North Sentinel Island and the Andaman and Nicobar islands

To the east of the Indian subcontinent is the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. It is within this area that hundreds of small islands exist. This group of islands is called the Andaman Islands. Even though India technically has legal authority over them, they are positioned closer to the countries of Thailand and Myanmar. India is about 1,000 kilometers away from these islands, so it will be a longer trip to get to them from there.

Traveling to the Andaman Islands

If you want to travel to the Andaman Islands, you need to travel to Port Blair first. This is the capital of the Andaman Islands as well as its largest town. In order to visit the other Andaman Islands, you must get approval from the authorities of Port Blair first. South Andaman Island is where Port Blair is located. There are two ways to get to Port Blair and both require you to be in the Indian mainland. If you try to travel to the Andaman Islands from Thailand or Myanmar, it would be considered illegal without the proper credentials.

How to Get There

If you are a foreigner from another country, you must take an international flight to India first. From there, you can decide how you want to travel to Port Blair. First, you have the option to fly to Port Blair if your starting destination is the Indian cities of Kolkata, Delhi, or Chennai. The flight from Delhi to Port Blair will take up to 5 hours because Delhi is much farther away from the Andaman Islands than the other two cities. The flights from Chennai or Kolkata to Port Blair will only take around 2 hours.

Alternatively, you can take the scenic route by traveling to Port Blair on a ship. If you start in the coastal Indian cities of Vizag, Chennai, or Kolkata, you can reach Port Blair by ship after about 4 days or so. The ship option will obviously be longer, but it will give you a chance to enjoy the beautiful blue ocean and just relax. If you have a lot of time on your hands and wish to travel slowly, the ship is a great option.

A handful of the Andaman Islands are tourist attractions because of their white sandy beaches and beautiful views of the bright blue ocean. There are tourist ships visiting these islands all the time. Indian citizens do not need a passport, visa, permit, or any kind of special permission to visit the Andaman Islands. Foreigners, on the other hand, will need a passport and Indian Visa just to get into the country of India. But this doesn’t immediately grant them access to the Andaman Islands, though.

The Andaman Islands are a union territory of India. While some islands are open to tourists, many of them are protected islands. For this reason, the Indian government has declared this territory of islands to be a restricted area for foreigners. This means if a foreigner wishes to visit one of the Andaman Islands, they need to request a Restricted Area Permit at Port Blair. This is not as difficult as it may sound. If you have a valid passport and an Indian Visa, you will likely be able to obtain your permit within 15 minutes after requesting it. You don’t even need to pay any money for the permit either. 

Places to see at Andaman and Nicobar 

There are nearly 600 islands which make up the Andaman Islands. Many of these islands used to consist of indigenous tribes. That all changed in the 19th century when deforestation got out of hand on these islands, thanks to the European settlers of India during the time. In the 20th century, the forests were eventually left alone and deemed protected by the Indian government. Now some of the islands are used for tourism purposes while other islands still have indigenous tribes left on them. The latter islands are off limits to tourists and foreigners.

If you want to know which islands you can visit in the Andamans, the three best touristy islands are North Andaman Island, Havelock Island, and Neil Island. Havelock is by far the most developed island for tourists in the Andamans. It has the most ferry rides going to it, which means it has the most tourists too. Of course, it has the beautiful white beaches and clear blue waters that you’d expect. There are also long treks, lots of beachside mahua trees, and even some exotic island hotel rooms.

Neil Island is a little smaller than Havelock Island, but still a great tourist destination. If you are into snorkeling, then Neil Island is the best place. There is an abundance of wildlife, coral reefs and calm white beaches which make the island great for anyone who likes the water. If you want to stay overnight on Neil Island, you’ll have several 3-star hotel options available too.

On North Andaman Island, you will be taken on a tour of the mangrove forests and limestone caves. You’ll get to walk through several tribal reserves and possibly see some crocodiles who like to sunbathe. As for the starting destination of Port Blair, this is a multicultural town which will give you a taste of the different local traditions of the islands. This was a popular island during the British colonial period too. A lot of the infrastructure on the island still resembles this.

Forbidden Islands to Avoid

Foreigners are not allowed to just venture off to any island they choose in this territory. It is recommended that they only go to the islands which have publicly authorized ferries to them. However, there are certainly ways around this if a foreigner really wants to explore some untouched island in the Andamans. It can be as easy as hiring a local fisherman to take you out there on his boat. Just do not get caught because the Indian government could punish you with a fine or imprisonment. That’s assuming you even survive the trip to the island, especially if there are deadly indigenous tribes on it.

North Sentinel Island

Out of all the forbidden islands to avoid in the Andamans, the one that gets the most attention is North Sentinel Island. This island is home to the indigenous Sentinelese tribe, which experts say is the last isolated and untouched group of people in the world. This is the only group of people left on the planet who have not been exposed to any other form of modern civilization. Because of this, the Sentinelese live the same way that their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

From an anthropological standpoint, the Sentinelese are a fascinating tribe. Their bloodline has a direct link to the first humans who ever walked the Earth. When you consider that humans have been around for nearly 60,000 years, this would make the Sentinelese the oldest tribe still in existence. It certainly makes sense as to why the Indian government wants to protect this island and restrict its access from outsiders. They don’t want that 60,000-year-old bloodline to be compromised.

Ever since the passing of the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956, no one can travel within a 5-mile radius of North Sentinel Island. The only people who have the legal authority to get close to the island is the Indian Navy. They regularly patrol the island and the waters around it. The Indian government takes the restriction of outsiders from this island very seriously. The purpose of this legislation was an effort to prevent foreign diseases and germs from infecting any of the Sentinelese people. That is why they want travelers not to get too close to the island.

However, there is another good reason why the Indian government has restricted outside people from traveling to North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese are very dangerous and not too welcoming to outsiders. Just because they are mostly naked islanders without any modern weapons or technology, it doesn’t mean they are not dangerous. The Sentinelese come equipped with bows and arrows as a means of defense and offense. If they see anyone approaching on a vessel, they will not hesitate to attack them with their arrows. They’ve already killed fishermen in the past just for getting too close to the island on their boat.

The South Andaman administrative district has legal authority over North Sentinel Island. They have passed legislation which protects the rights of the islanders to remain at peace and be left alone. The local officials will periodically monitor around the island to look for outsiders who are illegally trying to visit. It doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner or a native Indian citizen. No one is allowed to go to North Sentinel Island unless they have the express permission of the Indian government.

Do not confuse North Sentinel Island with South Sentinel Island because they are two different islands. South Sentinel Island does allow tourists to visit the island if they have a restricted area permit. Some notable features of South Sentinel Island include an unmanned lighthouse, beautiful blue beaches, and loaded with coral reefs in every direction. There are no roads on the island either. You can only travel by foot on the various dirt paths which exist there.

South Sentinel Island does not have any stores, restaurants, or hotels. Tourists are encouraged to bring drinks and food for the trip. Most of the activities on the island are hosted by a guide. This includes the hiking, diving, fishing, snorkeling and boating activities. Although there are no indigenous tribes or people living on the island, visitors are not allowed to stay there unsupervised. It is still considered a natural sanctuary and Indian officials want to preserve it for as long as possible.

sentinal island
North Sentinal Island

Getting back to North Sentinel Island, the Sentinelese tribe is unlike any other Indian tribe of recent history. In the 19th century, British settlers attempted to communicate with the Sentinelese people by bringing Andamanese indigenous people from the Onge tribe to speak with them. The Onge come from Little Andaman Island, which is close to South Andaman Island where Port Blair is located. But when the Onge heard the Sentinelese language, they could not understand it. Despite all the similarities between the various tribes on these islands, their years of separation has made them slightly different from one another.

Throughout the 20th century, there have been some attempts to make contact with the Sentinelese. Exploratory parties from India would try to make friends with the Sentinelese people every couple of years. In 1977, there was an incident where a cargo ship connected with coastal reefs and ran aground on them. Another ship did the same thing in 1981. It is believed the Sentinelese people foraged through the wrecked ships and recovered a lot of metal and iron. This is likely how they can make arrow tips out of metal.

Since 1997, there have been no authorized visits to North Sentinel Island. Some of the local officials are known to drop off bananas and coconuts on the island, but this is a rare thing. Whenever a ship or even a helicopter passes by the island, the Sentinelese people will shoot their arrows at it.  The authorities do not punish any of the Sentinelese if they damage property or hurt somebody.

In January of 2006, there was a situation where two fishermen were killed after their fishing boat had drifted near the shore. The Sentinelese people did not hesitate to kill the fishermen with bow and arrows. Once again, the Indian government did not charge the tribe with any crimes.

North Sentinel Island continues to be a fascinating but deadly place. On one hand, foreigners are curious to witness this indigenous untouched tribe firsthand. On the other hand, the Indian officials have made no secret of how dangerous it is to visit the island. While many people have adhered to the warnings of Indian officials, there are always some foreigners who try to live dangerously and adventurous by attempting to get close to the island. One recent foreigner did this very thing but was not so lucky in the end. 

John Allen Chau

To give you an idea of how dangerous North Sentinel Island can still be for foreigners, just look at what happened recently to a 26-year-old Christian missionary and American adventurer named John Allen Chau. He was killed by the Sentinelese people after illegally traveling to the island and attempting to make contact with them. As a missionary, Chau’s goal was to live on the island with the Sentinelese people and try to introduce Christianity to them. Unfortunately, he did not even come close to succeeding.

Ever since Chau graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he lived a nomad lifestyle by going around the world doing missionary work. He trained to be a missionary at an organization based in Missouri called All Nations. The idea of helping other people discover Christianity was very important to him. He was not like other college graduates who were eager to get a high paying job and start a family. His life’s mission was clear in his mind, so he went out to live his dream.

According to friends of Chau, he knew perfectly well about the dangers and risks of traveling to North Sentinel Island. He knew the Indian government deemed it a restricted island, which is why there are no public ferries that ever go out there. The only way to legally access the island is by getting special permission from the Indian government. However, this kind of permission is only granted to anthropologists and researchers of reputable educational organizations or institutions.

Since Chau was neither of these things, he could not get legal permission to visit North Sentinel Island. He only had a standard tourist visa to visit mainland India. For this reason, Chau paid local fishermen to illegally take him to the island. This was what ultimately led to his demise. But he was not killed right away, though. Chau had plenty of chances to escape danger and save his own life, but he chose to risk it instead.

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John Allen Chau

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On November 15th, 2018, Chau made his first attempt to visit North Sentinel Island on the fishing boat. The fishermen steered the boat until it was about 2,000 feet from the island’s shore. They would not go any further for obvious reasons, but Chau had other ideas. Despite all the warnings that the fisherman gave Chau about going to shore, he wanted to go anyway. So, Chau took the canoe that was attached to the boat and steered his own way to shore.

When Chau arrived on shore, he carried his Bible with him. He approached the Sentinelese islanders to preach the word of God. The first thing he said to them was, “My name is John… I love you and Jesus loves you.” He then tried to give them gifts, but he quickly ran back to his canoe after they started to get aggressive. All this information is known because it was retrieved from the journal entries that he made about the experience prior to his death.

Over the next 2 days, Chau made frequent visits to the shore in an attempt to win over the Islanders. According to Chau’s journal entries, not all his encounters with the Islanders were hostile. Some of them were puzzled and confused while others were actually amused and excited. His best encounters were when he sang Christian songs to them about worship. He even tried speaking the Xhosa language, which is an official language in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Unfortunately, the Sentinelese did not understand Xhosa or English. Chau tried many different forms of communication with the Islanders. Sometimes they stayed silent in their response, and other times they laughed profusely and made lots of high-pitched noises. When it looked like Chau was making some progress, he tried offering them some gifts and fish. This must have provoked them because a small Sentinelese boy responded by shooting an arrow with a metal head into the Bible he was carrying. That prompted him to leave the island once again.

November 17th, 2018 was Chau’s final visit to the island. It was also the day that he would end up getting killed by the Islanders. Before he headed to shore in his canoe for the last time, he told the fishermen that he wanted them to leave him on the island. The fishermen were reluctant to leave the area without him, but they did for a little while to make him happy. However, when the fishermen came back to the island area, they witnessed Chau’s dead body getting dragged around by the Islanders on shore before it was buried in the sand.

The 7 fishermen who took Chau out to the island were later arrested. Local officials are trying to find a way to retrieve Chau’s body from the island. This is an unusual situation because local officials don’t normally step foot onto the island. They typically observe the island from a distance and try to stop outsiders and foreigners from going there if they spot them. Therefore, this is going to break their normal tradition because the officials don’t like the idea of disturbing the Islanders’ natural habitat.

Now you might be wondering why the Islanders are not getting arrested by the Indian authorities for murder. After all, the Andaman Islands do fall under their legal jurisdiction. Well, the problem is that North Sentinel Island has been deemed a sovereign area. Although it remains under Indian protection, the actions of the Sentinelese people are not prosecuted by the Indian government. This means if a foreigner goes to the island illegally and a Sentinelese person kills him, that islander will not be charged with murder.

In the case of Chau’s murder, no islanders are going to be charged. The only ones who bear any legal responsibility for his death are the fishermen. In addition, a human rights group based in the United Kingdom named Survival International has expressed their concern over Chau stepping onto the island. They’re afraid that he may have infected the Sentinelese people with germs and pathogens from his body.

Since North Sentinel Island remained untouched for countless generations, it means the island has not been plagued with any diseases or viruses. But now, because of Chau, he may have brought his pathogens to the island and infected the people with them. Seeing how these people don’t have immunities for such pathogens, it could end up killing the entire tribe on the island.

As of November 28th, 2018, Indian officials gave up their efforts to retrieve Chau’s body from the island. They didn’t want to risk endangering the Islanders any more than they already have been.

3 thoughts on “North Sentinel Island and the Andaman and Nicobar islands”

  1. I heard about this news in the papers. I think he was wrong to go to the island and try to convert them. I hope this would be a wake up call for the missionaries to leave people alone.

  2. I agree that John Allen Chow should not have visited the island as its under safeguard by the Indian authorities. In fact, I have always argued against soul harvesters from visiting tribal people.

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