Picturesque beaches, crystal clear water and magical aquatic life, which can’t be compared to anything
Picturesque beaches, crystal clear water and magical aquatic life, which can’t be compared to anythingelse in the world – all this and more makes the Andaman Islands the perfect choice for a laid-back, enjoyable south Asian getaway. I was looking forward to the long treks, lazing around next to the island backwaters, and, of course, deep-sea diving. Before I took this trip, I was terrified at the idea of being underwater for nearly two hours, with an air tank as my only means of life. However, I tried to focus on how I would be swimming amidst corals, seeing colourful fish and discovering an underwater world in silent waters, and took off.
Havelock is the largest of the islands that comprise the Ritchie’s Archipelago, and it belongs to the South Andaman administrative district, part of the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The island is 41km northeast of the capital city of Port Blair. It is a beautiful and charming tropical island with rich flora and fauna, great culture and warm people.
How to Get There
Cut away from the bustling main-land, Port Blair can be reached by air or sea. Plenty of connecting flights from various Indian cities are available. Few tourists opt to take a cruise across the waters of the Bay of Bengal; but everyone must stopover and get on board a catamaran or ferry to get to their final stop – Havelock Island. The ferry ride takes about 1.5–2 hours from the dock and the short-lived ride is truly amazing. I was amongst the few lucky ones that managed to spot a few dolphins and interesting birds along the way.
After I decided to take the diving course here, I called the dive school I wanted to learn with – Dive India. The instructors and staff I spoke to were very helpful, and had told me that I should make my booking any time after October. Eager as I was, I booked my flight for the last week of October. Tourist season in Havelock commences in September and builds up until November. It is a time when the monsoon winds are starting to die down, but there are chances of sporadic showers and occasional feisty winds. At this time, the diving is absolutely fantastic and the sights are amazing. There is, however, a slight chance of a very windy day, thereby limiting diving conditions; but that’s a risk we were willing to take.
We landed in Port Blair early in the day, and took the first ferry out to Havelock at 11.00am.
Pro Tip: Book your ferry ride in advance to avoid having to run around hoping you get a ticket and good seats on the ferry. The local cab drivers are helpful and the right amount of bargaining can get you a good deal for an AC cab drop to the dock. Our driver was nice enough to get us seats on a non-AC ferry – the Green Ocean ferry service. Cost for one ticket is anywhere around ₹900, depending on the type of seats you book. The preferred alternate ferry service is Makruzz, a luxurious fully air-conditioned ferry which can cost you anywhere between ₹1,000–2,000, again depending on the type of seats selected.
We reached our hotel by lunch, and spent the rest of the evening exploring the area and the nearby beach. The first day at Dive India, a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified institute, was quite simple – we met Syed, the instructor, and the rest of the students. Dive India maintains a 4:1 ratio for students and teachers so that each student can bene-fit from personalised attention of the instructor.
The course is structured in three parts – the first day is spent in academic development. Here, the theory of diving is taught to all first- time divers to give them an overview of the entire exercise. This includes safety signage, basic checks with equipment, amongst other things. This course material is covered in video, self-study and instructor briefing sessions. The second part of the PADI course entails learning the essential skills of scuba, starting from simple underwater breathing techniques, working your way up to complex movements such as removing/ replacing equipment underwater. Thereafter, we com-menced the open water dives. A total of four underwater dives are required to get the necessary number of hours for one to be eligible for the PADI Beginner Level Diver certificate and license.
Since we had opted for the regular dives, we didn’t have to go through rigorous training and complete four dives, we had the luxury of taking our time and choosing how many dives we wanted to do based on how much we liked the course. The first thing they did was hand us our wet suits. I don’t think I have ever felt as conscious about my body as I did while getting into the suit! It was a fitted knee-length suit which was complemented with a belt with sandbag weights. We were gradually handed out the equipment that we had earlier learnt about – snorkel mask, which was connected to the oxygen tank and a regulator, fins for our feet and a communicator in case we needed assistance. The oxygen tank was attached to a jacket, which made it easier to wear and helped in buoyancy control. Thereafter, we donned the snorkel-like masks for our face, and were given air regulators to practise breathing with, just as we had seen in the instruction video.
I was pretty pumped by this point, and was getting the hang of all that Syed had taught us. Then we moved on to learning the hand signals, which were pretty simple to understand, but could get confusing if you didn’t listen attentively. For instance, a thumbs up means, ‘take me to the surface’ and a thumbs down means ‘let’s go lower’; the signal for ‘OK’ is made by placing your index finger and thumb together and making a circle with them, while the other three fingers point upwards. These were the three most important signals we needed to keep in mind for the beginners dive, we were told. Having covered the basics, we tackled a few situat-ional exercises. First off, we were taught to ‘equalise’ or balance ear pressure that tends to cause a blocked, uncomfortable feeling in your eardrums once you begin your descent into the unfamiliar depths of the water. Our instructor checked on us individually to see whether or not we had managed to successfully equalise – in theory at least. Then we moved on to something slightly more complex, re-attaching our regulator pipes underwater. It was important to know this because once you get into the water, and in the slightest of chances that you may lose your grip on the regulator, breathing can get challenging. The idea is to get out all the water that may have gotten inside the pipe by breathing it out so that only oxygen comes through it once more. I found this to be a little difficult to master – mostly because the sheer idea of breathing the water calmly out of the regulator while being under-water was deathly terrifying.
Before I knew it, we were ready to head out for the first dive. Dressed in our scuba gear, we got on to the boat, hearts pounding with a sudden realisation that we were going to be 10 feet underwater soon. The feeling was indescribable. As I sat on the edge of the boat once we reached our dive site, I took a deep breath and got ready to take the plunge. We had been instructed to enter the water by performing an inverted somersault, this kind of backward roll is best from small boats commonly used by divers. This entry technique helps because the scuba cylinder ‘breaks’ the water ahead of the diver, and makes sure you don’t dislodge your regulator. The equipment and weights on the diver’s person are rather heavy, so the chances of falling hitting the water awkwardly and injuring yourself are high.
What’s interesting to note is that each dive school has its own set of dive sites that you can visit here. The instructors are well-versed with the locations and aquatic life that each site is known for. Usually, most diving in Havelock happens off Beach No. 7.
We set off in our little boat and 10 minutes later, we had reached our dive site. I forgot to ask the instructor the name of the site, but he did tell me this is one of the most popular spots for beginners and novice divers. Just as we had practised, I sat at the edge of the boat and rolled backwards into the water. Once I had entered the water, we secured our regulators and swam for the dive site. Since this was my first dive, my instructor was always right next to me, holding on to my tank and guiding me on our way down. Before I knew it, the water got chilly, and I knew we had descended at least 10 metres underwater. Being underwater was surreal at first – I was enamoured by the corals, schools of fish and sea anemone around me. It took me a while to get over the beauty of what I was looking at, and I just swam around one small part of corals and anemone, until my instructor ushered all of us to swim around a bit more to see other fish. There were so many colourful fish all around me, but the highlight of my dive was spotting a clownfish and a pufferfish. I also touched a sea cucumber and came across a water mimosa! These are similar to the touch sensitive plants we have on land, but messing around with the plant underwater was a different experience altogether.
Luckily, the visibility was great. I had a small scare when I wanted to cough but I had no idea how to do that with the regulator in my mouth! I signalled to my instructor and he came over and took off my regulator, and gave me the chance to quickly cough, before handing me the pipe back. This was the moment I actually put learning how to clear water out of the regulator pipe to use – scariest three minutes of my life, but without my instructor’s help I would’ve panicked and wanted to swim back up to the surface. I’m glad he calmed me down and helped me push through the minor discomfort because the underwater world is too gorgeous for words.
The most important thing to remember is to keep calm and never hold your breath. If panic sets in, just continue breathing. If you can’t think through your flooded mask, regulator pipe, just keep breathing. If you want to go up to the surface, go on breathing. Calm breathing solves everything.
After swimming around for what felt like a few minutes, we started swimming upwards – I noticed the ear pressure changing and the water becoming warmer. Soon enough, I could see the bottom of the boat. We got in, took off our gear and the boat exploded with excited chatter and discussion about what we had seen, experienced and felt. The dive lasted an hour, and we went 12 metres deep! It was truly a mind blowing experience that I will not forget for a long time.
Once we reached the beach, I couldn’t wait to sign up for another dive, so I did just that. In Havelock, I found peace, adventure, warm people and everything I had wanted from my fortnight-long vacation. It is a beautiful place with gorgeous shores embraced by playful ocean waves. But if you dare to go deeper, and experience the depths of the water, there’s a whole other world inside the ocean that will leave you amazed and bedazzled.
Tip Carry a good pair of sandals for walking on the beaches. Havelock is gorgeous for walks. You can also speak to the hotel staff and rent a bicycle to ride around the tiny island. There are only three main roads and the ride is rather fun. Don’t forget to carry a mosquito repellent – the mosquitoes here are unrelenting. You will obviously need a ton of sunscreen, a good pair of sunglasses and a torch (for walks after 7.00pm). It’s a bad idea to stay up drinking late before you go diving – hangovers will not help when you’re underwater; the acidity will be painful and your head will start throbbing.
Where to Stay & Eat
Being a well-known spot for scuba diving, Havelock has a number of resorts which have their own dive schools that arrange different water activities for tourists.
Since I was on a budget and my trip lasted two weeks, I opted for a budget hotel with a non-AC room. I stayed at Green Imperial Resort (Cell: 09474206301; Tariff: ₹1,000–3,000), which was right across from Dive India, so it was really convenient for me when I went diving. If you manage to make your diving bookings in advance, Dive India has accommodation of its own too.
A few great places you could stay at and do your diving course from are: Dive India (Cell: 08001122205, 08001222206; Tariff: ₹1,500–3,000), Barefoot Scuba Resort (Bengaluru Reservations Cell: 09566088560; Tariff: ₹4,000–6,500, huts for divers ₹300), Silver Sand Beach Resort (Cell: 09434280295; Tariff: ₹5,000–20,000), Seashell Havelock (Cell: 09933239625; Tariff: ₹8,000–20,000), Ocean Tribe (Tel: 03192-282255; Tariff: ₹1,000–2,000) and Ocean Dive Centre (oceandivecentre.in).
Personally, I would recommend Dive India because it has the best instructors and is the most well recognized diving school. They also have a brilliant café on the premises. The Full Moon Café at Dive India has delicious home-style food and a bunch of healthy food options. Their lemonade and diver’s breakfast is absolutely lip-smacking.
Havelock doesn’t have much of a night life, but there are a few places you simply cannot miss. If you’re a seafood lover and don’t mind a humble joint for some great local- style seafood, you must visit Squid Restaurant in the main market. The fish biryani, crab meat masala and squid chilli fry is just heavenly.
Anju Coco is another gem of a restaurant serving a large variety of food including Indian, Chinese and Iranian food. Vegan options are available too. It is run by a sweet, friendly man who is really good with food recommendations.
I also visited Venom Bar which is housed in the Symphony Palms Resort. Since Havelock sleeps quite early, this was one of the few places where there is a good live band and reasonably priced drinks. The vibe was laidback and this became our go-to place when we wanted to unwind with a few drinks and listen to music.
When to go October to early May. It’s too wet during the monsoon months of May–September
All foreign nationals must have a permit to visit Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Those arriving by air are granted permits at Port Blair on arrivals. Indian tourists don’t need a permit to visit Port Blair or Havelock
Air Nearest Airport: Port Blair, from there you can take a 2-hour ferry ride to Havelock