India - Andaman Islands
India’s Andaman Islands offer cruising yachtsmen and charterers virgin tropical island scenery and fishing so good, you can decide what you want for dinner before casting your line
Sitting in glorious isolation in the middle of the Bay of Bengal are the Andaman Islands. Administered by India, these 300 or so islands are the highest peaks of a submerged mountain range that stretches over 450 kilometres, from Sumatra in the south to the Irawaddy delta in the north. The Andamans consist of dozens of islands, ranging in size from 1500-square kilometres to just a few square kilometres. Owing to their isolation, the Andamans are also a repository of unique flora and fauna, as well as a haven for marine life.
The Andaman Islands have everything you could desire from an adventurous eco-tourism charter destination. There are literally hundreds of deserted islands to explore, each one seemingly more spectacular than the last. The beaches are magnificently pristine. The snorkelling and scuba diving are among the best in the world, with an almost untouched marine ecosystem for underwater enthusiasts to explore.
There is a active volcano, thousands of square miles of primaeval jungle, exotic and thriving wildlife and primitive hunter-gatherer tribes. The fishing is probably the best in the world. The Andamans are also starting to develop a superb reputation as a frontier surfing destination, with reef breaks that have never been surfed before.
Sitting astride the ancient monsoon trade routes between China and India, the Andaman Islands first appeared in our historical records during the 2nd Century BC. From the earliest recorded times, the Andamans were infamous for the ferocious, cannibalistic pygmies who inhabited the islands.
Bizarrely, the inhabitant’s themselves led to the islands being named the “Andaman” Islands. The small stature of the pygmies and their tradition of wearing trailing grass skirts that resembled a monkey’s tail led to the belief in surrounding countries that these islands were inhabited by devotees of the Hindu monkey god “Handuman”. This resulted in the people being known as the “Handuman people” which ultimately gave rise to the name Andaman Islands.
With the Andaman Islands’ strategic position sat directly across the major monsoon trade routes in the Bay of Bengal and with an abundance of fresh water and wildlife, it is very surprising that the Andaman Islands were not colonised or settled in ancient times by India, China or Siam. Perhaps the fearsome reputation of the inhabitants discouraged visitors. It is also likely that the pirates, who used the Andaman Islands as a base to attack merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal, exaggerated the tales of cannibals and warlike tribes to keep competitors and authorities away.
The descendents of these ferocious negroid pygmies are still there today, although they are somewhat friendlier than their reputation would suggest. Amazingly, these tribes still live a traditional hunter-gatherer existence in tracts of Andaman jungle that have been set aside for them by Indian authorities.
The only warlike tribe left to this day is the Sentinelese, who inhabit a tiny isolated island called North Sentinel, This island is roughly circular with a diameter of only four miles. Completely surrounded by fringing coral reef and deep ocean, the Sentinelese live out their lives in complete isolation from the outside world. It is a measure of just how isolated the Andman Islands are that a tribe of hunter-gatherers could still live without any modern influence.
Following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, the Indian authorities sent a military helicopter to North Sentinel island to check on the Sentinelese. The helicopter returned to Port Blair with several arrows embedded in the underside of the fuselage. The message was clear: “We are fine, just leave us alone”!
In 2001, we ran a charter in the Andaman Islands for a United Nations Development Programme-sponsored scientific survey of the surrounding coral reefs. During this survey, three new species of coral were discovered, which encompassed hundreds of miles of pristine reef, and a unique and completely intact underwater ecosystem. Clearly, there was much to protect. The Andaman Islands were duly declared a World Heritage Site in 2002.
The Andaman Islands are difficult to get to which keeps them well off the tourist trail. There are only two flights per day (one from Kolkota and one from Chennai on the Indian mainland) into Port Blair, which is the administrative centre for the islands. There are no international flights into Port Blair except the occasional private jet. But the way to explore is by boat.
Port Blair is a quaint, colonial, Indian town that looks like it has been dragged from the 1930’s into the 21st Century. Three wheeler auto rickshaws weave between the more sedate “Lincoln Ambassador” taxis surrounded by the constant cacophony of sounds and colours of a busy Indian market town. An Indian policeman dressed in khaki uniform and a white pith helmet stands at each road intersection, somehow managing the seemingly suicidal task of directing the traffic. Holy cows, beautifully attired with jewellery and painted horns stroll without concern along the streets, ignoring both the traffic and the policemen.
With a population estimated to be over 120,000 and located in the southern reaches of the Andamans, Port Blair is the administrative head of the Andamans region, with basic supplies readily available. If you are sailing on your own, Port Blair is where you need to stop first to provide a written itinerary of your cruising time. There are however, few options for luxury stay in Port Blair – you are better off on the boat.
Tourism is very much in its infancy in the Andaman Islands. There is just the barest handful of yachts that offer charters in this very remote area. With almost no tourists and hardly any fishing fleet, we have on occasion spent up to a month in the Andamans without ever seeing another boat or person. This is a truly unique charter destination for adventurous people who really want to escape from the modern world for a while.
The Andaman Islands have never been commercially fished. As a result, the marine life is truly incredible. As the fish in this area generally die of old age rather than being caught, they grow to a remarkable size. It can be quite a strange feeling to be regularly swimming with fish that are much larger than you.
There are simply not enough superlatives to describe the fishing in this area. During a recent trip to the Andamans, we went fishing on most days from our dinghy. We would set off from the yacht in the evening with trolling lures behind the dinghy along the reef edge. It was rare to go for more than 300 metres without catching a fish. In fact, on charters that we run, we simply “fish by menu”, which is to say, we decide ahead of time what fish we’d like for dinner, and catch only that, releasing all other species. In this way, we can preserve the bounty of marine life in this amazing place.
Heading out from Port Blair is Havelock Island, located in the Ritchie’s Archipelago. Though plentiful with white sand beaches, we tend to favour more remote locations, as this is the one area that’s readily accessible to non-boaters. Here, you will find some basic restaurants, bars and bungalows. Cruising yachties may find some fun and flavour.
Charterers have more options. Cinque Island is a must and it is not too far afield from Port Blair. The snorkelling and diving are great, as dolphins and manta often visit the bay in the mornings. Sisters island is extremely picturesque with the joining sand spit. In anchorage A the snorkeling is quite good. The long beach on the west side is a very pleasant walk.
A little further away in the northwest of the Andamans is North Reef Island, which is absolutely stunning and teeming with life. The small island is ringed by white sand beach and an extensive coral reef, with plenty of jungle to explore. During a ten-minute dive a couple of years ago, we spotted 50 turtles.
Of all the islands in the Andamans, the remote volcano islands of Barren and Narcondum are unique. Located about 100 miles to the east of the main Andaman Islands these volcanic islands rise almost vertically from ocean depths of more than 2000 metres. Narcondum is a long extinct volcano. Barren is very much alive, with spectacular lava flows into the sea. Diving and snorkeling around these islands is an unforgettable experience. At Barren Island, the underwater landscape has a backdrop of black volcanic ash. Against this matt black background, the normally vibrant colours of the coral and reef fish seem almost psychedelic. The waters are plentiful in sharks and manta rays, making for truly spectacular diving experiences. Ashore, the volcanic islands provide an amazing walking tour. Narcondam in particular offers a complete picture of the wild tropics, with white sand beaches, cocnut trees, jungles, the volcano and fabulously clear water.
In short, the Andamans are a step away from the modern world. These islands offer visitors a glimpse of the world when it was untouched and pristine. It is increasingly rare to find such places, and often it is only by boat that you see the best of the best. For an amazing chartering destination full of wonder, the Andamans offer all you want and plenty more.
About Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson has been running high-end luxury yacht charters in Southeast Asia for the last 12 years. He is one of the authors of the Andaman Sea Pilot – the definitive sailing guide book to Southeast Asia (www.andamanseapilot.com). Paul is the owner and captain of the new 100-foot sailing yacht Asia, which offers five-star adventure sailing, diving and kayaking holidays in the Andaman Islands, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Asia is a custom-built charter yacht with accommodation for up to ten guests.
Paul can be reached at email@example.com
Entry and visas:
Foreigners entering the Andaman Islands need an Indian visa, which is good for 30 days and can be obtained directly from Indian embassies, or arranged by some travel firms in Phuket. Extensions can be arranged in Port Blair. In port, cruising yachtsmen need to provide a written itinerary. Boaters MUST make their first stop in Port Blair, the port of entry, to check in for complete immigration, customs, harbour, navy and coast guard procedures. It is NOT permitted to stop at any islands on the approaches.
The Andaman Islands are well policed by the coast guard and navy, which is great for safety at sea and for making sure that visiting yachts abide by the rules.
Getting to Port Blair
You may travel direct to Port Blair via mainland India and join a chartered yacht in Port Blair. Most charter guests use this method to save the time spent at sea between Phuket and the Andamans, though air links between India and the Andamans are not especially pleasant.
Visitors can also charter a private plane from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong direct to Port Blair airport and joining the yacht there. Groups of guests may find this a surprisingly economical option if guests number from six to ten.
Flying to Port Blair from Hong Kong or Singapore:
Jet Aviation – www.jetaviation.com.hk, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
MyJet Asia – www.myjetasia.com, email: email@example.com
MetroJet – www.metrojet.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chartering a yacht from Phuket is the easiest choice and probably the most desireable. There are several agencies in Phuket, some of whom offer service to the Andamans, though this is not as popular as tours around Phuket.
Travelling on a yacht from Phuket involves a two-day open-ocean passage. This is viable on a sailing yacht like Asia as she is very big and comfortable. Guests do need more time on hand to allow for this option – two days travel, a day for checking in, around seven to 14 days is recommended for charter in the Andaman Islands, then a half-day to check out and two days for the return to Phuket.
The tribes of the Andaman Islands live in seclusion, and they like it that way. In addition, the Indian Navy has a facility on the Andamans. Consequently, some areas are restricted. Yachts can circumnavigate the Andamans – a long but beautiful trip – as anchoring in restricted areas is not allowed. The north tip has a naval restriction while portions of the west coast are part of the Jarawa Reserve, and are off limits. A complete list is provided in Port Blair.
Fuel up in Port Blair, plus scout out basic food provisions, some fresh goods, vegetables, teas and sugar. These are also available from the small villages on Havelock, Mayabundar, and Little Andaman islands. There are no meats outside of Port Blair, so cruising yachtsmen will need to catch their own fish. Aberdeen market in Port Blair offers nearly everything, though it may quite an experience for people used to supermarket shopping only.
Very few yachts make the trip to the Andamans, though there are plenty of boat repair facilities with skilled mechanics, spraying facilities and lifts for boats up to 500 tonnes.
It is essential to plan to visit the Andamans between December and May. December to the end of February is the best time for sailing in the Andamans, with warm, sunny conditions and a reliable 20 knots of wind. March and April have little wind and are the best months for diving and snorkeling – this is also the time of year when the migratory whales visit the Andamans. April is the best month for surfing, with large swell from the south-west that gives spectacular breaks along the west coast. From May to December the Andamans is effectively closed with strong winds, very rough sea conditions and continuous torrential rain.
Thanks to the relative isolation of the Andaman Islands, there are a number of species which are endemic only to the Andamans, having evolved without disturbance from other mainland species. There are five species of mammals and 12 bird species which are strictly endemic or near endemic to the Andamans alone. The islands are home to 45 species of lizard, of which 13 are found only in the Andamans. Source: WWF