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Saving India's ocean treasures

Started by advertising veteran, Prahlad Kakar and his wife Mitali, ReefWatch is a Mumbai-based organisation that conducts programmes for urban as well as less-privileged children to learn about conservation of the ocean, at the Andaman Islands. On World Wildlife Day, Nayantara Jain, Executive Director, ReefWatch, shares a few secrets of this world, with Suprita Mitter

Q. When did you begin work with ReefWatch? What was the idea behind it?
A. I started working with ReefWatch about two years ago. I was a diving instructor for five years, working in the Andaman Islands as well as in Lakshadweep before that. Diving on these reefs everyday made me see how much our lives on land affect these treasures. When a forest is slashed or burned on land, the world rises in outcry, yet we were losing massive tracts of coral reefs — rainforests of the ocean — daily, without realising it. Seeing this loss before my eyes, I wanted to be involved in protecting it. After a Masters in Marine Biology & Conservation, I joined ReefWatch — which has been active in marine protection since 1993 — to do my bit for the sea. Prahlad Kakar and his wife Mitali founded ReefWatch around the time when they first dived in Lakshadweep. The idea was to raise awareness about India's beautiful reefs, and to facilitate scientific research and documentation of the area to help inspire people to protect this rich heritage, and to formally advise governmental agencies in policy making towards the same.

Nayantara Jain explores fan corals around the Andaman Islands.
Nayantara Jain explores fan corals around the Andaman Islands. Pic Courtesy/SUmer Verma

Q. What kind of programmes do you include for kids?
A. A big part of ReefWatch's mandate is to build a personal connect between India's youth and her ocean. Our programmes include scuba diving, talks on coral reefs, walks in mangroves and discovering inter-tidal areas. We hope that by introducing them to the wonders in the ocean, it can inspire them to protect it. ReefWatch offers this experience at various schools in mainland India through week-long programmes in the Andaman Islands. For individual young adults who wish to be involved in marine conservation there are longer volunteership programmes. These initiatives are offered free of cost to lesser privileged youth of the Andamans — daughters and sons of fishermen, farmers, sailors and shopkeepers — to equip them with the awareness, knowledge, skills and opportunities to benefit in a sustainable manner from the reefs fringing their shores. We also conduct day-long workshops and beach clean-ups for children in Mumbai.

Students from Mumbai schools learn about conservation at Andaman Islands.
Students from Mumbai schools learn about conservation at Andaman Islands. Pic Courtesy/reefwatch

Q.What needs to be done? How can readers help?
A. One thing we can all do is eat less fish — at least, wild caught fish and unsustainable high-by-catch seafood such as shrimp — and support sustainable aquaculture fisheries of which India has plenty. Most of the plastic we generate ends up in the ocean harming many animals including sea turtles, dolphins and whales. We can make a big difference by saying no to plastic — especially single-use plastics such as polythene bags, mineral water bottles, plastic spoons and forks and straws. It takes a little foresight to carry a cloth bag while shopping, or to carry water bottles while travelling, but it is something we can all do. Go out to the ocean, educate yourself about it, take part in our (or any) beach clean-ups, and become aware citizens who choose not to live under the absurd illusion that individual actions have no consequences. The greatest danger to our oceans and our coral reefs today is the thought that it is someone else's job to protect it.

Underprivileged students from the Andaman Islands learning about marine life in neighbouring waters (see map for location).
Underprivileged students from the Andaman Islands learning about marine life in neighbouring waters (see map for location). Pic Courtesy/ ReefWatch

Q. Can you share an underwater experience that moved you?
A. As a Dive Master in the Lakshadweep Islands, it was my job to put together the equipment of the day's divers before the 7 am departure. One morning, I walked over to the storage shed to find hundreds of tiny sea turtle hatchlings scampering around the ground trying to find their way to the ocean but misled by the lights of the resort.

MAP

Everyone helped to pick up the babies and take them to the water — the dive was delayed as the guests set to help too. They were so little that we could hold three or four in our hands. We put them back into the ocean and snorkelled out part of the way with them.

Nayantara Jain
Nayantara Jain

Of all the hatchlings, only 1 in 1,000 would actually make it to adulthood after which, in the natural world, they should have been pretty safe! What they do not need are threats presented by us — floating plastic in the sea resembling the jellyfish they ate, being caught as by-catch in long line fishing nets and suffocating before being tossed aside, losing the coral reefs that would eventually become their homes. About 30 years after they left the little beach in Lakshadweep, and of travelling in the ocean, the surviving female turtles we released will return to the same location where they began their life journey, to lay clutches of eggs. I felt privileged to have helped them make a start.

Beneath India's waters

>> Coral reefs are living ecosystems — a mix of colonial animal, plant and mineral that hosts about 25% of known creatures in the ocean, despite covering only 0.02% of its surface. India is lucky to be a part of that 0.02%.
>> We have extensive coral reefs to the west, in the Lakshadweep Islands and to our east in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, as well as smaller pockets in the Gulf of Mannar and the Gulf of Kutch.
>> We have rich coral diversity and abundant fish life, from the Waving Soft Fan Corals to the massive Hard Brain Corals, from the colourful Butterfly Fishes to the grumpy Groupers, from the tiny Clownfish (made famous in the film, Finding Nemo) to the giant Manta Rays that span five meters wide.
>> Coral reefs are vital because they are an important buffer for small islands against damaging weather events like tsunamis and storms. Since they are home to so many species they are integral to India's huge fisheries industry.
>> Coral reefs are the future for bio-prospecting in the pharmaceutical industry, and are being studied to hold potential cures for Cancer, Alzheimer's, Osteoporosis and other illnesses. Information courtesy: Nayantara Jain

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