India's Hidden Ocean Life

Latest update January 7, 2019 Started on July 1, 2018
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Chennai, the city I was born in, is famous for one thing - Marine beach, the world's second largest. However, rapid coastal development has exerted tremendous pressure on life in the ocean where ~90% of sewage gets dumped with only partial treatment. This issue is very relevant to the fringing and barrier reefs of the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) Islands, that are only a 45 minute plane ride away from my home town. The A&N islands are home to ~400 species of hard corals. Yet, the marine environment in this region is among the least scientifically known owing to the remoteness of some islands, adverse weather conditions and issues with policies and permits. With support from the National Geographic Society, this expedition will uncover ocean life in the A&N islands’. The data generated will provide a baseline for a long-term observatory (a collaboration between the Indian Institute of Science, Dakshin Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution) to effectively monitor and document the reefs and their changes through time.

July 1, 2018
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In The Field

I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year break. Mine has been one of the best so far. Why? A trident underwater ROV was waiting at my doorstep on January 1st! I’m so so grateful to all of you for following this expedition and offering your support. I think we have nearly 60 followers now, which is why S.E.E and Natgeo gave us the drone. Yay. I didn’t expect this to come together so quickly, really. You’ll hear more from me on what I’m up to soon. Until then, I hope 2019 has been as good to you as it has been to me.

Check out Current Conservation's latest issue on marine pollution! I've written an article on my work in Hong Kong during my PhD. A lot of the work I'll be undertaking in the Andaman islands will be using these research practices and methodologies. https://www.currentconservation.org/categories/spotlight/page/2/
Illustrated by Amyth Venkataramaiah

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Introducing the 'algae pop' to measure benthic herbivory. I leave them on the seafloor for 48 hours before going back to check how much of the algae have been consumed by the local fish. The extent of algal consumption is directly correlated to the herbivory in the site - a vital ecosystem function that is a sign of a healthy habitat.

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Diver impact is minimal in the Andaman Islands and you always see large predators, and several fish and coral indicative of a healthy ecosystem. Here is a school of fabulous fusiliers! Photo credit: ANET

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I'm in chennai for the next few days and I'm working with our local collaborator and site project lead, Mahima Jaini from ANET who is kindly offering support in the field. At the moment, we are working with the Forest Department in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands to get field permits.

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So, what am I going to do here? I will deploy structures that resemble mini apartment blocks on the sea floor after which I will collect and identify everything that has colonized the plates. The PVC structures have cave-like spaces for sea animals to crawl into, hide or settle, and are designed to mimic the structural complexity of a reef. Once they are out of the water, I will go through a series of steps to disassemble, and process all the plates. Here are some pictures of the mini ocean condominiums that I deployed and processed with my most incredible lab family in Hong Kong.

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It's challenging to access my field site because of its remoteness, adverse weather conditions and issues with permits. Did you know that they are also home to six aboriginal tribes (the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese, Shompen and Nicobarese)? This further restrict access for research purposes. I recently read this chilling report by a National Geographic Society photographerr on the Sentinelese - check it out.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/11/andaman-islands-tribes/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=facebook::cmp=editorial::add=fb20181128culture-andamanislandswarriors::rid=&sf203177896=1

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The Andaman & Nicobar islands receive ~1.1 million tourists every year. There are a lot of fun things to do while you visit here. In fact, I did my first ever scuba dive here and fell in love instantly!

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Preparation

We are coordinating with local authorities regarding permits to begin field surveys. Excited to see what I will find!

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Expedition Background

The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands connect the Bay of Bengal and the Pacific Ocean through the Andaman Sea. With as many species of hard coral as the Great Barrier Reef, and over 30% endemic marine species, these islands are considered to be a cornucopia of biodiversity. Yet, they are among the least scientifically known. With support from the National Geographic Society, I am working with the Indian Institute of Science, ATREE, with in kind support on research methodologies from the University of Hong Kong and the Smithsonian Institution to understand the current state of ocean life in the A&N islands. I'm excited about what I will find, so stay tuned.

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