03 Apr Nocturnal diaries from Little Andaman
Little Andaman, also known as the Hut bay, is a quaint little island off the coast of Port Blair. An 8 hour cruise on a ship will get you there. As soon as one lands there and starts driving away from the jetty, the ambience of the place begins to sink in. You begin to notice that there are very few people around and hardly any vehicles on the road. There is just this one long main road lined with small eateries and shops on either side. It will not be a surprise if one gets the feeling of having traveled back in time! The feeling becomes more concrete when you check your mobile and see that you don’t have any data connectivity and hardly any signal at all :-)
As you begin to accept the situation and grow beyond all that, you have the time to notice the true beauty of the place :-) The very laid-back lifestyle, the peace and quiet, the yet undisturbed, pristine jungles and most of all, plenty of time on hand, is what makes Little Andaman wonderful. I have to say, I have fallen in love with the place. I visit the place each year on my bird photography tour to the Andamans. I usually spend at least a couple of nights there. That again depends on the schedule of the ship though. Ships are the only means of getting out of the island and there doesn’t seem to be a fixed schedule for them. This year, we got to spend 3 nights on the island.
Nights are especially surreal in Little Andaman. Being far to the east, sunset is quite early there. Most of the activity dies down by 4:30-5:00PM. Most people retire to their homes quite early too. There are hardly any bright street lights. What is there though is the pleasing silence all around. Driving along the road, one can hear only the waves of the sea hitting the sandy beaches and the gush of the cool breeze. Listening a bit more deeply is when you hear the Owls calling out too.
The Andaman Barn Owls ( also known as the Andaman Masked Owls ) with their screeching calls can be quite intimidating in the dark of the night. They are beautiful creatures however. They are usually seen around human habitation, coming down for rodents. We saw this lovely pair on one of the nights.
Nights are also when many nocturnal snakes come out to feed. Andaman keelbacks are one of them. They are usually seen lying in wait around water bodies, for frogs and other prey. Have come across a few of them while birding.
Had always felt that with very little disturbance, less light pollution and plenty of time on hand, Little Andaman is probably a good place for trying out some night sky photography. This year on my tour, after our sessions of night birding, we decided to spend some time doing just that.
There is this iconic place in Little Andaman known as the Kala Pathar ( Black rock), named so, owing to the huge black rock formation along the beach. A beautiful location indeed. We decided to attempt something there. We spent our first couple of nights at that place trying a couple of different compositions. Unfortunately for us, the nights turned out to be a bit cloudy. Albeit that, our minds were made up and we didn’t want to give up.
The first night, we arrived at the location at around 8:30PM. As we arrived, we heard a Barn owl calling close by. We immediately got into birding mode and started following the call and searching for the owl :-) We finally spotted it. After having a good look, the realisation of why we there in the first place dawned upon us. We then got our tripods and cameras out and ventured out onto the beach. Since we were birding most of the day, we didn’t have the time to really mark up a place to setup our cameras when we landed up there in the night. So, most of our setup had to be done in darkness.
Now, some technical details : [ Values mentioned below were what I used. Need not be exactly applicable to your situation. But, these could be used as ball park numbers to start with ]
- Setup the camera on a tripod by pointing it in the direction of the intended composition
- To get Star trails, the general suggestion is to set your camera facing NORTH, centred around the Pole Star ( the Polaris ). This will give you a full circular Star trails.
- However, this is not always needed. You will get interesting trails in the other directions too. Give it a try. That’s what I did here.
- Switch off Vibration Reduction ( VR or IS ) on your lens
- Move the focus point on the lens to infinity. If your lens doesn’t have an indicator for it, use the light from a torch to focus on something at a distance. Using the Live View is better here.
- Move the focusing switch on the lens to Manual.
- Take a test shot with very High ISO, like 4000 or 5000 and wide open Aperture . The idea is to get the shot bright enough to check and fix the composition.
- Bring back the ISO to 800 or 1600
- Set the Aperture to wide open ( f/2.8 or wider lenses are better. If you are not using such a lens, use the widest Aperture your lens supports. You will have to then compensate by using a higher value of ISO )
- Set Shutter speed to 30s
- Take a shot and review. If you want to make the image a bit brighter or darker, increase/decrease the ISO accordingly. No need to touch the Aperture and Shutter speed
- Once everything looks fine, initiate the ‘Intervalometer’ in-camera ( if your camera doesn’t have an intervalometer, chances are that it might have a ‘TIME’ exposure mode which can be used. If not, then you should use a wired or wireless trigger which supports TIME bound shooting )
- Basically, that idea is to get ‘X’ number of shots with each shot being 30 secs long.
- For a decent star trail, you will need anything above 150-200 shots
- The intervalometer settings depends on the camera. For Nikon D850 that I used, I set it like this :
Note: As you notice, the interval value set here is 34secs, even though each shot is going to be for 30 secs. This is needed to give a bit of a buffer or wait time to ensure that the image is written onto the card. Else, the next shot will start even before the previous image gets written onto the card and this might result in missed shots.
Software used :
Adobe LR – For processing the images in the series. ‘Auto Syncing’ enabled across the images to make it faster
StarStaX – For creating the Star trails. An amazing app and free too !
iMovie – For creating the Timelapse video. There are better options out there. But, this was already there on my Macbook :-)
Once the camera was setup and triggered, then it was only a waiting game. Lot of adventurous things can happen during that time too :-)
Hermit crabs could be seen moving all around. Very comical moves, carrying the heavy shell on its body. Lovely to watch them.
On the first of our nights, while our cameras were triggering along, we were sitting some distance away on the beach and happily chatting away when we felt some slithering movement right next to us. We jumped up and flashed our light on it. It was a huge snake moving along the sandy beach, so very close to us. It was a sea snake, a Yellow-lipped sea krait to be specific, a highly venomous individual ( sea snakes a multifold more venomous than their land based counterparts ). A big one too, being close to 12-13ft in length. It seemed to have come out of the sea in search of something. They are known to come onto land to find a nice, safe resting spot and digest their recent meal.
The second night, we did pretty much the same thing but with a different composition. We tried to include the Kala Pathar, the formation which the beach is famous for, in our frame. Again it was a matter of setting our cameras up, triggering them off and waiting for them to finish. ( anywhere b/w 2-2.5hrs ). The clouds did create a bit of an issue. But that is the way of ‘Nature’, its unpredictability. However, we were quite happy with the results we were able to manage.
Here’s the Star trails image from the first session…
Here’s the Star trails image from the second session. The rocky structure you see here is the Kala pathar.
And here’s a combined timelapse of the night sky from the two sessions.
On our last night there, we went to a beautiful nature trail which led to a water cascade ( there was hardly any water ) amidst a beautiful, thick canopy. Again, clouds played spoilsport. However, there were some intermittent clear skies. Whenever the sky cleared, it was just a jaw dropping, awe inspiring sight! The sheer density of the stars in the sky was a sight to behold. One hardly gets to see such skies in our cities and towns. We tried some single, long exposure shots and also set up for a star trail series. As we waited for the camera to finish, we sat by and listened to be amazing symphony of the nocturnal creatures. Andaman scops owls were calling all around. Once in a while we heard the Andaman barn owl and the Andaman hawk owl too.
Here’s the Star-studded sky surrounded by the beautiful forest canopy.
And here is the Star trails over the canopy…
The night time birding sessions coupled with the night-sky photography sessions were very interesting and turned out to be quite productive. It was intense, yes, but well worth the effort and time. The lack of distractions, disturbances, the feeling of having lot of time in hand and quick access to places around, makes Little Andaman a special place for such night time adventures.
Hope you enjoyed my nocturnal diaries from the beautiful, little place. Do let me know your thoughts.