The cold hardness of the snorkel tube, the pinch of the snorkelling mask, the clumsy discomfort of the fins, the poking of the life vest...all of it vanished in a second. A faint gurgling aside, the world descended into silence. Or, rather, nothing registered except the glorious kaleidoscopic underwater world of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMNP), off the southern tip of the South Andaman island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.
It is one of India’s six marine national parks along the country’s 7,517km coastline: Two are on the west coast (Marine National Park off Gujarat and Malvan Marine Wildlife Sanctuary off Maharashtra) and the rest on the east (Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park off Tamil Nadu, Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary off Odisha, Rani Jhansi Marine National Park and MGMNP in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago). Though India got its first terrestrial national park in 1936, it was only in 1980 that the Marine National Park in Gujarat, the first of its kind, came into being. The others were created between 1983-97—the last one was Gahirmatha, in 1997 (see box below). Apart from these six, where tourist activity is concentrated, there are over 135 marine protected areas (MPAs)—24 off the mainland and over a hundred spread across islands.
The world over, protecting marine biodiversity has become crucial and the UN considers it to be a “critical aspect of all three pillars of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental—supporting the healthy functioning of the planet and providing services that underpin the health, well-being and prosperity of humanity” .
Within the country, “10 species of shark and ray, including the whale shark, all species of sea horse, the giant grouper, all cetaceans, the dugong, nine species of shell, five species of sea turtle, one species of otter, all species of coral, all species of sponge and all holothurians that occur in the coastal and marine areas of India are considered to be under threat,” noted K. Sivakumar and others of the Wildlife Institute of India in a 2014 paper titled Coastal And Marine Protected Areas In India: Challenges And Way Forward.
But when I first plunged my head into the water, mask and all, all I could think of were the stunning things I was seeing. In the light of the bright, midday sun, I felt overwhelmed by the sudden overload of colours. My eyes were drawn to a hundred different things at once. I ended up flitting from one movement to another as various kinds of fish and sea creatures darted around in a hundred different dazzling colours and intriguing shapes...it was intensely surreal. Certainly far better than anything I had anticipated.
Earlier that morning, the nuances and complexities of conservation had been far from my mind as I waited at Wandoor village, near the southern tip of South Andaman Island (20km west of Port Blair), to board one of the large boats that leave at 30-minute intervals for the park. Wandoor is the entry point to the MGMNP.
I had included a visit to the park, mostly out of curiosity, on what had started as a beach holiday. It would be my first experience of a marine park—and my first snorkelling experience. I couldn’t wait to get started. The thought of coral reefs was just a hazy notion at that point but as the boat pushed off from the jetty and headed into the park, I began to get a little sense of the diversity, trying to wrap my head around a protected ecosystem unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Babu, one of the guides on the boat, gave me the low-down on the park. Spread over more than 280 sq. km, it includes 15 islands and several islets with bays, creeks and lagoons. Since most of the islands are surrounded by stunning but fragile fringing reefs, the park is considered ecologically sensitive. Much later, I would discover that the ecosystem is endangered owing to human intervention as well as cyclones and tsunamis, and the consequences of climate change.
Hearteningly, there are strict regulations for visitors: Only a set number of tickets are sold, no private boats are allowed, use of plastic is regulated, and there is no stay option or eatery on any island within the park. I was told that of the 15 islands, only two—Jolly Buoy and Red Skin—were open to visitors; we were headed to one of them. “We will know which one only when we get closer,” Babu said.
The bright morning sun got prickly, the air was humid, but a cool refreshing breeze blew over the water, carrying a hint of salt and keeping the clammy feeling at bay. As the boat wove its way through a labyrinth of islands and skimmed over open sea, I got glimpses of thick and mysterious mangroves and forests of trees—species of Terminalia, silk cotton, bullet wood, padauk, gurjan and bamboo. I later found out the forests are home to deer, civets and other animals but they remained elusive that morning. But I did sight water birds, such as kingfishers, herons, terns and waders; more than 270 avian species are found here, including the Andaman teal, which is endemic. On one of the islands, I also saw a flock of noisy parakeets. I was told some of the islands were also favoured by breeding turtles.
Astonishingly, despite the long coastline and 2.2 million sq. km EEZ (an exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles beyond territorial waters, where India has special rights), India has no separate legislation for the protection of marine areas; these are governed under the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972. There is no clear definition of a marine park/sanctuary, except that the government wants to encourage regulated tourist activity in these ecologically valuable areas. Even more perplexing is that there has been little effort to designate more marine national parks and sanctuaries.
The Bengaluru-based Dakshin Foundation is a not-for-profit that works on environmental sustainability and social justice. Kartik Shanker, its trustee and a professor at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Sciences, offers context: “Marine conservation was not a priority in the 1970s, when a large number of parks were established. When the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 was passed, it had a strong terrestrial focus, and, historically, marine conservation did not get the attention it deserved,” he says. So, while areas with coral reefs, like the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and parts of the Andamans, were designated as MPAs, there has been no increase in the number of such areas, “possibly because coastal areas are widely used by fishermen and are fluid, and so a little bit more challenging to apply the same principles to”.
Experts believe the Wild Life (Protection) Act is of limited value for MPAs. Certainly, the regulations do offer a measure of protection and help to raise awareness. “However, the Act has little nuance; it emphasises national parks and sanctuaries which exclude people,” notes Prof. Shanker. “We inherited this Western model, which lays emphasis on completely pristine nature with no human presence. That is a myth in itself but it aligned nicely with the Indian historical princely reserves used by royal families for hunting. It would be absurd to impose this system on marine areas.”
If MPAs, designated by the Union government, use a one-size-fits-all model and are, therefore, less effective, state laws on fishing are more nuanced—and tend to be strict on seasonality, the kind of nets, boats and equipment that can be used in an area. Prof. Shanker says state regulations on artisanal and mechanised fishing can, in fact, offer better frameworks for marine conservation if properly implemented.
For someone who hadn’t been exposed to a marine environment, visiting the MGMNP felt like the perfect lead-in. As Mahima Jaini, a Bengaluru-based marine researcher, puts it, tours in MPAs “provide exposure to people who come from all over the country and they see things they are not going to see anywhere else. And this might inspire further marine exploration. If well managed, I do see a lot of value in having educational tours in such protected areas”. But, she adds, “if one wants to learn (seriously) about marine conservation, there are people who are specialised in doing tours around marine outreach and education. They do it outside of the protected areas and it is way more valuable”.
For me, the MGMNP tour was an eye-opener. A little more than an hour after leaving Wandoor, the boat neared Jolly Buoy island, one of the largest in the archipelago that makes up the MGMNP. From afar, the shore was absolutely stunning. Shades of turquoise water met a beach of pale sand; most of the colours are rarely seen on the shores of the mainland and had me enthralled. Up close, the beach was framed by thick green vegetation, glistening in the sun; the tall trees fringing the beach provided shade to lounge in. I was a bundle of nervous energy, excited about the snorkelling but a bit apprehensive since I didn’t really know swimming.
On the boat, I had bombarded Babu with questions about snorkelling. Bolstered by his assurances that it was safe and someone would always be on hand, I was impatient to try it out. It did help, of course, that the reefs were astonishingly close to the shore and at a very shallow depth.
As I got the hang of just floating and mildly kicking around, moving along a handy rope the crew had tied for guidance, I was riveted by the underwater tableau of shoals of bright-coloured reef fishes that swam as one in jerky movements, as if heeding the silent music flowing from the baton of a neurotic conductor. In between were larger specimen, wandering solo or in twos and threes. Such as the striped tiger fish with lacy festoons, fluorescent-coloured parrot fish, brilliant blue and yellow surgeonfish, yellow striped butterfly fish, wrasse... and several I didn’t recognise.
Looking further, I spotted a few dazzling starfish in red, orange and yellow crawling on the pebbly sea floor, a sluggish octopus burrowing itself in the sand, hermit crabs, immobile black sea cucumbers and a tiny turtle that swam around languidly.
“Protected areas act as insurance. Studies have shown that if you create a pristine environment, especially in resilient areas (that can easily bounce back after damage or destruction), by protecting with legislation, active conservation measures and restrictions that allow fish to live and thrive, the system onset starts,” says the Goa-based marine biologist Vardhan Patankar.
The reefs fringing the shore were filled with corals in different hues and shapes. Most were self-descriptive—brain, mushroom, boulder, star, knob, staghorn and so on. They ranged from dull white to striking psychedelic colours and harboured other living creatures, such as clumps of sea urchins and sea anemones, their tentacles swaying gently in the underwater currents to create a hypnotic effect. In between the corals lay scattered giant clams that shocked with their velvety violet insides when they would open to trap plankton.
I was riveted by the underwater drama. Except for the mild gurgling from the snorkel, the complete silence was initially disorienting. But soon a soft commentary track began running in my head in the soothing, honeyed tones of Sir David Attenborough. It was surreal. Occasionally, there would be drama as a predator hunted its prey. The most endearing and entertaining were the antics of bright orange clownfish as they chased each other, almost eternally in a good mood.
After what seemed mere minutes but was actually an hour, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. It was Babu, gesturing for a return to shore.
Reluctantly, I followed him, trying to soak in as much as I could. Back on the boat, it felt all too unreal, as if my imagination had conjured up the whole thing. I sat in silence, overcome by the sheer beauty of what I had seen. I have snorkelled several times since but the thrill and joy of that first time endures.
Off the Jamnagar coast in Gujarat’s Gulf of Kutch, the intertidal zone is an archipelago of 42 islands that is a smorgasbord of marine habitats: mangroves, mudflats, sand bars, marshy areas, saline grasslands, creeks, estuaries, fragile and stunning coral reefs, and more. This rich diversity, spread over 458 sq. km, led to it being declared the country’s first marine sanctuary, in 1980. Two years later, 163 sq. km of the core area was designated as a marine national park (parks have more restrictions than sanctuaries.) The park is home to 52 species of coral that support 40 species of sponges, lichen, jellyfish, puffer fish, sea slugs, mollusks, crabs and scores of species of colourful fish, crustaceans and other sea creatures. Also visible are green sea turtles, whale sharks and pods of dolphins, as well as hundreds of species of birds, such as painted storks and the black-necked ibis.
Know: Boats are available at Jamnagar but entry is dependent on tides, so check ahead.
Spread over around 30 sq. km (3.18 sq. km has been designated the core area), the sanctuary is located off the state’s southern coast, between the shore and Sindhudurg island, home to the eponymous fort. Established in 1987, it’s famous for its dolphins. But it’s also home to one of the most diverse and dense collection of seaweed species growing amidst a plethora of corals, anemones, pearl oysters as well as fish species like catfish, the Putitora mahseer and others. Birds include plovers, terns, waterfowl; the sanctuary gets many species of migratory birds from Siberia in winter. The mangroves surrounding the sanctuary harbour, among other wildlife, leopards, wild boar, nilgai and sambar.
Know: Boats are available at Malvan jetty.
Encompassing 560 sq. km between the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka coasts, the park, established in 1986, is among the most diverse marine habitats in the world, spread over three distinct coastal ecosystems—mangroves, coral reefs and sea-grass beds. So much so that it is called the “underwater tropical rainforest”. It has some staggering numbers—21 islands and innumerable islets, mudflats, sand bars, rocky shores, beaches and estuaries, 3,600 plant and animal species, 117 species of hard coral, 147 species of seaweed, 11 species of sea-grass, six endangered mangrove species, 108 sponge species, 510 species of fish, 466 species of mollusks, 106 species of crab, five species of turtles, including green turtles and olive ridley turtles...the list goes on. The park is also home to the highly vulnerable dugong, its flagship species. Other rare species include the spinner and bottlenose dolphins, porpoises and critically endangered humpback and blue whales.
Know: Public access is allowed only through glass-bottomed boats from Rameswaram and Mandapam.
Marine ecology and diversity is so rich, diverse and fragile around these islands that it is home to two marine parks. The second, much smaller one, designated only in 1996, is spread over 256 sq. km and spans three islands of Ritchie’s Archipelago, north-east of Port Blair. It is home to territorial moist forests, mangroves and stunning coral reefs; visitors can hope to explore lagoons and bays. It has over 80 species of coral and is also home to a large flock of the vulnerable Andaman teal. Unusually, the park’s main highlight is a large population of fruit bats, considered crucial for the health of the mangroves and surrounding biodiversity.
Know: The archipelago can be accessed by a ferry from Port Blair and can take 3-5 hours.
The youngest marine protected area, designated in 1997, is also the largest, at over 1,435 sq. km off the Odisha coastline. The mainstay of Gahirmatha is olive ridley turtles, a vulnerable species according to IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The nutrient-rich soil makes the sanctuary the only nesting site of the turtles in the Indian Ocean. They migrate to it from the South Pacific and spend close to eight months—October-May—there during the breeding season.
Know: The sanctuary is about 75km from Bhubhaneswar. There are several sites along the coast to watch the turtles but extreme caution and sensitivity are advised.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.