Nautical Adventures with Eco-Sensitivity

Iris C F Gomes

Konkan Explorers is a company that has emerged following the route of eco-tourism for eight or so years now and has been featured on the Discovery Channel for its eco-friendly endeavour. The company has won the Outlook Indian Responsible Tourism Award (Silver) 2018 for Best Outdoor Operator, besides being a Travel and Hospitality Award 2018 winner for Eco-friendly Tour Company of the Year 2018-Goa and Cruise Company of the Year 2019-Goa, and garnering a multitude of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. The speciality of these tours is Konkan Explorer’s ethical and humane approach to ecology, and the tailor-made tours that are provided to clients.

Indo-French couple Poonam and Pascal Ribo are the brains behind Konkan Explorers, which is located in Morjim, Goa. With an education grounded in hospitality and tourism, Poonam was part of the acting and modelling world for eight years before joining her anthropologist husband, Pascal, in founding Konkan Explorers.

Pascal’s work as an anthropologist has played an extensive role in the establishment of Konkan Explorers. He says, ‘As a researcher in Anthropology, I worked on the way different populations of India, especially in Bengal, build their relations with the natural environment. For instance, it helped me to understand some of the reasons behind the age old noticeable lack of involvement in sea-related knowledge, activities and infrastructures...’ Aside from this, his 40 years of experiences of, usually solitary, exploratory adventures in isolated areas and his penchant for sports such as sailing, open sea swimming, kayaking, trail-running, cycling, and mountaineering have contributed to the development of this idea of an adventure style tour operation company. 

Poonam and Pascal also believed that they could, through Konkan Explorers, promote messages that would inspire participation in making ‘a change for the better’. The fact that Goa is a biodiversity hotspot and has been acknowledged as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes the ecology of Goa invaluable and the need for its preservation paramount. This motivation is integrally what Konkan Explorers has developed as part of its business model.

There are a variety of packages of different lengths offered by Konkan Explorers, such as Sunrise or Sunset Cruise Formula, Two Hours Trip Formula, Approach Formula and Discover Formula. These formulas are available at two levels: private booking, which allows you to have the boat to yourself and your own party of friends; and individual booking, which means you have to share the trip with other passengers. Details are available here:

The Discover Formula, which is of a four-hour duration is, like the other packages, planned according to the skills of the clients and what it is that they wish to encounter. Pascal says, ‘Our aim is to propose in a condensed period of time an experience which is expected to go beyond a simple moment of leisure… Say that a crossing of the Tuem mangrove is decided. We set sail and charter passengers and equipment a few miles up the river. By that time, passengers normally have sensed the standard of quality and professionalism which prevails on board. This is capital because during this first anchorage, the passengers will enter the water closely accompanied by the crew. Great sensations are assured due to the wilderness, the contact with water, the power of the stream…’

Once the passengers get back to the vessel, the camaraderie between them and the crew is palpable. ‘We set sail towards the mangrove,’ Pascal continues, ‘A briefing about technical aspects and the right attitude to adopt in a place where animals are not accustomed to encounter human presence is carried out.’ Teams are formed with passengers getting onto kayaks after gaining some confidence of being buoyant on the river for a time. They embark on their own or with a team member on a double kayak. 

‘The crossing of the forest will last between 45 to 90 minutes of splendid wilderness. Usually passengers are really eager to know about this remarkable ecosystem; the fauna, of course. But we emphasise the habitat itself, the species of trees, the logic of their spreading, the vital importance of healthy mangroves…,’ says Pascal. Then after a slow ambling jaunt back to the boat, everyone sets off to reach the embarking point to partake of refreshments while exchanging views. 

Indian clientele are prone to being uncomfortable, even threatened, when faced with close encounters with nature. There is this idea of superiority to nature as dictated by social and religious norms as well. However, Konkan Explorers focuses on removing all boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, genders, etc from among the passengers and crew first and then extending this neutrality to nature. 

Pascal says, ‘Ironically, it is not so 'natural' to be nature oriented. We all have to learn to become sensitive to the physical environment… As ecology starts with the type of relationship societies are able to implement in between members, our first ‘eco-friendly component’ used is the promotion of a strictly horizontal mode of relations. Hierarchies effective on land, stay on land… Our belief is that before talking of ecology we need to initiate a new type of relationship with our environment. We need to get the possibility of carving through preconscious emotions and sensations a less conflictual, if not phobic, relationship.’

Konkan Explorers has of 2017 two flagship Seamaster cruisers of 34 feet that were designed in New Zealand and environmentally aligned with Goa’s ecology. It also has kayaks and dinghies. The Konkan Explorers team stresses the value of non-motorised crafts for, ‘…developing an intelligent proximity with nature, but also others and oneself. We have translated it as much as possible into responsible and sustainable specificities on our vessels,’ says Pascal.

Konkan Explorers had the first boat in Goa using solar energy (500 Watts) and a generator is not used. There is a real marine toilet with a macerator and operative black water systems. The tour company is careful about the eco-friendly aspects of the paint and antifouling used for maintenance.

Although the two main vessels are motorised boats, Pascal says, ‘From the onset we approached their conception with attention given to environmental impact even if this could present commercial risks.’ For example, two engines of 40 HP per vessel were chosen. This is the minimum power needed for the vessel to be operated safely. The smaller engines use less fuel, pollute much less, and cost less, which leads to passengers having to pay less. Konkan Explorers uses the flow and ebb of tides for movement on the rivers to decrease dependency on the engines. ‘With 3 knots of tide pushing, we switch on only one engine at reduced power for getting the 3 more knots of the river speed limit,’ says Pascal.

With regard to guests, there is a phone selective screening with prospective guests. If passengers without an eco-friendly attitude manage to get past the screening, eco-sensitive zones (such as mangroves) and activities are avoided.

Besides these carefully thought out eco-positive tours, Konkan Explorers organises the cleaning of mangroves, sandbars, and rivers, as well as arranges educational trips free of cost for local school children.

One of the main problems faced by Pascal and Poonam was introducing a yachting culture at a popular level, which in India is severely lagging behind most of the world. Pascal says, ‘Historically, the ideology of hierarchy and differential spatial valorisation associate seas and also tidal parts of rivers as kala pani, a source of crippling socio-ritual pollution from which high castes had to preserve themselves.’ This would explain why one method of getting people on water would be to make them forget they were on it. Hence houseboats, party boats and casinos work well. But the way these function is to attach expressions and terms associated with settings on land to the nautical environment. ‘…sailing culture is based on a clear-cut distinction with the very logics of the land. On houseboats in Goa, the crew itself  calls a cabin a ‘room’, a propeller ‘a fan’, an anchorage, ‘parking’, a hawser a ‘rope’…,’ says Pascal.

Another hurdle was the local fascination for mechanisation. Konkan Explorers’ promotion of physical activities and natural energies was not considered of much significance a few years ago. Things may be changing slowly, but we have to keep in mind that the widespread use of motorised vehicles has led to an extensive decline in the knowledge of and sensitivity towards natural forces because of the lack of use of the same. Pascal says, ‘…technologies using physical force like kayaking or natural forces like the wind for sailing or solar energy continue to be considered as technologies for the poor, only suited for underprivileged.’

Eco-tourism certainly has a profitable side to it, and Konkan Explorers has had clientele mainly from big cities of India who have been receptive and sensitive to the natural environment. Pascal says, ‘I am convinced we are in a phase where the educated convey a new demand that is based on a more responsible manner of behaving. Unfortunately, it is not yet really understood by most of the entrepreneurs coming from a business background. In India, consumers are often more creative than entrepreneurs…’ Commercial optimism lies within this pattern of new demand and scarcity of offers which can rapidly accelerate the growth of eco-tourism ventures. 

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, for Poonam, Pascal and the rest of the team, these ecologically sensitive nautical activities are aimed at evoking a sense of responsibility towards our fragile environment and altering the ethical climate in India.