‘Live like you have a hundred years more to go: B.F. Chhapgar’.

As I walk into Cusrow Baug, ripples of sound from a piano, a guitar and a clock’s chimes all float through the air over the parked vintage cars and bikes. Old couples stand in their balconies, staring into infinity in the quiet, cloudy afternoon. I am here to meet the man who encouraged me to study marine biology, Dr. Boman Framji Chhapgar

A view of Cusrow Baug apartment in Colaba_Picture_Dinaz Vandrewalla.jpg
A view of Cusrow Baug Apartment in Colaba, South Bombay

In one of the many apartments of Cusrow Baug, I find him sitting in the dim light amidst piled-up books, newspaper cuttings and notes that he has gathered for sixty-odd years. Despite having lost much of his eyesight, the eighty-five-year-old Chhapgar, who has a formidable reputation as India’s first marine biologist, continues to write and remains an inspiration to so many naturalists and biologists.

Dr. Chhapgar with his book, Understanding the Sea_Picture_Dinaz Vandrewalla
Dr. Chhapgar with his book, Understanding the Sea.

As a teenager, Chhapgar divided his time between scouring libraries and exploring the forests and seashores in and around Bombay. After completing his schooling in 1944, he graduated with honours at the age of 17 from St. Xavier’s College in 1948, with Microbiology as his principal subject.

Dr. Chhapgar in 1951.jpg
Dr Chhapgar in 1951

In 1951, he enrolled as the first student in the life sciences postgraduate course at the University of Bombay, and in 1954, was awarded the Shri Vicaji D.B. Taraporevala Senior Research scholarship.

Later, in 1957, he obtained a second Bachelor of Science in Zoology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bombay. The very next year, he was selected for the UNESCO Marine Biology Refresher Course, which gave him an opportunity to travel abroad. He participated in the International Indian Ocean Expedition (1961 – 65) with cruises on U.S.S. ANTON BRUUN and I.N.S. KISTNA, and on the first cruise of India’s oceanographic ship O.R.V. SAGAR KANYA to Kenya in 1983. Chhapgar recollects, “This was the first few years after India got independence, so we had the independence to do whatever we wanted.” He registered for his PhD in 1972 and completed it in a short span of four years by 1976.

Chhapgar’s work is globally recognised and valued. He was elected Life Fellow of the International Oceanographic Foundation for his contributions to the advancement and extension of knowledge in oceanography and the marine sciences”. Not just that, his portrait is included in the Gallery of Carcinologists in the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. In India, he served on the Board of Governors of the Maharashtra Nature Parks Association and on the executive committee of the Bombay Natural History Society. In 1994, he was awarded the Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping in an aquarium.

Dr. Chhapagar receiving Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping.
Dr Chhapgar receiving Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping.

Chhapgar, along with his colleague Mr Sane, also founded the Indian Fisheries Association, which was set up with the mandate to address grass root-level problems of fisheries and aquarium maintenance in India. Chhapgar feels that the straitened circumstances of early independent India engendered camaraderie amongst researchers, which has faded away now. He says, “Passion was what drove our work in science. We earned little, and at times we did not earn anything at all, but we still continued working.”

An author of the classic Marine Life of India, Chhapgar once told me,“Books have always been my stimulant … they are like an injection.”

In a career spanning over six decades, the biologist has written over ten books, hundreds of scientific papers, described three species of crabs, two mantis shrimp (Stomatopods) and fishes under the pen-name “Beefsea”. The discovery of new species won him a place in Blackwelder’s Directory of Zoological Taxonomists of the World (1961).

His books, filled as they are with interesting facts and information, are masterpieces of contextualization. They are not only about fish or octopus or crabs or snails but about their—and our—shared ecology.

It isn’t Chhapgar’s illustrious career, however, that sets him apart. It is his passion for marine life, practical accomplishment, intellectual depth and of course his sense of humour, which is as ironic as it is infectious. He possesses this unique quality of connecting with people from all walks of life and has the ability to give sound advice on any subject, from religion to relationships. It is Chhapgar’s individuality that led him to literally take the plunge into the water and explore marine organisms in their natural environment at a time when the science of identification was still based in the collection of dead specimens. Perhaps the first person to use SCUBA apparatus to study marine life in India, Chhapgar is a keen observer of nature, who has carried out studies on marine fish and observed the changes in their development both in their natural habitat and in the aquarium.

File photo of Dr. Chhapgar with fish catch
File photo of Dr. Chhapgar with a fish catch.

I know well that I am just one among many whom Chhapgar has inspired. M.R. Almeida, (Senior scientist and a renowned botanist) has even named a variety of Sidaacuta Burm., a plant he discovered in Lakshadweep after Chhapgar as S. acutavarchhapgarii. As I sit with Chhapgar in his balcony sipping hot tea, I realise why.

Though almost blind, he remains comfortable and content. His visual impairment and its associated adversities have not diminished his appetite for knowledge, and, in fact, have led him to gain a sense of acceptance of his successes and failures. Chhapgar was an avid reader and also a poet. It is perhaps out of habit that every few minutes he turns towards his bookshelf. As he began losing his sight, he not only memorised the sequence in which his books are stacked, but also the exact location of everything in his home.

Today, Chhapgar’s curiosity is still like that of an insistent child. He shows no signs of burnout and refuses help from relatives and friends. He continues to have long discussions with colleagues on advances in the field of marine biology and when alone, he listens to the radio. He continues to write from memory, cooks his own food, goes for walks and welcomes everyone who comes to his door. And he says he enjoys doing it all.

Chhapgar’s appetite for life is humbling. For him, science isn’t a set of minor achievable goals, and nor can its practice be limited to just one discipline. I often remember the leathery skin of his face, the years of experience it shows, and what he said to me with a glint in his eye: “I follow one simple rule in life. Instead of living each day like there is no tomorrow, live like you have hundred more years to go. Wouldn’t you then follow your passion?”


An edited version of this article first published in Sanctuary Asia www.sanctuaryasia.com/…/10196–a-hundred-more-years-to-go-a-tribut…

The Bay Island Lizard: My Work Companions

A cottage built in Karen style architecture at ANET field station in the Andamans.
A cottage built in Karen style architecture at ANET field station in the Andamans.

I sleep in a comfortable machan style cottage, with a tin roof overhead and wooden chatai windows and walls that open on all sides. A dozen or so areca nut trees, a few bamboo groves and various native trees surround my cottage, giving me an excellent opportunity to observe my surroundings without any obstruction. Though most nearby areas have been converted to agricultural land, the Andaman Nicobar Environmental Team’s (ANET) field station and a few nearby areas still hold some forests. The local snakes, lizards and birds are a permanent feature of any field station. And amongst them, the short-tailed island lizards, belonging to the genus Coryphophylax, are my daily work companions.

The island lizards as my dialy work comapnions
The island lizards as my daily work companions

Every day, three to five lizards visit my cottage and give me company as my work progresses. Sometimes I see them staring at an infinite infinity

My ‘herpetologist’ friends explain that they are diurnal and floor dwelling, which means that they spend their days on the ground or on tree trunks, and nights on leaves or branches, sleeping. Chasing each other is primarily to defend territory or attract a mate. Granted that the purpose of chasing is to attract females, or defending territories, what is the purpose of many quick neck movements, and why do they sit for hours doing nothing but staring at me?

Bay island lizard perching on the leaf.
Bay island lizard perching on the leaf.

In my opinion, no comprehensive explanation is possible. And even though I make inferences of why they are doing what they are doing, I guess only the individual lizards know what is going on inside their heads. After all, with the vast and varied differences in sense perceptions and emotive expressions that exist between ourselves, and the bewildering diversity of the rest of the living world, what we derive is just a possible explanation of any act.

When I chat with my learned friends, I am awestruck by what they infer from every move the lizards make. They use complex words to explain simple behaviour. One circumstance that needlessly complicates the observation of animals is the assumption that every significant action of an animal must have a purpose. I am quite sure, that like us, animals also indulge in a range of moves and activities without having any set purpose.

Bay island lizard
Bay island lizard

For me, the lizards visiting my cottage is the purest form of pleasure, and I’m glad that I am able to observe them and enjoy their company without trying to discover meaning and purpose in every move that they make. My very separateness from these lizards enriches me and allows us to work better under the same roof.

After all what else do you need from a work companion?


Edited version first published @ http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/features/10184-the-bay-island-lizard-my-work-companions

Jewels of the seabed

Edited version: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/jewels-of-the-seabed/article7758383.ece

Halgerda sp
All that glitters. Sea slugs compensate for their small size and soft bodies by advertising their poisons through colour.Photo: Vardhan Patankar

If you dive deep into the oceans, you could be treated to a view of colourful sea slugs. While you admire the patterns and hues, be informed – the colours are their armours.

Enchanting to anyone who dives beneath the ocean’s surface, colourful sea slugs are a diverse group of marine animals that are found all over the world. The photos speak for themselves; take a closer look and prepare to be assaulted by an assortment of patterns and hues ranging from black-and-white to psychedelic colours.

Unlike the dull brown slugs that we see on land, sea slugs are amongst the most spectacular and diverse creatures that can be found in the world’s seas, from shallows and reefs to murky sea beds nearly a mile under the sea surface. They are molluscs, belonging to a group called Opisthobranchs.

Gaze at the bright blue, vivid violet, flaming yellow, plum-like purple on sea slugs, and you will be left awestruck by the range of colours on the display. If you could ask a sea slug the secret of their beauty, they’d tell you that their colours are there for a reason: to protect themselves from predators! Isn’t that strange? How could colours keep them safe in an environment swarming with voracious feeders, from sharks to barracudas and much more?

A play of evolution

To understand this you’d have to look at their history. The ancestors of sea slugs discarded their hard and protective shells millions of years ago, and today’s sea slugs are just soft organs, muscle and skin. So how do they protect their soft, vulnerable bodies?

This is how. They make themselves distasteful to any animal that tries to eat them and advertise this in their colours. The message to predators is loud and clear: “Don’t eat me, I’m poisonous !” Although almost all sea slugs are colourful, different kinds have different ways of protecting themselves.

Store poison

Some are tough-skinned and bumpy, whereas others are armed with toxic ink jets or even stinging cells. Their food (sponges, fire corals and anemones) contain poison. After digesting their food, sea slugs store the poison and secrete it from their skin cells or glands when eaten. This means that any animal that tries to eat a sea slug probably makes a face similar to yours when you are made to eat vegetables like a bitter gourd!

Pretty interesting, right? Well, this is only a small sample of what is known about sea slugs, and in fact, there is a lot that is still unknown. Researchers are still discovering new species and behaviours with flamboyant displays of colours. For me, seeing these fabulous animals underwater is like seeing abstract paintings: allowing you to experience the extraordinary sea slug in an astonishingly unusual way.

Spectacular sea slugs

  • There are over 3,000 species of sea slugs, and new species are still being discovered.

  • Sea slugs have a foot, and they leave a slimy trail, just like land slugs.

  • They have a short lifespan; some live up to a year, others only a few weeks.

  • Sea slugs are both genders at the same time – so they are hermaphrodites.


Edited version: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/jewels-of-the-seabed/article7758383.ece

A day of dugong!


Outram Island in East Andaman


Every year, we dedicate the 2nd to the 8th of October as the ‘Wildlife week’. It is during this period that we reflect on our countries’ rich biodiversity and the services it provides us. While we celebrate this week here, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, there is a greater reason to fete our success and evaluate our failures in protecting our very own State animal, the dugong.

The dugong or ‘Panisuwar’ has a long history of existence in these islands. Old fishers recollect sighting herds of 10-15 dugongs just a few decades back when there were over two hundred animals inhabiting these waters. Most people in the islands believe that dugongs are found only in Dugong creek in Little Andaman. Contrary to this, dugongs have been and continue to be reported (although few in numbers) from islands in North Andaman (Reef, Sheame and Landfall), South Andaman (Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Chidiatapu), Ritchie’s archipelago (Neil, Havelock and Inglis), Little Andaman and around the Nancowry group of islands.


Halophilla sp floating at Neil Island


Sadly, hunting in the past and accidental entanglement in fishing nets has led to drastic declines in dugong numbers making it rare to sight an animal in the wild in recent years. Recognising this fact, in 1992, the Ministry of Environment and Forests amended the status of the dugong, giving this marine mammal legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. In 2002, the dugong was declared the State animal of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At the national level, a Dugong Task Force was constituted in 2008 and in 2011, a project was approved to recover the species under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, for a period of five years.

The Department of Environment and Forests here in Port Blair along with scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore have been working together ever since, to develop a management and protection plan for the animal. Over the years, this effort has been headed and managed by officers at the Department like Mr. D.V. Negi, Mr. G.N. Sinha, Mr. S.S. Garbyal, Mr. K. Ravichandran, Mr Ajai Saxena, Mr A.K. Paul and Mr B.P. Yadav.

As researchers of the project, we identified important dugong habitat during the first two years of the project. Over 50 seagrass meadows are present in the shallow waters of the island, but animals appeared to feed in only eight of these meadows. The selective diet of the dugong and presence of their preferred seagrass species at these sites is the main reason. We monitored seagrass meadows over two years and learnt that dugongs repeatedly feed in these sites throughout the year, rarely abandoning the site. Only seventeen individuals have been sighted till date, of which three were mother-calf pairs. The low numbers are alarming and monitoring and protecting these select habitats and the remaining individuals has become important for the animals survival.

Boat island

It has been four long years since the start of our joint efforts. While we have gathered the basic information needed to protect the species and manage its habitat, there have been several roadblocks. These have been mainly due lack of continuity in sanctioning of funds, delays in fund release when sanctioned and insufficient funds when released. While these hindrances have not discouraged efforts from the department, it has surely affected the momentum of work and increased the time frame for achieving the set goals.

Dugong Feeding at Neil Island- Vardhan Patankar
Dugong feeding in South Andaman

After a year’s lag, this financial year seems promising, with the Ministry sanctioning funds. In the months to come there are plans to identify clear terms of management intervention, establish a monitoring programme for the species and its habitat, and help further clarify aspects of the species biology, behaviour and ecology, that would be critical for its rational conservation.


Besides increasing our understanding of the dugong, there are also huge practical challenges to conserving the species. Fishing nets and high-speed boats in dugong habitat and hunting by communities who believe in the totemic and cultural value of the animal are a few of these. A major community-based conservation programme with the joint effort of all stakeholders over an extended period is a must and. The declaration that accorded it the status of the State animal will otherwise, amount to nothing more than a mere symbol.

An edited version of this article published in Andaman Chronicals

Elrika D’Souza & Vardhan Patankar

Floaters on Cinque

Guest post by Nitya Prakash Mohanty

Scenic Cinque island

Crackle. Crackle. Popcorn? Hunger clouds my thoughts. I flash my torch at the slippery rocks below to compensate for the yet to rise the moon. Hundreds of molluscs scatter on my approach. The surrounding sea and the distant calls of spotted deer remind me that I am far away from home and certainly away from popcorn. The lights of a ship blink in the distance as I turn a corner to the smell of fresh fried fish. Camp sweet camp. I put down a red floater I had found washed onto the beach, the other one in the pair missing, and proceed to my tent. By the time the camp light is turned off, it would have been the time for people in cities to switch on their television after a day’s work. Here, on the uninhabited islands of Andaman in the Bay of Bengal, things are a bit different.

Pristine Cinque

Islands are known for the oddities of life forms they display and to me, the oddities of humans they beckon. The appeal of islands does not end the isolation that they offer, but the simplicity of life that comes with it. People who choose the island life come in for a shock every time they set foot on the distant mainland, where life bustles along at 20 rupees for water and with a food chain as a symbol of development. These disenchanted souls find some perspective in the Islands, where footwear is not bought but found washed ashore, where the All India Radio replaces the 100 TV channels package and where the tides are as important as electricity. While the rest of the world tries to drown out the rest of the world with its headphones and blinkers, here, camping on an island, it is all about listening and observing.

From left to right, Katya, Titli, Atnav, Nitya, Naveen and Vardhan

Camping in an uninhabited island like Cinque can be quite uneventful sometimes. Strangely, this does not bother anyone. Uneventful nights are filled with arguments on the make of the ship on the horizon and uneventful days are made enjoyable by an intensive search for usable items washed ashore. On one such search, my quest for the missing red floater of the pair I found earlier proves futile but my companions find a fish net on the beach. I can see the satisfaction on their faces. Well aware of their inclination towards fishing, I expect at least a few species on my plate for dinner. Things take an unpredictable turn as we reach the camp and the net is cut in half. Before I have the time to lodge my displeasure at this barbaric infliction on the nylon made provider of food, it is transformed into a pair of something better. Hammocks! Forgetting the safety of the tent for the night, I make myself comfortable on a hammock, with a thermocol for a pillow. The night sky becomes increasingly darker as the wind rocks me to sleep.



Floaters on the beach

I wake up to a gradually increasing noise in my ears. I look around and then look up. A Coast Guard chopper is above us, doing a headcount. Non-threats they decide, having judged from the way we have set up camp out in the open and our non-fishermen and non-tourists appearances. Routine stuff. The sun is quite high up in the sky for six in the morning, shining brightly on us, ten longitudes away from and forty to forty-five minutes earlier than the mainland. We proceed to the forest to sample for lizards, carrying the last of our fresh water in two bottles, intent on making it back on time for the boat which is supposed to pick us up. By the time we are back, the boat has docked. We quickly pack up our tents, bring down the hammocks, make sure there is no plastic left behind and are ready to leave. The tide is coming in, the radio plays its morning program and we finish loading the boat. The captain is about to start the noisy engine when one of my companions, who had gone to fetch the anchor from the beach, runs towards us shouting. He looks as if he has found some long-lost gem, maybe buried in the sand by the invading Japanese army during the World War II. He makes it to the boat before his lungs give up and say, “Here. Weren’t you looking for this?” A pair of red floaters dances in front of my eyes. It’s a perfect match.



How I wish I was a fish!

hawksfish_Photo:Varddhan Patankar
Hawkfish–patient stalkers

Wouldn’t you love to be a fish – gorgeously coloured and interestingly shaped, spending your life jumping from one coral to another…just like a hawkfish?

With a wonderfully apt name, these patient stalkers of prey behave like hawks. They rest and wait for that opportune moment when they can dash out to grab their meal. On spotting something good to eat, they quickly dart from their resting spot, capture their food and retreat to the hiding place. A variety of animals falls victim to the hawkfish, from small crustaceans to other fish.

Hawkfish_Vardhan Patankar
They stalk, wait, dart and capture, just like hawks. And they are spiky and gorgeous too

Hawkfishes patrol their homes, while usually stopping on a piece of coral, a tree-like sea fan, or anemone. They need a solid surface to rest on because, unlike other fishes, they lack a swim bladder (an organ that allows fishes to stay afloat in the water column). This means that they truly swim or sink! Their chubby bodies, curious eyes and unique colouring attract the attention of every human diver. But the long and sharp spines on the top of their fins keep large predatory fishes away.

The best part is that every individual hawkfish gets to experience being male as well as female in its lifetime. This phenomenon is called sequential hermaphroditism — starting life as one sex and turning later into the other. Hawkfish start out as females and turn into males as they get older.

Cirrhitichthys falco
A hawkfish waiting patiently for its prey.

Male hawkfish guard specific areas on the reef and the only fish welcome in a male’s territory are female hawkfish. The search for a partner begins prior to sunset, with the females visiting the territories of males. The male then checks out all females and tries to attract as many as possible, one after another. After few days the female releases her eggs into the water column. The eggs develop into larvae, which float in the water for weeks. As babies (also called ‘fry’), they live inside coral crevices and finally grow up to become guards of the reefs.

Having an almost perfect luxurious lifestyle, these fish live a life that anyone would wish. If you get a chance to visit a coral reef, do observe the curious behaviour of a hawkfish so that you can marvel and rejoice at their odd behaviour and their luminous beauty.

  • Though their mouth looks small, it can open up quite wide so hawkfishes can swallow food items almost as big as their own bodies.
  • Their favourite food items are crabs, small fishes, squids and small shrimps.
  • They closely resemble Rockfishes, Scorpionfishes, and Lionfishes (all in the fish family Scorpaenidae) except that they lack prominent head spines.
  • They are very common in the shallow seas of the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic. In Indian waters, they can be seen in the reefs of the Lakshadweep Islands and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

An edited version published in The Hindu School.


Rainbows are real

I was told that certain objects cannot be touched. They are there to be appreciated, to be adhered to and revered. I think of such objects. The arc of a rainbow comes to my mind. It appears out of nowhere like a random thought, emotion or memory—ready to disappear at any moment.

I think back to when I was four or five when I saw a rainbow for the first time. Of my mother telling me that the appearance of one signified the marriage, somewhere, of a peacock and its consort the peahen. My father explaining its dimensions and easy ways to remember its colours.

There was a distinct gap between the story my mother told me, and what the rainbow actually is. As a five-year-old child, I was unable to comprehend fiction from fact. In the ninth grade during physics classes, we had to make a rainbow, by bending the path of light through a prism. In later years I used a spectrophotometer for my research, which uses the principles of a rainbow.

From then till now I have seen rainbows an endless number of times, and every time I see one, a strong feeling of nostalgia grips my mind. Part of the nostalgia is because of my mother’s story, and part of the illusion that it is always perched on the horizon, far away and distant.

However, unlike the usual faraway rainbow, the rainbow I saw in my dream appeared different. Its colours were as insistent as a child’s water colour drawing faded here and there, but scattered along the edges. It appeared slowly against the backdrop of the morning sky. First to appear was the friendly violet, followed by an iridescent indigo, a shy green, deep blue, yellow, orange, red—a visual cacophony, with a scrambled mixture of wavelengths. Each colour brought along different emotions and thoughts, all coming together with some solid purpose.

Though they were just colours spread against the sky, its material looked solid and unbreakable, purposeful and pressing as if it was made to last. It’s rough gateway shone through a radiant slice of paradise. I gazed through and through the rainbow, standing, sitting, kneeling without any notion of future or past. As I gazed into the rainbows dazzling light, I saw the deeper beauty that I had not glimpsed before. Its surface seemed to dance in rhythm with the cluster of thoughts that had opened up everywhere.

Flowers and insects, the horizon and the sun, the moon and the stars, light and dark, red and blue, yellow and green—each closely bound together, almost prophetically joined. A congregation of images and feelings, the marriage of a peacock and peahen, of fantastic permanence amidst the rapid change of tempest—as if the rainbow was unreal and my mind alone projected different colours onto the sky. An ordinary rainbow projecting unordinary thoughts, a sheer spasm of joy and me sitting at the edge of this convergence, feeling an equal degree of pleasure and reverence, which an unlettered peacock may also have felt at the sight of this rainbow.

At that moment, I almost touched its beams, smudged its colours and left behind a cluster of thoughts. The rainbow as well as, my insistent dream cleared, what was left was the bright blue sky.

I realised that thoughts are just puzzles with missing pieces—ready to appear and disappear like the fading of a rainbow.

What are they doing down there?

Edited version published in Sanctuary Asia February 2015.


Vardhan Patankar & Elrika D’Souza

Dugong 3_Havelock island_Photo_ Vardhan Patankar
Dugongs in Neil Island—at times they float, mysteriously still and silent.

Living on the edge: dugongs prefer to feed repeatedly on seagrass meadows that are sparsely distributed

Dugong ordinarily comes into view only briefly, when they part the sea’s shimmer to breath. Though more active at the surface than the most marine mammal, still spends about seventy percent of their lives below the water. What are they doing down there? They roam too widely through rough and remote seas, no wonder, earth wonderful life forms, are still steeped in mystery. Out in the wonderfully clear azure blue seas of the Andaman and Nicobar islands our research has gathered new clews about a crucial part of dugong lives: their feeding habit on seagrass meadows. We found out that some dugongs are feeding repeatedly in single meadow, by making serpentine feeding trails, whereas others abandon the seagrass meadows. What we are not fully able to grasp until recently was what makes them decide to leave the sea grass meadow? And why do they repeatedly graze a single seagrass meadow? Leaving seagrass meadow for few months must be with the aim of giving seagrass time to recover. Repeated grazing in seagrass meadow must be due to low density of dugongs in the islands, which makes their grazing less intense, reducing their need to travel between meadows, resulting in spatially persistent populations. Also we are not clear if they feed regularly or take break. Considering how fat they are, we guessed they could afford to take a break from feeding for a week or so by gulping prodigious quantities of seagrasss and store fat by the ton.

Halophilla sp.

The more time we spent, the more feeding signs we observed. The more we read about other herbivores the more clues we got about the dugong movement. Our quest for the answers started seven years back when we sighted two dugongs while snorkeling around an island in the Ritchie’s archipelago. We called them ‘Alpha’ and ‘Luna’. The individuals we sighted had a unique behavior to us. Most animals in the wild would have preferred to move away from us, but Alpha and Lunar were least bothered, giving us enough time to observe them closely. Every morning we would follow Alpha and Luna for few hours and sometime till dawn. Sometime Alpha and Luna would feed from morning to evening, resting only occasionally. And sometime instead of surfacing every 3-4 minutes for series of breath, they would stay underwater, munching on their favourite seagrass.

Dugong Feeding at Neil Island- Vardhan Patankar
Alpha feeding on seagrass meadow of Radhnagar beach in Havelock island

Though we have been very lucky, sighting these animals in the wild is extremely rare. At times we would go months without seeing a single individual. If not underwater then only chance of sighting the animal is when it surfaces to take a deep breath. In first few years we sighted only a four individuals in the wild. That’s when we decided to concentrate our efforts on locating distinct serpentine feeding trails of dugongs. So began the search of seagrass meadows. At times we would duck dive in mucky waters without knowing that the area is crocodile frequented. On locating feeding trails we estimated extent of seagrass meadow and took a few measurements on number of feeding trails, size, species present, primary production of seagrass meadow, abundance, shoot density etc. to determine how dugong feeding called herbivory, changes seagrass dynamics. Even then, we were not getting any closer in knowing how dugong herbivory changes seagrass dynamics. That’s when Dr. Rohan Arthur, Dr. Teresa Alcoverro and Dr. Nuria Marba gave us necessary guidance and suggested to set-up an experiment on seagrass meadows. We selected three accessible seagrass meadows located around Neil Island which were consistently used by dugongs. As per protocol explained by the trio, we established a four 1 × 1 m dugong foraging exclosures at each meadow using a mesh of fish line and PVC pipes. At the start of the experiment, we measured shoots density within 20 × 20 cm quadrats inside (control) and outside (treatment) the exclosures. Four months later, we revisited the exclosures and estimated seagrass growth inside and outside the exclosures.

Seagrass exclosures (Picture: Vardhan Patankar)
Seagrass exclosures

Seagrass exclosures in Neil island When we extrapolated data from the experiments and combined with direct observations we started seeing clearer trends. Though out of forty-four meadows surveyed we observed feedings trails only at eight sites. All eight meadows that were used by dugongs had a distinct characteristics—all being relatively large, un-fragmented, continuous and dominated by the short-lived species Halophila ovalis, Halodule uninervis and Halodule pinifolia. This was interesting finding as in other parts dugongs are known to feed on many more species. Though there was a lot of variation on how much seagrass was consumed by dugongs, we noticed that dugongs on an average consumed approximately 15 % of meadow primary production. The recovery of meadows after a feeding event was also quick, taking a little longer than a week to return to original shoot densities. Through experimental manipulations, we tried to understand the short-term impacts of dugong herbivory on seagrasses. We found that when herbivory was excluded, the shoot densities were almost 50 % higher than in meadows that were actively foraged upon.

Dugong Feeding Trails at Neil Island, Andaman Islands_Roshni Yathiraj 16142-1
Dugong Feeding Trails at Neil Island, Andaman Islands

The data obtained from herbivory exclosures when combined with other observation helped us understand what dugongs are doing down in the islands. Why they are persistently grazing the same seagrass meadows and most importantly how seagrass is coping with feeding of dugongs. With the support of empirical data we think that the proportion of primary production consumed by dugong reduces seagrass meadow level in long-term to levels that are still above levels that trigger meadow abandonment. This ability of seagrasses to cope perhaps explains the long-term site fidelity shown by individual dugongs in these seagrass meadows. Again, we are not certain what is actually going on in the animals large, convoluted brain and what makes them choose one seagrass meadow for repeated grazing. What we know is what we observed. In other parts of the world where meadows are comprises of different seagrass species, and where dugongs are found in higher numbers, they behave very differently than dugongs around Andaman and Nicobar islands. And even in these areas dugong behavior changes over time—from one year to the next, and sometime even during one season to the next based on availability of seagrass. Years of study lie ahead and what we are able to understood about the animal is only a fraction of what they are doing while feeding—either ways findings answers about dugong is as satisfying as it can get. Trying to understand mammal in an environment so different than ours is part of the attraction that keeps us going years after years. Being intelligent marine mammal we think dugongs have a way of turning questions about nature into questions about the nature of knowledge and how we interpret the world.

Fancy sea fan

Edited version:


This species belonging to genus Verucella spp. is dominant on many deep reefs in Andaman Sea. They are relatively flat or gently curving.
This species belonging to genus Verucella spp. is dominant on many deep reefs in Andaman Sea. They are relatively flat or gently curving.

I am a big fan of sea fans! Why won’t anyone be, considering their wonderful shapes and colours? They are found amongst the reefs of the Indo-Pacific oceans, and make some of the most beautiful underwater sights. Sea fans are actually colonies of lots of small, individual polyps, similar to corals. Some form colonies in a single sheet, while others grow their branches in somewhat of a tangle. They particularly like areas where there is strong water current, building colonies in branching formations that are almost always fan-shaped, hence the common name.

While SCUBA diving on the reef sighting a sea fan is not difficult. A fun bit of searching can give you a closer look at the astonishing beauty of these life forms. They are commonly found in areas where there is strong current: reef slope, or jutting out from drop-offs or steep banks in locations where currents sweep plankton and other organic nutrients across the polyps’ tentacles.

Shapes and sizes

Naturally they occur in an array of colours, most of which actually are the result of tiny algae that live in the structural tissue of the Gorgonian. Beyond giving them attractive colouration, these tiny algae called ‘Zooxanthellae’ also produce nutrients through photosynthesis—a process through which plant-algae and bacteria make their own food, using light from the sun and carbon dioxide and water—which benefits the sea fan. In addition to providing home for algae, sea fans also provide home and structure for a variety of juvenile fishes, shrimps, feather stars and clamshells.

Most sea fans grow up to a few inches, but at some locations their flare grows up to a meter or so in width and when they sway with the current their beauty is nothing less than seeing the dancing peacock on land. Some form colonies in a single plane, while others grow their branches in somewhat of a tangle. Unlike corals, which has six tentacles (Hexacorals) sea fans are Octocorals: each polyp has eight tentacles, which it uses to capture suspended nutrients in the water column.

The colony of sea whip at Nirupum rock dive site at South Andaman
The colony of sea whip at Nirupum rock dive site at South Andaman

It is not that all Gorgonians form fanciful sea fan shaped colonies. Some families have long, slender colonies known as sea whips. They jut out from the sea bottom like branches of trees, which makes them easy to distinguish from the sea fan. Due to their gentle swaying they are a favourite subject of photography amongst divers. India has rich diversity of sea fan. A total of 103 species are known to occur in our waters. They are classified into 4 common types, Black, Red, Flower and Monkey tail.Their beauty is at its peak when they are alive and on uprooting they lose their colouration and shape. Due to their high demand in illegal trade, today they are endangered in many reefscapes. Apart from species samples present in Government run zoos, aquariums and educational institutions no regulated trade of sea fans is allowed. From 2001 the Indian law has given the sea fans the strictest form of legal protection, which means collecting, possessing or handling sea fans can give you upmto 25,000 rupees of fine or three years in prison or in some cases both.

Yet, sea fans are exploited and sold in aquarium markets. The value of single piece of sea fan can go up to several dollars. With sustained efforts and continuous support from the Government, the trade of sea fans can reduce and these beautiful life forms will be allowed to live in peace, as they have for millennia before us. After all, wouldn’t you like to see a sea fan when you have a chance to visit a coral reef?

The branches of this sea fan, belonging to genus Melithaea spp. intertwine. Some have fragile looking net-like colonies, whereas other species in this genus form denser structures.  The branches of this sea fan, belonging to genus Melithaea spp. intertwine. Some have fragile looking net-like colonies, whereas other species in this genus form denser structures.
The branches of this sea fan, belonging to genus Melithaea spp. intertwine. Some have fragile looking net-like colonies, whereas other species in this genus form denser structures.


  • Sea fans are also called ‘Gorgonians’. In Greek mythology, the Gorgons were three sisters whose hair was made of living snakes.

  • Within phylum Cnidaria, class Anthozoa, sea fans belong to the order Alcyonacea.

  • They are closely related to corals, however unlike corals, which have six tentacles (and are therefore called Hexacorals), sea fans are Octocorals, with eight tentacles to a polyp. The tentacles capture suspended micro-organisms in the water column: yummy!

  • A total of 103 species of sea fans are known to occur in Indian waters. They are divided into four common types: Black, Red, Flower and Monkey-tail sea fans.


Power of a Dugong

Vardhan Patankar

Edited version published in Down to Earth:


Dugong, a marine mammal that has managed to maintain a low profile despite its body size and overall charisma is six to seven feet long, a curvaceous body and it resembles a mermaid from a fairy tale. The sole member of Sirenia family dugong spends most of its time in shallow seas where healthy sea grass meadows exist, often mingling and swimming in herds.

Dugong 3_Havelock island_Photo_ Vardhan Patankar
Meet dugong!

Unfortunately, today they are on the verge of local extinction across most of the Indo-­Pacific regions. In India, dugongs were once abundant along the west and east coast and around both the island groups, but now they are sighted only around the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. They became locally extinct from the Lakshadweep islands around 60 years ago.

However, despite its rarity — or perhaps because of it — something fascinating has been happening in areas where they currently occur. Throughout its range in the Indo-­‐Pacific, dugongs have become a priority species for conservation. In the last couple of decades, the number of articles, peer reviewed publications; academic theses, posters and other educational material have increased. As odd as it may seem, the charisma and current critically endangered status of the animal is helping them survive better in their favourable habitat—seagrass meadows.

Number of publications on dugongs from 1990 to 2013 (Source: James Cook University library records)

As researchers studying dugongs for the past few years, our efforts are rooted in the idea that if one wants to conserve the dugong, one needs secure and understand its habitat. With this in mind, we initiated a study in 2007 on the interaction between dugongs and its habitat: seagrass meadows in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Sometimes we went months without a sighting animal, and sometime we used indirect evidence — feeding trails on seagrass, mortality records and stories from village elders and fishers — to deduce details of the dugong’s life.

In seven years of research we have sighted fifteen individual dugongs across the A & N archipelago. We found that dugongs are restricted to sheltered bays and channels with persistent seagrass meadows dominated by Halophila and Halodule sp. Within these locations, dugongs consistently avoid patchy meadows with low seagrass cover. We found that availability of suitable seagrass habitat is not a limiting factor for dugong presence, but entanglement in nets and direct hunting appears to have likely resulted in local extinction of dugongs from several locations in A & N islands. We also observed that fishing intensity and tourism has increased in the past decade and the islanders are using modern gears to catch fish, and fast boats for tourism; as a result at times dugongs get entangled in nets.

Mix species seagrass meadow
Mix species seagrass meadow

However, gradually, through hard work of many conservation organisations, local community institutions and continuous support from the forest department, the real successes are being seen. Local people are aware about dugongs and islanders are keen to protect the species. The Forest Department, with the help of local NGOs is conducting awareness campaigns for the conservation of species, and after obtaining status of the state animal of the islands; dugongs have become celebrities of the islands, so to speak. At the National level the dugong task force is being formed and it is a top priority under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, Species Recovery Programme. Under this programme the Andaman and Nicobar forest department in collaboration with Nature Conservation Foundation have studied interactions between seagrass and its habitat. During the second phase of the project, the forest department will actively monitor the habitat of dugong and enforce anti-­‐poaching regulations. The Tamil Nadu and Gujarat states plan to follow the footsteps of A & N islands.

At the same time, international conservation organisations are finding ways to cooperate across national borders. United Nations Environment Programme has signed a memorandum of understanding with countries where dugongs are known to occur. India is now a signatory on the convention of Migratory Species. Recent meetings among nations have led to proposals for sharing data, coordinating research and creating a protected area for dugongs. Plans of special dugong task force are in pipeline, and at state level, meetings are conducted across the dugong range states to make important decisions at policy level for protecting the species.

Even then, huge challenges still exist. The pressure from the fishing community, accidental mortality in fishing nets, the propellers of high-­‐speed boats are few amongst many. A major bottom‐up approach, a community‐based conservation program is yet to see the light of the day. Further the areas where dugongs are found will always be physically isolated and difficult to reach. Poverty amongst local fishermen remains a significant problem that can slow or even impede change.

But one thing is clear: changes are deeper than shallow seagrass meadows and interestingly the endangered status of the dugongs seems to be leading the way forward.