Flying over Astola Island‚ my first sight of the Island and the speed boat‚ anchored in a bay far below‚ quite took my breath. Pointing hull of the boat lay in pale blue shallows‚ riding on the swell. Even a hardened seaman would have melted at the sight of a creature as beautiful as the speed boat. I looked forward to the promise of sailing around the Island in a boat and later exploring it in the company of botanist experts on a purposeful visit. We landed on a rough helipad marked with a circle in lime on the edge. Soon a sleek and small boat puttered towards us. I felt like a warrior and navigator Vasco da Gama, when he reached Calicut on May 20, 1498.
The boat skated over shallow coral and bumped alongside the Island. Climbing aboard‚ we were introduced to the crew and a bunch of other guests. I resisted complaining of ennui that I experienced on the introduction to so many experts in the field I know nothing about. But soon instructions were shouted and guests joined in enthusiastically often snaring themselves in the lines and becoming more nuisance than help. Within minutes we had slipped into the rhythm of this trip: leaping off the bowsprit‚ snorkeling round the stern‚ or windsurfing around the Island. I climbed the bowsprit and watched the boat cleave through the chop. A frigate bird‚ twitching on the breeze‚ tracked our progress.
After short cruise around the Island, we descended and stepped ashore into a world of giant boulders. The flora and fauna are as they would have been centuries ago, but spellbinding: The natural vegetation is composed of the type able to survive the arid climate. It does not only suffer from extreme drought but also from wind carrying saline particles. Salt sprays coupled with sand particles clog the respiratory mechanism of plants, affecting growth. “Prosopis juliflora is the most significant widespread species distributed in the island. Indigofera oblongifolia and Hycium depressum are also prevalent forming large bushes. Other types of vegetation found include Sueda fruticosa, Aerua persica, and Tamarix dioca,” The experts gave these names but to me it looked like undergrowth in the form of shrubs and creepers. The island supports a large number of breeding seabirds including Larus hemprichii and several species of terns. The internationally endangered Green turtle and critically endangered Hawksbill turtle frequents the site for nesting purposes along the sandy beach threatened.
Astola is the only site along the 1,000 kilometres Pakistan coast where sightings of Hawksbill turtles have occurred. Sightings of fish such as dolphins and to a lesser extent, whales have also been reported. In fact, in December 1994, a large whale (possibly sperm whale) skeleton washed up on the shores of Ganz, Balochistan. The bones of the whale are on display in Gwadar town. Astola is also rich in corals, oysters and important commercial fishes.
Isolated island such as Astola which has been cut off from the mainland for ages supports endemic life forms. One such endemic species, Echis carinatus astoli, a sub-species of saw scaled vipor has been reported, which was discovered by a German scientist who took a specimen back with him for display at the Senckenberg Museum in Germany. If a detailed study is carried out, it is highly likely that many other sub-species of small mammals, reptiles, plants, and shrubs could be discovered, which are endemic to the site. No detailed surveys have been undertaken in the area as yet, so there is a lack of count data for the important species.
A short walk through the Island‚ a nesting site for many seabird species is most intriguing. Without the usual predators‚ fearless birds have been nesting on the ground‚ or on branches at eye level. Only a few visitors the Island attracts were able to come within centimeters of magpie robins‚ tropic birds or noddy terns‚ which stare straight back at you. Sadly, the sea-bird population has dropped over the years, as a result of increased numbers of feral cats which feed on the eggs and disrupt the nesting and breeding sites.
The whole island is temporarily used as a base for fishermen who frequent the island seasonally between September and May to catch fish in general and lobster and oysters in particular. Between June and August, the island mostly remains free from human interference due to rough sea and high tides. On finding a small island ideal for fishing, the fishermen decided to bring their cats along to their place of discovery in order to rid it of its resident vermin. What they did not realize is that by doing this, they would trigger a change of events that would lead to destructive changes in the Island's habitat. A few fishermen and their pet cats on a trip to an island unwittingly managed to almost destroy an entire ecosystem of the unique island.
An NGO concerned with conservation of nature plans to initiate an awareness raising programmed in Astola Island as a first step towards a community-based conservation programmed to reverse the degradation of the Island's unique biodiversity. Astola Island requires urgent conservation efforts, may be at government level, as the natural ecology is being damaged due to the introduction of feral cats.
About 25 kilometres south of Balochistan coast, Astola is about six kilometres in length and administratively comes under the Pasni subdivision of Gwadar district. According to the Balochistan Gazetteer, printed in the beginning of the 20th century, the island -- known as 'Satadip' among Hindus -- was held in extreme reverence by the Hindus and pilgrims from all parts of the Subcontinent venerated in increasing numbers. It is said that goats were taken to the island for sacrifice; only the blood was spilt at the shrine of Kali Devi while the flesh and entrails were thrown out to the sea. Even now the island has an aura of mystery. There are architectural remains of an ancient temple of the Hindu goddess Kali Devi. A prayer yard has been constructed in the memory of a Muslim saint associated with oceans. A small solar operated light tower has been installed on the top of one of the island's cliffs for the safety of passing vessels.
Locals have given it the name Haft Talar meaning seven rocks but the island appears to form a single block roughly six miles in length and one mile in width with an estimated height of two hundred feet at its summit. An isolated rocky area has broken away from the main block towards the south end. Given that the island is not sheltered from the open sea, it is subject to strong wave attack during the southwest monsoons, when wave height exceeds 3.5 meters. The coastline therefore suffers from severe erosion.
Astola Island is one of the biggest offshore islands in the Arabian Sea. Possessing a unique habitat, it was identified as part of a Global 2000 eco-region. It is the only significant offshore island along the north coast of the Arabian Sea, and as such maintains the genetic and ecological diversity of the area. But irony is that presently it does not merit even a dot on most Pakistan maps.
It would be worthwhile to carry out a study of the utilization of Astola Island's leeward side as an offshore (oil -- refined or crude -- or even for liquefied gas) embarkation platform in the extreme north end of the Arabian Sea. As the largest island of Pakistan, Astola has a considerable potential for being developed into an eco-tourism site where both local and foreign nature enthusiasts can visit and behold the rich flora and fauna of the island, as well as witness the flourishing marine life in the clear waters through glass-bottomed boats. The communities living on the mainland would benefit by providing services to the eco-tourists as an alternative income generating venture. Currently there is no recreational and or tourism activity on site for which it has potentials.
Our days ebbed away, an evening anchored beside the quintessential postcard coast Island and we sailed back, it was as though sea and wind‚ hull and rig were singing a perfect note.