Andaman & Nicobar Islands while politically a part of India, feel anything but that. In fact, the islands on the eastern side in the archipelago may be closer to Thailand and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland.
Andaman Sea is one of the well-known scuba diving spots in the world. And after trying a fun dive in Vietnam this summer, the desire to do my Open Water Certification strengthened. Another friend, Aanchal quickly agreed to this and we did some research on where to do the course. We wanted something not-too expensive, and after exploring options in Thailand and Lakshadweep, settled on the Andamans. I had been on a holiday here in 2006 and had some incredible memories of the place. I had then visited the Cellular jail in Port Blair (which had an excellent sound and light show), taken a ferry to visit Ross Island (controlled by the Indian Navy) and seen some incredible sunsets at the Beach No 7 a.k.a Radhanagar beach. But a scuba diving certification, while being an intense and thrilling experience, is not exactly a relaxed holiday!
I had done research on both DiveIndia and Barefoot Dive Center at Havelock for the course, and for no particular reason picked Barefoot. Both centers were prompt in responding to all my queries and have a well-trained team. It take the good part of a day to reach Havelock Island from Delhi, whether you take the flight via Chennai or Calcutta. My flight via Calcutta made it in time to reach the dock to take the 145 pm private catamaran. (I had paid to Barefoot Dive Center to arrange for transfers from airport to the dock and the purchase of ferry tickets). A not-so-rough ride for about 2 hours and we step on the jetty at Havelock. It is raining as I step out of the catamaran. I look at this place after 10 years; nothing much stirs in my memory. A smooth transfer to the Dive centre and my friend and I settle into our duplex cottage. Neat, clean, living room and bathroom at ground floor and the bedroom and a balcony at first floor – great value for money. Nothing much to do that day and we are happy to get in a relaxed frame of mind, walk around the beach, eat at the restaurant within the centre and get in bed early.
One side note: My friend and I were carrying a liquor bottle each in our check-in bags and we were stopped by the guards at the dock after the luggage was scrutinised in the x-ray machine. We were told that carrying alcohol in not allowed in the ship. We told the guards we were ignorant of any such rule in the country. I am still not sure what the rule is. Anyway, at these times, being a woman in India really helps. Some sweet talking later, we were allowed to take the luggage (no bribes, only instructions that we shouldn’t tell fellow passengers that we have been allowed to take the alcohol on board the ferry)
Day 1: Skills practice at Beach No 2 and Open Water Dive 1
I have difficulty sleeping in a new bed and new room at most times and for some reason it was worse on the first night in Havelock (perhaps anxiety about the adventure next day). I kept tossing and turning through the night and managed to barely catch a light sleep for 2/3 hours. Not the best thing to happen before the intensive Day 1 of the course.
We were to report at 8 after breakfast. We were introduced to Manish, one of the senior-most dive instructor at the centre. Having read all the theory earlier in the week, we dived straight into the practical part. The first part of assembling the gear – BCD, cylinders, regulators and what not. Manish turned out to be a perfectionist, and he made us assemble and dis-assemble the gear 4 times before he was fully satisfied.
We were to wear the gear and go to the beach for our swim test – 10 minutes of float on the back and 200 metres of swim without fins / 300 metres with fins. The common questions that friends and acquaintances have asked me after the course is whether I am a strong swimmer, whether I know how to swim underwater etc. You have to know how to swim for sure. Apart from being an international regulation for a dive course, it would be insane to dive without knowing how to swim even if some unscrupulous dive center were to take you. Most accidents apparently happen on the surface and you would probably not panic easily in the sea if you knew how to swim. But you don’t have to be an incredible swimmer, just an average one. I don’t swim underwater but the instructor did teach us how to dive under with a snorkel, touch the sea bed (at about 5 metres depth I think), come up and clear the water from the snorkel.
After the swim and float test, we went to the shallow part of Beach No 2 for some skills practice – taking the regulator underwater and putting it back in the mouth, purging the water from the regulator, switching between snorkel and regulator, clearing a partially flooded mask off water etc. We got a short break and had bananas and lunch on the boat. I was really tired by now – lack of sleep, all the exercise that my body is not used to, the information overload, all put together exhausted me. Some rest and more skills practise in the water – experiencing ‘’out of air’’ when the instructor shuts the air supply, breathing with your buddy’s alternate air regulator etc.
And then on to our first Open Water Dive 1 to Nemo Reef (which is around Beach No 2 and not too deep at about 9 metres). I just didn’t realise how tired I was before the start of this. While descending and focussing on equalising my ears, I completely forgot to check where I was landing. Apparently, below me was not the sand bed but a coral bed with a moray eel sticking its mouth out. My instructor moved me away at the last minute before the eel could bite my bum! I got a scolding from him (yes, he could scold underwater just with gestures!!). A few minutes of moving around where my friend and I were struggling with being horizontal at a particular level. First day divers should remember not to fret too much about buoyancy control – and there was a dramatic improvement for us in the next 2 days itself.
Andaman Sea is alive and how – in just few minutes, we saw anemone / clown fish, pipe fish, parrotfish, sea cucumber, banner fish, a scorpion fish (camouflages itself with the rock it rests on, poisonous). And then the instructor found a safe spot on the sand, checked for creatures, asked us to kneel and do some skills practice what we were taught earlier in the shallow water. My instructor asked me to lose my air regulator, find it and put it back in mouth. I tried once in haste – got the regulator from under my arm instead of over it, tried to take it out of my mouth again but while putting it back, just didn’t lock my lips over it, swallowed water, panicked when I couldn’t purge the water and breathe air. And instead of thinking calmly about my alternate options – breathing from my alternate air source, taking the alternate from my buddy / instructor, I broke the basic rule in scuba – stopped breathing, gulped in water, panicked and kicked up to get out L My instructor tried to put the regulator in my mouth to do some damage control but I just wanted out. On surfacing, he asked the other dive master to take me on the boat and went down to continue the dive with my friend. I was so dejected that evening but just wanted a hot shower, food and sleep to get over with that disaster.
Day 2: Skills practice at Beach No 2 and Open Water Dive 2
I was both dreading and looking forward to the next day. We reported at 730 am post breakfast at the dive center restaurant. Our gear had already been assembled and taken to the boat. My friend was asked to stay out on the boat and Manish, my instructor asked to go for the Open Dive 1 with him and redo the skills that were left incomplete the day before. And after a good night’s rest, it thankfully tuned out to be easy. I removed my mask and put it back. I removed my regulator, kept breathing out, retrieved it and put it back all quite easily. I enjoyed the rest of the dive and got a big smile from Manish when we surfaced. “So it was just exhaustion yesterday?”, he said.
We did a lot of new skills practice today – manually inflating the BCD, ‘sipping’ air from a mal-functioning regulator etc.
This was followed by bananas and a long rest in the boat, followed by another training dive.
We were back at the Dive Center by 1. More than enough time to take a shower and decided to step out for a light lunch. We strolled down the road, flagged down an auto to take us to Emereld Gecko / Beach No 5. They had stopped serving lunch by the time we ended there, so just sipped on coconut water and spent some time at the beach.
<The tiny beach at Emerald Gecko>
We discovered a decent café – Fat Martins on the way back and had a quick salad there. We then decided to go to Barefoot Resort at Beach No 7. And just as we got in the auto, it seemed like the heavens opened up. It was pouring massively and the auto was moving slowly. Half an hour later, there was thick wire lying on the road and just as the auto guy was making his way gingerly taking care not to touch it, we discovered a large eucalyptus tree had been uprooted and was lying across the road fully blocking it. Nothing to do but to turn back and head to the Dive Center. The evening continued being rainy and the best course was to settle in the room post dinner with a good book.
Day 3: Open Water Dive 3 and 4 and a lengthy exam
Our first dive was at Red Lighthouse site, within the harbour. We were hoping to go outside the harbour to a dive site named as ‘The Wall”, but the met. department didn’t give us permission on account of cyclone warning. We were going on a boat the first time with 2 snorkelers accompanying us to the site.
Red Lighthouse is a shallow site – max depth of about 10 metres and is beautiful. Visibility today was much better than the past 2 days, at about 10 metres or more. We put on all our diving gear on the boat, did the basic safety check and got off the boat using the giant stride exit. As we descended, I looked up at the school of colourfish fish moving all around and felt the magic of diving come alive for me. We were much more confident with managing our buoyancy today. One of the attractions at this site apart from marine life is a Kinetic Honda scooter, standing intact on the sea bed, providing home to some corals and tiny fish. We also spotted huge barrel sponges – some over 4 metres and an octopus resting on a rock with its tentacles all folded inside. Manish made us do some skills practice at this depth during the dive.
We surfaced up feeling quite exhilarated with our first 60 minute dive! But underwater peace and quiet doesn’t give away the turbulence on the surface. It was drizzling when we came up, and unlike our dive, the snorkelling for our boat companions hadn’t been a good experience. Bananas, a chocolate granola bar for me, lot of jokes and an hour’s chit-chat later, the weather had steadily worsened. We decided to go back in for the last training dive.
This was a completely different experience than the morning dive; visibility was barely 2/3 metres. I could just about make out Manish and Aanchal’s shapes and decided to stay close to them. Key new skill that had to be learnt was navigation basics – we were made to look into a compass, go out in one direction for just 10 kicks and come back to the same point. For some reason, while concentrating on the compass, I was breathing out lesser than all the deep breaths going in. Consequently, unknown to me, instead of going in a horizontal way, I kept moving up and up. Of course when I came up, I was way above Manish instead of my starting point! My friend did the same mistake. Much threats and scolding later (Manish actually wrote U WILL FAIL on the slate he was carrying with him!), we did another practice run and got the hang of it. Phew!
Nothing except a large sea fan was seen during the dive. And the water was really choppy when we surfaced. But my friend felt that training during this condition is a good experience to have under your belt.
We went back to the dive center, and after a hot shower and lunch, sat down to give a lengthy exam. With this final hurdle out of the way, Aanchal and I were certified scuba divers!! We decided to go to Barefoot Resort to celebrate (hoping this wouldn’t turn out to be a washout like the evening the day before). The rain had washed everything super clean and the auto ride was very pleasant. There was high tide on Radhanagar beach and lot more people and plastic than I remembered from 10 years back, but it was still lovely. And Barefoot set in the jungle next to this beach is really one-of-its-kind resort. After some amazing cocktails and a lavish dinner, we came to the dive center, quite pleased with ourselves.
Day 4: Fun dives
With an extra day in hand, we had decided to log in two more fun dives to practice all the skills taught to us so far. Our ferry back to Port Blair was today afternoon, and we had packed the night before. We checked out of our rooms before leaving for the dives.
The met. dept. repeated its cyclone warning and didn’t give the boat passengers permission to go outside the harbour. So our first dive was again at the Pilot Reef, this time with another dive master. Our co-divers had spotted a leopard shark at this site the day earlier. Our first part of the dive went in searching for this shark, but no luck. The reef does have some good marine life to watch – giant groupers, flute mouthed fish, juvenile moray, striped fusilier, lion fish, angel fish, sea cushion star and more. All in all, a great dive. And snacks and jumping from the boat and swimming in the ocean followed that.
The second dive of the day was at the Red Lighthouse (we had dived at this sopt earlier during our training). The agenda of the dive apart from seeing all the other marine life was to specifically spot sting rays, which we had missed seeing the day before. And what a thrill when our dive master pointed to a Kuhl’s sting ray, it is an indescribable thrill to see a creature in its natural setting. And I spotted a lionfish hiding inside a rock crevice and another sting ray. I got so excited and was wilding flailing my hands and feet to get my companions’ attention, so much so that I thought I might just lose control and get too close to it. We also saw giant clams, emperor angel fish, lion fish, mustache trigger fish, porcupine fish and groupers.
Our dive master was carrying a camera to take some pictures of us underwater. We wanted one riding the scooter!
<Kinetic Honda on the sea bed at Nemo reef>
<Posing with the clown fish>
Despite not being able to go to the more famed spots, we were glad to experience these dives as newly certified divers. A shower in the common bathrooms and lunch later, we were ready to bid goodbye to the excellent and well trained crew at barefoot Dive Center. We promised them we would come back for more diving and perhaps an Advanced Diver course in the future. The 2 hour ride back on the catamaran started out pleasant but soon became wish-this-would-end-soon nightmare. Once the catamaran got out in the open rough sea, a lot of people got seasick. And even though I am quite ok on choppy waters, the smell of vomit from several areas in the closed, air-conditioned cabin made me gag L.
Finally, we landed at Fortune bay, port Blair without any booking (we had been hoping to get the next day morning govt. ferry tickets to avoid the night in Port Blair completely and reach just in time for our flight back to Delhi). Some negotiations on the rack rate and we settled into our room. We opened our sole bottle of white wine and enjoyed that with heavy greasy Indian food!
The next day, a lazy breakfast spanning over two hours just watching the sea from the restaurant outdoor balcony. Oh, how I would miss this in the urban jungle that is home!
<Look at that! The world under the sea is quite a wonder!>
Author: Shweta Singhal
Shweta, our guest travel blogger, runs her own travelogue on https://zestinatote.com. She, like most women, plays several roles – corporate executive, parent to a 6-year old, adventure enthusiast, travel blogger, generally open to trying out new things in life. Besides travel, she love books and theatre and art. She would like to believe that she is NOT an adventure junkie, but has tried sky diving, rappelling, glacier climbing, trekking, para gliding, mountain biking, scuba diving and skiing.