‘Carpe diem’, whispers professor Keating in that well-known scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where he makes his students look at old photographs of those who once roamed the school’s halls as they do now, full of dreams and hopes.
This little scene came to mind when I drew a big red circle over the last week of January 2013, determined that this time I would not let anything stop me from scuba diving in the Andamans. Not my fragile bank balance. Not my work schedule. Not the fact that no one else was sure if they’d be able to come along. I was going, and that was it! Three weeks later, I was on a plane headed for Port Blair, about 1,300 miles from the mainland.
The first rush of greenery filled my airplane window as we flew over Sentinel Island, home to the reclusive Sentinelese. Very little is known about this tribe, but they are known to greet outsiders with a hail of arrows. A reputation of this sort ensures that they are left alone, safe from the ravages of irresponsible tourism (that has decimated the region’s Jarawas) and well-intentioned but badly implemented government welfare schemes.
DAY 1 – PORT BLAIR
I landed well after the last ferry for Havelock Island had departed, and spent the night at Port Blair. All places of tourist interest were shut on account of Republic Day, with the result that I could not visit Cellular Jail, one of Port Blair’s top attractions. I had a few hours to spare anyway, and hopped onto a bus to catch the sunset at Wandoor beach.
Sunset at Wandoor Beach
DAY 2 – HAVELOCK-BOUND
After a leisurely breakfast, I caught a government ferry to Havelock. The greater part of the three hour journey was spent on the sun-baked forward deck marveling at the endless expanse of blue water and keeping an eye out for flying fish.
En route to Havelock
I disembarked at Havelock and headed for Island Vinnie’s Tropical Beach Cabanas, which is quite a mouthful! Island Vinnie’s is a lovely resort on Beach Number 3.
I was on a budget, and therefore chose to stay in a no-frills standard hut. At INR 550 per day, it’s a pretty sweet deal. The hut is small, but not cramped. It’s perfect for people who plan to spend most of their time outside (like I did) and return only to sleep after a great day of diving.
You can check out a more detailed review of the resort on Tripadvisor here.
After settling in, I strolled over to the dive center and was given a thick tome on the fundamentals of scuba diving, which I would have to go through for the written test. I did manage to read most of it, but there is no surer sleeping pill than a book that one is supposed to study!
I noticed this little fellow while trying to read my book on scuba diving
DAY 3 – PREPARATION
The morning was spent watching an instructional video followed by a session where I learned how to inspect, assemble, test and disassemble my scuba gear. The boats returned around lunchtime, and I envied the look of satisfaction on the divers’ faces as they trooped back to the dive center. I wouldn’t be envious for long though!
After a hearty lunch, I strolled over to the beach to try and do my ‘homework’. I worked my way through two chapters, but soon found myself staring at the clear blue water and nodding off to the soothing sound of the waves rolling gently onto the beach.
I rounded off a lazy afternoon by getting to know my canine hosts better. The owner of Island Vinnie’s has two adorable dogs that pretty much have a free run of the place. Sam is a big, quiet labrador who rolls over for a belly rub (even if he is half-asleep) as soon as one bends down to pet him.
Life’s a beach for Sam and Frodo (Image courtesy VH)
Frodo is a retriever who also seems to know that he can get attention and belly rubs on tap. He walks around the Full Moon Cafe at dinnertime and stops by at each table in the hope that someone will fuss over him. Most guests oblige Frodo, who uses his expressive eyes and wagging tail to good effect. As you can see in the picture below, he is also quite a sporting poser!
Frodo pays us some attention
DAY 4 – D-DAY!
I woke up early and walked to the beach to catch what I hoped would be a spectacular Andamans sunrise. It happened to be a cloudy morning, but watching the first rays of the sun break through the gloom was a stunning sight nevertheless.
I simply sat there for nearly an hour, relishing the feeling of being disconnected from reality, and utterly lost in the serenity of my surroundings. The quiet was broken only by the birds wheeling overhead. The dive boats floated lazily in the calm water. A light breeze made the tree branches sway gently. Scores of little crabs scurried about with their shells, and occasionally ran into each other as well. The only flurry of movement came from Frodo, who was busy tossing and turning in the sand.
A cloudy sunrise at Havelock. The sun usually rises at about 0540, so remember to set your alarm clocks accordingly!
Time to Dive!
I had a light breakfast and reported to the dive center at 0700 to meet my fellow Open Water Divers. I was grouped with Corey, an affable Canadian, and Ben, an equally amiable Englishman. The three of us would be learning the ropes under the watchful eye of Melissa, a very capable instructor with four years of diving under her weight belt.
The first boats started roaring out towards their assigned dive sites by 0745, and we followed suit in the Bullshark soon afterwards. Our dive site for the day was called Nemo Reef. As you may have guessed, the site derives its name from the distinctive clownfish of Finding Nemo fame that inhabit these waters.
My ride (image courtesy VH)
“Air. Check. Buoyancy. Check. Clips. Check. Aaand down we go!”
Holding our deflator tubes aloft, we descended into another world. As the water closed over us, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my breathing, and of the bubbles streaming out of my regulator as I exhaled.
The feeling of being underwater was absolutely fabulous! it can perhaps be described as an eclectic mix of peace, wonder and ecstasy. It wasn’t long before we found Nemo, and the sight of small schools of fish swimming about was no less mesmerizing.
Today was training day, and so we practiced a variety of regular and emergency diving skills. These included clearing our masks underwater, retrieving and clearing our second stage regulator if it slipped out, helping a dive buddy who was ‘out of air’. removing and refitting our equipment while submerged, emergency ascents and more.
We didn’t go deeper than 9 meters during our training dives, but they were like a couple of superb previews for the incredible films that we were going to watch over the next few days.
“So how long do you guys think you were underwater? “, Melissa asked with a knowing grin as we clambered back onto the Bullshark after our second dive.
We took a wild guess, “Maybe twenty-five… thirty minutes?”
“Nope. We’ve been down for an hour!”, she replied as we looked at her in disbelief.
Einstein’s explanation of the theory of relativity sprang to mind here – “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour.”
A lovely evening walk at Havelock beach
DAY 5 – THE SLOPE AND THE WALL
Our first dive site derived its name from the gentle gradient of the seabed in that area. I started off on a mildly disastrous note, when too many deep inhalations coupled with fewer long exhalations increased my buoyancy and caused me to shoot back up to the surface. But the rest of the dive after that little hiccup was fantastic.
We spotted several blue sea stars as we glided though the clear blue water. Brightly colored angelfish flitted about near the corals. Schools of smaller fish swam unhurriedly overhead, making way briefly for larger trevallies and parrotfish. A sea cucumber lying on the gravel below best represented the leisurely pace of life here.
The serenity of The Slope contrasted greatly with the sheer vivacity of The Wall. This lovely dive site, although relatively small, is home to an astounding array of fish. We spotted a huge Napoleon Maori wrasse, paddle tail snappers, fusiliers, bannerfish, highly venomous lionfish, and a number of angelfish. The Wall was like an art canvas bursting with color, and it was with a twinge of reluctance that we kicked our way back up to the Bullshark after an incredible fifty-minute dive.
DAY 6 – DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!
The kind of people one encounters while traveling adds an interesting dimension to the whole experience, and this trip was no exception. The group aboard the exotically named Pink Cadillac was an interesting mix of nationalities and diving experience.
There were three fairly quiet Germans, a poker-faced Argentinian who was all smiles once the ice was broken, a French couple, an outdoorsy German who was working alongside his Spanish wife in Kazakhstan, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who had done over seventy-five dives, and of course, Ben and Corey.
All set to head out for yet another great day of diving (image courtesy: VH)
The current at Two Fathom Rock gave some of the rookie divers, including me, a tough time. While I had gotten the hang of maintaining neutral buoyancy and managed to keep myself from shooting back up, the current made things that much more difficult. Every dive served up something new, and that’s what made my trip truly interesting and memorable.
But the best of the eight dives that I logged was dive number six, and I have no idea why I feel this way! It wasn’t very different from our other dives. We saw a good number of fish here as well during the course of the fifty minutes that we spent underwater.
But when the four of us finally surfaced, we all reacted in pretty much the same way. Instead of the usual “woooo!” that one of the group usually let out, we just bobbed there as if we had achieved nirvana after a long spell of meditation.
“This had to be our most chilled out dive. ” Ben said.
“Definitely our best one, and very relaxing too.” Corey and I agreed as we inflated our buoyancy compensators. The feeling of being suspended remained long after we reached the dive center.
I rounded off yet another fantastic day by catching the sunset at Radhanagar beach with a fellow diver from Bangalore. Ben and Corey were done with the Open Water Course, and so we celebrated at the Wild Orchid with a couple of other people we’d met on the Pink Cadillac.
Sunset at Radhanagar beach (Beach no. 7) – Havelock
DAY 7 – ANOTHER DIVE IN THE WALL
My eyes opened well before the alarm clock went off. I could hardly wait to suit up and jump into the clear blue water once again. It was also my last day on the island, and I hoped to bring the curtain down on a superb trip with a couple of great dives.
The water was very calm at the Aquarium, and I kept my eyes peeled in the hope of sighting a turtle or a manta ray. Sadly, I saw neither, but the clownfish here seemed to be way more curious than the ones we saw elsewhere. One of them came very close to my outstretched arm and swam about before darting away, while another nibbled on a fellow diver’s mask.
Choppy conditions at the second dive site forced us to change course and head for The Wall instead. It was one of my favorite sites, and so the sudden alteration to our program wasn’t such a bad thing after all. My eighth dive was quite literally, the last but not the least, considering that we descended to a depth of nearly 17.5 meters!
I relished the indescribable sense of peace and drank in the sights of this amazing world one last time – the magnificent fish swimming leisurely about, the carpet of plankton that glowed when one swept the water near it, and the lovely coral formations that dotted the seabed. Time flew by quickly as always, and before long, it was time to swim back up to the Pink Cadillac.
Sadly, there are no pictures of me in my scuba gear. So here’s yet another picture of a crab moving house on the beach – at Havelock
With eight dives under my weight belt, the only thing standing between me and the Open Water certification was the SSI theory test. I parked myself at a corner table in the cafe, ordered a steaming glass of tea, and ran through the test fairly easily. Open Water Diver. Check! My dinner that night was a fabulous (and well-deserved) slice of freshly baked chocolate-orange cake. If you ever visit the Full Moon Cafe at Havelock, you must try this simple, yet incredibly delicious dessert.
DAY 8 – RETURN TO REALITY
After seven packed days, my vacation had finally come to an end and it was time to return to the mainland, and reality. I woke up early as usual to catch the Andamans sunrise and yes, I did get a nice picture this time around. Sam and Frodo were in a playful mood, and vied for my attention in order to get yet another belly rub.
I must admit that I envied my companions from Bangalore, who were staying on for a little while longer to do the Advanced Open Water course. But then there’s always next January, and I’m very sure that I shall return to the Andamans someday!
Frodo insists that it is his turn now! (image courtesy: VH)
The beach bum will return to Havelock!