits, and explore the islands on a guided tour. Count the endless colours you see in the corals, or simply observe the numerous water dwellers live their distinct lives. Its takes a good three days to explore most of the islands.
- Flock to the flocks: Ignite the wildlife lover in you by whipping out your binoculars and going bird-watching, looking out for the abundant seabirds and waders. More than 180 bird species belong to this region, with many other being seasonal migrants.
- Care about conservation: Incessant coral mining in the past has upset the delicate balance of life in the reserve. A case in point is the Vaan Island, which has now split into two. Opportunities for conserving nature and wildlife abound in this place, it is a good idea to volunteer your time and energy to the conservation cause, especially if you are a marine freak.
Where to stay
There are a number of hotels to choose from. Hotel Pearl Residency, Hotel Sri Sarvana, Daiwik Hotels are some of the decent ones.
Best Time to Visit
Though the park is open the year-round, the best time to plan a visit is during October-March. Permits need to be taken from the Forest Department, and entry into the waters is permitted only on glass-bottomed boat rides.
How to Reach
- By Air: Madurai is the nearest airport about 150 kilometres away.
- By Rail: Rameshwaram is the nearest railway head about 7 kilometres away. Other nearby rail heads are Tuticorin (152 km) and Mandapam (40 km).
- By Road: Many government buses and private taxis ply between the airport / railway station and the Park.
Important to note:
- Public access inside the Park is allowed only through glass-bottomed boat rides.
- A unique marine creature found here is the Balano-glossus (an ocean-dwelling acorn worm), several species of which are endemic to these waters.
- The region is home to various marine research centres such as the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Suganthi Devadasan Marine Research Institute, and Fisheries College and Research Institute.
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