India, Sri Lanka & the Maldives

2012 Maldives and India with Sri Lanka & the Lakshadweeps Field Report

Mark Brazil|January 28, 2013|Field Report

Monday, December 3, 2012 - Male, Maldives: We arrived in the Maldives, and transferred to the Hulhule Island Hotel, just a few minutes from the airport. There we gathered with our fellow travelers for cocktails, dinner and an introduction to some of the staff.

Tuesday, December 4 - Male / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Waking in a tropical paradise, we were greeted by the view of a pod of spinner dolphins frolicking in the waters from our breakfast table. After a morning at leisure to catch up with jetlag, we lunched, then embarked a local boat to cross to Malé, the capital of the Maldives. This small city is unique in that it holds the majority of the nation’s population, making it one of the world’s most densely populated capitals.

Once ashore, we divided into groups and set off on a walking tour taking in the local fruit and vegetable market, crammed with unfamiliar tropical produce, and the fish market with its many small tuna. We also saw the new mosque, a donation from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the impressive National Museum, built as a gift from the Chinese Government.

Soon the Zodiacs were awaiting us at the pier and we set off to embark the Clipper Odyssey for the next phase of our journey.

Wednesday, December 5 - Akirifushi & Olhahali Islands: We awoke to another beautifully sunny morning in this Maldivian paradise. Some of us began the day snorkeling over the reef wall of Akirifushi Island, while the divers searched deeper, exploring overhangs and caves further down the reef. The biodiversity in the marine environment was spectacular, with hard and soft corals covering the reef wall and myriad fish presenting a bright palette of colors. We saw powder blue tangs, gaudy parrotfish, several species of fusiliers and butterflyfish including the Indian Ocean endemic black-pyramid butterflyfish, Moorish idols, schooling bannerfish, red-tooth triggerfish and, so many more species it became hard to remember them all!

Shirley Campbell led a snorkel training session on the beach and in shallow waters along the Akirifushi shore. Those who chose to snorkel there found a colorful spiked sea star of the deepest purple hue.

Over lunch the ship relocated to Olhahali Island with an excellent fringing reef. There, a gentle current allowed us the opportunity to drift snorkel effortlessly along the reef with great visibility and, and with even more beautiful corals and fish. Highlights were huge purple-stemmed anemones with their resident clown fish, and a hawksbill turtle that cruised by.

We gathered for canapés and cocktails on idyllic Olhahali, and were welcomed to our voyage by our Expedition Leader Mike Messick and Captain of the Clipper Odyssey, Nikolay Tililyuk.

Thursday, December 6 - Baa Atoll: Waking again to idyllic skies and seas we set off in the morning to Ohlugiri Island for a range of activities. Some joined Mark Brazil onshore for a nature walk in the forest to learn about island biodiversity, while others joined Rich Pagen and Rob Dunbar in deep water for a diving adventure, and many more went snorkeling. Others took advantage of Jack Grove’s encyclopedic ichthyological knowledge to spot fish from the glass-bottomed boat.

Our ship repositioned during lunch allowing us a brief rest, before it was time to enter the Zodiacs again, this time with local rangers to visit a “cleaning station” in the Hanifaru UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. We were hoping to see manta rays, but the waters were rough and the mantas absent; instead we decamped to a nearby reef where snorkeling over the steep-edged reef was fantastic. Table corals were abundant, fish seemed everywhere and we even lost count of the number of green turtles we saw. Divers explored the nooks and crannies on a wall decorated with black corals. We had to drag ourselves from the water, but we were soon enjoying our first recap with the staff reflecting on aspects of the days so far.

Friday, December 7 - Utheemu Island / Vagaaru Island: This morning brought surprises of a different kind with several tropical squalls blowing through. The scene was dramatic with flashes of lightning, drum rolls of thunder, and the wind swaying the coconut palm tops. We didn’t let the squalls delay us for long, and soon went ashore to visit the island of Utheemu, the most famous of the northern Maldives. Being a Friday the town was quiet, but we were welcomed ashore and soon were walking the neat sandy streets of the community, our only village visit in the Maldives. In the village square we were treated to fresh coconuts, as a welcome, and then we were led off in small groups to be shown the highlights of the island by several of its inhabitants. Some of Utheemu Island’s attractions included a large new mosque and the fascinating former residence of a Maldivian hero affectionately known as Bodu Thakurufaanu. We also visited the site of a 400-year old mosque, among the oldest in this island nation, and saw the local women’s mosque.

During lunch we re-positioned to picturesque Vagaaru Island. Like so many of the atolls we have passed and visited since reaching the archipelago, Vagaaru offered picture-perfect white sand beaches, barrier reefs, and tall coconut trees. Here we were offered another busy afternoon of excursions and water sports. Our divers came back with tales of close encounters with manta rays, our snorkelers with views of myriad fish, while onshore some strolled noting countless hermit crabs, innumerable shells, and several shorebirds. Even those snorkeling from the beach experienced treats in the form of a moray eel and our first sightings of knobbly black sea cucumbers – detritivores scouring the sandy bottom for food.

Delighted to have seen the Maldivian underwater life we’d all imagined, we returned to the ship and set sail for Kochi, India.

Saturday, December 8 - At Sea: Today we began our “university at sea” program as we headed towards the Indian sub-continent.

Rob of Stanford University kicked us off with his wide-reaching lecture entitled Fun Facts and Tales of the Indian Ocean, before Shirley spoke on Conquering the Subcontinent: A Complex Peopling of India. After lunch, Jack Grove took us to the fascinating world below the waves with his brightly illustrated Indian Ocean Fishes Part 1.

By late afternoon we were nearing the coast of India and set watch on the decks for birds and marine life. We were rewarded with superb views of Indopacific humpback dolphins and flocks of terns, gulls, and egrets as we approached the harbor. We pushed through floating mats of introduced water hyacinth as we entered the river mouth and were torn between watching the egrets and pond herons using it as a floating foraging platform, and the Chinese fishing nets lining the shore to either side.

Soon after we arrived in this fascinating melting pot of languages and cultures, we were treated to a true Keralan specialty on board, a stunning Kathakali performance. Kathakali dates back 400 years and incorporates extraordinary makeup, colorful costumes, ornate headdresses, and tells 101 classical Keralan tales accompanied by percussion and vocals in long performances akin to western opera. We were treated to a mere snippet of one of the tales, but nevertheless the dramatic dance forms and brilliantly arrayed costumes were a feast for the eyes!

Sunday, December 9 - Kochi (Cochin), India: Today we set off for a rural experience in the backwaters of Kochi. Our first stop was at the Kochi Folklore Museum, which houses the private collection of a Keralan family. Our next stop was extended when we discovered a wedding was taking place across the street. Despite our numbers we were all welcomed to witness this cultural event and to marvel at the thought of the reverse: imagine a bus filled with Indian tourists gate-crashing a wedding in the USA – and being invited to stay for the food!

Rural Kerala is a maze of irrigated rice paddies, woodlands, and palm groves and once aboard our Kettuvallam houseboats we could enjoy the countryside and the backwaters in a tranquil way, while our guides and staff pointed out features of interest. The experience of lazily traveling along the canals observing scenes of village life, with kingfishers and bee-eaters overhead and ducks and cormorants on the water, provided a wonderful contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kochi. A lunch of traditional Keralan dishes was served on board by our crew, and afterwards we were able to make a brief stop to walk along the riverbank meeting people and watching birdlife. All too soon it was time for us to return to our boats, then to our buses and finally to the Clipper Odyssey, for a quiet night alongside.

Monday, December 10 - Kochi: This morning we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise and view of Kochi. Built around a saltwater lagoon in the Arabian Sea, in 1102 CE, Kochi became the seat of the Kingdom of Kochi, which became an important spice-trading center from the 14th century onwards. With time to explore the city this morning, we set off first to the colonial Fort Kochi area to make a visit to the St. Francis Church. Although small and unprepossessing, this is India’s oldest Anglican church, and also marks the location where famed Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s remains were previously housed. A short walk from the church brought us to the famed Chinese fishing nets. These cantilevered, horizontal nets are unique, being raised and lowered with ease by a small team of fishermen who often make more money from having their photographs taken than from catching fish! Jack gave us an animated description of the various fishes he found at the riverside fish market beside the nets, and although our intention was to return immediately to our buses, we were distracted by a Bollywood film being shot in the park nearby.

Our next visit was to the Mattancherry Palace Museum, built in 1557 by the Portuguese during their colonial rule of Kerala. The inner walls of the palace are covered with beautifully preserved murals from the great Indian epic The Ramayana. From there we walked through Kochi’s colorful Jew Town, visiting the local Paradesi Synagogue, and exploring the narrow streets and the many shops with their enticing merchandise.

Setting sail as we ate lunch, we were treated to a relaxing afternoon at sea with further opportunities to watch birds and dolphins as we departed Kochi and an afternoon of fun and educational lectures. Rob spoke first on Coral Reefs 101, followed by Jack’s discussion, Indian Ocean Fishes Part II. The entertainment continued after dinner with our onboard keyboard specialist Jun joined by staff Rich Pagen and Michael Moore for a fun Karaoke sing-along in the main lounge.

Tuesday & Wednesday, December 11 & 12 - Lakshadweep Islands: Remote, isolated, and rarely visited, the tiny Lakshadweep Islands are an Indian administered Union Territory, but in many respects resemble the Maldives. Our visit began with Puneet Dan lecturing on An Introduction to India before we set off for diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat options. The reef wall dropped steeply and was alive with fish. After lunch and further scouting, we took walks on the island’s beautiful beach, snorkeled offshore or snorkeled from the shore. During the latter we found that the clear, shallow lagoon waters were ideal for sea cucumbers, and three species were spotted, one of them in great abundance. Isolated mounds of hard coral proved to be rich islands of submarine diversity and fascinating to float over and observe. Onshore there were hundreds of hermit crabs, and, as is typical of such remote islands, very little birdlife.

On Wednesday we awoke to Cheriyam Island. There we were met with perhaps the most idyllic of all remote island views during this voyage. The long sweeping coral sand beach, the fringe of coconut palms onshore and the shallow lagoon offshore were lovely and welcoming. We all took Zodiacs to shore (some seeing turtles on the way), where we found chairs and tables, umbrellas, and coconuts set out for us by the tourist authorities who had come across to this island specifically to meet us. We relaxed in the shade, took walks on the wonderful beach, explored a little inland amongst the coconut groves, went off snorkeling by Zodiac or swam from the beach, and some even sea-kayaked until the last Zodiacs dragged us back from shore to the ship. As Jack said, “It doesn’t get better than this.” We said farewell to paradise as our ship turned her bow towards the south and Trivandrum. With an afternoon to relax at sea we continued our lecture series with naturalist Rich Pagen giving his colorful presentation Drama like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef followed by Mark Brazil’s lecture Wild India.

Thursday, December 13 - Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum): There can be few Indian harbors as colorful as that of Vilinjim, where we docked for our excursion in southern Kerala. By far the most picturesque harbor of the voyage, it was busy with activity. Once docked and cleared in, we walked into the fishing village to witness the early morning fish trade up close and personal. We set off inland along winding roads through lush vegetation and groves of coconut and rubber trees. Our buses could only take us so far, and for the final leg of our journey to the Pongmoode settlement we transferred to rickshaws, or tuktuks, for the short but exciting ride down a narrow, bumpy track to the village. Our hosts had laid out a display of the fruits, spices, and vegetables grown in the area; a coconut harvester scaled a palm to bring them down for us, and we enjoyed both the soft flesh of ‘green’ coconuts and the more familiar mature coconut flesh from the kernel. At the same farm we watched rubber trees being tapped for latex and saw the process of latex mixing with formic acid, forming into patties in trays, then passing through rollers, to rid it of water, and ending up like white car floor mats. The sheets were then hung in the sun for drying in readiness of shipping to market. Taking our tuktuks once more we rode to a nearby performance hall where we witnessed a display of the ancient, and arguably oldest, martial art, known as Kalaripayattu, unique to Kerala. This was a magnificent display of athleticism, flexibility, and lightning fast hand and foot movements and coordination. Much stylized now as a demonstration, the art uses swords, knives, poles, and flexible metal swords to attack, yet are fended off with hand and arm blocks.

Returning to our ship for lunch, we set sail bound for Sri Lanka. In the afternoon Puneet continued our introduction to contemporary Sri Lanka with his presentation, An Introduction to Sri Lanka, followed by Shirley’s lecture on The Peopling of Sri Lanka: A Prehistoric Encounter of the Mahavamsa. Instead of recap this evening we gathered poolside in our most colorful local clothing for a cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study.

Friday, December 14 - Colombo / Kandy, Sri Lanka: Arriving early into Colombo harbor on a beautiful sunny morning, we boarded our buses after an early breakfast for our journey through the bustling city and up through lush, rolling countryside dotted with tea plantations to wonderful Kandy. Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, is home to two million people, and while some enjoyed a morning tour of this vibrant city, most of us took the long road to the once powerful seat of the Kandyan Empire, Kandy. We broke the journey in mid-morning and visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and were able to get up close to these magnificent beasts. Originally established by the government to protect abandoned, injured, and orphaned elephants, it now houses them and their offspring in an extensive herd kept under control by their mahout keepers.

After a splendid Sri Lankan buffet lunch at the historic, colonial-style Queen’s Hotel, we crossed Kandy’s busy main street for a visit to the famed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, reputed to house a tooth of Buddha. Sri Lanka is one of the few remaining centers of Buddhism in the world, and this is the most significant Buddhist pilgrimage site in the country. Now a World Heritage Site, this phenomenal temple was originally built as a royal palace for the Kandyan Kingdom, today it is recognized as one of the holiest places for pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world.

In stark contrast to the people-oriented temple, we proceeded to the plant-focused Royal Botanical Gardens, where we strolled in the extensive grounds admiring plantings from around the world, seeing colorful birds and roosting giant fruit bats. Finally, our buses carried us down Sri Lanka’s western slope to the ocean-side capital Colombo, and the end of a long exciting day.

Another group set off for a tour of Colombo itself. Our first stop was St. Lucia Church, where a wedding was underway, before we drove through the city seeing the major sites and old colonial buildings, finally arriving at Independence Square. Traveling on from there we visited Ganarama Temple, where we saw a young elephant who was one of the highlights of our visit. We finished our tour at an arts and crafts shop where we enjoyed some shopping before returning to the ship for lunch, and an afternoon at leisure.

Saturday, December 15 - Galle: Graced by lush tropical forests, white sand beaches, and rich biodiversity, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka was once lauded by Marco Polo as the “finest island of its size.” Our tour of Galle began in the small town of Koggala where we saw both the traditional way of fishing, men sitting on poles planted in the reef, and a fabulous museum of folk art, the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture. From there we went into Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. There we wandered through the maze of narrow streets with enticing shops selling tea, lacework, gems, jewelry, and folk masks. Some took the time to walk along the ramparts to enjoy the town below on one side and the bay on the other, while others explored the town, and others scouted out a forest reserve up country, called Kanneliya, and found endemic monkeys, squirrels, reptiles, amphibians and birds to delight them.

We returned to the ship for lunch and set sail for Chennai. Our afternoon was devoted to relaxation, and of course, learning more about this part of the world and what makes it tick. Mark gave an introduction to island life in his lecture Islands of Isolation: Understanding Island Biodiversity, followed by Rich, who spoke on the topic of tropical marine life in, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water.

Sunday, December 16 - At Sea: The first lecture of the day was Jack’s Sanctuary in the Sea: Marine Biodiversity and Why it Matters in which he addressed the importance of marine protected areas and discussed several sanctuaries he is involved with including the Galápagos and the Seychelles. Rob followed, with his entitled Past Climate Change from the Tropics to the Poles: New Information from Coral and Sediment Cores. After a break for sustenance at lunch we continued our lecture series with Shirley’s, Into the Folds of the Sari: Women’s Lives in India, followed by Mark’s discussion, The Dwindling Dinosaurs – Birds in Peril. We wound up our day with our captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner followed by a slideshow presentation of our trip by Mike.

Monday, December 17 - Chennai: The roughness of the Indian Ocean had slowed us down so that we had an extra morning at sea before docking in Chennai. Not wanting to waste a minute, we were able to add in two additional lectures. Rich spoke to us on the theme of Marine Mammals, Local and Global: A Look at Conservation Issues and Solutions, followed by Rob, who talked about his research in Adventures! Deep Sea Submersible Diving in the Pacific. Following lunch we were able to set off for our afternoon city tour of Chennai before our departure onwards into India or homeward bound.

Chennai, now a city of 8 million, is an ancient city that boasts a rich cultural heritage. In our brief tour we managed to squeeze in visits to the Fort St. George Museum and the fabulous bronze gallery where we were introduced to the pantheon of Hindu gods, including Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh. We then witnessed the extraordinary contrast between the quiet and peaceful St. Thomas Cathedral and the noise and vibrancy of the very busy Kapaleeshwar Hindu Temple, our last stop of the day. The temple sits in the middle of a bustling market where vendors weave beautiful garlands of marigolds. Then it was time to say goodbye to gathered friends, and to look forward to our next adventure.

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