Andaman Sea is one of well-known scuba diving spots in the world. And after trying a fun dive in Vietnam one summer, I was keen to be a certified diver and do the Open Water Certification to begin with. Another friend, Aanchal quickly agreed to this and we did some research on where to do the scuba diving course. We wanted something not-too-expensive, and after exploring options in Thailand and Lakshadweep, settled on Havelock – amongst the largest Andaman islands – to learn diving.
Reaching Havelock island
Andaman & Nicobar Islands while politically a part of India, feel anything like that. In fact, the islands on the eastern side in the archipelago are closer to Thailand than to the Indian mainland.
It takes the good part of a day to reach Havelock Island from Delhi, whether you take the flight via Chennai or Calcutta. Our flight via Calcutta made it in time to reach the dock to take the 145 pm private catamaran. (I had arranged with Barefoot Dive Center for transfers from airport to the dock and the purchase of ferry tickets).
A not-so-rough ride for about 2 hours and we stepped on the jetty at Havelock. It was raining as we stepped out of the catamaran. A smooth transfer to Barefoot Dive Centre and my friend and I settled into our duplex cottage. A neat, living room and bathroom at the ground floor and the bedroom and a balcony on the first floor – great value for money. There was nothing much to do that day and we were happy to get in a relaxed frame of mind, walk around the beach, eat at their restaurant and get in bed early.
Day 1: Skills practice and the first Open Water dive
We were to report at 8 am after breakfast. We were introduced to one of the senior dive instructors at the center. Having read all the theory earlier in the week, we dived straight into the practical part. The first part of assembling the gear – BCD, cylinders, regulators, and whatnot. Our instructor turned out to be a perfectionist, and he made us assemble and dis-assemble the gear 4 times before he was fully satisfied.
We were to wear the gear and go to the beach for our swim test – 10 minutes of float on the back and 200 meters of swim without fins / 300 meters with fins. After the swim and float test, we went to the shallow part of a beach for some skills practice – taking the regulator underwater and putting it back in the mouth, purging the water from the regulator, switching between snorkel and regulator, clearing a partially flooded mask off the water, etc.
We got a short break and had bananas and lunch on the boat. I was really tired by now – lack of sleep, all the exercise that my body is not used to, the information overload, all put together exhausted me. Some rest and more skills practice in the water – experiencing ‘’out of air’’ when the instructor shuts the air supply, breathing with your buddy’s alternate air regulator.
And then on to our first Open Water Dive to Nemo Reef – not too deep at about 9 meters. I just didn’t realise how tired I was before the start of this. A few minutes of moving underwater where my friend and I were struggling with being horizontal at a particular level. First day divers should remember not to fret too much about buoyancy control – and there was a dramatic improvement for us in the next 2 days itself.
The Andaman Sea is alive and how – in just a few minutes, we saw anemone/clownfish, pipefish, parrotfish, sea cucumber, bannerfish, a scorpionfish (that had camouflaged itself on a rock, poisonous).
And then the instructor found a safe spot on the sand, checked for creatures, asked us to kneel and do some skills practice what we were taught earlier in the shallow water. My instructor asked me to lose my air regulator, find it and put it back in the mouth.
I tried once in haste – got the regulator from under my arm instead of over it, tried to take it out of my mouth again but while putting it back, just didn’t lock my lips over it, swallowed water, panicked when I couldn’t purge the water and breathe air. And instead of thinking calmly about my alternate options – breathing from my alternate air source, taking the alternate from my buddy/instructor, I broke the basic rule in scuba – stopped breathing, gulped in water, panicked and kicked up to get out.
My instructor tried to put the regulator in my mouth to do some damage control but I just wanted out. On surfacing, he asked the other divemaster to take me on the boat and went down to continue the dive with my friend. I was so dejected that evening but just wanted a hot shower, food, and sleep to get over with that disaster.
Day 2: More Skills practice and the second Open Water Dive
I was both dreading and looking forward to the next day. We reported at 730 am post breakfast at the dive center restaurant. Our gear had already been assembled and taken to the boat. My friend was asked to stay out on the boat and our instructor asked me to go for the Open Dive 1 with him and redo the skills that were left incomplete the day before.
And after a good night’s rest, it thankfully tuned out to be easy. I removed my mask and put it back. I removed my regulator, kept breathing out, retrieved it and put it back all quite easily. I enjoyed the rest of the dive and got a big smile from him when we surfaced.
We did a lot of new skills practice on the second day of the course – manually inflating the BCD, ‘sipping’ air from a malfunctioning regulator, etc. This was followed by bananas and a long rest in the boat, followed by another training dive.
We were back at the Dive Center by 1pm. More than enough time to take a shower and decided to step out and explore the island.
Day 3: Open Water Dive 3 and 4 and a lengthy exam
Our third dive was at the Red Lighthouse site within the harbor. We were hoping to go outside the harbor to a dive site named The Wall, but the meteorological department didn’t give permission on account of a cyclone warning.
Red Lighthouse is a shallow site – max depth of about 10 meters – and is beautiful. Underwater visibility on the third day was much better than the past 2 days, at about 10 meters or more. We put on all our diving gear on the boat, did the basic safety check and got off the boat using the giant stride exit.
As we descended, I looked up at the school of colorful fish moving all around and felt the magic of diving come alive for me. We were much more confident with managing our buoyancy today.
One of the attractions at this site apart from marine life is a Kinetic Honda scooter, standing intact on the sea bed, providing a home to some corals and tiny fish.
We also spotted huge barrel sponges – some over 4 meters and an octopus resting on a rock with its tentacles all folded inside. The dive instructor made us do some skills practice at this depth during the dive.
We surfaced up feeling quite exhilarated with our first 60 minute dive! But underwater peace and quiet don’t give away the turbulence on the surface. It was drizzling when we came up. An hour’s chit-chat later, the weather had steadily worsened. We decided to go back in for the fourth and last training dive.
This was a completely different experience than the morning dive; visibility was barely 2/3 meters. I could just about make out Manish and Aanchal’s shapes and decided to stay close to them. A key new skill that had to be learned was navigation basics – we were made to look into a compass, go out in one direction for just 10 kicks and come back to the same point.
For some reason, while concentrating on the compass, I was breathing out lesser than all the deep breaths going in. Consequently, unknown to me, instead of going in a horizontal way, I kept moving up and up. Of course, when I came up, I was way above the dive instructor instead of my starting point! My friend did the same mistake. Much threats and scolding later (He wrote ‘U WILL FAIL’ on the slate he was carrying with him!), we did another practice run and got the hang of it. Phew!
Nothing except a large sea fan was seen during the dive. And the water was really choppy when we surfaced. But my friend felt that training during this condition is a good experience to have under your felt. I couldn’t agree more.
We went back to the dive center, and after a hot shower and lunch, sat down to give a lengthy exam. With this final hurdle out of the way, Aanchal and I were certified scuba divers!!
Day 4: Fun dives
With an extra day in hand, we had decided to log in two more fun dives to practice all the skills taught to us so far. Our ferry back to Port Blair was in the afternoon and we checked out of our rooms before leaving for the dives.
The meteorological department repeated its cyclone warning and didn’t give the boat passengers permission to go outside the harbor. So our first dive as PADI certified divers was again at the Pilot Reef, this time with another divemaster. A leopard shark has been spotted at this site a day earlier and we were hopeful. Our first part of the dive went in searching for this shark, but no luck.
The reef does have some good marine life to watch – giant groupers, flute mouthed fish, juvenile moray, striped fusilier, lionfish, angelfish, sea cushion star and more. All in all, a great dive.
The second dive of the day was at the Red Lighthouse. The agenda of the dive apart from seeing all the other marine life was to specifically spot stingrays.
And what a thrill when our divemaster pointed to a Kuhl’s stingray, it is an indescribable thrill to see a creature in its natural setting.
And I spotted a lionfish hiding inside a rock crevice and another stingray. I got so excited and was wilding flailing my hands and feet to get my companions’ attention. We also saw giant clams, emperor angelfish, lionfish, mustache triggerfish, porcupine fish, and groupers.
Despite not being able to go to the more famed spots, we were glad to experience these dives as newly certified divers. And soon it was time to bid goodbye to well-trained crew at Barefoot Dive Center.
The 2-hour ride back on the catamaran started out pleasant but soon became a wish-this-would-end-soon nightmare. Once the catamaran got out in the open rough sea, a lot of people got seasick. And even though I am quite ok on choppy waters, the smell of vomit from several areas in the closed, air-conditioned cabin made me gag.
Finally, we landed at Port Blair and checked into our room at the Fortune Bay Hotel. We opened a bottle of wine and enjoyed that with heavy greasy Indian food!
Some tips on amateur diving
One question that friends and acquaintances have repeatedly asked me after the course is whether I am a strong swimmer, whether I know how to swim underwater etc.
You have to know how to swim for sure. Apart from being an international regulation for a dive course, it wouldn’t be wise to dive without knowing how to swim even if some unscrupulous dive center were to take you.
Most accidents apparently happen on the surface and you would panic in the sea if you didn’t know how to swim. But you don’t have to be an incredible swimmer, just an average one. I don’t swim underwater but the instructor did teach us how to dive under with a snorkel, touch the sea bed (at about 5 meters depth I think), come up and clear the snorkel pipe off the water.
The other question is around perfect weather. Well, diving is certainly better when visibility is high, which in turn depends on wind, ocean floor, weather conditions to name a few. That said, our objective was to complete the Open Water Certification successfully and I feel more confident having trained in the ocean with some currents.
I did my Advanced Scuba Diving course on a tiny island in the Philippines. Do read: Scuba Diving in the Philippines.
Pin it for later!
Are you a diving enthusiast? If yes, do share your favourite diving spot in the comments below.
Subscribe to Zest In A Tote Digest, my monthly newsletter, for travel tips and inspiration.