Out in the Indian Ocean, north of Indonesia, is a chain of islands under Indian sovereignty, but located much closer to Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar than to India.
These jungle-clad islands, surrounded by coral reefs, have been under Indian administration and control from the days of the British Raj when they were used as a penal colony for the worst political prisoners of the day.
These are the Andaman and Nicobar islands, a mysterious group of islands with few residents and little tourism, many of which are highly restricted or impossible to access for anyone to this very day.
The capital of these islands is in the small city of Port Blair, named after a British naval officer and possessing an enormous natural harbor on South Andaman Island. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are a Union Territory of India and are thus ruled largely from New Delhi, with a Lieutenant Governor and other officials in Port Blair.
The history of the islands is little studied, but the indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands are a dark-skinned people from Africa, a remnant of one of the first migrations out of Africa.
It is theorized by anthropologists that some tribal groups have been resident in the Andamans for up to 50 000 years.
The indigenous inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands are completely different from the indigenous people of the Andamans, they are a people of Asian origin and supposedly a product of a relatively recent migration north from nearby Sumatra in Indonesia some 10 000 years ago.
For hundreds of years these islands, despite their natural resources and strategic position close to the entrance to the Malacca Strait leading to the South China Sea, were ignored by seamen due to persistent rumors of cannibalism dating from the Travels of Marco Polo, when he described the islands as a dark and dangerous place to be avoided at all costs.
The islands were under the nominal control of the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II, with Japanese engineers building numerous facilities which are still in use today, like the airport on Car Nicobar island.
The islands reverted to British control briefly after the war, with full sovereignty transferred to India by 1950. Other than certain installations for the Indian military, little has changed in the islands other than a steady flow of inbound migrants, mostly Bengali speakers from West Bengal and an equally steady decline in the numbers of native tribal peoples in both the Andamans and the Nicobar Islands.
Today, the several thousand remaining tribal people in the Andamans and the Nicobars have protected status and special reservations in the islands with tightly restricted access.
Tourism has (and has not) been encouraged by the government in the Anadamans, the Nicobars remain virtually inaccessible to anyone without an Indian passport. Even Indians need special permission to visit many islands, including Car Nicobar and Great Nicobar in the far south.
While visitor numbers have grown in the past two decades, pre-pandemic, arcane visa rules and particularly the refusal to declare Port Blair a port of entry to any form of transportation other than boat arrivals, means visitors to the Andamans must fly first to India itself; either Chennai or Kolkata and then take a flight to the Andamans - very inefficient and expensive.
It is still not possible to fly directly to Port Blair from nearby Phuket or Bangkok in Thailand, which would greatly increase the number of visitors from Asia to the Andaman Islands.
As for surfing, it was thought to be unknown before our first trip to the Andamans via Phuket in Thailand in 1998. After boarding a chartered live-abouard dive boat in Phuket, we crossed the Andaman Sea in 72 hours at ten knots, did our formalities with the Indian officials in Port Blair and spent two weeks or so surfing around the southern half of Little Andaman Island at the end of the dry season in late April.
Some of the crew members included surfer Chris Malloy from California, who had recruited his friend Jack Johnson, a recent UCSB graduate to shoot 16mm film for an upcoming project.
Jack brought an acoustic guitar on the trip and composed the basic tracks for several songs, including "f-Stop Blues" which later appeared on his first bestselling album "Brushfire Fairytales" in 2001.
We found a large number of high-quality waves on our first project in the Andamans, all of which had likely never been surfed by anyone, considering how difficult and expensive it was to travel to the Andaman Islands and get permission to go to Little Andaman at all.
The first wave we surfed was named “Jarawa Point” after one of the tribal groups on the island. It is a left hand point break, marked on maps of the island as “Butler Bay'' and is actually on the east coast of Little Andaman, with the point sticking out enough to pick up swell and produce an excellent left point wave.
We proceeded south to our main target, which was the long point on the southwest tip of Little Andaman, which we named “Kumari Point” after the Hindu virgin goddess worshiped in India and Nepal. The wave was even better than anticipated from the setup on the charts, a long and very fast right reef point wave, offshore on the seasonal northwest wind.
The wave ended at a narrow channel, made by the flow of freshwater from a stream entering the ocean. We went ashore at Kumari Point and found a camp next to this stream we later learned was part of the territory of the Onge tribal people, resident in this area of Little Andaman for thousands of years.
The Onge had sleeping platforms over the sand, they must have been short people as none of the platforms were over two meters long. There was a collection of battered aluminum cooking pots and many pieces of mismatched plasticware, drinking cups and such, likely collected from the beach.
The "pièce de résistance" was a wooden canoe, hewn from a single log with an outrigger, parked in the trees well above the high tide line. Sam George and I left our business cards on a shelf in what was likely the kitchen area, but we have not received any email messages from the Onge people yet.
At the time, we needed special permission to travel to Little Andaman Island, it was not considered by the local authorities to be a “normal” visitor destination like sheltered and waveless Havelock Island near Port Blair; which of course, was of no interest to us.
In subsequent projects in the Andaman Islands we have been to the tip of North Andaman and down the entire west coast, visiting many uninhabited islands with incredible white sand beaches that any international developer would bid millions to develop into posh resorts with ultimate guaranteed privacy. We surfed numerous waves in locations that have never seen surfers before, seeing very few people or settlements of any kind.
On a trip through the Nicobar Islands which was vaguely legal according to the rules established by the Indian Navy, with a slight stretch on our part, we visited numerous islands in the Nicobar group.
We almost got caught somewhere we should not have been in the Nicobar islands by an Indian Navy warship and surfed numerous waves, including the series of right points at the southern tip of Great Nicobar Island at Indira Point.
At one island, we were visited on the boat by a group of Nicobarese people, they shyly tied up their wooden canoes to the stern and boarded, sitting quietly in their bark loincloths and gawking at things they no doubt had never seen before.
Being good hosts, I fetched a couple of cold cans of Sprite from the large refrigerator and passed them to Nicobarese. They promptly dropped the cans on the deck of the boat, uttering an exclamation in their language as they did so. We also had a Bengali fellow on board at the same time, a local shopkeeper who had been living in the area for a decade and spoke the local language. He laughed and said “They say it burns their hands - they have never felt anything cold before”.
We later took the two Nicobarese and the shopkeeper for a spin in the inflatable dinghy, with two 80 horsepower outboard engines at full speed. They enjoyed the speed immensely and could not stop smiling after that experience - it’s a lot faster than paddling a canoe!
The waves at Indira Point are rumored to have been surfed for years by a group of Australians working at one of several dive resorts in Pulau Weh in the far north of Aceh Province in Sumatra.
This group would carefully monitor the forecast, load a boat with gasoline, food and water and make the crossing to the Indira Point area in India at night by GPS navigation signal, with no entry formalities at all.
These surfers would camp on the beach for a few days of waves during a swell, observing strict rules of no campfires and no littering, to avoid any smoke signals or leaving any sign of their presence to the native people or any authorities who may be in the vicinity.
At Indira Point, we saw no one at all but did see smoke from what may have been a cooking fire in the forest behind the beach. We knew it was not the Aussie group, the joke was it was the cannibals of legend, warming up the cooking pot for the haoles!
Another island in the Andaman and Nicobar group that has made headlines recently is North Sentinel Island, home of one of the world’s last uncontacted tribal groups, resident on the island in splendid isolation for perhaps 50 000 years or longer.
A delusional Christian missionary was killed on North Sentinel in 2018 by the native Sentinelese, who are notorious for their hostility to outsiders. There are numerous well-documented incidents of violent rejection of all contact with anyone over a period of many decades, with one famous image of a North Sentinel tribesman pointing his bow and arrow at a hovering Indian Army helicopter, taken after the Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004.
John Allen Chau, the American Christian missionary, had planned his trips to North Sentinel carefully and knew very well the reputation for hostility towards outsiders, but presumed his strong Christian faith would protect him from harm.
It did not.
He was killed by an arrow, his body buried on the beach and not recovered by the authorities at the request of his parents, who did not wish for further bloodshed on the island.
There is no doubt North Sentinel is holding in the waves department, it was surfed by a group of professional surfers back in 1999. They spent a morning at the setup in the south with the left and the right off the entrance to a large bay, likely the very same location on the island where John Allen Chau met his death on the beach nearly twenty years later.
This group of surfers also had an encounter with the local people of North Sentinel, although considerably less violent than Chau’s and no one was hurt or killed. The encounter was documented by myself as told to me by the boat Captain, published in a feature on the Australian site swellnet, followed by numerous comments from readers.
With the recent negative publicity after the death of John Allen Chau and new restrictions put in place by the Indian government to keep people away from North Sentinel, including missionaries and surfers, it will likely be years; if ever, that anyone is permitted to get anywhere near the island and the waves of north Sentinel will continue to go unridden.
While the number of surfers coming to the Andaman Islands will continue to increase post-pandemic, the Nicobar islands will likely remain off-limits to non-Indians for the foreseeable future.
India continues to upgrade its defence capabilities and the facilities in the Nicobar Islands will likely play a major role in countering the influence of China in the Indian Ocean. The authorities in New Delhi show no interest in having an increased number of visitors (or any foreign visitors at all) in the Nicobar Islands.
Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE