Sea in a new light

My first diving experience in the Andamans took me to the wondrous world

80-vijaynagar-beach Sea scape: Vijaynagar beach on Havelock Island.

Beach destination/ Andaman and Nicobar Islands

AS OUR PLANE started its descent, I got a glimpse of a sea of such vivid colours I had never seen anything like it. I stayed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for seven nights, but it could easily have been more. History and culture intermingle with scenic beauty in its capital Port Blair. It might be a cliché but don’t miss the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail, where exiled freedom fighters like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar were imprisoned by the British. It is interesting to note how their anguished cries have been converted to ticket sales today.

From Port Blair, you can take day trips to Ross Island, Viper Island, the Baratang limestone caves and the Bandoor beach. The first two invoke the colonial past of the country. Ross Island, for example, was a lively British settlement in the 19th century that was known as ‘Paris of the East’ for its beauty and vibrancy. There used to be Anglican churches, shops, tennis courts and a swimming pool. There were sailing competitions during the day for the British officers and their families and balls with music and dancing during the evening. It was an idyllic life for the Englishmen while the Indian convicts at the penal settlement were shackled in pairs and made to do back-breaking work. Similarly, Viper Island was an open prison where the freedom fighters were jailed for years.

On the way to the Baratang limestone caves, you pass narrow mangrove creeks and tribal reserves. It is about 100km from Port Blair and you need a local permit to go there. Along the way, you will pass by the region where the Jarawa tribes, the native people of the island, live. The vehicles pass in a convoy with police escorts along the stretch, and photography is strictly prohibited. After crossing the reserve, you have to take a ferry to the limestone caves from the jetty at the middle strait. The sedimentary limestone formations, some hanging from the top, are a unique sight. Interestingly, the shapes and sizes of these caves change over time.

Next, we took a boat to Havelock Island. As we neared the island, I felt a deep sense of calm, and with each mile, left the stress of the city behind. There is nothing like the feeling of your feet sinking into the cool, white sand beaches of Havelock. It was here that I tried scuba diving for the first time. I opted for the extended beginners programme with a scuba company called Barefoot Divers.

It seemed the sea was a gently-breathing surface of blue, with nothing below. My first dive introduced me to the wondrous world underneath, of soft corals and tropical reef fish, worms named after feather dusters and Christmas trees, brittle stars and sea urchins. Underwater trivia is fascinating to hear, like how the squids and octopus move by forcing water out of a deep cavity.

Scuba diving is not easy, with the weight of the oxygen cylinder on your back and the heavy belt on your waist. My instructors, Annie and Rehan, were great teachers, although it was unnerving to think that Rehan was only 18. I quickly grasped the sign language used to communicate underwater. The most confusing was the thumbs-up sign, which, unlike popular use, signified that you wanted to come up and not that everything was alright.

If you want to relax after a strenuous diving session, go for a walk on a beach in Havelock at sunset, and watch the glut of colours streaking the sky. My trip, however, ended on a rather disturbing note, when I fell into the sea with my cellphone and new DSLR camera. I was at the beach early in the morning, and to photograph the sunrise, I waded into the water. My foot hit a sharp coral and down I went, with both my gadgets suffering a watery death. It turned out to be a costly trip, but it was worth it. After all, you can’t put a price tag on beauty.