Sophia Ann French talks to marine conservationist Nayantara Jain about coral reef protection, responsible tourism and volunteering with Reef Watch.
I met Nayantara a few years ago in Mysore through a common friend. At the time, I was fascinated by her life. The Bangalore native lived in the city for a few months of the year and the rest of the time, she lived on India’s spectacular Andaman islands. Nayantara is a marine conservationist and passionate scuba diver who decided to dedicate her life to saving the oceans and marine life. A graduate of the Scripps Research Institute in the US, she’s working on restoring and rehabilitating coral reefs in the Andamans and when she’s not diving, she’s busy educating the local youth about their environment and how they can protect it. I caught up with Nayantara recently and was thrilled to find that her efforts to spread awareness about marine conservation are working and that everyone can help the cause. Here are excerpts from our conservation:
Sophia: When did you decide to become a marine conservationist?
Nayantara: Early in my scuba career, I would dive in the same reef over a course of many days, so I got to know the reef very intimately and developed a relationship with the life in that space. I started to recognise individual fish and not just a species. In 2010, there was a massive bleaching event when warm water current came into the Indian ocean and the bleaching killed a lot of the coral in the areas where I was diving. Over 20% of coral cover was lost permanently within a month. That affected me deeply. I witnessed these reefs being vibrant and full of life and to see them change so quickly and die was devastating. That incident made me want to know more about reefs and how I could protect them.
That was one of the things that got me thinking about conservation. Another thing that inspired me was all the time I spent in the Andamans. The islands have very poor network connectivity. We only got network in the area of the island where I work two years ago. When I first started diving, there was no network at all. That gave me a lot of time to discover the island and to pass the time, I would read books on fish. These books didn’t just have a picture and name of the species but also offered interesting facts about each fish. That got me interested in marine life. Around that time, I met a group of scientists who were conducting research to compare coral reef ecosystems to other ecosystems. They needed someone to assist with their research as they weren’t experienced divers. I helped them create their data collection protocols and even assisted in the actual connection. This experience got me interested in marine science so I decided to go to Scripps and do my masters.
Sophia: When you returned, you joined Reef Watch Marine Conservation and started a project to restore and rehabilitate naturally broken coral reefs. How did that come about?
Nayantara: When I studied coral reef conservation at Scripps, I was exposed to different ways of protecting reefs and the different conservation tools one can use. A traditional approach is the creation of marine protected areas and creating spaces where you are cutting out human interference so you can allow nature to do its thing. That is a traditional approach. It does work but I feel that it isn’t enough. Coral life is being affected by things like global warming and changing ocean chemistry. When I was at Scripps, I learned how I can add to the traditional approach and make it more well-rounded. I also travelled to Thailand and Indonesia to get hands-on experience in reef conservation and then came back to India to apply my learnings.
Sophia: I read on your site that India’s oceans are being used as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Is there no government regulatory body that can stop this?
Nayantara: The management of oceans is not an easy thing to do as they are vast spaces and not always accessible. It’s also hard to mark physical boundaries. As per ocean law, a country’s territorial waters are about 12 kms off the coastline and from there around 200 kms is the exclusive economic zone of the country. After that, it’s open waters where no real legal framework exists. Ships dump toxic waste like used engine oil or even just ballast water. The thing with ballast water is that the ship is getting water from one place that has its own algae and life forms like baby fish, larvae, etc., and letting it out in a new place. The lifeforms in that water could become an invasive species in the new environment and ruin the eco-system. So waste isn’t just chemicals, it could even be water. To add to the problems, there just isn’t enough enforcement of the rules that India does have and it’s not even clear who should be enforcing the rule. Should it be the coastguard? But, the coastguard thinks that their job is looking after national security and not so much ocean conservation, so there is a lack of a regulatory and enforcement framework.
Sophia: How is tourism affecting the Andamans?
Nayantara: The Andamans are more than 500 small islands and luckily, most of it is protected and that too for a range of things. Some of it is protected as forest land, some of it is protected because of the indigenous people who live there, some of it is protected as the Andamans is the last defense of our eastern seaboard so there is a strong presence of the Indian navy on the islands. A combination of these things means that around 75 to 80 percent of the Andamans are permanently protected. Of those 500 islands, around 35 are populated and of those, only eight are open to tourists and even less than that to foreign tourists. That being said, the islands where tourists can go are the ones that are really suffering because tourism grew but the infrastructure to deal with it didn’t come up at the same time so suddenly, there was a lot more generation of plastic and other non-recyclable waste. With more resorts being developed in the Andamans, the situation will only get worse. Which is why it is so important for tourists to know a few things before they visit. For example, all the electricity in the Andamans comes from diesel-powered generators. There are three big generators and diesel is imported from the mainland and burnt, and that’s how the area gets electricity. That is an important thing to know and keep in mind as every time your light, fan or AC is on, there are fossil fuels going into the air because of that. It’s not clean energy. Another thing to know is that there are no plastic recycling units on the islands. There is no real way to deal with that waste, so all the waste you generate either ends up being washed into the sea or ends up being burnt. These are important things to know when you travel. When you travel, make it a point to know what negative impact you will be generating on the environment through your travel and how you can minimise that. To minimise your impact is quite simple. Just because you’re in a hotel room and aren’t paying for the electricity, don’t just leave appliances switched-on. I’ve observed people leaving the AC, fan, and window open when they stay at a hotel even though they would never do that at home. It’s absurd. Be aware of your life and the impact your actions have on the environment. Be aware of what you use. If you know that something can’t be recycled, etc., don’t bring it to places that have limited waste disposal methods. Make eco-conscious choices. When you do these things as a tourist, it will carry forward in life as well.
Sophia: Reef Watch undertakes various educational initiatives like the Urban School Programme and Ocean Arts Sunday. How does educating the locals, especially children, help conservation?
Nayantara: The Ocean Arts Sunday is our longest-running community programme. It’s directed towards children and the response has been great. The thing with a field like conservation is that a person only chooses it when she feels passionate about it. That passion comes through connection. For example, you feel connected to a reef, a sea turtle, a baby elephant and this ends up making you a forest conservator or marine biologist. I feel very sad that the local children in the Andamans don’t get to experience the moments where such connections are formed. For me, it happened as I was privileged enough to go to these islands. I got to dive and discover underwater life. But the local children never get to do that, so this programme was all about educating them. Some of the kids wanted to learn how to swim so we taught the kids how to swim. We’ve taken them snorkelling and then through that, they learned what coral reefs are and what some of the fish that live there do. We talk to them about tides and take them to intertidal zones and look at crabs and snails and animals that live in those places. Now, these kids know so much more about their own natural heritage and because of that, they care, and once you care, that could manifest in conservation. Even if they don’t become conservationists, they will carry the connection in whatever they do, and respect the environment.
Sophia: Another programme Reef Watch offers is for anyone to come volunteer with you. How does that work?
Nayantara: I like this programme a lot. I think it does exactly what conservation should be doing. It invites people to come help us and through that, we create a connection to the thing we are trying to protect. I feel conservation should be inclusive. We can’t keep restricting people from moving into nature. With the way population is growing, there will be fewer places without people and the best way to conserve the environment is to connect with it and care for it. We initiated the volunteer programme so that people can come to learn about the island instead of just visiting like a tourist. We’ve had graphic designers, video editors and even an app developer come volunteer with us. They all find ways to contribute to what we’re doing and in exchange, they get to experience and understand how marine life works. We take them diving, educate them about tides, sea life and ocean issues. It’s an exchange of knowledge and in the process, we’re protecting our precious oceans. We welcome everyone.
Nayantara Jain is the Executive Director of Reef Watch Marine Conservation.