Wild Blue Yonder

Diving headfirst into the crazy beauty and tranquillity of the reefs.
Swimming with the trevally
Swimming with the trevally

Absolute stillness I don't believe there exists a place on earth where man, contiguous with the elements, can experience absolute stillness. The highest mountains, in the absence of human beings, still whisper their secrets to the wind. The deepest caves echo with the muted flutter of bats wings and the faint rustle of creatures that live in the dark. Where there is air, water and life there is sound. But to us, a species that perceives largely by comparison, a sensation like silence is relative.

An hour-and-a-half flight from the automobile engines, horns, mobile phones, pagers, stereos and televisions of Kochi, followed by a short ride on a small Lakshadweep fishing boat, I find my stillness. I am seven metres beneath the hull of the vessel, cocooned in blue water. Shafts of yellow sunlight pierce the blue, dancing around the silhouette of the boat above me. The long, slow hiss of the air flowing from my scuba tank through my regulator marks my inhalations. Bubbles laugh their way softly to the surface as I exhale. But the pause between the two  &mdash  &nbspwhen there is nothing but the liquid silence of the sea  &mdash &nbspis the mantra that permeates my mind. Adding air to my buoyancy device I negate the weight of my body until I neither sink to the bottom nor float to the surface. Hovering in mid-water I rise a little and then fall to the rhythm of my breathing. The water is a clear blue and, although I am several metres above the sea floor, I can see the bottom distinctly. A mild current meanders over the reef and I am gently borne away on it, watching the shapes of fish swimming amidst the patterned coral below me. In all my experiences, being underwater is the closest I have ever come to absolute stillness.

A shifting of the light draws me out of my contemplations of this vast tranquillity. I look up to find that I have company. A beautiful green turtle swims slowly towards me. Her front flippers pull her through the water with languid ease. Beams of sunlight from the surface dance upon the marbled symmetry of her shell. Unable to derive oxygen from the water, these animals breathe air, just as we do. This one was probably on her way up to the surface from the reef below when she spotted me. Turtles often display a great sense of curiosity and, sure enough, my visitor swims a couple of circles around me to get a closer look. I stare back in wonder as she makes her inspections. In my years of diving I have encountered many a turtle and wish that we humans could learn from the unhurried grace of these enigmatic animals. Finally, satisfied with whatever reptilian conclusions she has reached about this awkward creature spewing forth air bubbles from his mouth, she begins to swim away. I wait, floating in mid-water, watching until she is a silhouette against the sunlit surface.

I exhale deeply, changing my buoyancy, and begin to sink to the bottom. I turn my body to face the sea floor and splay my fins out above and behind me. Like a skydiver in slow motion I fall towards the reef. Here the sounds of the sea come to me. I hear the soft clicks and grunts that the fish make as part of their communications with each other. The reef crackles softly, like an old wooden house that groans and creaks as it settles upon itself. Swimming slowly over the fringe between the coral and the sand I am mesmerised. The play of colours and patterns on a reef are without comparison. No field of flowers, no forest of trees and creatures, no sprawling city of painted man-made miscellanies can match the hues, shapes, textures and diversities of the life that inhabits the arches and alleyways of the coral reef. A baby white-eyed moray peeks tentatively out at me from the shadow of a rock. A lionfish, confident in the protection of his array of venomous spines, struts past flamboyantly. Colourful hawkfish perched on the striated edge of a brain coral watch as a female anemone fish nips her partner in an assertion of her place in the hierarchy amidst the swaying tentacles of the anemone that is their home. In the distance hunting trevally flash in and out of the crevices of the rocks creating waves in the millions of tiny glassfish that duck and weave to avoid them. The effect of the entire scene is akin to a giant orchestra performing an elaborate symphony, not of sound but of hypnotic vision, to the guiding hand of an unseen conductor.

As much as I wish to linger I, like the turtle, need to return to the world of air above. My air gauges indicate that it is time for me to ascend and so I slowly swim up towards the surface. I stop at five metres to allow some of the nitrogen in my body to dissipate, but am unable to drag my eyes away from the dreamscape of the reef below. And then I see them. First a few out of the corner of my eye, then 30, 40 as I lift my gaze to the blue that surrounds me. Hundreds of barracuda silently appear in the water before me. They face into the mild current, maintaining their positions above the reef with slow, synchronised undulations of their muscular tails. I move in amongst them. Torpedo-shaped bodies, some almost a metre long, cluster together so thickly that in places I cannot see past them. Large, round eyes above razor-sharp teeth follow me as I float past. But I feel no discomfort, only awe. I know that to them I am merely a passing anomaly, and their mass of metal-grey scales parts in the middle to allow me through. For a few moments I am completely surrounded by fish. A tunnel of light reaches me from the surface casting a silvery glow that passes over their bodies in a shimmering wave. And there, in their midst, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment  &mdash &nbsphow hundreds of beating hearts can share the same space in absolute stillness.

Indian ocean

Although a few places along the coast of peninsular India offer travellers a chance to dive, the country's most beautiful dive sites are located around the Lakshadweep and Andaman Islands. Due to their separation from the main landmass, the seas around these islands are a clear blue. The tropical sunlight piercing the water reveals a m&eacutelange of marine life that thrives in the nutrient-rich seclusion of these waters. Spend the extra half-day travelling to these further-flung destinations, because when you get there you'll see that the rewards are well worth the effort.


If you've heard great things about the natural beauty of the Maldives then remove the hordes of tourists, noisy jet skis and dozens of dive boats jostling for room on the dive sites and you have the idyllic Lakshadweep Islands. Out of the 36 islands, 10 are inhabited, and only five  &mdash  &nbspAgatti, Bangaram, Kadmat, Kavaratti and Minicoy  &mdash &nbspare open to travellers.

Getting There
Agatti is where the airport is located  &mdash &nbspAir India flights connect Kochi to Agatti every day of the week except Wednesdays, while Kingfisher flies on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Boats ferry tourists from Agatti to the various islands. All visitors to Lakshadweep require a tourist permit, which is easily had through a travel agent, hotel or dive operator.

The islands are surrounded by placid lagoons ringed by coral barrier reefs that keep the larger waves of the open ocean away. Beginners learn in the shallow, clear, swimming pool-like waters of the lagoon advanced divers explore the coral slopes and canyons of the outer barrier reefs. Manta Point, Bangaram, as the name suggests, is the place where migrating manta rays visit between December and March to be cleaned by other fish. From 3m down to 24m the gently sloping reefs of mushroom coral and lobed-pore coral are filled with brightly hued fish, colourful swaying anemones and the occasional reclusive moray eels. Entrance Point, Bangaram, is located at the mouth of the Bangaram lagoon. Changes in the tides create currents that make this dive more interesting. Reef sharks and nurse sharks rest on the bottom at 26m, while eagle rays often ride past on the currents closer to the surface. Shark Alley, Kadmat, involves an ecstatic freefall through the blue down to the bottom at 40m. The local 'watering hole' for grey reef, nurse, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks, the Alley is occasionally visited by tiger sharks and the elusive guitar sharks. The distant reefs of Peremul Par is an occasional dive trip organised for 'regulars' at the Bangaram resort  &mdash &nbspthe untouched walls and coral encrusted slopes are host to excellent dives. Huge tuna, barracuda and enormous queues of prehistoric looking humphead parrotfish are regular fare here, with inquisitive dolphins riding the bow-waves on the boat ride back.

The best people to dive with in Lakshadweep are Lacadives (www.lacadives.com). With well-equipped dive centres on Kadmat and at the Bangaram Island Resort (www.cghearth.com), Lacadives is the perfect base for an exploration of the sites. The dive centres offer a range of CMAS (World Underwater Federation) courses, and the staff ensure a memorable experience in these waters. Agatti, Kavaratti and Minicoy also hold an abundance of well-kept secrets. The Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) along with the Department of Tourism (www.lakshadweeptourism.com)&nbspconduct courses for divers of all skill levels.

Andaman & Nicobar

These islands stretch over a length of more than 700km from north to south, floating in the clear blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. About 50km east of the South Andamans are a group of nine islands that form Ritchie's Archipelago. Of these islands, Havelock is the largest.

Getting There
Air India, Jet Airways and Deccan operate daily flights to Port Blair from Chennai and Kolkata. Indian citizens do not require a permit to visit and stay in the Andaman Islands. From Port Blair a two- to four-hour ferry ride brings travellers to Havelock.

Currently, most of the diving in the Andamans happens from and around Havelock. Although the waters around Wandoor, just off the South Andaman stretch, host incredible numbers and varieties of marine life from moray eels to manta rays, with the occasional whale shark thrown in for good measure, government restrictions have deterred resorts from establishing full-fledged dive operations in the area.  

Jonny's Gorge, a large rocky outcrop skirted by sand at 30m, is a little oasis in the surrounding featureless sand flats. The marine life here is stunning. Smaller fish shelter amongst the fissures and crevices of the rocks, providing both food and a cleaning service to pelagic species. White-tip reef sharks laze in the sand and large schools of barracuda hang in the current near the surface, while the resident giant grouper makes his presence felt by occasionally nudging divers away from his preferred cleaning station. Dixon's Pinnacle, a group of giant rocks looming out of the shadowy bottom at 40m, has sheer rock faces that rise from the sand to a depth of 18m. Clothed in millions upon millions of glassfish, the Pinnacle is a shimmering display of constant movement. If your gaze can pierce the blanket of fish, visiting schools of batfish, green and hawksbill turtles and the occasional Napoleon wrasse can be spotted. South Button, best reached by a journey through the beautiful mangrove-lined channels between Ritchie's Archipelago, is coral heaven. A little mount rising from the sea, the island is fringed with varieties of hard and soft coral interspersed with anemone. Although the bottom ranges between 21m and 28m, South Button's charm lies in its shallow sun-swept reefs.

Barefoot Scuba (www.barefootindia.com), on Beach No. 3, operates a professional dive centre with a reputation for safe diving. They offer all the PADI courses, from beginner level to the advanced courses. Dive India (www.diveindia.com), also on Beach No. 3, offer both PADI and SSI (Scuba Schools International) courses and their staff usually have a couple of secret dive sites up their sleeves.


For more than a decade Barracuda Diving (www.barracudadiving.com)&nbspand Goa Diving (www.goadiving.com)&nbsphave offered travellers the opportunity to experience the sensations of being underwater in the somewhat unpredictable sea around Goa. Both dive centres conduct PADI courses. Speedboats carry divers to sites like the SS Mary and Grand Central Station around Grande Island and Bogmalo Beach. Although the diving here isn't nearly as good as around India's islands, the surprising variety of marine life and small 'reefs' of hard coral continue to delight. Grand Central Station, sloping between 6m and 25m, is a dive suitable to all levels of experience. Aside from the rabbitfish, snapper and parrotfish that inhabit the shallows, barracudas, schooling cobia and the rare Olive Ridley turtle sometimes cruise by in deeper waters. Shipwrecks dot the coastline, lying at various depths, making them accessible even to inexperienced divers. Suzy's Wreck, aka SS Rita, is a 130m metal cargo ship built in the UK in the 1930s. Reportedly carrying a cargo of railroad tracks, the ship sank in a storm and now rests at 13m in a shallow bay off Grande Island.


If the low visibility of the Goan waters puts you off diving, the island of Netrani might be worth a visit. The dive centres in Goa arrange all-inclusive packages for diving here. Located about 10 nautical miles southwest of Murdeshwar, six hours from Goa, the waters off Netrani are teeming with the colourful tropical fish life endemic to the Arabian Sea.

Dive Courses

In all of the mentioned dive destinations, courses are structured to cater to non-diving beginners, novices and experienced divers. India offers these courses under four international dive federations  &mdash &nbspPADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors), CMAS (World Underwater Federation), BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) and SSI (Scuba Schools International). Although each federation has its own terminology for dive courses, the ladder towards education and diver certification is much the same. For ease of understanding, I refer to the PADI system of diver training.

Those who wish to experience the thrill of being underwater, but are hesitant to sign up for a longer course, can try the Discover Scuba Diving programme (Rs 1,200-4,500). This half-day initiation involves learning to use dive gear and rehearsing basic dive skills in the shallow waters of a pool or lagoon, followed by a 'hand-held' dive on a shallow reef. The programme involves close supervision by an Instructor or Dive Master. It is the only programme available for non-swimmers and does not include certification.

If you are convinced that the ocean is calling your name, then the Open Water Course (Rs 15,000-18,000) is your entry ticket to becoming a certified diver. Depending on individual instructors and available facilities the course is taught over 3-5 days. Diving theory and practical sessions in shallow water teach students about equipment handling and diving safety. These skills are then practised over four 'open water' deeper dives to a maximum depth of 18m. Note that a competent swimmer makes for a more competent diver. Upon successful completion of the course, students receive a certification card that allows them to dive anywhere in the world.

The Advanced Open Water Course (Rs 12,000-16,200) broadens diving horizons significantly. The five-dive course includes two mandatory dives  &mdash &nbspa deep dive to a maximum depth of 30m and a navigation dive which teaches the use of a compass and navigation underwater. The remaining three dives can be chosen by students based on the activities offered by the dive centre. These options include night diving, wreck diving, nitrox diving, fish identification, drift diving and underwater photography.

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