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Havelock Island, the best dive site in India and among the top 25 in the world, is the gateway to a fascinating underwater realm
Bond films do it well. The inevitable underwater sequence transports audiences to exotic places that spell excitement, adventure and danger. There is the quick thrill of being in a land - ah, well, you may argue it isn't land - that is inaccessible to others. Or is it? Havelock, a tiny atoll in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is the dive capital of India. Not many know this. That's because conventional tourist map makers don't give a Nemo for what they can't see. Ask experienced divers and they will tell you that Havelock counts as among the top 25 dive sites of the world. But scuba diving? Even if Havelock is in our backyard, isn't scuba diving... er...umm...ah...So. Totally. Hairy?
Actually it is. That's what gives scuba diving a real edge. When you go scuba diving it's hands on: you set up your diving gear, you double check it, you dive, you are the one who has to deal with decompression, you swim with the sharks and barracuda, you experience a world of alien seascapes. When you surface, you are Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. You are Ursula Andress or Bêrênice Marlohe.
Havelock, about 50 km from Port Blair, has a population of about 5, 500. Between February and March, when the sky is clear and there is plenty of sunshine (read: underwater visibility is excellent), Havelock has its 50-plus resorts packed with over a thousand divers from around the world. September and October are also good months if you can live with minor cyclonic weather (if you know your physics, the water under the surface remains calm at all times). Those who enjoy solitude may want to consider November to February which are less busy months.
Havelock was turned into a dive centre by Vandit Kalia, who races for a cycling team and is "deeply" into diving. He set up Dive India on Havelock Island in 2003 (the first dive centre in the Andamans) and waited for divers to turn up. Instead, a tsunami hit the island in 2004 and Havelock was shunned by divers until 2005. By then Kalia and his team had discovered SS Inchekett, a 90mt ship which sank around Havelock in 1952. Today, Inchekett makes an excellent site for shipwreck diving along with a smaller ship in the region, the MV Mars.
Kalia and his team have mapped 28 dive sites which, between them, offer an opportunity to view marine life ranging from living coral to enormous hammerheads, greytip, whitetip and leopard sharks, dolphins, sting rays, turtles, lobsters, squid, sea urchins, massive coral groupers, fusiliers, bat fish, parrot fish, sweetlips, surgeon fish, tuna and trevally. Over the years Kalia has seen a change in the divers visiting change. "Today, we get more Indians than foreigners, " he says. "This is a good sign. "
Guhesh Ramanathan, who has been diving for 14 years with more than 500 dives logged around the world, thinks none of the other places he has been to compare to Havelock. "This site is world-class, pristine, " he says. "Visibility is excellent. The marine life is huge. Two shipwrecks to explore. Night dives are fantastic. The instructors are experienced. Many of them have been diving all over the world. The equipment is on a par with dive shops abroad. Safety standards are high. What else can you ask for?" Then, Ramanathan, who is COO of the NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at IIM-B and the author of The Scuba Sutras - 10 Business Lessons From Under the Sea, answers his own question: "Havelock is quiet, laidback, crime-free and easy on the wallet. " In fact, Havelock's complete economic focus is diving. There is some agriculture on the island, but it is the intensity of the diving activity that makes it the dive capital of India.
Darshan Jadav, CEO of a technology company in Pune, who routinely dives off Goa and at Murudeshwar along the Karnataka coast, prefers Havelock in the monsoon. Jadav and his wife Tina often find themselves on the island in the middle of the rains, in a world that is primeval and untouched. "It does get choppy, but we don't mind taking our chances in paradise, " says Jadav. "It is a great way to escape the world and get off the radar. " Literally.
THE TRUTH ABOUT DIVING
Is scuba diving dangerous?
If you don't follow diving instructions (and restrictions ) carefully, it is dangerous. However, no one dives alone. You always dive in pairs which ensures that you're not alone in an emergency.
Is diving equipment complicated?
You need to manage three things while diving. One, ensure you don't waste your tank of air. That means breathing normally is best. Two, you need to ensure you don't exceed diving depths prescribed for you in order to avoid medical complications. That's why you learn to use a dive computer which plans your dive. Three, you need to manage your buoyancy - in other words, sink to the bottom of the ocean and come up to the surface without behaving like an underwater yo-yo. Buoyancy is controlled with the use of a weight belt, air in your diving jacket, air in your lungs, and propulsion with the use of fins.
Will the sharks attack?
Our fears have been built by myths perpetrated by popular movies. Marine life is not aggressive. Fish and other creatures attack humans only when they regard them as a threat.
Will I get lost?
Of course there are no signboards. But hang on, where are you going ? All you have to do is go up, and you'll be back where you started (or almost where you started). Divers use a compass to find their way around underwater.
AT A GLANCE
It's best to do a certification diving course. Once you're a certified diver, you can go diving anywhere you want. Certification courses are conducted by many of the large dive schools on Havelock. A four-day certification course costs between Rs 17, 500 and Rs 20, 000. For that much, you get theory, study material, hands on equipment training, equipment rentals, boat rentals, tea and snacks on the boat during dives, four dives up to 18m and an exam that you need to pass. Additional dives for certified divers cost about Rs 3, 000 to Rs 4, 500. Non-certified divers pay more for each dive. Most of the dive shops on Havelock offer Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Schools International (SSI) or National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) certification.
A number of different accommodation options are available on Havelock. These fit every budget from Rs 500 a night to Rs 6, 500. There are plenty of restaurants which serve local and western cuisine.
Regular flights from Kolkata and Chennai to Port Blair are operated by a handful of airlines. From Port Blair to Havelock and back you take a government ferry (Rs 1, 200 return) or a private catamaran (twice as much).
The writer, a content and communication consultant, is an SSI certified diver
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