I’m irritated that I checked in at Chennai airport too late to get a window seat for the two-hour flight to Port Blair. I was hoping to get an aerial view of the islands and perhaps snap off a few lucky shots in the morning light. Just as well, because by the time I am jolted awake by the landing in Port Blair, the sun is high up and the light too harsh for photographs. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie roughly 1,200km due east of Chennai, closer to Thailand than the Indian mainland, and should be in a different time zone, I grumble to myself.
I’m in the Andamans for a bit of big game fishing courtesy Monster Fishing, an Indian outfit based out of Bangalore. I am to meet my hosts at Havelock, one of the 572 islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar administrative region and have time to kill before my ferry leaves. What else does the first-time visitor to Port Blair do but visit the Cellular Jail? Built by the British in 1896, originally the jail had seven wings radiating like spokes from a central bell tower, two of which were demolished in the Japanese occupation during World War II and inexplicably two more after Independence. It’s a soothing respite from the heat as I traipse through the museum and along the rows of tiny whitewashed cells tailing a bunch of usually voluble tourists awed into talking in solemn whispers. I am fascinated by a photograph taken in 1930 of Aberdeen shantytown. I recognise it, by the ghantaghar in the background, as the same bustling bazaar that I passed on my way to the jail.
Havelock Island is some 55km northeast from Port Blair, a smidgen north of Phuket latitude wise. Slathered in SPF 30 sunblock, I spend most of the pleasant four-hour journey on the deck of the excellent MV Rani Laxmi. Watching the emerald forests of Port Blair slowly slide past into a wide expanse of ocean is a pleasurable melancholy that such slow sea journeys evoke. Eventually Havelock heaves into view and I am instantly charmed, first by its simple and arcadian contentment, and then by the Barefoot Resort which blends seamlessly and unobjectionably into its surroundings on the unalluringly named Beach No. 7. Sundowner in hand, the stunning combination of white sand and the gin-clear sea is just about as good as it can get. Even though it is dark by 5.30pm and I can still see my faintly phosphorescent feet as I wade waist-deep into the sea.
My hosts Sudhir Makhija and Sohail Rahman, two of the eight friends who are partners in Monster Fishing, set up the morning call time at a cruel 3am. We are heading to the fish-rich waters off Barren Island, the most easterly island of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. This is an unexpected bonus as Barren is the only active volcano in South Asia and very few visitors to the Andamans get to see it even though it’s 125km from Port Blair and 98km from Havelock. It’s just past 4am as we prepare to cast off the Mahi-Mahi, a sleek 34ft boat festooned with fishing rigs and rods holstered at the stern and on the canopy. Even at this early hour the sky is flushed with a roseate glow and the pilings point long shadowy fingers at the boats moored nearby. After a quick on-board breakfast, the captain opens up the throttle to a gob-smacking 30 knots per hour, the twin 225HP Mercury outboard motors bellowing in full song.
The two other anglers on the boat, the two Marcels — Waldschmit and Veenman — are from the Nether-lands. Both are very experienced at big game fishing and I find out later that Waldschmit is among the top anglers of the world and he is checking out the Andaman waters for his worldwide sport fishing charter business. Despite the boat hull-slamming the swells, Waldschmit expertly prepares the rods and tackle, deftly picking up hooks and leaders. The other Marcel lectures me on the proper etiquette on board a fishing boat to my “Ja, ja, jahs”. We have some bait on board, mackerels picked up from the market, which are gutted, sewn and flexed, so that they swim amazingly life-like at the end of a trailing line. These will be used for trolling, where the boat keeps a constant speed of around six knots with rods on either side of the stern trailing baited lines of different lengths behind the boat. In addition, there are outriggers — long telescopic booms that swivel out from the roof — to which more lines are attached with artificial rubber bait that I imagine would look like a tasty meal for the pelagic fish we are after. Now these bait fish are the size of trout that I have caught in Himachal (okay, just one) with tiny earthworms so I can just imagine what size fish will strike!
Barren Island is as spectacular as advertised. Thick gusts of smoke and ash erupt every now and then as we circle around the island and gritty cinder drifts settle on our skin and on the boat once we sail the leeward side. The lava flow extends like a tongue into the water and it’s there that we get our first fish. There’s a flurry of activity as Veenman is first to the rod that’s whirring away and holsters the rod into the fighting belt around his waist. The fish puts up a good fight as he reels it in, repeatedly bowing at the waist like a supplicant and then levering his back up giving the fish no slack to run with. It’s a GT — a giant trevally — and we can see its steep and blunt head profile as it breaks the surface of the water. Known as the bulldog of the ocean, the GT is considered by many to be one of the strongest pound for pound sea fish. The GT is gaffed, brought aboard and readied for its photo-op. We estimate its size at about 20kg and when we release it back into the water, it dives back with a silvery wink, plenty of fight still left in it.
Minutes later, another rod is singing and this time the other Marcel bends his back to reel the fish in, the marlin print on his T-shirt dancing with the movement. Wahoo! Not as in the Junglee yodel; the fish apparently takes its name from Oahu in Hawaii where it’s plentiful, or from the exclamation of a startled angler — choose your pick. The locals call it the ‘nakli surmai’ and it is prized for its speed as well as for its taste. This one is fighting below the boat and we can see the iridescent elongated body darting around. We are going to keep this 20kg beauty for the table as well as chop it up for shark bait. The action gets slow as the sun wheels up high. The volcano is still mesmerising and sea eagles are gliding on thermals. Apparently, Barren Island is not that barren. The stunted vegetation that has survived numerous eruptions since the one first recorded in 1787 is home to a large population of feral goats, which attracted some attention when it was believed that they consumed either no water or sea water. The mystery of what the goats drank was solved in 2003 when researchers discovered freshwater springs on the island. Under what circumstances the feral goats made their way to Barren Island is an unanswered question.
However, it is believed that they were left by a steamer way back in 1891, or were released by British sailors as a source of food if they were ever to be shipwrecked in these waters.
Lunch, prepared fresh in the galley, is delicious chunks of wahoo, sautéed lightly with a sprinkling of chillies and salt washed down with nicely chilled beer from the icebox. For the shark, or ‘badmash’ as the locals call it, we head towards deeper waters till the depth finder is showing about 250m and drift with the engines off. The remaining baitfish and the wahoo are chopped and tossed overboard leaving a bloody trail that the currents carry out. This is so that the sharks can track the bloody chum, zig-zagging their way to the source. Waldschmit baits the hooks with fist-size chunks of meat at differing depths.
Apparently it can take a while before you can get sharks to come take the bait, but in ten minutes the line goes taut, the rod bending in an alarming arc. Whatever there is at the end of the line is big and it’s fighting back. Veenman has the rod, methodically sawing back and forth, reeling in the fish inch by inch, in a backbreaking effort over the next 15 minutes. The dorsal fins breach the surface and we have an eight-foot lemon shark thrashing just a few feet away from the boat. It has to be at least 100kg and the rod will not take the strain. Waldschmit has to wear gloves reinforced with chain mail and slowly wind the line around his fist to pull the shark in. In case the shark gets too feisty and dives, he can just open his fist and let the looped line unravel. Just a few moments away from hauling the shark’s mouth from the water to cut the line, the line proves too weak and snaps — and the shark is gone. I finally remember to breathe. Even through the gloves, Waldschmit has angry red welts around his hand.
The mood on the boat is upbeat as we hang around for more shark action. But it is late and we have 125km to sail for Port Blair. There’s enough time to do a bit of trolling just off Barren and we head over to shallower waters. A bit of trolling turns out to be more than an hour’s worth of unadulterated adrenaline as the fish take everything we put out. We are reeling in the wahoo within seconds of the bait hitting the water. Coached by the Marcels, I get to reel in my own wahoo, a 10kg juvenile, with which I pose before releasing it back. Our day’s catch is 20 fish — GTs, wahoo, coral trout — most of them caught in the evening feeding frenzy. We keep a couple for the table and release the rest.
The wind has turned as we head back to Port Blair. According to the crew, the northeast monsoon has arrived and the seas will be choppy for a couple of weeks. It’s night by the time we make the harbour at Port Blair and a warm drizzle has soaked me. The forecast for the next day is more rain and winds and we may not be able to get the boat out. But that’s all right with me — I have tales that I will be compelled to share, despite knowing at the back of my mind that because they weren’t there, the people truly won’t comprehend the scope of my tale. You have to be there to believe it.
As it happened, the next day was clear enough for sailing and we headed out to Cinque, my favourite island, ringed with coral reefs and white sand beaches. We didn’t catch a thing that day, except a few small fish for bait from a hand line thrown over.
Getting there: There are direct flights to Port Blair from Chennai and Kolkata (fares for both begin from about Rs 9,000 one-way) that arrive in time for you to take the ferry around 2pm to Havelock Island. However, on the way back to Port Blair, none of the ferries connect to the departing flights — make arrangements for a one-night stay in the capital city.
The other alternative is to travel by ship from Chennai, Visakhapatnam or Kolkata (www.tourism.andaman.nic.in) to Port Blair; it will cost you Rs 1,500-6,000 one-way. A three-day journey (one-way), it can be exciting for those who love the high seas. No luxury, mind.
Big game fishing
Monster fishing: (www.theandamans.com) is an angling outfit run by a group of eight friends who offer shore-based packages with Port Blair or Havelock as the base, starting from Rs 49,500 (for four people; not inclusive of stay). For anglers who want to explore the Invisible Banks or Barren Island (areas beyond 30 nautical miles), package costs go up to Rs 69,500. Many also opt for the ‘live aboard’ option, where for an additional Rs 5,000 (for four people), anglers can spend the night on board and catch a rich haul in the late evening, night and early morning. Monster Fishing also offers a chance for families to go for an island cruise or snorkelling; packages cost between Rs 20,000 and Rs 39,500 (for eight people, for eight hours).
Where to stay: In Havelock, the Barefoot Resort (044-24341001, www.barefootindia. com) is an attractive option; post January 11, double occupancy cottages will cost between Rs 6,500 and Rs 9,500. You could also book into the cottages at the pretty Wild Orchid resort (from Rs 3,500; 03192-282472, www.wildorchidandaman.com). In Port Blair, try Hotel Sentinel (from Rs 3,800; 03192-244914, www.hotelsentinelandamans.com) or Hotel Shompen (from Rs 1,400; 03192-232644 www.hotelshompenandamans.com).