Port Blair, cows and a problem with coral! Jan26-Feb28

Headed north, wing a wing.

Port Blair would have to be one of the more entertaining places in the world to visit, random road laws, unattached and free ranging cows vying for space on the roads whilst looking for the next feed, acres of washing drying along the road(s) and the standard level of (apparent) chaos one would expect for India.

Ban Thap Lamu and the fleets in.

Definitely a navy town.

Port Blair is of course the provincial capital for the ‘Andaman and Nicobar’ group of islands and the clearance port for intrepid yachtie types either visiting from Thailand or in transit to places further west such as the Red Sea. We arrived in the port after three days at sea and 340 miles NW from the ‘Surin’ group of islands on the north-west coast of Thailand, not so far south of the Burmese border. We had travelled the 100 miles up from Nai harn in company with Ultimate Dream (AKA ‘The Dreamers’) stopping at a coastal town at Ban Thap Lamu where the Thai Navy hangs out and then spent a night in the Surins before slipping away at lunchtime on Feb28, by this time (pardon the pun) back in company also with the good ship ‘Thyme’. 

The passage took three days with 30 hours of sailing and 46 hours of motor sailing; not too bad really for this part of the light wind world. We also got the standard very early morning savage squall to help keep everybody on their toes! On arrival at Port Blair we were very quickly inducted into the highly bureaucratic nature of all things to do with Port Blair officialdom and spectacular it is!  After contacting the harbour control people we were within a couple of hours visited by customs, an hour later by immigration, two or three hours later the coast guard and we had to ferry all of them between the boats.  The next morning we trotted down to see the Harbour Master and discuss itineraries, required permits for various islands and the need to check in by radio twice daily to advise of where we were and where we were going.

Surin Islands.

Surin Islands.

These august Government agencies required, in addition to the standard ships papers and previous port clearance, photocopies of all passports, photocopies of the boat registration documents, letters requesting clearance, crew lists, lists of all boat stores, electronics and assorted equipment, crews personal effects statements, customs declarations for foreigners visiting Port Blair and other forms too vague to recall.  We very quickly discovered that photocopying in Port Blair is a major industry with shops all over the place and locals queuing to fulfil the requirements of all things governmental; one wonders where all those forms eventually find a home? 

In the Surins.

In the Surins.

On passage to Port Blair.

Ultimate Dream, at the Surins.

Thyme on passage, hull down.

A classic for the bureaucracy has to be the need for a ‘local reference’ when procuring a BSNL ‘sim’ card for a telephone.  Apparently the BSNL network has the best coverage (best being a relative term) but for a BSNL sim one needs to get a local to say you are who you say you are and according to Ravi , the man who organises the taxis for yachties, no yachtie had been yet able to get around this problem.  The man at BSNL headquarters was very happy telling us that he ‘couldn’t help us’ and that we needed somebody from Port Blair to confirm that the skipper was in fact who he said he was.  Anyway the form doesn’t say how long one needs to know somebody so back we went with a reference from our taxi driver (name too long to remember, henceforth known as John). His address however, ‘Under The Shop’ in the Aberdeen market, main street didn’t impress greatly but after lots more photocopying to assuage any fears, we procured our BSNL sim. However, the BSNL man was none too pleased; according to Ravi we were the first white people he knew of to get a BSNL phone service!

Sunset on passage.

Watchkeeping on passage!

On passage to Port Blair.

In company.

Approaching the Andamans.

Arriving.

Ferrying Customs.

 

Ferrying Coast Guard.

The lads from Coast Guard.

Port Blair.

Port Blair jetty landing and boat boy.

Port Blair.

Port Blair.

Roundabouts in Port Blair.

Traffic hazards in Port Blair. Spot the lemons!

Port Blair. Aberdeen markets.

Does get noisy!

One of the common threads of third world Asian cities is quite often the piles of rubbish that tend to accumulate basically all over the place and the Andmans are no exception.  The difference at port Blair though is the cows that spend an inordinate amount of time chewing on it. This gives a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘long paddock’. Wherever there is rubbish you are just as likely to find a cow or cows munching their way through food flavoured cardboard boxes and rotting vegetables. They even jump into the big steel waste bins to get at all that lovely nosh although the all time classic was the same cow the next day thoroughly pissed off that it couldn’t get into the same bin now that it was full!  At the market the store proprieters spend a lot of time shooing the four legged garbage disposal units away from their stalls, while at the same time the butchers and chicken sellers happily lop the heads of animals when one orders mutton or chicken; talk about bovine protection.  At the police station you spot cows lounging around inside the entrance gates while at the bus stop one cow was getting out of the sun while the locals lined up and waited in the mid-day sun; spectacular!

A cows dream of a long paddock!

Cows at the market.

More traffic hazards!

Fairly fresh.

Chicken in a basket, as fresh as it gets. By the kilo but including feathers, head, feet and guts!

Vegetable shopping.

Meat market, all walking!

 

We spent three days in Port Blair before departing for islands to the south with our first stop in the McPherson Strait about 17 miles south at a beach town called Chiryatapu.  We had previously been pointed to a dive shop here by the Harbour Master and his friend ‘Commander Barth’, the former Naval Commander now running diving and fishing trips out of the place and the skipper and Simon organised a dive for our return through the area.  On the beach here were also a couple of Chai-tea shops competing to make the worlds best samosa.  Next stop was West Rutland around the corner and south out on the edge of the Indian Ocean where we had the obligatory beach barbecue with all boats companies in attendance. Both Thyme and UD had a couple of crew on board so there were eleven of us for our soiree on our own deserted beach, no other people, no lights, no other boats, just the sea, our beach and jungle behind us.  Simon starred here trying to suicide by falling firewood (tree) and the way back out to the boats and during inebriated dinghy skirmish we had a spectacular view of the forest illuminated by the fire on the beach, the backdrop of very large trees looking something like a cathedral of pillars with a forest roof.

John the taxi driver and Simon!

Out for dinner.

Headed home from dinner, seven of us in John's taxi. Sven.

Ross Island.

Chiryatapu.

Chiryatapu.

Chiryatapu at the Chai shop.

Chiryatapu and yet more cows.

The tsunamai got up to there!

 

Chiryatapu, one of the locals.

What the tsunamai did!

Didn't see any.

We were headed now for the Cinques and Sisters about 20 miles south of Chiryatapu and yet more more beaches, clear water, fishing and snorkelling.  Imagine a place where each destination seems to be trying to outdo the last for spectacular scenery, where you get your own island and beach, clear water and jungle forest to yourself; this part of the Andamans seems to fit the bill. We stayed here for four days before heading back to Chiryatapu for our day of diving and yet more somosa(s).  The dives were good and bad.  The wreck dive on an old English steamer was great with lots of wreck and big fish to look at but for the skipper not being able to ‘save’ at least one of those portholes was a tragedy.  The reef dive was less inspiring however with just lots of dead coral to look at; more on this later. After our aquatic adventures it was back to Port Blair (well at least Ross Island) for victuals and beer and then Havelock via Neil Island.

West Rutland.

West Rutland.

West Rutland.

West Rutland and yet another empty beach.

West Rutland and barbecues on the beach.

West Rutland and that barbecue.

The skipper at North Cinque.

North Cinque, fishing and water fights.

North Cinque receding.

South Cinque.

The Gadfly at South Cinque.

South Cinque and it just seems to get better.

Fishing, South Cinque.

Neil Island was great, beach bungalows and bars, bicycle riding, dogs that adopt you for the day, barbecues and fires on the beach, a genuine locals pub, terribly chilled out locals and travellers who very much fit the hippy bill. After a couple of nights it was on to Havelock No.7 where they swim the elephants and then around the corner to Laccam Harbour and the only real accumulation of backpackers and tourist development (again a relative term) to be found on our travels in this part of the world.  The development and tourism here is also completely consistent with the standard anarchy and chaos of Port Blair.

South Cinque!

Amanda and a day outing on Thyme to the 'Sisters'.

The intrepid divers; bummer about the portholes!

The absolute latest in longtail diveboats.

Op Cit

Chiryatapu revisited.

Back to Port Blair, Aberdeen markets.

Neil Island and hippy resorts.

Neil Island and night markets; every night.

Neil Island and shops at night.

The pub on Neil.

Breakfast at the vegetarian cafe.

The best of top-line racing machines.

The skipper with the worst of the top-line racing machines.

On the bell lap!

Strange things to find on Indian beaches!

Adopt a dog. 'Nellie' at the pub avoiding her puppies!

Nellie and the skipper at the beach.

 

Laccam Harbour, Havelock Island.

Harbour works, Laccam Harbour. Womens work apparently.

Simon and Amanda looking for crocodiles, mangroves, John Lawrence, Kwangtung Strait.

Inglis Island.

North Button, watch out for the sandflies!

Next stop was John Lawrence, about 15 miles to the north-east and an anchorage at the bottom of Kwangtung Strait.  The islands were rolling off by this time, Inglis next then North Button, Long Island and then on to Humfrey Strait. At North Button all boats crews engaged in a game of ‘Bowball’.  This was a game of modified water polo, boys versus girls, where a goal could be scored by getting the ball past the opposition goalie between the bow and anchor chain of the Gadfly.  The skipper officiated as referee and after the girls succumbed to the alleged cheating of the boys we all swam out to say hello to a recent arrival in the form of a ketch from Milan; one has to wonder what they were thinking with the name of that boat, ‘Pink Jaws’!!??

Fishing at North Button.

Bowball, North Button.

Bowball and a penalty for holding onto the boat.

What was someone thinking?

The main settlement on Long Island was fascinating. A former logging town with old timber, works buildings and houses all disappearing back into the jungle.  The people are still there doing their thing on the edge of the forest with little concrete paths winding around between the houses and jungle. Here you can drink illicit whisky and cokes in the ‘main’ street (inside the shop of course), watch the locals play cricket and then have a death defying ride on the back of a motorcycle through the maze of concrete paths and houses to have dinner at the ‘Blue Planet’ lodge.  The Blue Planet is the only place catering here for travellers and the rest of the intrepid boats crews sent the motorbike to retrieve the skipper after he got lost wandering around and indulging in illicit drinks. Of course before we could order food the proprietors had to send out for the chef and light a fire to cook on. This was the longest wait we had for food in the Andamans, just two and a half hours.

Buildings on Long Island.

Roads on Long Island, not too much traffic.

Long Island cricket.

Girls on Long Island.

No drinking outside the shop!

A bit like a ghost town really.

Humfrey Strait.

Humfrey Strait separates Middle Andaman to the north and Baratang Island south and stretches from the Andaman Sea to the Indian Ocean side.  This was a great diversion from our procession of sandy beaches and islands with a narrow waterway winding it’s way between mangroves and forest/jungle extending all the way down to the water, just watch out for crocodiles! We anchored near the ferry terminal and the Gadflys (skipper, Greg and Michele) along with Simon sallied forth to visit a town whose name we never even got 10 km up the road on Middle Andaman island.  No backpackers or travellers here with lots of stares for the whities walking about.  The locals here just seem to stand around in the street socialising and ‘shooting the breeze’ as it were or coming into the somosa shop to check out the visitors.  Bit of a laugh as most of them came in at some point and half of them seemed to have some involvement in working out our bill.  On ferry terminals, interesting signs telling people amongst other things, to ‘Not give food to the Jawaras’, to travel in convoy and report any ‘incidents’!

Ferry terminal(s) in Humfrey Strait.

Road-signs at the ferry terminal.

 

Says it all really. Humfrey Strait ferry terminal.

The Jawaras are the local indigenous people on Baratang and it would seem they are not entirely happy at having their islands taken over by somebody else, funny about that. Apparently the Indian involvement with the Andamans and Nicobars started with the British establishing penal settlements where they could ship disaffected Indian troublemakers who objected to the British making sure that India remained ‘British’. Before the penal settlements the British East India Company established settlements to help out shipwrecked sailors who had the misfortune to find themselves caste ashore in the ‘cannibal islands’. This started in 1789 when Lt Archibold Blair started a settlement at now Port Blair followed in 1790 by a Naval headquarters established by and named after Governor General Lord Cornwallis. After the British Raj decided they couldn’t have Indians objecting to the wonders of British colonial policy they started shipping troublemakers to Port Blair and eventually built a whopping great ‘Cellular Prison’ to incarcerate troublemakers.

Cellular prison, Port Blair.

Op Cit

Lots of cells!

Perhaps where they belong; the Gadflys in prison.

In this latest of most efficient, penal, architecture these self same, completely unreasonable criminal types could be locked away in all the joy that British colonial policy could provide.  Big prison this with seven triple storey wings and gallows with three ropes so that future hanged persons might likely have a friendly chat amongst themselves before the long drop! Anyway the British were given their eviction orders by the Japanese in the second world war, who and of course in their usual fashion carried on the prison tradition taking brutality to a new level altogether; along with building heaps of fortifications in expectation of a British comeback. Along the way and while playing politics, the Japanese seem to have formed an ‘Interim Indian Government’, and celebrated the finish of British hegemony over the sub-continent making the most of welcoming this ‘new’ Government in the Andamans; now apparently part of India. After the cessation of hostilities the British indeed made their comeback although the ‘Indian’ locals were now firmly of the opinion that they were living in a little bit of India, pity about all the wasted concrete. 

Tricky little buggers those Japanese.

This was perhaps somewhat premature, but in 1947 with the (perhaps unwilling?) departure of Britain from the Andamans and Nicobars, most of India now saw this area as clearly part of their prospective, new and British free country and although the islands sit much closer to Thailand and Burma and had a resident population of ethnic Burmese/Thai, they became of course, part of India.  For the locals though the catastrophe was the population expanding from 10,000 to 350,000 as people from the mainland fled the troubles associated with ‘partition’, which gave rise to modern India and Pakistan.

Here endeth the history lesson, but suffice to say, the original inhabitants, the Jawaras, Sentinelese, Ongoes, Greater Andamanese, Shompens, Nicobares are apparently still none too pleased and in some places, especially in the Nicobars, will shoot people with bows and arrows; the Harbour Master told us of his helicopter being shot at with arrows over Little Andaman! The Nicobars are permanently closed to all but Indian nationals on official duties, whatever that means! Sadly the indigenous tribes, especially in the Andamans proper are in decline, probably terminally.

From Humfrey Strait we headed back to Kwangtung Strait, this time with a stopover at South Button Island and some more diving. The travel information, cruising guides and internet all describe the diving in the Andamans as amongst the best in the world.  Well it probably was once but now mostly what one finds is dead and broken up coral.  The skipper and Simon swam all the way around South Button and what would have been up until about a year ago spectacular coral reef, is now quite dead.  At least the structure of the reef here was still intact but the coral was clearly no longer respiring; in many other places the coral has simply become coral rubble!  The problem (along with dynamite and cyanide fishing) is coral bleaching.  Coral polyps have in their mantle a symbiotic, flagellate, protozoa (actually a unicellular microalgae) known to zoologists as ‘zooxanthellae’. This microalgae exists in a mutually beneficial association with the coral providing photosynthates (fixed carbon from photosynthesis) and possibly oxygen to the coral, while the zooxanthellae get a home.  The zooxanthellae also give the colour to coral (due to pigmentation involved in photosynthesis) with the colour depending on the particular ‘clade’ of microalgae. Coral bleaching is where the coral either expels the zooxanthellae or the zooxanthellae dies.  When this occurs in small areas or patches the coral may recover, but in this case the bleaching has occurred all over the region from northern Indonesia all the way through Malaysia and Thailand and across the Andaman Sea; with very little or no sign of recovery.

This is nothing short of a calamity not only for the environment but also for the locals and their lifestyle. There had been a number of bleaching events in the region over the past decade but the event at the beginning of 2010 was apparently the worst.  Coral in the region does best at 24-29 degrees, but at the end of the NE dry season during 2010 the monsoon came late and sea surface temperature rose to 34 degrees a situation that persisted for about a month. The long-term effects of this will not be very good. The secret to productivity in coral reef systems is this association between coral and their zooxanthellae.  Tropical waters are largely very low in nutrients (especially nitrogen) as lots of sunlight means lots of microalgal activity and the link between coral and their symbiot underpins entire food chains and therefore nutrient processing between any number of species.  In the absence of this process the productivity of these systems is likely to plummit with flow on effects to higher order animals and therefore fisheries. From the tourism perspective it may be hard for the locals to sell the region (Thailand as well) when the previously ‘pristine’ coral reefs have become colourless rubble. While reef systems can recover over time, once bleaching occurs it tends to continue even without further stress and as the coral is now dead, recovery may be a generational thing even if sea, surface temperatures return to an acceptable level and remain there.

Spectacular trees on Ross Island.

Great trees.

World cup cricket!

 We departed South Button and headed for Neil once again with a brief stop at the beer shop at Laccam Harbour. After another night on Neil it was back to Port Blair and four days of getting sorted and seeing the sights before passage back to Phuket.  We had the obligatory visit to the Cellular Prison, checked out the remains of British settlement on nearby Ross Island and took time out with the locals at a bar to watch India and England tie a world cup cricket match; very exciting as they do love their cricket.  Clearing out was quite an experience and took all day starting at 0930 and finishing with immigration stamping our passports at 1800 while sitting on the dock.  So on the 28th of February with the lights starting to shine over Port Blair we pulled up our anchor and headed out for the 410 miles back to Nai Harn on Phuket. 

Bummer about the coral. 

 
 
 
 
 

North Cinque and all those missing feet. The shoe tree, or as Sven put it, the tree of lost souls!!!

 

 
 
 
 

Ah yes, a warning to us all!!!

 

Symbiosis = ‘Living together’

Three forms thereof:

Parasitism

Parasite (one taxa of two in association)  gains benefit at cost to host

Commensalism

One taxa gains advantage at no cost to host (how does one establish no cost?)

Mutualism

Both taxa gain advantage from association (i.e. coral reef association).

Triggers for coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching is a vivid sign of corals responding to stress, which can be induced by any of:

  • increased (most commonly), or reduced water temperatures, increased solar irradiance (photosynthetically active radiation) and ultraviolet band light.
  • changes in water chemistry (in particular acidification)
  • starvation caused by a decline in zooplankton
  • increased sedimentation (due to silt runoff)
  • pathogen infections
  • changes in salinity
  • wind
  • low tide air exposure
  • cyanide fishing
  •  Temperature change
 Temperature change is the most common cause of coral bleaching. Large coral colonies such as Porites are able to withstand extreme temperature shocks, while fragile branching corals such as table coral are far more susceptible to stress following a temperature change.
 
 
Canary in a coalmine.

Canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an early warning system. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. Because canaries tend to sing much of the time, they provided both a visual and audible cue in this respect. The use of so called miner’s canaries in British mines was phased out in 1987.

Hence, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” is frequently used to refer to a person or thing which serves as an early warning of a coming crisis. By analogy, the term climate canary is used to refer to a species that is affected by an environmental danger prior to other species, thus serving as an early warning system for the other species with regard to the danger.

No don't do it, you might spill some!!!

 

Apologies for late posting, internet service in India or at least the Andamans is really not very good.  Some more photos still to come will get them up soon.  Will endeavour to have next section, Port Blair to Langkawi up ASAP.  Cheers, Trevor.

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