When I signed up for the open water SCUBA certification last month, my biggest fear was failing the swimming test. I was supposed to demonstrate the ability to swim for 200 meters. I opened up a running app and started walking from my house to figure out what 200 meter looked like. When the app showed 200, I stopped, took a deep breath, and turned around. My heart was somewhere in the vicinity of my pelvis. There was no way – my brain was yelling – I was going to be able to swim for that long. My SCUBA adventure was sure to end even before I went under the surface.
But tickets were booked, money was transferred; so I packed my swimming trunks and hauled my butt on to the plane. Worst case – I’ll do some guided fun dives and come back – I told myself.
The flight to Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, is a long one, no matter where you are flying from. The Andamans are a tiny group of islands way off the coast of India. They are so far east, that they are actually closer to Myanmar. Powdery white beaches, transparent green seas, amazing seafood and – Diving. That’s the elevator pitch for Andaman. The dive sites are concentrated around Havelock Island, the only way to get to which is by ferry. The government run ferry is the cheapest, runs twice a day, and reeks of pee. I reached Havelock around sundown along with a bunch of locals, some angry chicken, and a goat.
I was learning with DiveIndia, the oldest and most prestigious diving resort in the region. Once I reached the resort, I met Michael. My God-like instructor, who, owing to the low season, devoted himself completely and exclusively to me. He welcomed me with open arms, a fat book, and a tablet loaded with videos that detailed everything about diving and its multiple theories. I had to go through all these information, master, and pass a test after which I would then get my certification. This was getting harder and harder.
It must have been the look of sheer terror in my face that made him give me fins and a snorkel for the swimming test. Turns out, with these equipment, swimming was a breeze, and I comfortably finished lap after lap in a shallow bay called Nemo reef. The good thing about learning to dive in Andaman is that the confined water training – the part where you learn to not die underwater and use your equipment properly – happens in shallow reefs as opposed to a pool, making the transition to the open water an easy one. By the end of the second day, I was following my instructor into short dives in the reef. Before I’d even realized it, I had crossed the threshold of the shallows to a depth of 6-7 meters.
Soon, I was ready for my first open water dive. A boat took us into open ocean, some 20 minutes away from the shore. It was a wreck site; a Japanese ship called MV Mars, was sitting rusting somewhere at the bottom of the sea. We donned our equipment, flipped over backwards from the boat, held on to a descend line, and sank under the surface.
The world as we know it melted away. The only sound was my own, Darth Vader-ish breathing. The waves, the wind, the surf: they were all left behind. There was the line, and there was the translucent blue wall of water around me. After descending for a few minutes, I could see a triangular shape looming below. The bow of the boat became clearer as we got near. It was a divine moment, like descending over something from heaven. Soon we were at the bottom, next to the encrusted hull of the boat. It felt straight out of a Nat Geo video, swimming around a submerged piece of history, peeping through its cracks. A wreck becomes part of the ecosystem rapidly here, corals growing out of its girders, schools of fish swimming through the gaping portholes. Nature is quick to claim.
The shallow, tropical waters around Andaman are teeming with life: endless schools of brilliantly coloured angels, huge blue solitary fish called the Napoleon Wrasse, giant sea cucumbers. But this wasn’t a site particularly known for encountering fish. That came later, on my fourth dive, at a site called Dickson’s Pinnacle.
Dickson’s is a set of three submerged reefs, shaped like independent hills – hence the name pinnacle. This was to be my first deep dive. Once I hit 25 meters, I looked up, and all I could see was a column of blue disappearing into a column of black. I couldn’t even see the surface anymore. Three stories of water over my head. The thought hit me like a bus and I gasped as one could gasp with the breathing pipe stuffed into your mouth; but I think nobody noticed the sudden explosion of bubbles around me.
And then I looked around. Right before me was a gigantic wall looking like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, rising out of the blackness below, and disappearing into the blackness above. Every inch of it covered in colourful coral, billowing in the surge. And all around it, in countless numbers and an infinite combination of colours – fish: enormous schools of bright yellow Banner fish, blue and black angels, tiny clown fish jutting in an out of clumps of anemone and the occasional giant wrasse or a Lion fish. I felt like I had fallen into a giant aquarium. Fish around me, fish above and below me, swimming with me and resolutely, collectively ignoring me. That’s one of the most fascinating things about the inhabitants of this underwater world. They haven’t learnt to fear us yet.
SCUBA is easy to learn, difficult to master. On this dive, my instructor had allowed me to take my GoPro for the first time, and that was to be my undoing. I went crazy with my camera and in the process I flailed around so much that I used up my air pretty quick. We had to end the dive sooner than expected and we returned to shore with the other pro divers throwing me murderous looks all the way.
I finished the advanced certification and did a total of 13 dives in fascinating dive sites with interesting names like “The wall”, “The slope”, and “Johny’s gorge”. In this last one I saw a sting ray and a shark. The shark was shy and swam away at the first sight of us. By the end, I got pretty good at the whole thing, floating weightlessly just above the reefs, moving using only my fins and taking pictures without burning up air like a bonfire.
“It is just the beginning! Welcome to a whole new world” – Vinny, the owner of DiveIndia told me on the last day as I was packing my bags. Two-thirds of the earth is water, and a lot of it opens up to you once you master this. And Andaman was exquisite both above water and below it.
Oh and I passed the theory test as well. Turns out, after 13 dives, it really isn’t that hard.