Saying Goodbye to the Andamans

Sunset, Chitya Tapu on South Andaman

Sunset, Chitya Tapu on South Andaman

Cinque Island, Andamans

Cinque Island, Andamans

While we’re very sad to say goodbye to the islands, we are so looking forward to traveling around mainland India for the month of December and then coming back home to New York City. Beginning in January, we’ll be settling back into the pace of normal life and desperately trying not to freeze our buns off.

I realized that we haven’t properly told you guys what the heck we were doing out on the boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and how we ended up there.

Wellllll, way back in May we finished our Divemaster course in Bali and started thinking about ways we could keep diving without killing our budget. A short but incredible diving trip in Komodo National Park helped us realize that paying for fun diving is not a feasible way to maintain our diving habit, financially speaking.

A few weeks later we serendipitously stumbled across an old college friend and former roommate of Zev’s who mentioned that someone was starting the first scuba diving liveaboard to be based out of India. We took one look at their website and were sold. A few emails and one Skype conversation later, we had tickets booked to the Andaman Islands.

Since the first week in October, we’ve been on the boat assisting with scuba diving courses and completing a few certifications ourselves.

The ambient noises of a constantly running kitchen, engine room, and dive operation became the sounds of home to us. The pressure cooker whistles and looping 15-song playlist of Bollywood hits emanating from the kitchen alerted us to upcoming meals, and the faint but constant rumble of the engines and generators soothed us to sleep each night. Keeping the boat clean and running and its inhabitants fed and entertained kept life onboard always humming with activity. The crew made the (not so) little ship feel like home. They kept the boat in tip top shape and were a hysterical hard working bunch. Spending time with them was one of the highlights of our time on the boat.

Our cruise director, an affable retired businessman with a booming voice and a silver ponytail coiling down his back, led the guests with gusto through early morning dive briefings, mid-afternoon naps on the sun deck, and evening cocktails and carousing. The head divemaster was the quiet but imminently wise and experienced Yoda of the dive team; when he spoke, we listened. Two local guys from the Andamans were our surface support while diving. The first, who gained the nickname “chotu” (Hindi for “shorty”) was the youngest and greenest guy on the boat and became notorious for hiding from the harsh sun under an umbrella. The other had spent his whole life fishing and swimming around the Andamans. When we weren’t on trips with guests, he would send us diving at his favorite local snorkeling spots provided we take photos of what we saw.

From the chef who was also a welder and artist, to the captain who had killer Michael Jackson dance moves, the crew was really a hoot.  They became our family for our two months on the boat, and they will certainly be what we miss the most.

The guests brought an infusion of excitement to the boat and made the hard work worthwhile. The divers ranged from students whose nervous hands I held through the first dive jitters, to professional divers with elaborate photography set-ups that resembled something straight out of the NASA Mars Rover expedition. One raucous trip consisted entirely of people in the film industry who showed up to every dive, dinner, and cocktail hour with a camera (or 6) in hand, ready to get the perfect shot at a moment’s notice. Another group arrived onboard with suitcases full of nuts, Indian snacks, and even chorizos out of fear the boat wouldn’t have their particular brand of post-dive munchy. Yet another memorable voyage found us scheduling dives between breaks in the gale force winds and pouring rain of a passing cyclone.

We’ve left the Andamans for good and are heading for the west coast of India. Our first stop is Mumbai, a city that I fell in love with when I visited as a gap year student way back in 2005. It beats with the frenetic pace of a metropolis but retains a tremendous amount of history and charm.

Neil Island, Andamans

Neil Island, Andamans

Most of the gang.

Most of the gang.

The Liveaboard Life

Sunset from the dive deck.

Sunset from the dive deck.

This week I thought I had nothing to say; we are resting up after a trip. By all accounts it was another routine week of diving on the boat, albeit a pretty busy trip. But pouring over the photos I quickly remembered that being on a live aboard means there is no such thing as an ordinary day. The diving is nonstop and every day presents new challenges and adventures.

The handful of photos I managed to take between diving, filling tanks, and organizing the dive schedule remind me how lucky we are to be leading such an exciting and unusual life. Some days we wake up at sea with our first dive scheduled for 5am and the fourth and last dive getting in the water at 4pm, and other days we are anchored in port waiting for the next group to arrive, anticipating the fun and insanity that will ensue.

This past trip was filled with beautiful sunsets off the dive deck, coconuts on the dock, deliriously fun dives, and divers that kept us laughing and partying late into the night.

Can you spot the crab?

Can you spot the crab?

Feeding the local goats on Havelock. They are serious coconut fiends.

Feeding the local goats on Havelock. They are serious coconut fiends.

Fishermen heading to market in Havelock.

Fishermen heading to market in Havelock.

Lovely little shrimps at 'Vivek's Wreck,' just outside Port Blair

Lovely little shrimps at ‘Vivek’s Wreck,’ just outside Port Blair

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On the ferry out to Neil Island to find some new dive sites.

On the ferry out to Neil Island to find some new dive sites.

A beautiful pufferfish with some big ole chompers.

A beautiful pufferfish with some big ole chompers.

Sunset dive at Vivek's Wreck, Port Blair.

Sunset dive at Vivek’s Wreck, Port Blair.

Many hours were spent filling tanks on the dive deck.

Many hours were spent filling tanks on the dive deck.

I’m on a Boat, Andamans Edition

North Bay near Port Blair, Andaman Islands. We went looking for new divesites near the capital and were pleasantly surprised to find some nice easy reef diving.

North Bay near Port Blair, Andaman Islands. We went looking for new divesites near the capital and were pleasantly surprised to find some nice easy reef diving.

Castaways on Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andamans.

Castaways on Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andamans.

As you read this, we are cruising in the Indian Ocean around the Andaman Islands on a diving liveaboard. We’re on an enormous boat with a lovely sundeck and a great diving platform. I promise we aren’t suffering too much on this portion of our trip 🙂 We’ll be on the boat until December, diving and assisting with PADI courses.

It’s difficult to describe the Andamans without falling into the usual tropical island trap of ’emerald,’ ‘turquoise,’ and other hyperbolic gemological adjectives that never really suffice. But let me make my own feeble attempt. These islands are tiny, lush spits of land surrounded by cruise-commercial white sand beaches and electric blue waters.

In 2004 the tsunami came through and damaged many of the coral reefs that circle the 500 plus islands. Zev and I keep reminding ourselves that unlike most coral damage we’re used to seeing, this is the result of a natural disaster and not man made destruction (dynamite fishing, boats anchoring on reefs, global warming). The reefs are staging an aggressive recovery; soft and hard coral has begun to regrow and there are some really vibrant patches of reef.

The diving here is good and we are looking forward to visiting the more remote islands where the diving is supposed to be truly spectacular.

A tiny tiny nudibranch or 'sea slug.'

A tiny tiny nudibranch or ‘sea slug.’

Another nudi, great colors.

Another ‘nudi,’ great colors.

One of my favorite sea creatures, the octopus! Found at the Wall dive site, Havelock.

One of my favorite sea creatures, the octopus! Found at the Wall dive site, Havelock.

Komodo by Boat

The real reason we slogged all the way to Flores was to catch up with my cousin, Mackenzie, who was in the area completing a research project. She was visiting remote villages across Indonesia to interview local villagers, and saw parts of the country that few Westerners ever visit. Having spent a few days recovering from our epic ferry ride to Labuan Bajo, Flores, we met up with Mckenzie and her gang of fellow researchers and hopped on another, much smaller, boat for a three day tour of the Komodo Islands. It was so nice to meet up with family from back home and hearing about her project was fascinating.

Our trusty vessel.

Our trusty vessel.

After getting on the boat and stowing our massive stock of snacks and beer, we motored to Rinca Island, one of the two islands where you can see Komodo dragons, for our first trekking trip. Rinca’s savannah covered hills felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Since it was mating season, the Komodo Dragons were busy getting busy in the woods, but we did manage to spot a small one hanging out at a watering hole, and got up close and personal with the gang of elderly dragons that hangs out at the park ranger’s kitchen. We were told that they stopped feeding the dragons in the mid-90’s, but these guys must be senile enough to keep coming back anyway.

A 'small' dragon.

A ‘small’ dragon.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger station.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger’s station.

On day one we also went on the first of many snorkeling trips, where we found a baby bamboo shark sleeping under a rock, and managed to snap our best photo of the trip, of a baby box fish. We’d heard incredible things about the marine life in the Komodos, but neither of us imagined how spectacular it could be until we got there. As a rule of thumb, the crazier the ocean currents, the bigger and better the fish. To say that the ocean surface in many places around the Komodos looked like the agitation cycle of a washing machine wouldn’t be an exaggeration and the abundance of sea life certainly upheld that saying.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

Our captain, Matt, who has been working on tour boats in the islands for nearly 10 years, was truly a jack of all trades. After every snorkeling trip, he welcomed us back onto the boat with a plate of piping hot pisang goreng (battered fried bananas), and prepared delicious dinners with fish purchased from local fisherman who paddled out to our boat in canoes to deliver their fresh catch. We slept on the roof of the boat, under a sky filled with the stars of the southern sky. After half a year in the southern hemisphere we’ve only recently adjusted to the sky with no north star and an upside-down big dipper.DSC_0153

Our epic second day on the boat consisted of two hikes and three snorkeling trips. Although the big game animals, manta rays and Komodo Dragons, had taken the day off, it was still another day of jaw dropping scenery. Our 4 hour trek across Komodo Island began in temperate forests that felt surprisingly similar to our home landscape of the eastern US. Climbing up past the forests through the palm-tree dotted savannah to the top of a ridge provided breathtaking views of the island, all the way back done to the ocean. The paths up and down the hill were steep and dusty and we all took a few spills. Had we not seen dragons the day before on Rinca, the lack of wildlife, heat, and difficulty of the trail would have probably been overwhelming, but we managed to keep our cool and enjoy the view. Our two snorkeling trips to Manta Point were fruitless, but well made up for at our third spot, the Cauldron, where we saw more turtles than you can count (if you can’t count to 5), and a few of our boat-mates even spotted a dugong! To wrap up the day on yet another high-note, Matt lead us up a hill on an uninhabited island to watch the unset over a crystal blue bay.

The temperate forests on Rinca.

The temperate forests on Rinca really reminded us of the Shenandoah in Virginia.

Gorgeous views greeted exhausted hikers.

Gorgeous views, exhausted hikers.

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One of the many turtles we spotted while snorkeling at Cauldron.

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

DSC_0282 DSC_0290DSC_0264After getting off the boat on day three and saying goodbye to Mackenzie and her friends, we met up with friends from Bali who also happened to be in Labuan Bajo. They were heading back out to the islands to spend 2 nights at Seraya Beach Resort, a row of bare bones bungalows along a wide strip of untouched white beach and a bay full of pristine coral. Having no plans other than an eventual hot and crowded 4 hour public bus ride to begin exploring inland Flores, we happily joined them for a few days in a hammock soaking up Komodo’s spectacular scenery.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Our bamboo beach shack was also occupied by some kleptomaniac rats.

Our bamboo beach shack was also home to a rambunctious (and prolific) family of kleptomaniac rats who evidently thought Eliza’s shorts would make a great nest. Fortunately they didn’t fit through the rats’ front door.