The Lakshadweep Islands, located 200 km off the coast of Kerala, are special for so many reasons. India’s only atolls, these 36 islands together total a mere 32 sq km of land. Surrounded by over 640 sq km of reef area and over 400,000 sq km of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), they are rich in marine biodiversity and culture.

Each island is a geological marvel. Atolls are ring shaped reefs that surround shallow lagoons. Sand and rubble often get deposited on the leeward side of the ring, creating enough dry land for occupation by plants and animals. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Lakshadweep’s coral reefs grew over and around the Chagos-Laccadive ridge that extends through the Maldives and up till the Chagos archipelago. As sea levels rose and the ridge subsided, coral grew upwards, leaving behind these atolls.

Only 11 of the 36 islands of the Lakshadweep are inhabited. With a total population of over 65,000 people, this region hosts the highest rural population densities across India. Communities here are near homogenous, follow Islam, and also a matrilineal system of inheritance. The southernmost atoll of Minicoy was originally a part of the Maldives and to date maintains a distinct cultural identity, speaking Maldivian Dhivehi, while the rest of the Lakshadweep Islands occupied by settlers from Kerala, speak Malayalam.

Tuna and coconut are Lakshadweep’s main exports. Originating in the Maldives and traditionally practiced in Minicoy, pole and line tuna fishing is a sustainable, low-impact fishing method that targets the resilient skipjack tuna. Starting in the 1960s, the local fisheries department trained people across Lakshadweep in this technique and provided support for expanding tuna fishing operations and export. As a result, even today, the majority of the island fishers practice pole and line tuna fishing, and inadvertently protect the reef from overexploitation.

It is no surprise that the word “atoll” comes from the Maldivian language of Dhivehi and is used to describe the structure of these islands. Some say atholhu in Dhivehi means palm of the hand. The Bangaram atoll is a clear example of this, both in its appearance and nature. Uninhabited, but open to tourism and fishing, its lagoon, reefs and white sandy beaches give endlessly to all that visit.

It is no surprise that the word “atoll” comes from the Maldivian language of Dhivehi and is used to describe the structure of these islands. Some say atholhu in Dhivehi means palm of the hand. The Bangaram atoll is a clear example of this, both in its appearance and nature. Uninhabited, but open to tourism and fishing, its lagoon, reefs and white sandy beaches give endlessly to all that visit.

What we see today is the final stage in the geological evolution of a coral reef. The Lakshadweep archipelago faces the brunt of the southwest monsoon; thus, most islands occur on the eastern sides of their lagoons. Kalpitti island in the Agatti lagoon is the first breathtaking site you see when landing into the Agatti aerodrome.

What we see today is the final stage in the geological evolution of a coral reef. The Lakshadweep archipelago faces the brunt of the southwest monsoon; thus, most islands occur on the eastern sides of their lagoons. Kalpitti island in the Agatti lagoon is the first breathtaking site you see when landing into the Agatti aerodrome.

Lakshadweep might not have any movie theatres or gaming arcades, but there is plenty of natural entertainment all around. (Left) Beaches seem to come alive with the rapid scurrying of the horn-eyed ghost crab (Ocypode ceratophthalmus) aptly named for the rigid horns that extend above their eyes. Running at speeds close to 2 metres per second, these crabs pose a significant challenge to anyone that tries to catch them. (Right) Ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) are often seen overturning rocks and probing the sand with their bills in search for their favourite intertidal crustaceans, worms, and snails.

The islands offer something new on every dive, like this yellowmask surgeonfish (Acanthurus mata) demonstrating colour change right before the photographers’ eye. Observed at a blue streak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) cleaning station, where fish come to get spa treatments for problematic parasites and shedding old dead skin. This surgeon fish rapidly changed from dark brown to pale blue, while maintaining the signature yellowmask around its eyes.

Symbiosis is the backbone on which these atolls stand. Lakshadweep’s clear waters lack nutrients and are low in phytoplankton and zooplankton production. In such environments, filter-feeding animals like coral and clams rely on symbiotic associations with single-celled algae called zooxanthellae to meet their metabolic requirements. The zooxanthellae live within the animal tissue, giving it color and nutrition via photosynthesis, helping them thrive in these such oligotrophic (plant nutrient poor but oxygen-rich) waters.

Symbiosis is the backbone on which these atolls stand. Lakshadweep’s clear waters lack nutrients and are low in phytoplankton and zooplankton production. In such environments, filter-feeding animals like coral and clams rely on symbiotic associations with single-celled algae called zooxanthellae to meet their metabolic requirements. The zooxanthellae live within the animal tissue, giving it color and nutrition via photosynthesis, helping them thrive in these such oligotrophic (plant nutrient poor but oxygen-rich) waters.

It is quite marvelous how the work of tiny coral polyps and their zooxanthellae has given rise to these striking reefs, white sandy beaches, and clear blue lagoons. These calm, shallow pools are ideal locations to learn water-related skills like swimming, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Although protected, it’s still a wild space and thus provides ample opportunity to observe a wide variety of marine life, like this sea turtle.

It is quite marvelous how the work of tiny coral polyps and their zooxanthellae has given rise to these striking reefs, white sandy beaches, and clear blue lagoons. These calm, shallow pools are ideal locations to learn water-related skills like swimming, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Although protected, it’s still a wild space and thus provides ample opportunity to observe a wide variety of marine life, like this sea turtle.

The blue streak fusilier (Pterocaseio tile) is a planktivore (plankton eater) by its diet and a baitfish by its harvest. Small, short-lived plankton-eating fish like fusiliers, locally called muguram, are used as live-baits in Lakshadweep’s pole and line tuna fishing. They are harvested from the reefs using large lift nets, and kept alive in onboard tanks. Fishing trips are often day long excursions into the open sea, in search for tuna shoals.

The blue streak fusilier (Pterocaseio tile) is a planktivore (plankton eater) by its diet and a baitfish by its harvest. Small, short-lived plankton-eating fish like fusiliers, locally called muguram, are used as live-baits in Lakshadweep’s pole and line tuna fishing. They are harvested from the reefs using large lift nets, and kept alive in onboard tanks. Fishing trips are often day long excursions into the open sea, in search for tuna shoals.

For decades, pole and line tuna fishing has helped divert fishing pressure off the reef. Recent access to reef fish export markets is changing the game, but the protection oceanic tuna has offered to reef creatures remains evident. Species like the giant moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) (top left), black blotched sting ray (Taeniurops meyeni) (top right) and painted spiny lobster (Panulirus versicolor) (above) are common sightings in Lakshadweep.

For decades, pole and line tuna fishing has helped divert fishing pressure off the reef. Recent access to reef fish export markets is changing the game, but the protection oceanic tuna has offered to reef creatures remains evident. Species like the giant moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) (top left), black blotched sting ray (Taeniurops meyeni) (top right) and painted spiny lobster (Panulirus versicolor) (above) are common sightings in Lakshadweep.

Commonly known as the Maldives anemonefish (Amphiprion nigripes), this species is actually endemic to the coral reefs of Lakshadweep, Maldives and Sri Lanka.  Deep seas and short larval dispersal periods have restricted their populations to these isles.

Commonly known as the Maldives anemonefish (Amphiprion nigripes), this species is actually endemic to the coral reefs of Lakshadweep, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Deep seas and short larval dispersal periods have restricted their populations to these isles.

This picture, like most that you find in dive magazines nowadays, tells the story of change. Coral reefs world over are facing the threats of climate change. Temperature driven mass bleaching events struck Lakshadweep in 1998, 2010, and 2016, decimating the reef-building hard coral. Some of these reefs are recovering, while some are transitioning to alternative stable states. In this image we see the reef covered in soft corals and sea fans, beautiful creatures related to hard coral but unfortunately not reef builders themselves.

This picture, like most that you find in dive magazines nowadays, tells the story of change. Coral reefs world over are facing the threats of climate change. Temperature driven mass bleaching events struck Lakshadweep in 1998, 2010, and 2016, decimating the reef-building hard coral. Some of these reefs are recovering, while some are transitioning to alternative stable states. In this image we see the reef covered in soft corals and sea fans, beautiful creatures related to hard coral but unfortunately not reef builders themselves.

Lakshadweep’s shallow lagoons support rich fields of seagrasses, and thus attract green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) which cruise from one atoll to the next as the beds get overgrazed. Since the early 2000s, Lakshadweep has seen a rise in green sea turtle populations, a result of the ban on their harvest and decline in their natural predators. Unfortunately, and unintentionally, turtles negatively impact fishers by accidentally destroying fishing gear and by eating away important juvenile fish habitat. While tourists might love them, the locals do not. And this conservation conundrum has been challenging wildlife managers and researchers for the past many years.

Lakshadweep’s shallow lagoons support rich fields of seagrasses, and thus attract green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) which cruise from one atoll to the next as the beds get overgrazed. Since the early 2000s, Lakshadweep has seen a rise in green sea turtle populations, a result of the ban on their harvest and decline in their natural predators. Unfortunately, and unintentionally, turtles negatively impact fishers by accidentally destroying fishing gear and by eating away important juvenile fish habitat. While tourists might love them, the locals do not. And this conservation conundrum has been challenging wildlife managers and researchers for the past many years.

There is no denying Lakshadweep’s exquisite beauty. Unfortunately, these islands are as fragile as they are beautiful. There is a delicate balance between reef growth and sea level rise, accretion and erosion. Sensitive to changes in the climate, fisheries exploitation, and development pressures, these islands demand strong science and careful planning.

There is no denying Lakshadweep’s exquisite beauty. Unfortunately, these islands are as fragile as they are beautiful. There is a delicate balance between reef growth and sea level rise, accretion and erosion. Sensitive to changes in the climate, fisheries exploitation, and development pressures, these islands demand strong science and careful planning.

Mahima Jaini
Mahima Jaini

is a marine biologist, broadly interested in reproductive ecology, fisheries and conservation.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.


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