On board MV Chowra: A sea voyage (1/5)

More than a decade ago, the only way for a tourist to reach the Great Nicobar Islands was by the ship MV Chowra. In recent times though, there are two other major vessels that ferry locals as well as tourists between Port Blair (in Andamans) and Nicobar Islands. These are Campbell Bay (CB) and Coral Queen (CQ). CB and CQ are faster ships and reach Great Nicobar within 30 to 48 hours while MV Chowra takes close to 80 hours for it has more stops on the way.

So desperate we were to visit the island of Great Nicobar, we decided to undertake a journey of 3.5 days (back in 2017) to spend 1.5 days at the destination only to return back over the next 2 days. So overall you can say that we spent 5.5 days at sea to get a glimpse of 1.5 days of Great Nicobar land! This was 2017.

Image: MV Chowra, our home for the next 3.5 days

MV Chowra was built in the early 1980s and we were told that the ship was almost at the end of its life. That was not a very encouraging thought given that our life depended on that ship for the next 3.5 days. And what a journey this was!! Despite some minor drawbacks, the journey on board MV Chowra was one of the most enriching and memorable experiences I have had in my life.

Some background: While tourists, both Indians and foreigners are allowed entry into some common islands of the Andamans, special permission is required to visit other islands in Andamans and the Nicobars. The only reason we were allowed to board MV Chowra was because our destination was Campbell Bay and only that. Even as Indian citizens, special permission and ‘tribal pass’ is necessary to access some of these remote islands. Though in recent times, there has been talk of opening up the islands more for tourists and increasing the modes/means of transports [See [1], [2] and [3].

Anyways, our restricted permits meant that even if we had several hours of halt at an island of the Nicobar group of Islands, we were not permitted to exit the port/jetty area.

Anyways, back to the story: Though I have been on a ship journey before, some protocols always catch my attention. For example, a very small boat ferries MV Chowra from the port to the inner sea.

Image: Being pulled into the deep sea by this small boat.

During this time, the ship has on-board a Harbour-pilot or Port-pilot, who knows how to maneuver the ship through the waters close to the port. Here the water levels are shallow, there are many structures you need to avoid. It requires a special skill set. Once the ship is at the deep sea, this port-pilot leaves the ship and is replaced by the ship-pilot who is an expert in deep seas!

Image: This small boat called the “Pilot Boat” came and picked up the Port-Pilot (white shirt) who went back to he port.

Port Blair to Hut Bay

We had a 13 hour journey ahead of us. We set off into the sea and were welcomed by this pod of Indian Bottle-nose Dolphins who raced dangerously close to the head of the ship swimming along side! It was a beautiful sight to see. I had always seen in this movies (like Titanic) where these mammals do what is called “bow-riding”.

Video: Dolphins bow-riding with us
(Courtesy: Yogish Holla)

Bow-riding is a phenomenon you can observe in cetaceans like dolphins where in they “position themselves to be lifted up and pushed forward by the circulating water generated to form a bow pressure wave of an advancing vessel” (p. 135, Würsig)

Soon enough, we passed North Bay Island (Andaman), which featured in our old Rs 20 note.

Image: The old Indian 20-rupee banknote (₹20) features North Bay Island which you can see in the background

And the ship was making its way to Hut Bay, which was the capital of the island of Little Andaman. Very soon we encountered a mini-storm that caused a very heavy downpour and substantial rocking for about an hour. I could see people getting sea sick. We were geared up for our long journey.

The most interesting feature of MV Chowra was that it was the only passenger ship that stopped in the remotest of Islands in the Andamans and Nicobars. And for this reason, it had the maximum number of stops and number of days of sea travel, unlike the other passenger ships. And for the same reason, many of the passengers on board were locals who lived there. Tourists for obvious reasons (long duration of journey) did not choose this ship.

We met our co-passengers. There were many police and army personnel making their way back to their remote stations. Majority as I said were locals who were headed back to their respective homes (Islands) from Port Blair. These were either students who were studying at Port Blair or people who were having jobs there. We also met a boy who was a resident in Car Nicobar and was a visitor at TISS, Mumbai! (Small world). The ship also carried cargo (provisions, livestock) to all the islands.

Image: This fellow seemed to poke his way out of the box for some fresh sea air.

The day went in trying to spot the (almost negligible) birds, lazing around, and discussing about birds and life in these islands! There was always an excitement that we would spot something in the water. We were also using this time to explore the ship, the ship mates, the best spots to snooze, and getting to know the protocols for food services etc.

People on the ship suggested that we will be able to get food at Hut Bay (no restrictions here). We reached Hut Bay island at around 8pm and we thought we had about an hour or two to get back on the ship. So we quickly walked about a kilometer to find some place to eat. On the way, we saw people selling the famous local chillies which were stored in glass jars of water or vinegar. Some people were also selling sweets like Rasgulla.

Image: During this time, the cargo from beneath the ship was being offloaded.

We walked in the only path there was and we reached a small hamlet where a woman was preparing hot parotas. Unfortunately, many of the ship passengers had left orders for her and she was over whelmed with the amount of work she had. However, she obliged and prepared amazing parotas, dosas and chutney for us. We sat at the port eating our dinner. Sea urchins adorned the port area and Barn Swallows which were roosting near by gave us company during that time…and then we made our way back to the ship.

Image: Back on ship and we took sail to the next stop!

The story will continue in my next post: Hut Bay to Car Nicobar.

References

Würsig, B. (2018). Bow-Riding. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 135–137. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-804327-1.00076-5

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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