Diver-tuned-conservationist Nayantara Jain on restoring coral reefs, swimming with sharks and Blue Planet Revisited
Marine conservationist Nayantara Jain’s Instagram handle offers content in shades of blue. Comprising pictures and footage of her exploring the depths of the vast ocean, doing casual backflips underwater to swimming amidst a whirlpool of barracudas, and even alongside a great white shark — her account might make you want to trade lives with her almost instantly. Or stay carefully on terra firma if you fear the water and the varied lifeforms in it! However, the diving instructor-turned-conservationist who lives b e t we e n Bengaluru and the Andaman Islands, reiterates that there is absolutely no reason why one should fear marine animals — be it the black mantas or the big blue whale. In fact, her collaboration with the Sony BBC Earth show, Blue Planet Revised, is all about dispelling these fears by diving deep into the rich aquatic ecosystem and coming up with brilliant insights. The show features marine experts documenting the fascinating flora and fauna in the Bahamas and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Nayantara is the local talent who is promoting the two-part series in India by creating awareness on the current scenario of our marine ecosystem.
We speak to the marine biologist who is also the Executive Director of Reef Watch Marine Conservation about how the lockdown has impacted the oceans, her efforts to conserve the ecosystem, and how we can contribute too.
Do you think that the lockdown has had a positive impact on our water bodies?
There have been some improvements. Tourism has come down and that has made a difference in the local areas with the amount of trash that is being generated. That said, we see different types of waste during cleanups now, like masks, sanitizer bottles, gloves, etc. So, to say that the lockdown has been great for the ocean would be a blanket statement.
Tell us about your work at Reef Watch.
We mainly work with coral reef restoration, as shown in one of the episodes of Blue Planet Revisited. Many of the things that are being done at Heron Island in Australia, we do it in the Andamans too, but at a much smaller scale and much lower budget with more on-ground application. We try to find different ways of regrowing and restoring damaged coral reefs by creating artificial reefs, studying them, and growing corals in small wetlands to transplant back into the sea. On the mainland, we work with marine mammals by creating ‘responses’ for them. When sea turtles or dolphins, and sometimes even whales wash up on the coast, there usually isn’t a proper system to respond to that. We have set up rescue centres along the coast of Karnataka where if an animal is washed up alive, we put them back into the sea where it’s better for them. If the animal is dead, we do a postmortem to examine the cause of death.
What is the state of our marine ecosystem?
I think we are at a tipping point. At a precipice. Despite the fact that we are killing sharks at an astounding rate and the water temperature is rising with the coral reefs facing the brunt of it, we are still in a situation where these animals are not extinct. We still have the great shark, we still have the blue whale swimming in our oceans, and have areas in India with healthy coral reefs. The time to act is now. If we don’t, very soon it will be too late.
At an individual level, what can we do to help?
These nature documentaries show us how interlinked our planet is, how much the forests are connected to the mangroves, how mangroves are connected to coral reefs, and how they, in turn, are connected to the open ocean. That means, wherever you are, you can do things to help the ecosystem. Whatever you do to help any ecosystem will help all the ecosystems. So in that sense, I would say, at an individual level, it comes back to things like, reducing your carbon footprint, using less electricity and gadgets that are energy-saving, choosing public transport — all the things that we do to help our air also help our waters. It’s all about consciously choosing what we use and how much of it we use.
What would you say is your most memorable experience underwater?
I had gone to the Galápagos Islands, one of the few protected areas in the world. We went in for a dive and before I knew it, I was surrounded by hundreds of sharks. That feeling of being in the water, surrounded by these phenomenal apex predators who are just going about their own business. That is millions of years of evolution in front of you... it was a spectacular moment.
What should one keep in mind during an unexpected encounter with a whale or a shark?
These animals have these bad reputations because of baseless Hollywood movies. And that’s where these fears come from. But more people are watching nature shows about sharks and whales and the fear is slowly reducing. The moment you are actually in the water with them, you realise that there is nothing to be scared of. They are just going about their own business. Once you realise this, very quickly the fear evaporates.
Have you ever had a bad experience?
No! Nothing has happened to me. I have been professionally working as a diver for over ten years now. The closest to a bad experience I have had is when I was stung by sea urchins. Sea urchins stay on the ground, and it was my own clumsiness where I accidentally touched a sea urchin and got some of the spines on my legs. It certainly was not an attack. I have never felt threatened by any marine animal. I have swum with hundreds of sharks, swam with the blue whale in Sri Lanka. But no bad experience.
Was there a point in life when you realised you have to take up conservation seriously?
After I was working as a diving instructor for three years, I started to notice the change. Up until then, climate change and global warming were just concepts that I had studied but didn’t have much personal relevance. But as I was diving every day at the same reef for months on end, I started to see it. Once there was a big coral bleaching event that happened in 2010-11. The temperature just went up to two degrees in the water and in a matter of a couple of weeks, I saw an entire area that was so alive and vibrant before, completely bleached and dead. That, for me, was a heartbreaking moment. And I realised that what I want to do for the rest of my life is to be involved in serving the ecosystem.
What is your typical day in the Andamans like?
It usually begins with a dive in the morning. The first half of the day, I'm out on a boat, scuba diving. Then I work around reef restoration, do surveys, compare areas of restored reefs and natural reefs, look at the fish and animals that are coming into those stations. The second half of the day is spent doing various outreach and educational projects, doing walks and talks and analysing the data that we have collected.
According to you, what makes this show a must-watch?
One of the episodes was about the sharks in the Bahamas and I really recommend it to anyone who has any fear of sharks because it demystifies them and shows the reality. Especially for people in India who are afraid of sharks, they should bear in mind that India is the second-largest exporter of shark skin in the world. We have one of the biggest shark fishing industries in the world. I would say, rather than us being scared of sharks, it makes more sense if they are scared of us.
Blue Planet Revisited airs on 23rd January, 9 PM on Sony BBC Earth