Magic in the Andamans: Barren Island
Barren Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be considered a bit of a misnomer, as it supports a thriving ecosystem underwater. Its marine diversity is little understood, and the area is full of mysterious, unexplored sites that are bursting with life. Our contributor, Hayat Sadri, relays her experience of exploring the undersea vistas around this active volcanic island.
Image Credits (for all images): Bhushan Bagadia
I was having the strangest dream of camping somewhere under a starry sky, snuggled up in my sleeping bag, while a constant shower of sand was being thrown all over me. Snapping awake confused, I heard hushed, excited chatter. As I sat bolt upright and began to tie up my hair, I felt grits and grains of sand on my head, in my scalp. I stood up and looked around – it wasn’t sand. The entire boat, including I, were covered in black thick grainy volcanic ash and as I looked ahead, I could see an island, saw with awe the caldera of the volcano smoking away – we had arrived at Barren island!
Barren is the only confirmed active volcanic island in South Asia. Located in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Barren lies approximately 135 km northeast of the capital, Port Blair. It plays host to some of the most magnificent marine life one could ever hope to see in a lifetime. Steep walls plunge hundreds of meters down, covered with huge gorgonian fans. Every part of these walls is covered by coral or brightly colored sponges in spectacularly clear waters as far as the eye could see – and deeper even. Football fields of live hard coral in the shallower waters surround the western side of the island. Underwater ridges carpeted with purple and pink Hemprich’s soft coral, go down beyond fifty meters. The undersea vista beggars description!
Scuba diving around Barren island requires prior diving experience. There are no mooring lines, not too many places where a boat could drop anchor either, so negative entries and free descents were how we normally entered the water. We had to ensure we had reinforced safety procedures to every diver before each dive, as the waters around Barren could be most unpredictable. Often, we would see a strong whirlpool-like current encompass one side of the island and then swiftly move around the island leaving that area calm as though there were no current there at all! The boat boys used to call that current ‘pagla paani’ (crazy water), because we just couldn’t understand what the water was doing – it didn’t look like it had anything to do with the tide or season.
All around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the sand on the beaches and at the bottom of the ocean is white. In contrast, the sand on the beach and underwater around Barren island is black – perhaps due to the volcano constantly smoking and depositing ash all around the island and underwater. We believe the visibility is always so clear here perhaps because of this heavy grainy ash that weighs down all the particles in the water. Thereby also, the colors of the fish and coral would stand out brilliantly against this dark black background in these deep blue waters.
Even for an experienced diver, going down here is always a humbling experience. The crystal-clear visibility and the sheer depth of the abyss that looks never-ending can give you a feeling of vertigo, so much so that you might feel like you need to hold onto the wall for a second to breathe and take it all in! The brilliance of life all around you will distract you within seconds and you don’t know just where to look. The contrast of the black rock and lava flow above the water going down hundreds of meters with coral, sponges, sea stars, and schools of colorful fish are some of the first sights you can expect to see. Schools of silver jacks hunting even bigger schools of fusiliers will make your head spin! Highly venomous Sea kraits so docile, and allow you to get real close to them. On every trip we ever did here, we were lucky to encounter reef sharks and mantas, at times even the giant oceanic manta! Some of the other pelagics seen in these waters are dolphins, pilot whales, sailfish, and marlins, any of which are a surreal sight to witness in their environment.
On the western side of the island, there are a couple of caves that we found, into which we would take the boat. As we got closer, the walls of the cave looked like they have been painted all sorts of colors – red, orange, green, blue, purple. When conditions are favorable, the grotto becomes the perfect photographer’s studio. Emerging out of the cave, underwater there are visible giant slopes of black sand, with huge trees and boulders that would likely have slid off the island into the waters because of the constant change in shape and contour of the hill above due to volcanic activity.
We would normally end our dive day diving at a shallow site very close to the island where the lava flow meets the water. From a meter below the surface were these built-up walls and football fields of live thriving hard coral. The dappled lighting dancing in these shallow areas would make the coral look magical. If you looked closer, in between this intricate coral maze, could be seen some brilliantly colored reef fish – the long-nosed butterflyfish, different types of pipefish, so many different colored giant clams, and of course, one of my favorite fish – the palette surgeonfish, fondly known as Dory from Finding Nemo. But the most mind-boggling part of this dive site was an area we started referring to as ‘Jaunty’s spa’ – In this particular area, which was very close to the island, the water temperature on my dive computer on some days has gone up to 50 Celsius! Yet, even in these hostile waters, the corals are thriving.
I have often wondered, why and how do coral thrive in such warm-to-hot 50 Celsius water, when most coral start to get bleached if the water temperatures rise above 30C? Are these corals just more resilient? Or are they getting some kind of mineral deposit from the volcano which is making them thrive here? Some of the nudibranchs and snails we have seen here, I’ve never seen anywhere else. Could they be a new species? Why is the sand around Barren island black whereas everywhere else around the Andamans, it is white? Is it just because of the volcanic ash? Is all of that just ash then and not sand? Would there be white sand if we were to dig at the very bottom? Where’s the line where we could see the bottom sand change from white to black?
There are so many unanswered questions, so many unexplored sites around here, full of life and mystery! I hope someday we are able to conduct some kind of research to learn more about this absolutely incredible ecosystem I have had the privilege to dive into and view.
Image Credits (for all images): Bhushan Bagadia