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Swimming with the sharks
Tuesday, May 01, 2012

When it comes to the diversity of nature, the State is indeed blessed. Nethrani island crowns the array of nature’s bounties in the State including the Western Ghats, the beaches and the riverside temple towns known for their architectural splendour. The variety of corals, colourful fish, and other aquatic life that one gets to see in the island is unbelievable.

 



Located in the Arabian sea at 10 nautical miles (about 19 km) from the coast of Murudeshwar, the uninhabited island, also called Pigeon Island, is the closest spot from the main land where marine life and corals thrive. With steep rocky sides jutting out from the sea, it is not easy to access the hilly terrain of the island which has the remains of a temple, a church and a mosque. However, pigeons, wild goats and white-bellied sea eagles have made it their home. It is important to note that the island is surrounded by a fringing coral reef which is not only a rich ecosystem by itself but supports a wide variety of other marine life. Some 14 species of corals, sponges, clams and other molluscs have been recorded in the area.

 



Among the coral related fish, as many as 27 species were newly recorded while two species of Groupers have been included in the red list of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The presence of such an exotic but delicate marine life was what prompted marine biologists and environmentalists to urge the State government to declare Nethrani island a biodiversity hotspot. As a result, the government issued a notification in 2010 declaring the island one. But this was not to last long owing to the Indian Navy under whose jurisdiction the island lies. For years, the island was being used for target firing practice and other marine warfare exercises. The sounds of gunfire and its vibrations, bound to have a detrimental effect on the fragile marine ecosystem, alarmed environmentalists. The State government was asked to take up the matter with the defence ministry so as to prevent the naval authorities from carrying out firing activities.

But the officials of the defence ministry felt that the island’s strategic location was a more important consideration and it needed to be under their surveillance. Moreover, declaration of Nethrani island as a biodiversity hotspot would hinder the activities of the Navy.

In 2011, the State had to drop its proposal and Nethrani island lost its tag as a biodiversity hotspot. The only consolation was the decision to prevail upon the Navy to minimise disturbance to the ecosystem and carry out a periodical assessment of the effects.

The discovery of rich coral species and aquatic life here coupled with the shallow waters with good visibility has been drawing a lot of marine biologists, researchers and scuba divers. Nethrani is not only one of the country’s top diving destinations but it is also the only diving spot in the state. Outfits that offer a scuba diving experience to adventurist travellers are also making foray into these territories.

Taking the plunge

Curious to experience life under the sea, I readily accepted an invitation for a diving adventure at Nethrani. Arriving at Murudeshwar on a sunny morning, I was joined by a group of other enthusiasts at the dive shop as it is called. Preparations to carry food, equipment, etc for the trip were on in full swing. As we embarked on the voyage on a modified fishing boat, Gabor, the Hungarian dive master, briefed us about the nuances of diving and the precautions that need to be taken.

Approaching the beautiful island of Nethrani in the middle of the azure sea we anchored off the coast and tried snorkeling to familiarise ourselves with the sea. The waters were very transparent affording a visibility up to 20 meters. Sitting on the edge with all that heavy gear on me, I somersaulted backwards into the waters and at once I was in a new world.

I was guided by the instructor around the rocks and depths of the sea. It was a silent world with the only sound being the hiss of breathing and bubbles. The shoals of iridescent fish of different sizes swam around gracefully. The wonderful patterns of corals passed by as a moray eel lurched in a crevice. There were snappers, puffer fish, parrot fish and barracudas. Sergeant Majors, the blue and yellow fish with bands, swarmed around us frequently.

For about 40 minutes, I was lost in this paradise, in heavenly bliss. When I surfaced reluctantly, I had no words to express except agreeing with the catch phrase: “ If you have not dived, you have not lived.”

Getting there

For a diving trip to Nethrani, one has to reach Murudeshwar where dive shops are available. You can hire a cab, auto or a boat from there to the island. Murudeshwar is 480 km from Bangalore.



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