By Vidya Deshpande
‘First I was like Whoa, then I was like Whoa and then I was like Whoa….’ Yes, I am stealing this dialogue from Crush, the sea turtle in Finding Nemo to describe my ‘whoa’ moment. The moment was 12 meters underwater, as I watched a myriad of different coloured fish swim among the coral reefs off Havelock Island in the Andaman Sea. Here’s where I found Nemo. I saw not just one, but several orange and white stripped Clown Fish, just like Nemo, darting in and out of the twirling tentacles of the purple and yellow sea anemones. No surprises then that the reef off Beach no 3 at Havelock, one of the popular diving sites here, has been named ‘Nemo Reef’ by the diving community.
Nemo Reef is a shallow coral reef which is used for discovery dives, or dives for beginners and first timers. It is the ideal dive site for beginners as it is full of colourful fish, like the bright green Parrot Fish, the black and gold Angel Fish, different varieties of Anemone fish (including the Nemo Variety), Damsel Fish and Butterfly Fish. You can also see schools of translucent shrimp, sea horses, pipe fish and sea cucumbers. There’s virtually no fear factor for beginners as this protected reef rarely has any of the dangerous creatures. You might occasionally encounter a scorpion fish, whose sting can be dangerous, an octopus or two and some sea snakes. But the reef doesn’t have any dolphins, manta rays of other bigger sea creatures
It was only on my third dive that I saw an octopus. The creature was so shy that it hid behind the rocks. As the dive master accompanying me, pushed me closer to the octopus to get a better shot with my underwater camera, I could literally see the fear in its eyes. The octopus slid further in between the rocks, but my dive master wanted to ensure I got more bang for my buck and we moved directly over the rocks to get an even closer view. At that moment, seeing the fear in the octopus’ eyes, I decided that octopus is one sea food item that’s off my menu.
To add a bit of thrill to a first timer’s diving experience, a smart thinking diving company has sunk the shell of a jeep into the reef. So you get the thrill of swimming in and out of the rusted jeep, a setting straight out of an action film!
Many of the Andaman Islands have been opened as diving sites and it’s a treat for those who love this sport. Havelock is the most popular island for tourists in Andamans. Radhanagar beach at Havelock is the world’s 7th most spectacular beach, according to a Time magazine list and ranks as number 12 in Asia on top travel site, Trip Advisor. You can go surfing here and in my hurry to get a great selfie posing against the breakers, I lost my precious glasses. The time between clicking the selfie and the breaker hitting me was so fast that in one whoosh the glasses were swallowed by the sea!
Other than Havelock, I hired a boat with fellow divers and went on an excursion to two uninhabited islands, South Button and Tamarind Camp, where you can spend time diving around the islands, but cannot set foot on them. South Button is a tiny island that has steep cliffs all round, and you can catch a glimpse of a pair of white-bellied sea eagles that have been nesting on a lonely tree there. The day we were snorkeling around South Button, the low tide brought in hundreds of pink jelly fish, with their whiplash like tentacles. After a few of us got stung by the tentacles, we decided to move on to Tamarind Island. The water was a little murky here, because of the low tide, but the reef was full of exciting creatures.
The other exciting thing to do in these islands, is go kayaking into the mangroves. Having no previous experience of kayaking, I was wondering whether, I and my kayaking partner (also a novice) would be able to get the kayak going. But with the instructions of our super-efficient guide Tanaz, a young lady in her early twenties, we shot off towards the mangroves without any hitch. The mangroves have a life of their own. These trees have adapted to saline water with an amazing natural reverse osmosis system. Tanaz, who runs her own kayaing company, gave us a low down on the ecosystem of the mangrove, as we were right in the middle of this forest, gently rocking in our kayaks.
Over the five days I stayed in the Andamans, I did four discovery dives, a whole day of snorkeling and one afternoon of kayaking, without any hitches. But here’s a word of caution: pick your diving company carefully. Choose the ones that have experience diving instructors and follow the international safety protocols for diving, and affiliated to PADI, the international body that governs diving. They are a little more expensive (a single discovery dive costs around INR 4,500 plus taxes, INR 2000 per person for kayaking and about INR 5,000 per head for the day long snorkeling picnic) but it’s better to ensure safety than go for a cheaper deal and find your safety being compromised.
And if you are looking to find Nemo, there’s no better place to find him, right here in these reefs, living with his siblings, cousins and other sea creatures.
(Vidya Deshpande is a freelance writer and takes trips with women travellers to off- beat locations, with her venture, Soul Purpose Travel.)