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What do you do?
If you had a preconceived notion of what a conservationist looked like, this probably wasn’t it. Nayantara Jain rides around on emerald isles surrounded by crystal blue sea in a white Thar jeep, practises ashtanga yoga, wears totally on-point swimwear and posts mermaid photos on Instagram. And still saves the world, one reef at a time.
“A lot of conservationists end up becoming very jaded and cynical, and in my observation even tend to become alcoholics because it’s a constant battle, you are really working against the tide all the time, the whole world is going towards progress and development and you are constantly bashing your head against that,” explains blue-eyed Jain, as we drive down to her Reef Watch “office”, a quaint little blue and white bungalow by the sea, adjoining the Lacadives dive centre at Chidiyatapu, Andamans. “The Andamans is a kind of place that because of its smaller systems, when you tackle a problem, you can actually see results much quicker.”
Your background? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Growing up with an IAS officer dad, Jain went from the beaches of rural Karwar as a kid to London as a teenager. Family holidays always revolved around beaches or mountains and on one of these holidays, she did her PADI Open Water certification course in the Maldives when she was 17 years old. A few years later, armed with an undergrad degree in Philosophy and the accompanying confusion of who to be when she grows up, she found herself on another family holiday, this time on Havelock Island in the Andamans.
“I got this feeling that if I stayed for a while, I’d figure out what to do with my life,” says Jain, something her parents agreed to, as long as she stayed only till she ran out of the money she had earned doing a film marketing job for a couple of months.
Things fell into place almost immediately and Jain first started working for a small company that took people out snorkelling, kayaking and hiking. A month later, Barefoot India, one of the first dive shops on Havelock, offered her a job and the opportunity to do her DM or Dive Master (the first professional level course before you become a Dive Instructor) at the same time. And so commenced the mermaid life.
The next few years found Jain in various stunning locations of the world like Kadmat Island, Lakshadweep where she could see the sunrise and sunset from her hut on the beach; doing her Dive Instructor Course on Gili Island, Indonesia where no motorised vehicles are allowed and where she had a little blue and white BMX bike with snowflakes painted on it; working on Liveaboards (luxury yachts that take you diving to some of the more remote dive sites of the world) in the Maldives; escaping a near Titanic-esque situation in the shark-infested waters of the Galapagos Islands; and then back to the hidden paradise that is the Andamans, to start working at Lacadives as a full-fledged Dive Instructor in 2012.
What was the turning point? How did you transition from being a diver to a conservationist?
“When you dive the same reefs for two-three years and you really start to see how things are changing—when you see how the reefs are dying, how certain fish you used to see aren’t being seen anymore—it became clear to me that I wanted to do something that is more involved in conservation and I was no longer happy to just teach people how to dive and have that kind of superficial relationship with the ocean,” is how Jain explains of her foray into conservation.
Did you pursue studies to become a conservationist?
Inspired by the heroine of Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide, who studies the pink dolphins of the Sundarbans and studied at the SCRIPSS Institute of Oceanography, Jain decided to formalise her education and do her masters in Marine Biology and Conservation at the same institute.
Reef Watch had already been set-up by Lacadives founders Prahlad and Mitali Kakkar in 1993, when they discovered the rich heritage of reefs that India had around Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands. El Niño in 1998 had resulted in the worst coral bleaching in recorded history. Repeated warm currents continue to decimate coral reefs, where you lose a significant part of the reef permanently that does not recover. Jain considered setting up her own conservation unit, but found that the Kakkars were more than happy to let her step into Reef Watch and spearhead the NGO with her new vision.
What do you do at Reef Watch?
The focus of Reef Watch is two-pronged: education/awareness, and rehabilitation of the reef. Jain talks about the locals, second and third generation settlers, who don’t have “this instinctive connection with the land of ocean”. “There is no point talking about conservation and protection and their heritage unless they really feel it’s theirs. It’s not yours if you don’t know how to swim and you are scared of the ocean,” exclaims Jain, as she talks of the work they do with kids of the neighbouring villages. Not only does Reef Watch educate them about their immediate surroundings, this year they selected 10 promising students from their programs to do their PADI Open Water Courses for free. They also work with broken or damaged coral reefs, Jain now diving to do her conservation work rather than teaching tourists, where they collect broken pieces of coral and grow them back on structures to repopulate the reefs.
Funding comes through corporates through their CSR programmes as well as programmes with mainland schools such as Cathedral, John Conan and The American School in Mumbai, where students come to the Andamans for a week and Reef Watch covers a part of their syllabus using coral reefs and mangroves as living classrooms. They also learn how to dive, which the students love.
THE FUTURE OF THE ISLANDS?
Jain envisions an expansion of her conservation efforts from the islands to the mainland where it is urgently required. She also hopes that the kids they are working with on the islands will move from their traditional careers as fishermen and wood-collectors to eco-tourism guides, research assistants and dive instructors themselves.
“If you are dependent on taking people diving for a living, then you know that the more sharks and marine life you have, the more divers want to come and the more money you make. Then suddenly your environmental concerns and economic concerns aren’t against each other, they become intertwined and interlinked. That’s the only way there can be any conservation in the long run because at the end of the day, all of us are selfish people. We all want money and we want to be comfortable, even conservationists like me. I guess what I’m trying to do is to create a space where both things can happen