My brother and I became licensed scuba divers in Andaman.
I watched the movie during my formative years. The expression on Hrithik Roshan’s face when he resurfaced from his dive is one that I remember even today. And just like that I knew scuba diving is something I have to do.
Cut to 7 years later, several rounds of making diving trip plans, checking bank balance, assessing my organ utility or lack thereof, I finally took that trip. I’m not sure if he was roping me in or tagging along, either way I went to the Andaman Islands with my elder brother.
Striking a pose Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
Andaman and Nicobar are two groups of islands that lie to the south-east of mainland India. Havelock Island – the largest part of the Andaman group - is the hub of scuba diving.
We flew to Port Blair when half the capital was asleep, the only direct flight from Bombay. At first glance, Port Blair appears a lot like (forgive me) a South-Indian town – coconut trees lining the well-tarred roads, crowded local buses and a hint of salt lingering in the air. One of the most notable features of the town, and our first stop, was the historic Cellular Jail - a colonial Alcatraz, that was built by the English to exile Indian political prisoners from the mainland. Now it serves as a memorial monument.
The prison was certainly worth a visit, and we returned that evening to attend the light-and-sound show. To be honest though, the experience was a depressing one, even though the grounds have been converted to a tourist spot. There are noisy families enjoying their outing and children running around in (what are now) gardens. The terrace of the stony building from which the naked eye can barely see distant Ross Island, is the place where prisoners had once planned their escape. Presently it’s a beautiful background for selfies and sun-downs.
Moving on to diving. A ferry from Phoenix Bay jetty took us to Havelock. Havelock Island looks like it’s been taken straight out of the Moana set. It has a single road that runs parallel to the six villages that constitute its inhabited region. The other half of the island is a tropical forest.
Neither words, nor my compromised photography skills will be able to describe Havelock. When people ask “If you’re stuck on an island alone..”, the image that comes to mind is never the island of Mumbai, Madh or Majuli. It’s Havelock. I had to come here to know that this has always been a part of my imagination.
On the way to Radhanagar Beach
The beauty of an ocean lies in our ability to let out some farts in it, without having to worry about the bubbles. The same can’t be said about a swimming pool. However, when it comes to the Andaman Sea the water is so clean and transparent, the bubbles would be a dead giveaway.
Ready for a dive
We signed up for a 5 day PADI Certified Open Water Diving course. There are a bunch of diving schools in Havelock, and there are standard reefs in the Andaman Sea where the students are taken. So invariably everyone ends up learning at the same place.
Crew on the boat
Diving is always done in twos, with a buddy. Our group was the four of us, including Shikhar from the Airforce and JD from the Navy. Talk about competition. The first two theoretical days drove us all to boredom - watching informative videos and answering questions for 6 hours straight. Following that the swim test, setting up equipment and practical sessions underwater were great. All our lives we are taught to fear the ocean and we instinctively do everything we can to stay afloat. It was a strange feeling to kneel down and force your head inside, closer to the ground.
My view. Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
In the next 3 days, we did 5 dives, our maximum depth being 18m. It was tough, our ears hurt, our masks clogged up, our fins gave shoe bites, and inhaling from the mouth took some getting used to. But once we got comfortable, it was a phenomenal experience.
Once underwater I was greeted with deafening silence, every human breath was noise. The movements that happen there are calculated and purposeful. The inhabitants are unfriendly but not hostile. We were asked not to touch or disturb any part of the reef.
My diving companion. Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
The course taught us the basics of navigation and how to read a compass, help a buddy in need, and the use of sign language. There’s an action for everything - from telling our instructor the O2 pressure remaining in our cylinder, to the names of every creature we spot.
We explored Neemo Reef, Anthony’s Reef, Teel Island Lighthouse, The Wall and Slope in the Andaman Sea and saw plenty of marine life like Butterfly fish, Clown fish, Fusiliers, Sea Cucumber, Parrot fish, Sergeant Major fish Goat fish among others.
Checkered Snapper. Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
By the end of the course, we learnt that we had to remain calm and tranquil in order to stay inside the water. In the case of laboured breathing or flapping/kicking too much or too often, the water would push us back to the surface. Diving of course is a lot about marine life, but it is also about the practice of mindfulness. It’s a state of forced serenity and thoughtlessness that you have to be in, which ensures that you’re weightless, in an endless succession. The only other activity that requires a similar stillness and focus is meditation.
A school of Fusiliers. Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
We explored the entire island on a moped, ate lots of cheap fish, completed the course, and flew back to the mainland. One thing is for sure, we’ll be back for more.
Yours truly. Image credit: Sahil Lokhandwala
101 Havelock Diving
1. A flight is the most convenient option in and out of Andaman
2. Ferry tickets are available online to pre-book from your plush sofa
3. Beaches on Havelock are numbered 1-7. Diving schools are on 1-3
4. Radhanagar Beach is the cleanest beach in India
5. Ross and Neil are other islands that you can visit on off days
6. The waves here aren’t suitable for surfing.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nidah Kaiser
Photographs by: Nidah Kaiser
Cover photo credit: Sahil Lokhandwala