A Fierce Beauty: The Mangroves Of Baratang Island In The Andamans

A boat ride through the mangroves of the Andaman Islands is a lesson in awareness about these precious natural resources
Baratang Island, Andaman
The mangroves of Baratang IslandPhotos: Shutterstock

The tiny wooden boat glided silently on the narrow strip of water. Dense foliage on either side formed a thick canopy through which the sun filtered in and threw a few spotlights on the water. The rest of the area was shrouded in gloom even though it was just past noon. It was also eerily silent except for the rhythmic splashing of the oars in water. In the mysterious mangroves of Baratang Island in the Andamans, it felt like stepping into Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Places to visit in the Andaman
The coconut crab is the world’s largest land-living anthropodShutterstock.com

Earlier that morning, the three-hour drive from Port Blair in the South was both meditative and soporific. On both sides were crops, farms, and forested lands interspersed through villages. Occasionally, near thickly forested stretches, I caught glimpses of Jarawas, an indigenous tribe that keeps to itself but is also fast-dwindling, with less than 300 of them in existence. Baratang, one of the several islands that make up the Andaman, is one of their abodes.

By the time I reached the jetty to Baratang, it was mid-morning. Separated by a narrow waterway from the mainland, ferries served as commuter lines to transport people, vehicles, goods and even animals. A few minutes later, I was on the island and heading into the wilderness on a rickety four-wheeler that rattled and bumped along the uneven road. Spread over more than 240 sq. kilometres, Baratang has just 12 villages and less than 6,000 people. Much of the area comprises beaches, forests, mangroves, limestone caves, and mud volcanoes.

The maleo bird
The maleo bird

Of Volcanoes And Caves

My ultimate destination was a set of mangrove creeks towards the far end of Baratang. But on the way, my guide Raju stopped at a relatively open piece of remote land fringed by tall trees. What looked like little mounds, about a foot high, turned out to be mud volcanoes. Up close, a handful of them languidly spewed viscous grey pasty mud that plopped above the funnel and flowed down, hardening at the foot under the harsh sun. It seemed anti-climactic, having imagined a gigantic volcanic crater. But the cold liquid flowing down was surreal in itself.

Some distance away, the limestone caves were fascinating. Accessed through a long and narrow passage, it was more a series of caverns with stalagmite and stalactite formations that have been millennia in the making. As I marvelled at what nature had designed, Raju pointed to random shapes resembling the brain’s innards, animal and tree shapes, people, and even a rifle.

Andaman Islands
A view of Baratang from the ferryShutterstock.com

It was almost noon by the time we bounced our way back to shore towards the Southern part of the island to a ramshackle pier with a handful of tiny and narrow row boats. Raju and I got into a vibrant blue one, and the boatman, Narasaiah, skilfully pushed off from the shore and manoeuvred us into a narrow waterway.

It was several metres wide, but as we noiselessly moved deeper, the channel became progressively narrower until there were just a couple of feet on either side of the boat. All other sounds faded away, and I was left to quietly contemplate the fierce beauty of the mangroves. The thick foliage formed a complex mesh of intertwining trunks, stems and creepers with visibility restricted to a couple of feet; it continued below, on the ground as an intricate latticework and disappeared into the murky greenish water.

Though Robert Frost came to mind at first (the woods are lovely, dark, and deep), the dense growth, mysterious shadows and opacity quickly led to a vague feeling of uneasiness, like a thousand unseen eyes were watching from the depths, and brought to mind the brooding, dark quality of Joseph Conrad’s prose.

Caves in Andaman Islands
Inside a limestone caveShutterstock.com

Miracle Trees

In the silence, as if not to disturb it, Raju mentioned that mangroves are an exceptional natural phenomenon, beneficial and yet to be fully understood. But from the little I had read, I knew they occupied intertidal zones that lie between and overlap of land and sea.

They host a unique set of flora and fauna, including marine creatures that use the network of roots as protective nurseries. The dense network also has other fundamental uses: shoring up soil against erosion and being a barrier against rough winds, tidal waves, storms and cyclones. They also enrich the land by holding onto fertile soil swept in by rivers. They are a source of livelihood for communities nearby.

India is home to about 5,000 sq. km. of mangroves, the most famous being the Sunderbans in Bengal. However, lesser-known ones are equally rich in resources, such as Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, Godavar-Krishna mangroves in Andhra Pradesh, and several others in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, and Odisha.

Mangroves are also crucial for another fundamental reason. They are vital carbon sinks and are known to trap as much as four times the amount of carbon as other kinds of forests, thereby reducing greenhouse gases. It is believed that the carbon stored in mangroves is sealed away for thousands of years; on the other hand, mangrove destruction releases enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to catastrophic consequences.

Since they are less understood than other kinds of forests and hence underestimated, they face severe threats such as deforestation for urban, industrial, agricultural and aquaculture use.

As all this swirled in my head, Narasaiah sought to lighten the mood by drawing attention to the mangroves’ more fascinating creatures, such as a monitor lizard camouflaged on a tree trunk, fiddler crabs that darted in an out of burrows, tree snails with conical shells on their backs, mud skippers that flopped about in the moist mud, a kingfisher that silently flitted across.

After cruising the complex maze of channels for a few hours, I was on the ferry back to the jetty and then to Port Blair. A gentle wind blew, carrying with it the distinctive smell of briny water mixed with that of the forest. But the sight and sound of the mangroves stayed long after, like how Conrad stayed long after the last page was read.

How to reach: The nearest airport is at Port Blair (100 km/3 hrs); taxis are the best way to reach Baratang.

Stay: There are just a handful of resort-style places to stay in Baratang; Port Blair has more options across budgets.

Best time to visit: Though it can be visited throughout the year, October to March is considered ideal. However, the Northeast monsoon can sometimes bring heavy periods of rain in October-November.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller