A Blot in the Sea

The oil spill off the coast of Mauritius has been in the news recently. MV Wakashio, a Japanese oil tanker, ran aground in late July. A week later the stranded vessel started leaking oil. It all sounded painfully familiar, and I’d seen the bleak images before: coastal ecosystems devastated by the oil spill, aerial views of blue-green waters turning black, workers and volunteers in oil-drenched suits. This time, though, a personal connection turned this into more than just another news item. In 2016 my wife and I had spent a week in Mauritius, staying on the eastern coast not far from where the oil is currently ruining the coral reefs. 

It was the end of May, the beginning of the off-season. Driving around in a small car, we explored parts of the island that spoke to us in the Lonely Planet guide: Markets, temples, colonial houses, unremarkable towns, the remains of a crater, a tea plantation. Beaches were not what we were after. What had drawn us to Mauritius was the fact that about half its population, descended from indentured labourers brought here from early to late nineteenth century, is of Indian origin. 

And what we found was a time capsule, a parallel universe of sorts. This was India, but from the eighties. The people looked Indian but spoke a tongue that made no sense to us. They bore unrecognizable names: Seebaluck, Ramgoolam, Ringadoo, Bissoondoyal. The radio played Bollywood songs from the eighties; their programme hosts spoke Hindi with a French accent. Vegetable markets carried the buzz of markets in India, but they were too clean, and their chatter undecipherable.  In one restaurant – more of a dhaba, full of local workers – all eyes were glued to a wall-mounted TV playing Namak Halal. Temples featured a mix of idols – Hanuman, Shirdi Sai Baba, Buddha – we’d never seen together, and the priests performed rituals foreign to us. Like the Indians in Trinidad Naipaul has written about, the Indians here were a species apart. And observing them I found myself slipping into an anthropologist’s role, trying to unearth the roots of a custom or a quirk, studying what changes a century and half of isolation had led to. 

Some did speak Hindi, haltingly, in the diffident manner of someone learning a new language. They were curious about our origins, and shared stories of their visits to India (not to see relatives – they’d lost the connection long ago – but to shop.) They carried the innocence and unsophistication of Indians we see in Hindi movies from the seventies or eighties; Amol Palekar and Farooq Sheik come to mind. And there were some who, although unmistakably Indian in appearance, revealed no other traits tying them to the land of their ancestors, and showed no curiosity in our Indianness; they had moved on. 

I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were traveling in India, although something in this picture was amiss. Driving through the interiors, with sugarcane fields on either side and green mountains in the distance, we crossed small towns that typically crop up on such a road trip in India. But these towns and villages seemed different. There were far fewer people, the streets were cleaner, and while some people we saw were poor, we didn’t see the kind of poverty common in India. In the cities we saw no one begging on the streets, and there were no slums. 

Modernity wasn’t really absent, of course.  Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, chic hotels and lodges, the occasional Audi or Mercedes: from time to time they broke the “India in the eighties” spell. But we were happiest in parts far removed from such scenes. 

What also broke the spell was the water. I’d seen that magical blue in pictures of tropical island resorts, and here it was, glinting under a mild sun, lapping against the soft sand. It created a spell of its own. Beach time was not in the plan, but we ended up spending half a day exploring one near our hotel. It was a sunny, windless morning. A handful of tourists were snorkelling nearby. Some local teenage boys had come on a picnic. An old man sat on a rock teaching a boy how to fish. We sauntered around, looking at the ugly beachfront houses, endlessly taking pictures of the beach, and staring at the unreal blue expanse. 

The day before we left, we visited Ile Aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island near the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. As a nature reserve managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, the island can be reached only via a guided tour. From Pointe Jerome, a ten-minute ride on a speedboat took us across the clearest waters I’d ever seen. On the island, our guide led us through narrow forest paths, talking to us about rare plant and bird species found on the island. We spotted pink pigeons and fruit bats. Behind an enclosure we saw young conservationists labelling tiny tortoises. The foundation’s conservation efforts had managed to recreate the flora and fauna that existed here four-hundred years ago, an accomplishment our guide was visibly proud of. 

The Wakashio now sits splintered not far from Ile Aux Aigrettes. The sea around this island, burnt in my mind as a transparent blue pool, is now clouded black. A thousand tonnes of fuel have leaked out of the tanker, and the spillage presently surrounds Ile Aux Aigrettes on all sides. It has also reached Blue Bay, a pristine lagoon at the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. The coral reefs in that region, already under threat from bleaching caused by the warming and acidification of the ocean, are now facing great damage. 

“Crystal Clear” is how I found myself describing those waters to friends after we returned from Mauritius. A trite simile perhaps, but right now the phrase seems not cliched but simply inappropriate. We need new ways to describe the degradation we are bringing about to our world.  At this moment, as I stare at the unbelievable images reaching us from Mauritius, words fail me.