Scuba Diving And Snorkelling In Andaman: A Paradise For Underwater Enthusiasts

If you’re an underwater enthusiast seeking breathtaking marine adventures, Andaman is the place to be! With its crystal-clear waters, vibrant coral reefs, and abundant marine life, Andaman offers scuba diving and snorkelling experiences that are nothing short of magic. Whether you’re a seasoned diver or a beginner, the Andaman Islands have something to offer everyone. In this article, we will take you on a thrilling journey through the top places for scuba diving and snorkelling in Andaman.1. Havelock Island

Havelock Island is the most popular destination for water sports and underwater adventures in Andaman. It offers a plethora of scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities that cater to divers of all skill levels. One of the prime attractions here is the renowned Radhanagar Beach, which has been consistently ranked among the best beaches in Asia. The beach’s pristine white sands and turquoise waters make it an ideal spot for relaxation and snorkelling in Andaman.

For scuba diving enthusiasts, the waters around Havelock Island host numerous diving sites with varying depths and marine life. One of the must-visit spots is Elephant Beach, known for its rich biodiversity and vibrant coral formations. Jackson’s Bar, another famous dive site, is home to numerous aquatic species, including reef sharks, rays, and sea turtles, making it a popular spot for scuba diving in Andaman.2. Neil Island

Neil Island is a serene and less-crowded island compared to Havelock, making it perfect for those seeking a tranquil underwater experience. The island is surrounded by shallow and calm waters, ideal for snorkellers and beginner divers. Coral reefs fringe the island, providing abundant opportunities to explore the underwater beauty.

One of the top snorkelling spots on Neil Island is Bharatpur Beach, where you can wade into the water and instantly encounter colourful fish and corals. For scuba diving in Andaman, the Lighthouse area offers fantastic opportunities to spot marine life like nudibranchs, lionfish, and sea anemones. If you’re planning an Andaman trip, make sure to add Neil Island to your Andaman tour package.3. North Bay Island

North Bay Island is located near Port Blair, making it easily accessible for day trips. It is famous for its semi-submarine rides, which allow visitors to get a glimpse of the underwater world without getting wet. However, the real magic lies in exploring the waters up close through snorkelling.

The coral reefs at North Bay Island are teeming with marine life, providing an unforgettable experience for snorkellers. You can encounter a variety of fish species like parrotfish, surgeonfish, and butterflyfish, as well as stunning coral formations. For those looking to try scuba diving in Andaman, there are certified diving operators offering introductory dives to help you take your first breaths underwater. North Bay Island is one of the top spots for snorkelling in Andaman so it’s a must-visit spot!4. Red Skin Island

Red Skin Island is part of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, and it offers a unique and ecologically diverse marine experience. Since it is a protected area, the underwater ecosystem here is in excellent condition, making it a paradise for both snorkelling in Andaman and diving.

The island’s snorkelling opportunities are abundant, with clear waters that showcase a kaleidoscope of coral and fish. The variety of soft and hard corals, along with the presence of schools of fish, makes every snorkelling session at Red Skin Island unforgettable. For certified divers, the deeper dive sites around the island offer encounters with fascinating marine creatures, such as manta rays, barracudas, and even sharks.5. Jolly Buoy

Jolly Buoy Island is another gem within the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, and it is only open for a limited period each year to protect its fragile ecosystem. This exclusivity ensures that the underwater world here remains untouched and thriving, making it a must-visit destination for scuba divers and snorkelers.

The crystal-clear waters of Jolly Buoy reveal a spectacular display of coral reefs, making it an ideal spot for snorkelling in Andaman. Colourful corals and a diverse range of fish species make each snorkelling session an enchanting experience. For certified divers, exploring the deeper dive sites around Jolly Buoy can lead to encounters with larger marine creatures like eagle rays and sea turtles.

With these top places for snorkelling and scuba diving in Andaman, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable underwater adventure that will leave you in awe of the stunning marine world. So, don your diving gear and get ready to explore the depths of Andaman’s aquatic paradise! Now, that you’re eager to dive into the azure waters of Andaman, it’s time to plan your journey. Consider booking an Andaman tour package with SOTC to ensure a hassle-free and memorable experience. Pack your snorkel and scuba gear, and get ready to explore the underwater wonders of Andaman!

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Updated: 09 Aug 2023, 08:36 PM IST

A Fragile Empire

This story appears in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Not far beneath the surface of the Coral Sea, where the Great Barrier Reef lives, parrotfish teeth grind against rock, crab claws snap as they battle over hiding spots, and a 600-pound grouper pulses its swim bladder to announce its presence with a muscular whump. Sharks and silver jacks flash by. Anemone arms flutter and tiny fish and shrimp seem to dance a jig as they guard their nooks. Anything that can’t glom on to something rigid is tugged and tossed by each ocean swell.

The reef’s sheer diversity is part of what makes it great. It hosts 5,000 types of mollusks, 1,800 species of fish, 125 kinds of sharks, and innumerable miniature organisms. But the most riveting sight of all—and the main reason for World Heritage status—is the vast expanse of coral, from staghorn stalks and wave-smoothed plates to mitt-shaped boulders draped with nubby brown corals as leathery as saddles. Soft corals top hard ones, algae and sponges paint the rocks, and every crevice is a creature’s home. The biology, like the reef, transforms from the north—where the reef began—to the south. The shifting menagerie is unmatched in the world.

The peculiar humphead wrasse is among the reef’s many thousands of species.

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Time and tides and a planet in eternal flux brought the Great Barrier Reef into being millions of years ago, wore it down, and grew it back—over and over again. Now all the factors that let the reef grow are changing at a rate the Earth has never before experienced. This time the reef may degrade below a crucial threshold from which it cannot bounce back.West Meets Reef

Europeans were introduced to the Great Barrier Reef by British explorer Capt. James Cook, who came upon it quite by accident. On a June evening in 1770, Cook heard the screech of wood against stone; he couldn’t have imagined that his ship had run into the most massive living structure on Earth: more than 10,000 square miles of coral ribbons and isles waxing and waning for some 1,400 winding miles.

Cook’s team had been exploring the waters offshore of what is now Queensland when the H.M.S. Endeavour became trapped in the labyrinth. Not far beneath the surface, jagged towers of coral tore into the ship’s hull and held the vessel fast. As timbers splintered and the sea poured in, the crew arrived on deck “with countenances which sufficiently expressed the horrors of our situation,” Cook later wrote in his diary. Captain and crew were able to limp to a river mouth to patch their vessel.

Rhythmic currents in Challenger Bay push and pull a school of diagonal-banded sweetlips. Members of the grunt family, these fleshy-lipped fish feed at night, plucking invertebrates from the sandy sea bottom.

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Aborigines had lived in the region for thousands of years before Europeans hit the rocks. Culturally, the reef has been a rich part of the landscape for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have canoed it and fished it and shared myths about its creatures for generations. But historians aren’t sure how deep their knowledge went of the reef’s geology and animal life. A few decades after Cook’s run-in with the behemoth beneath the sea, English cartographer Matthew Flinders—who also had a mishap or two while “threading the needle” among the reefs—gave the entity its name, inspired by its size. All told, if the reef’s main chunks were plucked from the sea and laid out to dry, the rock could cover all of New Jersey, with coral to spare.Expansion and Erosion

This mammoth reef owes its existence to organisms typically no bigger than a grain of rice. Coral polyps, the reef’s building blocks, are tiny colonial animals that house symbiotic algae in their cells. As those algae photosynthesize—using light to create energy—each polyp is fueled to secrete a “house” of calcium carbonate, or limestone. As one house tops another, the colony expands like a city; other marine life quickly grabs on and spreads, helping cement all the pieces together.

Off Australia’s eastern edge, conditions are ripe for this building of stone walls. Corals grow best in shallow, clear, turbulent water with lots of light to support photosynthesis. Millions of polyp generations later, the reef stands not as a singular thing but as a jumble whose shapes, sizes, and life-forms are determined by where in the ocean they lie—how close to shore, for example—and what forces work on them, such as heavy waves. Go far enough from the coast, where the light is low and the waters are deeper, and there’s no reef at all.

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“In the Great Barrier Reef, corals set the patterns of life from end to end,” says Charlie Veron, coral expert and a longtime chief scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. With over 400 species in the region, “they structure the entire environment; they’re the habitat for everything else here.” The perfect temperature, clarity, and currents enable plate corals, for example, to increase in diameter up to a foot a year. The reef continuously erodes as well, worn down by waves, ocean chemistry, and organisms that eat limestone. This vanishing act is far slower than the constant building up; still, as much as 90 percent of the rock eventually dissipates into the waters, forming sand. So the living veneer of this reef, the part a diver sees, is ever changing.

And the layers beneath are relatively young, geologically speaking, at less than 10,000 years. The reef’s true beginnings go back much further. Closer to 25 million years ago, Veron says, as Queensland edged into tropical waters with the movement of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, coral larvae began riding south-flowing currents from the Indo-Pacific, grabbing footholds wherever they could. Slowly, rocky colonies grew and spread along the seafloor flush with diverse marine life.A Rocky Course

Since the reef first found footing, ice ages have come and gone, tectonic plates have crept forward, and ocean and atmospheric conditions have fluctuated wildly. The reef has seen many iterations—expanding and eroding, being defaced and reinhabited at nature’s whim.

“A history of the Great Barrier Reef,” Veron says, “is a catalog of disasters” caused by planetary chaos. But they are disasters from which the reef has always recovered.

Drawn to the smell of a dead sperm whale, a ten-foot tiger shark arrives at the edge of the reef to feast on floating flesh. Bits of food left undevoured will fall to feed the reef’s tinier residents.

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Today new disasters endanger the reef, and the prospect for recovery is uncertain. The relatively quick shift in the world’s climate, scientists say, appears to be devastating for reefs. In corals, warming temperatures and increased exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays lead to a stress response called bleaching—when the colorful algae in coral cells become toxic and are expelled, turning the host animals skeletal white. Fleshy seaweeds may then choke out the remains.

Major bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere in 1997-98 was linked to a severe El Niño year and record-high sea-surface temperatures—in some spots 3°F higher than normal. Another round began in 2001 and again in 2005. By 2030, some reef experts say, these destructive episodes will occur every year.

Heat is also implicated in a 60-year decline in ocean phytoplankton—the microscopic organisms that not only gobble greenhouse gases but also feed, directly or indirectly, almost every other living thing in the sea. Reef fish, too, respond to warmer waters—sometimes with bolder, more aggressive behavior toward both predators and prey. Changes in sea level, either up or down, have a dire impact as well, exposing shallow corals to too much sun or drowning them in deeper water, where they’re hidden from the light.

A two-foot-long sea cucumber shoots thousands of ova into the current. These sea star kin—whose bumpy papillae are sensory—spawn en masse, boosting the chance of reproductive success.

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A more immediate concern is massive flooding in Australia that earlier this year sent huge plumes of sediment and toxin-laden waters onto the reef off Queensland. The full harm to marine life won’t be clear for years, but long stretches of the Great Barrier Reef could experience disastrous die-offs.

And then there’s the acid test.

Follwing a full-moon night or two each year, immobile stony corals like acropora millepora release egg and sperm bundles simultaneously in an orgy of mass spawn- ing. Fertilized eggs, once they have settled near and far, are the stuff of new colonies.

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Reef ecosystems worldwide took a pounding during each of Earth’s five mass extinctions, the first about 440 million years ago. Greenhouse gases spiked naturally over the millennia, and Aussie biologist Veron says massive spewing of carbon dioxide during periods of heavy volcanic activity was likely a big player in coral decimation, notably the most recent mass extinction some 65 million years ago. At that time, oceans absorbed more and more of those greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, causing ocean acidity to rise. The lower pH—a sign of high levels of acidity—ultimately thwarted the ability of marine creatures to build their limestone shells and skeletons.

In some oceans this acidification is once again happening. The most vulnerable to acid’s corrosive bite are the fast-growing branching corals and vital calcium-excreting algae that help bind the reef. The more brittle the reef’s bones, the more wave action, storms, diseases, pollutants, and other stresses can break them.

In ancient times many corals adapted to changing ocean acidity, says Veron, who paints a particularly bleak picture of the Barrier Reef’s future. “The difference is there were long stretches in between; corals had millions of years to work it out.” He fears that with unprecedented CO2, sulfur, and nitrogen emissions by human industry, added to the increasing escape of methane as a result of Earth’s melting ice, much of the reef will be nearly bereft of life within 50 years. What will be left? “Coral skeletons bathed in algal slime,” he says.Edging Forward

Cardinalfish zip by a hawksbill turtle as it rests among feathery invertebrates called hydroids. Illegally harvested for their shells, hawksbills are declining globally. Some 3,000 nest along the northern Barrier Reef.

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Of course, to the two million tourists who visit the reef each year, the promise of an underwater paradise teeming with life is still fulfilled. But the blemishes are there if you know where to look. The reef bears a two-mile-long scar from a collision with a Chinese coal carrier in April of last year. Other ship groundings and occasional oil spills have marred the habitat. Sediment plumes from flooding and nutrients from agriculture and development also do very real damage to the ecosystem. But Aussies aren’t inclined to let the reef fall apart without a national outcry. The captain of the boat who took me diving put it this way: “Without the reef, there’s nothing out here but a whole lot of salty water.” To many locals, he adds, “the reef is a loved one whose loss is too sad to contemplate.” And it is also crucial economically: The visitors he motors to the reef’s edges provide more than one billion dollars annually for Australia’s books.

The challenge scientists face is to keep the reef healthy despite rapid change. “To fix a car engine, you need to know how it works,” says marine biologist Terry Hughes of James Cook University. “The same is true for reefs.” He and others have been investigating how these ecosystems function so that efforts to prevent damage can be doubly effective.

High on the to-do list: Determine the full impact of overfishing. Traditionally, commercial fishermen could work along the reef, even after 133,000 square miles of ocean habitat was designated a marine park in 1975. But with rising concern about the big take, the Australian government in 2004 made a third of that area, in strategically placed zones, off-limits to all fishing—including for sport. The biological recovery has been bigger and faster than expected; within two years after the ban, for example, numbers of coral trout doubled on once heavily fished reef. Some scientists speculate that protective zones may also lead to declines in outbreaks of a devastating coral-eating sea star.

Slender cardinalfish gleam against a gor- gonian, or sea fan, on a northerly reef. The soft coral’s vivid color likely suggests toxicity to those passersby tempted to nibble at its branches.

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Scientists also want to know what makes specific corals extra tenacious during times of change. “We know some reefs experience much more stressful conditions than others,” says reef ecologist Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland. “Looking at decades of sea temperature data, we can now map where corals are most acclimated to warmth and target conservation actions there.” He says understanding how corals recover from bleaching—and figuring out where new polyps are likely to grow—can help in designing reserves. Even the outspoken Veron acknowledges that coral survival is possible long-term if the onslaughts against reefs are halted—soon.

Nature has some safeguards of her own, including a genetic script for corals that may have helped them ride out past environmental disruptions. Many reef builders evolve through hybridization—when different species mix genes. As Veron puts it, “everything is always on its way to becoming something else.” On the reef, about a third of the corals reproduce in annual mass spawning. During such events, as many as 35 species on a single patch of reef release their egg and sperm bundles simultaneously, which means millions of gametes from genetically different parents mingle in a slick at the ocean surface. “This provides outstanding opportunities to produce hybrids,” explains marine biologist Bette Willis of James Cook University. Especially with climate and ocean chemistry in such flux, she says, hybridization can offer a speedy path to adaptation and hardiness against disease.

Tightly packed hard corals, mostly acro-pora species, vie for space and energy-giving sunlight off Cairns. Though highly vulnerable to changing sea chemistry, these master builders of Indo-Pacific reefs have persisted for millions of years.

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Indeed, one lesson is that despite today’s weighty threats, the Great Barrier Reef won’t easily crumble. It has, after all, toughed it out through catastrophic change before. And all kinds of marine life are around to help keep the reef whole. In studies conducted in 2007, scientists found that where grazing fish thrive, so do corals, especially in waters polluted with excess nutrients. “If you take away herbivores, say through over­fishing, seaweed replaces corals,” says Hughes. If voracious vegetarians are protected, corals can prevail.

A human visitor to the reef can see the fish doing their vital job. In dappled afternoon light toward the reef’s northern tip, palatial walls of coral tower over a rare species of batfish, long finned and masked in black, that nibbles back strands of sargassum. And a school of parrotfish—fused teeth like wire cutters—chip away noisily at the rocks, where algae in mats of green and red have quietly taken hold.

Hunting For Life On Ocean Worlds With OWLS

Life as we know it requires water. The good news is that the universe is full of water. The bad news is that the universe is a big place to search. With so many places  to look for life, all of them radically different from Earth and each other, scientists need many strategies. One idea is to have as many instruments as possible crammed onto one spacecraft. With a smorgasbord of science tools in one place, scientists could screen various liquid samples for a slew of different components, molecules, or even signs of life. 

So scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are developing Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS). This autonomous life-detection device is also infinitely adaptable — its instrument suite is equipped with tools that are portable and can be integrated into many different missions, from Earth to Mars to Titan.Life beyond Earth 

High-Resolution Fluorescent Imager (HRFI) shows the internal structure of larger cells with fluorescent labels(Left), and chains of smaller cells dyed with a fluorescent label(Right). Credit: JPL-Caltech/NASA

In lieu of a message saying, “Take me to your leader,” scientists spend a lot of time scouring distant planets for the most basic signs of life. Since Earth is the only example we have for how life works, we depend a lot on the assumption that alien life works something like Earth life – and chemistry says there’s a basic blueprint that all life should share.

Life as we know it needs a specific set of circumstances and chemicals to come together in the right place and at the right time. Astronomers focus on these building blocks of life when sifting through data on distant planetary targets. They include carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and more. However, standing firmly at the top of the list of ingredients necessary for life is water. Liquid water is vital to life’s ability to dissolve nutrients, transport chemicals, and get rid of waste. That’s why the field of astrobiology, the study of searching for life in the universe, is so fixated on planets, dwarf planets, and moons that harbor substantial amounts of water.

Just in our own backyard, we have evidence of salty oceans on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus; subsurface oceans on the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto; water on Neptune’s moon Triton, and even evidence of water on Pluto as well. We also believe that, despite their current climates, Venus and Mars may have possessed oceans billions of years ago.

Studying these worlds gives us a (relatively) close-up view of how non-Earth oceans work, and, if we’re very lucky, how they might support life, now or in the past.

Capillary electrophoresis by OCEANS is done in the presence of an electric field, because compounds with different properties reach the detector at different times. This helps separate the molecules by charge, size, and shape. And then comparing migration time against the signal detected, will identify the type of molecules and their amount. Credit: JPL/NASA Let’s get technical

OWLS’ suite consists of two instrument subsystems: OCEANS (Organic Capillary Electrophoresis Analysis System) and ELVIS (Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System). Both are designed to take collected liquid samples and investigate them for potential signs of life, through two basic techniques.

The OWLS extractor uses pressure and temperature to perform subcritical water extraction, breaking cells down to their constituent organic molecules for chemical analysis. Credit: JPL-Caltech/NASA

OCEANS uses a molecule separation technique called electrophoresis. After pressure cooking the liquid samples, the fluid is run through a tube. That is where OCEANS sorts out the remaining soup of molecules based on their charge, size, and mobility in the presence of an electric field. The detector then can assess the composition of the sample.

It identifies different chemical building blocks of life such as amino acids, fatty acids and organic compounds. Not all of these substances would be a direct sign of life, but they would indicate the possibility of life – the ingredients necessary for life to occur.

ELVIS is essentially a system of microscopes that survey the sample from different perspectives. Scientists at Portland State University in Oregon jointly worked with JPL to develop ELVIS. The goal was to allow the device to search large volumes of samples with high resolution.

If you think of it as a needle-in-a-haystack situation, “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack without having to pick up and examine every single piece of hay,” said co-principal investigator Chris Lindensmith, leading the microscope team. “We’re basically grabbing big armfuls of hay and saying, ‘Oh, there’s needles here, here, and here.’”

This means instead of taking tiny samples to look at, as in a Biology 101 microscope slide, ELVIS looks at the sample in 3-D using a digital holographic microscope. It runs a large volume of the sample through the system of microscopes, where they can analyze the liquid and collect data in real time. The ELVIS subsystems can identify cells from minerals, and pick out specific structures such as proteins and cell walls.

Additionally, the microscopes include two fluorescent imagers. The imagers can tag cells, if there are any, with fluorescent dyes and follow their motions in the sample, besides picking up information about their chemical contents and cellular structures.Picking out the good stuff

The OCEANS and ELVIS subsystems generate abundant data that has to be transmitted back to Earth. Given that the data transmission rates out in space are worse than dial-up internet from the 80s, that won’t be easy. In fact, only an astonishing 0.0001% of the data OWLS will collect can be transmitted.

“That’s like taking the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and condensing it into a single tweet,” said Mark Wronkiewicz. He led on-board science autonomy development for OWLS, and that’s how OWLS will solve its data problem.

OWLS can compress data by 3-4 orders of magnitude and prioritize them for transmission in order of importance. (https://www.Jpl.Nasa.Gov/go/owls/onboard-science-autonomy)

How? The algorithms written for the science autonomy program sieve all of the data collected per minute for the best and most interesting data. OWLS then transmits only those most important pieces back to the science team here on Earth.

The algorithms are the product of weeks of meetings between the science teams and the autonomy team. The scientists defined what the most crucial bits of data are and the programmers of autonomy team built software that can find and extract those biosignatures.

For example, the algorithms might look through the information produced by a mass spectrometer on OWLS, whose data looks like jagged peaks. The program finds the peaks in this raw data and makes cutouts, leaving behind the less interesting data. It can even put together statistics about the properties of each peak in the data. These peaks become a chemical fingerprint that the scientists can then use.

The image shows how onboard autonomy by assigning mobile particles different colors can visualize their moving patterns. This can separate drifting debris from swimming organisms. Credit: JPL-Caltech/NASA OWLS evolution

Development of OWLS has two phases: Breadboard and brassboard phases.

Breadboard phase was when the teams developed each of the instruments separately to prove their concept and successful performance. The OWLS team already conducted a test with the stand-alone devices at Mono Lake, California. OWLS is currently in brassboard phase, when the team produces an integrated suite with all modules working together to analyze a sample.  After the brassboard phase the instrument suite will have another test to assess its functionality as a unit.

When complete, OWLS can be integrated in a variety of planetary missions planned for the coming decades, from exploring high in the venusian atmosphere to deep under Titan’s lakes. The OWLS suite is designed so that any or all components could be adopted for these differing mission configurations depending on specific science goals and mission resources.

The genius of OWLS has uses on Earth as well. The OCEANS and ELVIS instruments can be useful in analyzing and studying large volume samples in a shorter time. Additionally, autonomy can save the scientists more time by pointing them to the most significant bits of data relevant to their work. Scientists can envision OWLS studying blood samples in medicine or liquid samples in marine science.

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