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Andaman, India: Scuba diving in Havelock Island

By Amrita Katara Chandnani 15 October 2020

Header image courtesy of Dive India

I had a friend who visited the Andamans (अण्डमान) year-on-year. It made me wonder, what was the big deal about it? It was the same island. Havelock (हैवलॉक आइलैंड), to be precise. But she always came back with a golden tan and a smile that didn’t fade for weeks in the aftermath of all the scuba diving. So, I have decided to find out what the big deal is by going on a diving expedition to Havelock Island myself.

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Welcome to the deep blue sea. Pause. Rewind. Play. You can’t just take a plunge into the sea, you have to study for it. We had to take a test online, complete with a computer-generated certificate that had to be printed and signed before our adventure started. This was the prelude to getting open water-certified, which is the entry-level certification for scuba diving.

We chose the Scuba Schools International (SSI) for our certification, and Dive India as our dive school—the premier institute for divers in the Andamans. But this wasn’t the only requirement—you’ll have to submit a medical statement which had to be meticulously filled and signed by a family doctor. The instructors at Dive India also explained to us how important it was to know how to swim when it came to scuba diving. You need the basic capability to cover a distance of about 200 metres unaided, or 300 metres with a mask, snorkels, and fins, and float for at least 10 minutes.

We decided to do our swimming test on arrival in Andaman, as opposed to at one of their centres in Mumbai. While I wasn’t perturbed about the swimming bit, I was a little jittery about stepping into the marine world. And just like that, it was time for us to fly.

We arrived at the capital of Port Blair (पोर्ट ब्लेयर). You can’t judge the islands based on the capital. While Port Blair is known for its Cellular Jail (prisons built during the rule of the British East India Company), the real beauty is in the Havelock and Neil islands, which was where we were headed. On arriving, we were welcomed at the airport by the Dive India driver, Nagesh, who was responsible for arranging our inter-island travels. We took the first ferry out into Havelock, trudging and pulling our heavy suitcases through flights of stairs. 

It was a 90-minute ferry ride until we reached Havelock. On disembarking, Nagesh whisked us away to the Dive India resort, consisting of a collective of aesthetically designed tents, each with a porch and hammock outside. If you are an avid reader, it would be considered blasphemous to not swing into the holiday mood on the hammock whilst turning a page or maybe a hundred. Entering the tent felt like stepping into a dream. There was a lofty ceiling, a king-size bed, and an en-suite bathroom to go with it.

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Our diving course was going to start the next day. After finishing the swim test, we decided to explore the resort. White sand beaches stretched out on either side, and a couple of golden retrievers bathed in the sea. I felt a sense of calm as I sat there, watching them lap at the waves, playing with them. A quaint little café stood by the beach. A group of people huddled by one of the tables as a bronze-skinned instructor welcomed them to the course. It was our turn next. Our instructor, Michael, animatedly explained the rules of diving to us. Our first dive would start at 6 am the next day. We would first be taught how to use our equipment before we set out. And then, the local rickshaws would drive us to our first dive site—Nemo’s Reef.

I woke up at 5 am feeling like a bunch of nerves. I had heard horror stories of crocodiles in the ocean, and sharks that could feast on you. Blaming myself for watching too many movies, I wore my swimsuit and plastered a smile on. On seeing the heavy cylinders at the training area, I felt my insides squirm. How could we handle such heavy equipment underwater? Was I signing a death warrant for myself? Time would tell. But I didn’t have to wait too long. When the good folks at Dive India explained the physics behind the equipment, a sense of confidence was instantly instilled in me. I was in good hands.

The site got its name from the famous clownfish. It was where beginners learned the tricks to enter the mysterious realms of marine life. We were ecstatic to see ropes littering the coastline. There were other diving instructors with their groups, intently lecturing the students. You could hear splashes and shouts from everywhere. We were given our fins and eye masks and told to enter the shallow reef immediately. The water was cold but inviting. It took us some time to master the first set of skills before our instructor took us deeper into the reef.

The first rule of diving was that you always have to dive with a buddy. No buddy, no dives. Michael, our instructor, stressed about this enough times to make us understand the importance of it. And so, we descended into the blue waters to start with the basics. I was shell-shocked to feel the pressure in my ears. Gasping for breath, I came up onto the surface, reminded of every little worry I've had. Putting on my mouth-piece, I felt like I was embarking on an important mission—to overcome my fear.

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A variety of fish travelled with the current as we looked around in delight. There were barracudas, lionfish, needlefish, and many other beautiful creatures that acquainted with us with shy excitement. They welcomed us into their world, circling around our feet and driving away any fears. Michael often looked back every few seconds to see how my buddy and I were doing. I was struggling, but the only word that reverberated through my mind was “Shanti,” which literally translates to “Peace.” It was only after a few minutes that I realised that the environment didn’t seem alien anymore. I stepped out of the water feeling a sense of accomplishment. We had successfully completed the training. Tomorrow, we would set out into the ocean.

We had to complete two dives per day to be eligible for open water certification. The next day, we started at 6 am. The sun had not yet risen, and we had to assemble our equipment at the resort before we left for the dive site. This time, we were going to ride a boat to go deeper into the sea at a site called Lighthouse, meant for beginners. 

Braced for impact, I pummelled clumsily into the sea. Michael, our instructor, confidently took six of us around the site, keeping a sure eye on each of us. I could see the corals in the distance swaying from one side to another—the current was weak and it was the perfect day to have your first real dive. We lasted underwater for about 50 minutes before our oxygen levels ran low. Ascending onto the surface, I felt tired but at the same time energised. The endorphins were rushing through my veins—we had done it.

In the next few days, we were introduced to more dive sites, some deadly, some beautiful. Make sure you ask for an experience at Dixon’s Pinnacle, Jackson’s Bar, and The Wall. In between the dives, as the nippy, salty sea breeze dried our swimsuits, we gorged on some chai (चाय; tea) and samosas (समोसा; an Indian stuffed potato fried pastry) that warmed our souls. More often than not, the sun was shining upon us, giving you the chance to sit by the deck and get a beautiful tan. After five days, our diving experience was complete and we were all officially certified over water divers. We celebrated with free dives and lazy snorkelling afternoons by the beach.

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Although it was the main attraction, Havelock wasn’t just about the dives. On the days that our limbs weren’t numb from conquests of the ocean, we would find ourselves riding away on two-wheelers exploring the beaches and the food. Be sure to check out Radhanagar Beach, the prawn curry at Anju Coco, and the grilled tuna at the Full Moon Café. A stroll around Munjoh Resort would wow you with its beauty, while the crab lollipops at Something Different—a beachside café—would whet your appetite instantly. You can also get an experience of Neil Island, which is a ferry ride away from Havelock. Dive India also operates from a cosy little resort on Neil Island. 

If there was one thing I was sure of, it was this—life at sea was spectacular. It was there that I realised that even though humans change as per region, marine life remains the same. The blue waters gives you the chance to meditate, to quiet the mind, and open up the heart. My previous fears now seem insignificant, as the open waters beckon, time and time again.

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Amrita was born and brought up in the city of dreams—Mumbai—before she moved to Hong Kong. Magic is her life’s mantra. Which is why, you get no points for guessing that she’s a die-hard Potterhead. She loves manoeuvring through the bylanes of alien cities in search of delectable delicacies and blogging about them. She also has a palate for short stories and often writes tales inspired around the food she eats. Amrita has contributed to Condé Nast India in the past as a Copy Editor and Writer. And now, she’s on the quest to discover Hong Kong, one bite at a time.