A diver comes across a Napoleon Wrasse surrounded by a giant school of Big-eye Trevally
We are out, exploring the night life in Havelock in the Andamans. It is different. In complete darkness, the powerful shaft of silver from our flashlights picks out the creatures of the night: a languorous lobster here, a bunch of spindly shrimps looking like rock stars, a squid there, spiky sea urchins littered across the ocean floor, a brilliantly hued parrot fish in slumber under a massive rock.
Butterfly fish at Narcondam, an isolated island in the AndamansWe are about 15m under the Indian Ocean, exploring a coral reef on a night dive. Before we surface, we stop and turn off our lights. It is like switching off the universe. Nothing is visible. There is no sound. All sense of direction and dimension is erased instantly. We could be floating in nothingness. Then we do what we have been itching to do—we give the inky water around us a quick swirl. It comes brilliantly alive. The water is instantly speckled with the magical blue-green bioluminescence of microscopic plankton. It’s like being enveloped by a million swirling stars, moving outward in slow motion towards infinity.
The next day, as I go diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, I am about to experience the meaning of “million” all over again. Welcome to Havelock, the dive capital of India in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
A ghost pipefish, or false pipefish, in the waters off Havelock. Photo: Vandit KaliaFrom Village No.3 on Havelock island, it is an hour and 20 minutes by speedboat to Johnny’s Gorge, a low-lying reef at a depth of 30m. The cloudless early morning sky ensures good underwater visibility. The unspoilt waters are blue, clear, and at a splendid 27 degrees Celsius. For miles around, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing except the expanse of the ocean.
There are just eight of us diving here. As we begin to descend, a school of some 400 barracuda swirls gracefully around us. Immediately we sense why divers want to be on the first boat to Johnny’s Gorge. By the time we are at a depth of 27m, we are amidst a stunning 360-degree panorama of ocean life: brilliantly hued corals, barrel sponges, thousands of yellow-striped snappers, a gazillion neon fusiliers, spotted Clown triggers, Bluefin Trevally, a Marble Ray the size of a car, feather stars. The ocean floor is alive with a million and more fish around us. My wife spots a whitetip shark. It is surreal. No, it is like being on the inside of a 360-degree hyperreal HDMI transmission.
A red-spotted Porcelain Crab at Nemo’s Reef, Havelock. Photo: Vandit KaliaScuba-diving is different things to different people. It is adventure, as you explore uncharted territory in alien environments. It is challenging, because you must overcome your deepest fears and trust your knowledge and skills. It lays naked your character in adversity; anything can happen underwater—and trust me, it often does. You could get narced—nitrogen narcosis, a happy but potentially dangerous high brought upon by excess nitrogen in the bloodstream during which divers have been known to do strange things, like giving their regulators to fish to let them breathe. It builds unquestioning camaraderie (you always dive with a buddy).
You could even end up running your business better. No kidding. Guhesh Ramanathan, the former chief operating officer of the Nadathur S Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, wrote a book on what he learnt about running a business based on his diving experience (see Guhesh Ramanathan’s 10 Scuba Sutras).
On the way back from Johnny’s Gorge, I ask Todd McMichael, a South African who is on the boat with us and who has logged more than 900 dives all over the world, what brings him to Havelock. He admits that he has seen better dive sites in Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands. “But, where can you find a better balance of diving, white beaches, yoga and low budgets than here?” he asks.
Jenny Cullen from Ireland, out on her first dive holiday, says she waited seven years to come to Havelock (she had read about the Andamans) and is now so spoilt here that she doubts if future holidays will live up to her expectations. Biresh Banerjee, a journalist with CCTV, China, and his Austrian partner Viktoria Rieder, on his fourth visit to the island, puts it well. “Havelock still preserves the way Indians used to be honest, uncomplicated, friendly,” he says. “But more importantly, it is remote, unexplored, and I guess it is the distance that will continue to dissuade people from coming here.”
Havelock is remote. But it isn’t dissuading divers from visiting. India, in general, is becoming a popular dive destination for all the reasons that McMichael, Cullen and Banerjee cite (for other dive destinations, see India’s Dive Map). Vandit Kalia, a pioneer who set up Dive India at Havelock in 2003, and whose team has discovered all the top dive sites in the region, says that five years ago there were just 10 dive professionals on Havelock. Now there are close to 40 (Read | An Ocean of Opportunity
). Dive traffic too has grown. Peak traffic at the height of the diving season (January-April) used to be about 45 divers a day. It is now 170-180 divers a day.
Divers at a coral reef off NarcondamMadhava Reddy, managing director, Planet Scuba India in Bangalore (India’s first inland scuba-diving training institute, and among the largest diving equipment suppliers in the country), says that five years ago he had just eight customers. Today, because the number of diving companies has grown, he has 42 customers. Reddy trains busy IT executives at indoor pools after office hours and on weekends in Bangalore, then takes them to nearby Murudeshwar on the coast for open-water dives. “This way everyone saves time, money, and gets to dive,” says Reddy, who brought one of the leading global diving schools Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) to the country in 2009 and is raising capital to expand business.
A whitetip Reef Shark. Photo: Vandit KaliaReddy says diving, according to industry sources, is currently a $3 million (around Rs.18.3 crore) business, and projected to be $30 million by 2022. As places like Thailand get over-commercialized (and risky due to lifestyle factors), the recreational diving traffic will move to India which is next door (Port Blair is barely 750km from Phuket), cheaper, has far superior marine life, and demonstrates the hospitality traits that foreigners love.
But can the infrastructure keep pace with the demand? Is it possible to set up and run small world-class hotels on remote islands?
Sunil Bakshi, an engineer in the oil and gas industry and a diving enthusiast, didn’t wait to find the answer. Instead, with wife Vismaya, he invested close to $2 million in a 40m, eight-room luxury yacht, the MV Infiniti, custom-designed for diving. He went through the entire process of getting the yacht designed and built in Thailand, tested and certified according to global safety standards, and operational in Indian waters.
A turlte with a Trevally on a deep dive in the waters off Havelock. Photo: Vandit KaliaIt has been a year since the Infiniti has been operational in the Andamans, with guests from across the world living on it for dive vacations. “We don’t need to waste time getting to dive sites,” says Bakshi pointing out one of the big advantages of liveaboards (as diving from such boats is called). “We can do up to four dives a day in frontier locations that even speedboats can’t get to.”
Bakshi says that everyone in the Indian diving industry could see the coming growth but has not been able to convert the opportunity. Infiniti has managed to do so. It has been completely booked back-to-back in its first year of operations, providing world-class diving in magical waters.
One day, over lunch, Todd tells me that he couldn’t resist signing up for seven days aboard the Infiniti, starting early March. I am not surprised. In the coming years, there are going to be thousands like him opting to dive in India simply because diving here has moved into a new league.
Leopard Sharks in the waters off Havelock. Photo: Vandit KaliaI spend Valentine’s Day with my wife on an especially enchanting deep dive. We are at Dixon’s Pinnacle, perhaps at a depth of 22m, going down to a deeper 28m, past a cluster of three underwater hills (the pinnacles). Against the sharp cobalt water, a pinnacle appears to be carpeted in a mysterious yellow sheen. As we approach, the entire carpet made up of thousands of yellow snappers moves away in one graceful, synchronized motion, a shimmering ballet of yellow, to reveal a wall of astounding coral below. Underwater, nothing is supposed to take your breath away. Air is precious. But how could it not?
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins. He is a Scuba Schools International certified advanced diver.