Action Asia: Text and Photos by John S. Callahan
In early 1998, international surfing photographer John S. Callahan led the first exploratory trip to discover how good the waves were in the Andaman Islands. In the following account of the trip, Callahan reveals just how worthwile the trip was
"Do you know anyone whos surfed there? Do you know where the waves are? Have you seen any photos?" The questions came rapidly from Sam George of Surfer Magazine as I attempted to enlist him as journalist for this project, a boat trip to the Andaman Islands. I had to admit the truth: "No, I dont know anyone whos been there. Ive never seen any photos, and I dont know where the waves are. But Ive been looking at some charts " Sam paused a moment, the said: "So, basically were spending all this time and a shedload of money on a mad trip to the Andamans based on your personal reputation for this kind of thing?" There was another pause. "Yeah, pretty much." I said. Sams response was immediate: "Ok, sign me up."
While surfers have speculated for years about high-quality waves in the Andaman Islands, a combination of government travel restrictions, the high cost of air travel to this isolated area, and the seemingly endless great waves off nearby Indonesia left the Andamans largely unsurfed. As a result, a recent issue of South Africas Zigzag surfing magazine dubbed the Andaman Islands "Adventure Surfings Last Frontier". In 1998, the frontier was breached.
After months of research, planning and fundraising from a skeptical surfing industry, our eight-strong group took a boat from Phuket across the Andaman Sea to Port Blair. After a few problems in the boat, we moved south to scan the coast with binoculars, looking for telltale signs of good waves. It wasnt long before we were grinning and waxing up on the back deck, loading the inflatable dinghy for a better look at a promising reef break. It was a long and clean left reef virgin surf.
In ten days of exploration south of Port Blair, we saw few people and little evidence of human life on any of the numerous islands. All we saw were a few villages of indigenous people and some fishermen. Deserted white-sand beaches stretched for miles, with towering trees on the shoreline which long ago would have been harvested for canoes or buildings in more populated areas. On several occasions, large monitor lizards staggered out of the forest onto the beach, flicking their tongues and looking like small dinosaurs out for a meal.
In a short time, we found numerous high-quality waves including a long and perfect right reef similar to Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, and a shorter hollow left reef with a gaping barrel on the end section. Several veteran surfers of Indonesias Mentawai Islands considered by some to be the worlds finest tropical surfing locations reckoned the Andaman waves were just as good, if not better - and to think that we were perhaps the first surfers ever to grace these waves.
From what little is known about the Andaman surf, the best season seems to be a short spell from mid-March to mid-May. As the northeast monsoon ends at this time of year, high-latitude groundswells from intense early winter storms in the southern hemisphere make their way north past Indonesia to the Andamans, breaking on coral reefs in tropical warm water accompanied by local winds. Swells continue through August and September, but are usually accompanied by unfavorable southwest winds blowing out most of the known breaks with onshore winds.
Alternative ways of getting to the Andamans include sailing for 50 hours plus across the Andaman Sea from Phuket, on the west coast of Kawthong in Myanmar, the two ports used by the various dive charter companies who make infrequent trips to the Andamans in the November-March dive season.
Another option is to charter a boat from Phuket on your own, with your own crew and captain, but this option is not recommended for a variety of reasons. The Andamans are a highly restricted area, and the Indian governments customs, immigration and military officials in Port Blair may turn back anyone without proper papers, permits, permissions, visas or clearances; in fact, on virtually any pretext whatsoever. Its much better to travel with an established operator such as South East Asia Liveaboards a firm well-known to the authorities and one with their own agent on retainer on Port Blair to assist in lengthy and formal entrance procedures.
As there are no stores in the Andamans selling anything remotely connected with surfing equipment or supplies, you should bring plenty of wax, leg ropes and sunscreen for the intense tropical conditions. Any surfers keen enough to spend some money on a "surf-ari" to the Andamans will most likely be advanced surfers and will bring their own boards. With some luck with timely ground swells, visiting surfers will be richly rewarded with pristine tropical waves, no crowds at all and an unparalleled surf-travel experience.
- South East Asia Liveaboards