WE'RE SITTING IN A FLAT, brown fishing skiff, rocking in the mild Bay of Bengal swell with no other boats to be seen. And, for that matter, no land either.
Pondicherry, that whitewashed bastion of French colonialism in India, lies some 12 kilometres away, beyond the horizon. Today there are no clouds or birds. Not even a breeze. Were it not for the heat, this could even be peaceful.
Even in February, the south Indian sun dries lips and parches throats. Our drinking water is painfully, revoltingly hot.
The motor is off. We drift with the current. Everything is quiet save the lapping of waves against our hull.
This borders on desolation. It feels a bit like the end of the earth.
I briefly think this must be what it’s like to be stranded after a plane crash, adrift on the ocean. A sort of Old Man and the Sea without the rotting fish carcass and circling sharks.
But no one in this little boat is really interested in aesthetics at the moment. All attention is focused on a small electronic box, a Garmin fishfinder, that’s sitting atop some compressed air tanks; it’s attached to a sounder on our stern which is scouring the ocean floor about 25 metres below us for signs of life.
And at the moment, the sounder sees none.
This excursion off of Pondicherry is the frontline of India’s fledgling dive industry, uncertain and out of place in a country where the sea is largely the domain of salty fishermen and the natural environment takes a backseat to the toils of daily life. In fact, scuba diving is so new here, it can barely even be called an industry.
The coastal waters belong almost exclusively to fishermen and the military. India’s dive centres are mostly stationed on the once-hippie laden beaches of Goa; the high-class, high-cost resorts of Lakshadweep and the remote, idyllic Andaman islands.
But even a few dives in the Andamans showcase enough marine life—schools of bannerfish, humphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasses the size of scooters, turtles and rays and sharks—to envision India’s future.
That’s why I’m tagging along with Temple Adventures, a new outfit in Pondicherry that has permission to explore potential dive sites along the southeast Indian coast.
Our captain, JK Iyappan, is a local fisherman and though he speaks little English, he seems almost bemused with his three passengers, all scuba divers in a country that barely knows what scuba diving is.
At one point, I ask Iyappan what he thinks of us, huddled over the fish sounder, sweating profusely in the midday heat. The translation is rough: he says he’s happy for a day’s wages and is pretty keen on our sonar.
But I get the distinct impression that he finds us a bit silly as we hope to look at fish, rather than catch them.
We continue to stare at the small computer screen hoping for the shapes of schooling fish or uneven bottom—signs of reef or rock or debris.
Iyappan simply stands at the bridge in his brimmed hat and lungi and stares out into the sky. He idly tosses an empty chip bag and later a Sprite bottle into the sea.
Almost no one has dived these waters before, at least not recreationally, says David Hearn, Temple Adventures divemaster. He has big dreams for a dive and surf shop and a partnership with local government in everything from tourism to marine conservation.
“But look, we’ve really only been here since this winter. And most people here have no clue what scuba diving is,” Hearn says. “At first, no one knew what we were doing. We got lots of stares. Now everybody knows who we are, the Coast Guard, the fishermen, when they pass us on the water—‘Oh, that’s Dave and his dive buddies’—because nobody else is doing this.”
Hell, not long ago, neither was I.
IT WAS LAST DECEMBER when I stepped from the ferry, newly docked at Havelock Island, the popular, if still off-the-radar, tourist destination in India’s paradisical island territory, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
After the dirty and dusty warrens of Delhi—and a particular budget guest house in Paharganj—the lush greenery of Havelock, the thick jungle that abuts road and beach, the bright fields of rice and grain seem like another world.
For years, the islands have ranked high on my list of ‘must-visit’ locales, for their remoteness, for their vistas, for their ability to stop time. But I know nothing of their growing reputation as the epicentre of India’s dive culture.
I spend a few nights in a luxurious jungle resort, just off a spit of pure white sand known as Radhanagar Beach, or its rather bland alternative, Beach No. 7. I have no intentions, no plans; no schemes other than turning off and disconnecting.
Drinks and meals turn strangers into new friends. In conversation after conversation, I hear of Havelock’s pristine undersea life that has been spared the pressures of tourism that have mangled and overdeveloped other dive spots the world over.
Consider the scene in Mexico, say some scuba divers, where boats sometimes run non-stop, carrying 30 or 40 or 60 divers at a time. Or look at Thailand, where sometimes beaches are fronted by nothing but bars and hotels and dive centres, and dive waters are filled morning and afternoon with dozens of backpackers learning how to dive. Guidebooks tout nearly 200 dive centres in Phuket, Siam’s scuba mecca.
Though both destinations still offer some world-class diving, they’re more than overcrowded compared to India’s Andamans.
“This is Phuket or Cozumel 20 years ago or more,” says Bruce Farkas, who heads the adventure tourism wing of the Barefoot Group, which also runs a luxury hotel and diving centre. “Really, this is what Phuket was like before it became Phuket.”
On a lark, I sign up for a one-day short course in diving; nothing more than a teaser. I figure it’ll make for a good story for friends back home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I even swam in the ocean. And when I head out, I’m sharing a boat with three young Indian men from Bangalore, who say much the same.
This, apparently, is a common mindset for first-time divers, particularly in a country like India. Here, even people who live on water often don’t even know how to swim. The ocean is for catching food or watching the waves.
Scuba diving, it seems, is simply something to try once, to notch the belt, so you can say you did it.
Indeed, when we come up from our ‘discover’ dive, my new buddies are done; they’re eyeing our boat’s canister of chai and a stretch of beach that eventually serves as a gully cricket pitch.
I, on the other hand, immediately want to gear up for another dive. I’m giddy at the combination of methodical movements and focused breathing—it’s almost meditative, like Pranayama. I’m concentrating on all my movements, carefully using muscles and contorting my body to swim close to reefs that contain entire ecosystems.
And at the same time, I feel like an explorer, an adventurer in a world that many people never experience.
At one point during my second dive, we spot a cluster of humphead parrotfish—each a metre long—in the murky water. I blurt out obscenities, which are lost in a stream of bubbles.
We count at least seven, maybe more. I hold my breath briefly to listen to them munch on the coral; they’re oblivious to my intense shock.
After we surface, my dive instructor lets on that she has never seen so many at once, anywhere in the world.
On the boat ride back to shore, I’m already mentally checking my bank account balance and asking myself if I can afford this new, expensive hobby. I feel the pangs of addiction, of obsession.
THE NIGHT AFTER THOSE FIRST DIVES, I launch into getting certification with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), one of the world bodies that regulate recreational diving and generally the most widespread. Though the dive instructing community can sometimes be a bit corporate and commercial, this is still the first step to making a regular sport of this.
After each subsequent dive, I record as much of the marine life as I can remember: from the tiniest nudibranch to white-tipped reef sharks. By the time I leave the Andamans, I’ve racked up more than 30 dives.
As I talk with seasoned divers nightly in cafés and restaurants, I begin to realise just how lucky I am to have stumbled onto diving in India, specifically Havelock. The Andamans, by many accounts, represent a final frontier in the diving world.
The waters here have all the diversity of the Indian Ocean—much of the same ecosystem as parts of Thailand—but the underwater life is often more pristine. Coral beds are less likely to broken by reckless or inexperienced divers. Deep sites have less remnants of trash left, even accidentally, by dive boats.
The area was largely unscathed by El Niño and coral bleaching that damaged many marine ecosystems around the world in the late 1990s. As well, the pressure of tourism on Havelock—from trash in the water to careless divers damaging the reef—is also far less than the world’s most popular dive sites.
“The potential of diving here is still really untapped,” says John Ferguson, a financial advisor from the United States who has logged hundreds of sites from the Maldives to the Red Sea. He is one of the voices who initially persuaded me to try diving.
“From the dive shop, we’re doing only a fraction of the possible dive sites in the islands,” Ferguson says. “The literature is really thin on these and it seems that many of the dive shops don’t even run trips to the farther islands.”
For example, the waters around Barren Island, home to India’s only active volcano, are several hours from Havelock by speedboat and were only mapped earlier this year. Other parts of the archipelago haven’t seen any serious dive activity since Jacques Cousteau visited years ago, some scientists say.
The pressure of tourism remains startlingly low, at least for now. Government figures say only about 11,000 non-Indians came in 2007, the most recent year for statistics.
A dive site in the Andamans would be crowded if more than 30 divers visited in a day, whereas a popular site on Koh Tao where I dived this spring, might see as many as 200 in a single morning.
The waters around Koh Tao, though still beautiful, are renowned on the backpacker circuit as an easy and cheap place to get certified. With dozens of shops to choose from, thousands learn to dive there. A shop on India’s Havelock island would be lucky to train 400 divers in a year.
But nobody predicts this will last. The Indian government already has plans to open up other islands in the Andamans for tourism. Hotel chains are vying for development licences, a move that conservationists are eyeing suspiciously.
The concerns over protecting the environment—in part because of the Andamans’ potential diving and tourism gold mine—become imminently clear as I sit chatting with biologists in a field research station a few hours by car and ferry from Havelock’s tourist hot zone.
I pose what I see as a basic question about India’s future to Tasneem Khan, the base coordinator for the Andaman and Nicobar Island Environmental Team, a leading conservation NGO in the islands.
I want to know how a conservation organisation functions in a country where the environment, bluntly put, doesn’t seem important to a lot of people. Attitudes have been changing as cities revamp public transport and continue to build infrastructure, but water in many areas remains nearly toxic, and a personal culture of littering is pervasive.
Even the Andamans, though far more environmentally aware than the mainland, struggle with a growing population that doesn’t necessarily look after the environment. Garbage collection is nearly non-existent there, too. Some of the more popular beaches only stay clean if hotels hire workers to pick up trash.
“Look, it’s a developing country. That means that economic progress has often been put ahead of the environment. Look at the sanitation services in the country, the pollution in major rivers. It’s not easy to conserve, or to convince people to do so,” Khan says with a hint of frustration and also defensiveness.
“But we’re seeing a general shift in consciousness in favour of environmental protection. Some of that is a result of the economy, finally. More people now have the luxury to be concerned.”
But will that be enough to force sensible development in the Andamans? I ask, noting the ramshackle construction at a breakneck pace in other parts of the country. Khan says she sees positive signs coming from the island government—talk of restricting construction, of having serious environmental impact plans—but, at this point, she isn’t sure.
But the infant dive industry is expanding slowly in the country. In addition to the Andamans, Goa and Lakshadweep, shops and dive clubs are springing up in major cities like Bangalore and Mumbai to introduce Indians to the sport. Last November, PADI held India’s first instructor development course, a crucial step in populating the dive industry with nationals rather than simply expats.
But more divers in the water, as clubs and shops spread the word and interest increases, leaves India at something of a crossroads. Like the chaotic development that has strained infrastructure and hurt the environment elsewhere in India, a dive industry that grows with abandon will likely do more harm than good.
The industry has a chance to bring reef conservation to India just as much as tourism revenues, Khan says during our chat over beers. Most dive shops and hotels already advocate marine protection and working with fishermen, whose knowledge is needed but whose nets and trash are feared. Tourists themselves, Khan says, must be active in the process as well.
“As more dive shops appear, who is going to regulate them? The ones now are mostly doing a good job of policing themselves and looking after the ecology, but can that last? Probably not,” she says between sips. “Tourists are going to have to demand best practices as much as the government.”
MEANWHILE, THE DIVING SCENE in Pondicherry is years behind the Andamans, let alone dive sites in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean that have more than two decades of commercial build-up; Hearn’s outfit is only beginning to log coordinates of potential dive sites.
With the sun beating down on us, we’re still trying to find fish on the sounder. Eventually, another boat motors up alongside us. After a bit of negotiation and payment in bags of tomato-flavoured Lays potato chips, some local fishermen lead us to a spot they’ve been hitting earlier in the day.
Their sense of geography is uncanny; they can return to a specific patch of water without any landmarks. We troll slowly behind them, still looking intently at the sounder. Seconds after they tell us to cut our motor and drift, the sonar spikes: the bottom contour is broken and fish markers appear on-screen.
“The screen says there’s a massive load of fish down there,” Hearn says as we gear up. “We’ll find out.”
As I’m preparing to backroll into the water, Hearn also offers something between a disclaimer and an apology.
“No one has dived these waters that we know of,” he says. “There are no maps. There are no records. When we go down, we’re the first people to see some of this. If we find something, we mark it on the GPS. If we don’t, well, that’s exploration diving.”
He perhaps doesn’t realise that his pep talk only makes me more excited.
At the bottom, we try not to kick up the dark, heavy sand. Our boat has drifted a bit from where the sounder showed schools of fish so we’ve got some strong swimming into the current. About ten minutes later, a tree—sunk by fishermen to act as an artificial reef—materialises before us in the somewhat murky water. It’s surreal to see it down here and know that I’m several storeys beneath the surface.
As we get closer, the tree comes alive. Giant potato groupers sit lazily on the ocean floor amid branches. Barracuda school overhead. Dozens of tiny fish swarm here and there. From a distance, we warily eye jellyfish the size of watermelons.
We spend about 35 minutes on the bottom, first staring at our find, then searching the water nearby for any other landmarks. When we surface, Hearn is wistful: “That was one tree and look how many fish showed up. That’s how rich these waters are. Think what it’ll be like when we discover actual reef.”