Among corals

Among corals

Idyllic Island

Among corals
Nothing prepares you for two astonishing sights at the soft-sand Mauritian beaches —  the stunning blue-green lagoons and the two-piece-bikini-clad Indian women with choora draped around their elbows. Both these spectacles will want you to dive into the waters as fast as your finned feet will allow, and stay underwater for as long as the boatman comes to fetch you.

For hiding in the lagoon is a wealth of marine beauty that can temporarily wash off any terrestrial visual assault. But Mauritius, much like other tropical islands scattered messily in the Indian Ocean, can often satiate all touristy appetites simply with the show of its beaches. The spread of the white sands, fringed by palm trees on one side and lapped on the other by a calm blue ocean, can bring on a lazy holiday stupor.

However, coming to a tropical island and not exploring what lies underwater is like, to use the trite phrase, coming to India and not visiting Khajuraho. Which is not to say all tourists give in to this inertia. Mauritius, being nearly as far away from Europe as Asia, gets footfalls from all sorts. India’s middleclass throngs the island because it’s neither as exclusive as Maldives nor as promiscuous as Thailand.

Oceanic embrace
Many, especially the newly-married from India, having wagered on matrimony, seem to be up for any other foolhardy enterprise, including sky diving, paragliding, and also diving. They cheerfully sign the waiver of liability and disclosure form, and enter the waters, the chooras thankfully out of sight, beneath the wetsuits.

I’m at my resort in the island’s North West, barely two hours after touchdown. The water is warm and crystal-clear as the tropical waters should be. So much so that, with the snorkeling mask on, I can see anything within 20 metres or more. The clarity comes from the nutrient-deficient waters. An irony, since the tropical waters support the most diverse ecosystems after the rainforests. This is known as Darwin’s Paradox, since the phenomenon also perplexed the great man. The answer was recycling. The smorgasbord of organisms teeming in the coral reefs have an efficient recycling system, perhaps the best in nature, where nutrients are passed from one class of organisms to another.

The shallow lagoon is girdled in a protective embrace by the third largest reef in the world. It’s from the sky you see best how the reef protects the Mauritian coast from erosion. The waves crash on the reef far back in the ocean, and from the beach to the reef there is a placid coral-filled lagoon. The reef almost entirely encircles this amorphous volcanic island, formed barely eight million years ago. From up above, you see the encircling white surf formed by the wave-bashing. Here, the deep-blue opaqueness of the ocean suddenly gives way to the green-blue transparency of the lagoon, which stretches languidly towards the coast.

If you go on resort-organised snorkeling excursions, you will be well within waving distance of your not-a-water-person friend on the beach bar. Though you see more dramatic seascapes and creatures beyond the reef, the shallow lagoon abounds with corals and fish. The most ubiquitous and recognisable is, of course, the clownfish, better known as Nemo in the public imagination. They sway with the limp gelatinous tentacles of the sea anemone. The sea anemones are genetic oddballs. Growing out from what looks like maroon cloth-sacks, they are both plant and animal. Nemos are fascinating creatures themselves, and pioneers of sex-change and matriarchy. They are led by a female, and if she dies, a male can lead a group only after he mutates to become a female.

It’s also in the shallows that you see bleached corals, victims of both human-caused global warming and El Nino. Climate change is not, unfortunately, a Chinese hoax, as President Trump would have us believe. The corals are, in fact, its first indicators.

The corals cannot bear rising water temperatures, and as a defense mechanism, expel the algae living on it, turning white before dying. Corals also die because of ocean acidification, which occur when there is too much carbon dioxide in the air. Over-fishing, even diving and snorkeling, can damage the delicate corals (if you don’t wear the right sunscreen). Most sunscreens have the chemical oxybenzone, which destroys the corals.

Basic baits
Snorkeling has never been this easy with the new masks available in the market. They snugly wrap around your face and you can breath normally through the nose, unlike in the laboured way through your mouth with the traditional masks.

Donning this new gear, I could easily outswim the snorkeling guides who had to occasionally come up and pluck off their traditional snorkeling masks and breathe normally. While the western coast is the favoured place for all underwater  aficionados — Flic en Flac offering the best diving and snorkeling spots — it’s the south of the island that has some semblance of wilderness.

One early morning, a fisherman drove me 10 km along the coast from my hotel in the south to a place untrammeled by tourists and newlyweds. There, with the lagoon all to myself, I wallowed in the waters, witnessing a fisherman catch a fish with his bare hands, an octopus — the smartest invertebrate — release his cloud of blue ink before escaping into the warrens of the reef, and schools of all manner of skittish fish swimming this way and that, almost without a purpose. Just like me.