Authorities hope to protect the pristine reefs
India's Zoological Survey plans to initiate a detailed assessment of the damage caused by the tsunami to the beautiful coral reefs of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.
"We apprehend serious damage has been caused to the coral reefs here by the tsunamis," said D.R.K Sastry, the Zoological Survey's regional director in the Andamans.
"Even strong cyclones or powerful currents can cause much damage to the reefs, so it is only to be expected that such high and fast wave action would ravage the reefs and cause extensive damage.
"We are waiting for the situation to stabilise a bit. Then we will start our damage assessment survey."
He said the "Andaman coral reefs are very rich in spread and diversity, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia".
Mr Sastry said the "branching corals" were the most fragile and were likely to have been the worst hit by the tsunami waves.
"Whether the coral reefs in the Andamans can recover would depend on the extent of the immediate damage caused by the fast and high waves and the inevitable post-tsunami siltation of the reefs," Mr Sastry added.
The Andaman reefs are next to the centre of distribution of the Indo-West Pacific fauna located in and around the Indonesian islands.
Tourism in the archipelago has risen sharply in the last 20 years.
In 1980, there were just about 10,000 tourists coming to the Andamans a year. Last year, nearly 100,000 tourists, one-tenth of them foreigners, visited the islands.
"Such growth in tourism can affect the fragile corals of the Andamans and its associated fauna," said Mr Sastry.
"The Andaman government on our advice closes down some coral areas for a particular period to allow the reefs to recuperate, while other areas are opened to tourists to shift the zoological disturbance."
New to science
The Andaman state level wildlife board and environment protection council seeks the advice of the Zoological Survey to protect the coral reefs.
In April 2001, an international team of Indian, British and Australian scientists conducted a 10-day remote sensing and rapid survey-based study on the Andaman coral reefs.
Tourism can affect the coral, too
Thirteen sites were surveyed as part of the joint project between the Indian government and the United Nations Development Programme's Global Environment Facility.
One hundred and ninety-seven coral species were recorded, of which 111 were new to the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
"One coral species uncovered by the survey was a new find for science," says Calcutta zoologist Sudeshna Mukherjee. "Another one they found here is only found around the Philippines."
She continued: "This huge discovery came with only 13 days of work, so one can imagine what bigger and more comprehensive surveys can yield on the Andaman coral reefs."
Other zoologists estimate that there would be around 400 coral species in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago - comparable in richness and diversity to the coral triangle between thee Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
The 2001 survey also showed that the Andaman coral reefs had been hardly affected by coral bleaching that devastated coral reef systems worldwide in 1998.
Another threat to the corals - the presence of the "crown-of-thorns" starfish - was also non-existent in the Andamans.
"The very healthy status of the Andaman corals indicates the existence of a healthy marine system here and that is very critical for survival of ocean-living species like turtles," Ms Mukherjee said.
If the coral has been damaged, marine life may be affected
Zoologists say that if the corals have been badly damaged, it will soon impact on marine life and many critically endangered species like the giant leatherback turtles will be affected.
An Indian navy multi-purpose ship , INS Darshak, is now in the Andamans to carry out a survey of the archipelago's coastline.
"This is a check survey. We carried out a similar survey of the coastline here two months back and so we will be in a good position to compare the change, if any," said Captain P. Jayapal.
"We have to look out particularly for any blockage of the shipping channel."