Thoughts on visiting Bangaram island to attend ‘STAPCOR’

The sea was exceptionally calm and the early morning sun was shining in the horizon attempting to absorb deep blue water. The boat chummed at a steady speed and half an hour later, we entered the lagoon of Bangaram and Tinnakara islands, a part of the Lakshadweep archipelago, quintessential postcard-perfect islands which are as unreal as our dreams.

Quintessential postcard-perfect island–Tinnakara

I was visiting the islands to attend the International Conference on Status and Protection of Coral Reefs 2018 referred to as STAPCOR. Not only was the conference unexpected, from my perspective, so was the array of new experiences that the pretext of attending conference would allow me to have!

View of Bangaram Island

I, along with 30 participants boarded a ship from Kochi by afternoon and next day early morning we got off onto another small boat, which took us to the final destination and main venue of the conference—Bangaram island. The first view of these islands was mesmerizing. Turquoise blue water, spread between the lagoons and the white sand were soothing the eyes. Once on the island, Abdu Koya welcomed the participants and briefed about the conference schedule. Most participants were staying at Bangaram Island, but students stay was arranged at Tinnakara Island, which is approximately 3 to 4 km from Bangaram Island. After heavy breakfast at the island resort, a boy called Rahim ferried us across the turquoise blue lagoon from Bangaram to Tinnakara.

A stay at Tinnakara was very special. It was a retreat nestled in traditional wooden, woven, and palm-thatched accommodation affording amazing views of the bright turquoise sea as they share a common lagoon. All the rooms had their own verandas tucked only a few feet from the gently lapping shore.  Skimming over the aquamarine seas, past draping coastal vegetation, the islands is shaped like a pirate ship, where sadly no Johnny Depp’s yet been spotted. Soft green weedy vegetation covered the coastal area and coconuts trees covered most of the periphery.

After initial amusement and a quick exploration of the island, everyone decided to take a swim. I was not carrying my snorkelling gear so I took a power nap. When I woke up, I was all fresh and geared-up to enter the water. The blazing sun and the unbearable heat made the water all the more alluring for a swim. I borrowed snorkelling gear from a friend and after spending a few minutes in the water, it struck me that I could swim the channel between Tinnakara to Bangaram island. We were asked to reach Bangaram by lunchtime and there was enough time considering it would take 2 hours to swim 3-4 kilometres in the sea. With childlike enthusiasm, I came up to the shore and declared my plan. I tried convincing fellow colleagues and friends to join me. I told them “imagine a kind of story you would have to tell to your grandchildren”, many got excited, but to my dismay, no one was ready to join. After a few unsuccessful attempts of convincing fellow colleagues, I took a plunge with mask, snorkel, fins and camera and started swimming in the direction of Bangaram. This decision was a bit rash on my part, considering that there could be a strong current in the channel, but the sea was exceptionally calm, the tide was rising and since I have considerable experience in swimming in the open ocean, I decided to take a chance.

Tall branches of Acropora coral

For the first 30 minutes, I swam non-stop. I crossed countless sand patches where corals were growing intermittently. Variety of beautiful fish mostly surgeonfish, parrotfish swam by like commuters passing on busy streets of metro cities. After a while I came upon a or up close with a big patch of massive boulder coral that was as big as a truck and surrounding the mammoth structure, there were branching corals of all sizes and shape. Their intertwined branches were spread nicely across shallows and tiny fish of different variety swam in and out of coral crevices. At one point an immense jobfish curiously checked me out, returning, again and again, to stare at me as if to state proprietarily, “Hey! This is my patch!”

A group butterflyfish nibbling on coral polyps

Frequently the groupers hung around as I was gliding over, but not for long as these shy fish are skittish so off they hid! After an hour or so I spotted shoals of fusilier fish cruise by, and after some time I was preoccupied with sea fans galore! They were red and rainbow coloured and in a range of sizes. Red whip corals rose up like lilies beneath the fans and a host of small anthia fish went about their business in between. At one point, I saw six pipe fish sitting on the reef in a circle as if they were in the middle of an important conversation. At other instance, I saw a pair of butterflyfish nibbling on coral polyps. I thought to myself, if I could, even I would love to be nibbling on coral reefs.

By now my energy levels had gone down. I was swimming for more than an hour. It looked like I was half-way with little distance to cover. I kept swimming, duck diving and exploring lagoons that were beaming with life. After almost 90 minutes my friends came to me on the boat to check on me. They requested me to get on the boat, but I refused as little distance was left before I could make it to the island. I offered my sincere thanks for allowing me to continue, and after gulping a few sips of water I continued swimming. When I was just about to reach the island, a safety boat came from somewhere and I was dragged on the boat despite endless requests to allow me to continue. My dream of crossing the island ended abruptly, but enthusiasm stayed.

Once on Bangaram, I had a quick shower and ate lunch with brimful of rice on my plate. Over lunch, I met interesting people and had endless interesting conversations. With few known and unknown faces, I explored the island and visited a freshwater lake on the island. In the evening we witnessed the sun kissing the sea kind of sunset. Delightful shades of blue and turquoise were everywhere. Once it was dark, we walked across the island in a small enthusiastic group, with fellow researchers and local residents and we feasted on the incredibly diverse and wholesome buffet. As we dined inches from the sea, we chatted on a range of topics pertaining to marine life and conservation of biodiversity. Our conversation ranged from fish to football, from planktons to whales, from gurus to new gadgets, from tuna pickle to tuna movement, from coconuts falling on people’s head to the usefulness of coconut in preserving coastal erosion.

Bangaram Island– the venue of the conference

From the second day onwards, the official conference started and for the next three days, the days fell into a blissful routine. Every morning, we were picked literally from our doorstep into a traditional boat called ‘Kundalum’ boat and once we were off to Bangaram, a breakfast of eggs, any style you like, and tropical fruits of variety followed.

The conference venue was right on the beach. A huge hall, resembling a wedding hall was set on the white sand of Bangaram island. The red-lettered “Reef for Life” banner was decorated with BJP logo and had beaming faces of Hon. Prime Minister, Mr Modi, the Environment Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and the administrator of the union territory of Lakshadweep, Mr Faruk.

The Environment Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and the administrator of the union territory of Lakshadweep, Mr Faruk along with other

As per the schedule, the conference talks were supposed to start at 10 in the morning, however, the honourable cabinet minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and his gang got delayed by nearly two hours. This allowed us an ample amount of time to catch up with friends. I was sitting next to Dr Deepak Apte, the director of Bombay Natural History Society and his student Dr Sumantha Narayana and learning the tricks and trades of dealing with bureaucracy. After the minister arrived the session started with the introduction of seven dignitaries who were on stage and each gave a 5-10-minute speech. For me, it was the most entertaining session. All the people who were with the minister were as successful in hiding their intentions as filmmakers are in hiding Akshay Khanna’s receding hairline. The conference organisers presented the work they were conducting in different parts of India and set the stage for the conference.

Post lunch was the first session of the conference—the status of coral reefs. We were listening to talks and attending a panel discussion that ranged in different topics—from biodiversity loss in coral reefs to impacts of climate change. Talk by Dr Ravichandran, the Chief Wildlife Warden and Dr Rajkumar of Zoological Survey of India were noteworthy. Dr Ravichandran spoke about his experience of working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and how he bridged the gap between researchers and the Forest Department. While Dr Rajkumar was very brief in his ways and told a powerful story of a young boy and his dream and then connected to the islands and conservation. Talks delivered by both received a loud round of applause as they spoke of the broader issue of conservation of coral reefs.

After attending different talks, by evening we were in the water snorkelling inside the lagoons and chilling in the water like water buffaloes. A cultural event where the island kids were dancing to Malayalam songs was a treat to watch in the beginning, but all of a sudden, the volume got so loud that I had to walk out to a quieter place. For dinner, there was coconut rice and tasty tuna that was cooked in island style coconut gravy. Post dinner we returned to our comfortable abode in Tinnakara island. Once on Tinnakara, we walked all along the island beach for turtle sighting. Though we did not see any turtles, we did come across a few fresh tracks of nesting turtles. It was low tide and the ghost crabs were on the beach, running from one end to another like professional soccer players. Their density was exceptionally high. I estimated almost 20 to 30 individuals per meter. If I’d had time, I would have loved to estimate their numbers. Arun Rathish, Prakash, Tanmay, Ranith and Amith were my fellow companions, and at a student level, we spoke a lot on diverse topics including institutional politics that is damning research in India.

On the second day of the conference, the session started with Dr David Johnson giving a presentation about value addition in coral reef research. The interesting aspect was that he remembered about my poster and he mentioned my work in his talk. The second talk was about value addition through people participation by Dr Sergio Chiradanii. He gave interesting examples of successful sustainable tourism models including of Chumbe Island Marine Protected Area, which I visited a few years ago. Post lunch was the panel discussion session for which I was on the stage. We spoke a bit about what we think about coral reef conservation issues in India. Once again snorkelling ritual followed, which was followed by a session of poster presentations, quick dinner and lovely time in Tinnakara island with friends.

On the third and last day of the conference, the session started with a panel discussion where Dr Idress Babu raised some important issues regarding the capacity building of locals for the conservation of coral reefs. In the afternoon Dr Deepak Apte gave a very interesting talk where he ended his talk with saying, that “its time to act, and if not now, then when?” This talk was followed by Dr Andandi’s talk, a behaviour economist who works with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. She spoke about the ‘Green skill Development Programme’. Mr Damodhar, Dr Ravichandran, Mr Yuvraj Singh Yadava, PP Hamid Abdulla, Dr Chandra spoke about a few important issues and what challenges exists and how to overcome issues and threats to coral reefs. The last session was by Dr Chandra who gave a vote of thanks and glorified the work carried out by the ZSI. The last session was once again by Mr Abdu Koya who gave an emotional speech; where he thanked every individual (including jackfruit trees!) who were remotely involved in making the conference successful. The conference ended with participants taking the pledge for call of action for the conservation of coral reefs and a group photo.

For me, the best part about the conference was that I got to meet amazing people and researcher who are working hard in different corners of India for protecting coral reefs. By far the most enjoyable activity was sitting on the beach or chilling in shallow water as the sun began to set or watching the people turn to sunset silhouettes.

Evenings were spent checking fish ID’s and over suppers, the fantastic, fun and helpful participants joined us and shared their extensive knowledge of their research and dives and many a funny tale of their adventures!  Conference manager Abdu Koya did an amazing job in catering requests of all including environment minister request of Dr Harsh Vardhan who tried SCUBA– what a place to take the first plunge! Thirty-degree water and great visibility was the norm and underwater life we saw was literally breathtaking. Besides I got to meet local heroes such as Idrees Babu, Hanifa Koya and local organizations who were coming forward to find new ways to engage the public and conserve reefs.

Overall, it was motivating to meet people from different backgrounds working together for the same cause. Even though I have attended many conferences, STAPCOR was different in the sense that it was held in the islands which are most spectacular and at the same time most vulnerable due to impacts of climate change.  It provided an excellent opportunity and platform for the member countries to interact and share their scientific knowledge for the conservation of coral reefs, as best described in its theme: ‘Identify and Implement Effective Management Strategies for Conservation, Increased Resiliency and Sustainable Use of Coral Reefs’.

A group picture of STAPCOR, 2018

While the “Reef for life” motto is very obvious, holding an international event has definitely stirred marine conservation in a new and unexpected direction. After all, there is a lot in common between Lakshadweep islands and dreams. They both can disappear before you try to remember them!

International Conference on Status and Protection of Coral Reefs (STAPCOR – 2018) was held at Bangaram Island, Union Territory of Lakshadweep from 21st to 24th October 2018. This conference was part of International Year of the Reef, 2018 which is designed to raise awareness about the threats to coral reefs and the associated ecosystems. The theme of the conference was “Reef for Life”. It was inaugurated by Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr Harsh Vardhan. It further draws plans to promote partnerships between governments, the private sector, academia and civil society, and share information on best practices for sustainable coral reef management.

It was jointly organized by Department of Environment and Forest, Union Territory of Lakshadweep Administration with the technical support of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and in association with Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Environmental Information System (ENVIS) in consonance with declaration of year 2018 as 3rd decadal International year of Reefs. About 150 delegates both international and national had participated in this mega event. The delegates and keynote speakers for technical deliberations were from United State of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK), Kuwait, Italy, France, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

*The views and opinions presented here are mine and do not reflect the opinions of funding/research or any affiliated institutions.

Published by Vardhan Patankar