Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Deep Thought

Scuba Diving: A view from under the surface

Published: May 18, 2009 07:31:00 AM IST
Updated: May 29, 2009 01:17:32 PM IST

We are at Grand Central Station; Susanne, Gopal, Venkat and I. Rush hour life surges around us. Busy, busy, busy. We are soaked to the skin.
We are aliens. We are utterly ignored, or queried uneasily. And we love it.

Twelve metres below, near an island named after Shiva’s eye, Netrani, 20 kilometers out from the Karnataka coast in the Arabian Sea, we are hemmed in by shape-shifting walls of commuting triggerfish, bluer than the blue of the waters. We are mesmerised. Large angelfish come to greet us; then, emphatic sergeant majors; then butterfly fish.

A drifter's Life: Diver floating over soft coral in Bali
Image: Parvin Dabbas
A drifter's Life: Diver floating over soft coral in Bali
Giant parrotfish turn away, but not before dazzling us with their macaw colours. A lionfish couple floats away, but not quickly: they know that we know their striped poison-tipped ‘mane’ represents dangerous beauty. Below us, honeycomb
moray eels sway with the gentle surge, partly out of their grottoes in query: prey or passersby? We hear insistent tapping, like muted, rocky rain; a colony of prawn makes music.
We float past a boulder, and come by three cuttlefish below us. A medium-sized brown one. A larger one, 1.5 metres or so from end to end, is just over it, blitzing from brown to snow-white and back in a flurry of colour-rage for us, then tentacles close to the body for now. Another large specimen holds back a bit, lurking. A symphony of three cephalopods. Pure beauty. I melt.

We slowly exhale, drift gently down toward them but not too close, and hover, making sure to release the least possible bubbles as we breathe. As I use the ‘rocking cradle’ sign to signal my complete enchantment with the apparent joys of child-rearing in the deep, I sense an electric change in mood. My companions turn to me.
Gopal shows me a finger, the middle one.
Venkat uses his left forefinger and thumb to make a circle, and purposefully travels the other forefinger through this aperture.

Susanne’s face is suddenly enveloped in bubbles. She is laughing behind her mask.
“Would you like to cuttle?” becomes a refrain for the remainder of the trip. The complete sods.
But at least I now know what actively cohabiting cuttlefish look like.
The humour helps, but I dive because that world makes me believe a little more in this one.
This is religion, carried in a cylinder strapped to my back, 12-litres of compressed air. A mistake can kill me in a few minutes, or a few seconds, if I’m stupid or forego the training my dive gurus have imparted to me. Or, if chance decides my time is up — and no guru on land or under water can help with that karma. But why would I think of death when I am so alive?


Life sort of changed for me while vacationing in the Maldives several years ago at a charming island with a name out of Sinbad’s travels, Embudu Finolhu. The name was so beautiful, so redolent with mystery I never bothered to find out what it meant. Listening to the sea, the wind, the soft crush of white sand as I walked, a dip in the waters, ought to have been enough. But I wanted to see more than even what the astoundingly clear waters in the lagoon placed on display. Fish swam up to my room-on-stilts, but I suddenly wanted to be with them, away from the shallows of a package-deal resort; and badly enough that nothing — not my then-career in media, peer pressure, the money, delusions of grandeur — seemed to matter more.

It took several years more for me to take the plunge. It came with a new life as a journalist on a sabbatical, an aspiring author. Now, some years and several dives later, I’m a certified dive junkie who needs a ‘nitrogen fix’ every now and again. Whenever I see the ocean, I’m driven to wonder what lies below the patch I see: from the beach, to 37,000 feet up in a plane.
Diving creeps up on you. Recreational diving, what I practice, draws a nutty bunch the same as any other ‘adventure sport,’ eager to see life and the world from a different perspective. It’s why folk paraglide, jump off planes, climb, raft, chase the monsoons or the receding snows of Kilimanjaro. It’s

Zen with a tinge of foolishness and lot of edge; realisation of mortality as sheer exhilaration.
This joy makes children of us. There is a trick we like to play when a newbie diver, or an arrogant one, is with a group of four or so. About halfway through a dive, when a person is kind of lulled into comfort, one of us will stop. Automatically, dive ‘buddies’ gather around.
Then, the designated joker in the pack will pull a mobile phone from the pocket of the BCD, or buoyancy control device — a jacket onto which the air tank is strap-ped — and listen for a while. Then he, or she, will gesture to the victim and hand the phone over.
It usually stuns the victim as effectively as the kiss of a jellyfish.
Other cheap thrills come with diving at places with names out of children’s
diaries or comic books — and as charmingly unpretentious. I’ve dived at places, nothing more than areas marked by rock, sand, coral, sheer undersea cliffs, and of course, marine life, with names like Dini’s Delight, Lobster Avenue, Jenny’s Aquarium, Umma Gumma Reef (named by a fanatical fan of the band Pink Floyd), Suzy’s Wreck, The Nursery.
My dive group is now salivating over a trip this summer, to Malapascua, near Cebu in the Philippines. Our Internet newsgroup is buzzing about this relatively new dive destination that has brought positive ‘vibes’ this past year.

Off Gato Island, there’s Whitetip Alley at 20 metres (nearing 70 feet), surefire shark sighting along with cuttlefish and sea horses. The Tapilon Wreck at 28 metres (90 feet) offers a World War II cargo carrier wrapped in soft coral, attended by small barracuda, rays, shrimp — and brilliantly coloured
nudibranchs. A bonus: Spotting these small and large flatworms would allow me to use a favourite underwater signal, motioning to remove the upper-body attire. (This comes a close second to my top signal: Big f***king shark behind you. Try it.)

Fantasy keeps me going. Bunaken and Lembeh in Indonesia, when my publishers give me my next advance. I’ve heard so much about diving in the Andaman Islands in September, just after the Monsoons and just before the tourist season, the sea and its creatures replenished to bursting. How about diving off Oman, seldom finned, and with jewels such as the Red Sea offers? Can I ever make it to Belize, the Holy Grail? How about some real adventure next year, going off to uncharted areas in the Lakshadweep Islands, marking new sites with a GPS, feeling like explorers? How about the fabled, untouched Angria Bank, a four-hour boat ride west of the Malvan coast?
So much to dream, so much to see.
I’m now trying to get my young daughter into it. Not that I have to try too hard: She’s more than 10, and is now permitted to take a basic dive course. Maybe, if she does well in her exams. Last year on Earth Day, I took her along for a clean-up at, and near, an island off the coast of Goa. She cleaned the beach area with a dozen others, while we cleaned up underwater, removing soft drink and beer cans, plastic that chokes life, nets, used fuel containers. After my daughter had finished cleaning the beach littered by day-trippers and their callous hosts, my dive guru’s wife gave her a taste of underwater as reward.
Hook,line, and sinker.

Where to Learn
Basically, check for dive schools wherever your travels take you.

In India: Goa , Lakshadweep Islands and Andaman Islands. Lakshadweep travel and stay costs are relatively higher. The diving is astounding in the Andamans and Lakshadweep: great visibility, corals and marine life. Goa is very accessible but less spectacular, and visibility is lower; a shipwreck adds to the charm. Netrani Island, off Murudeshwar in Karnataka, offers great, rustic diving. Most Goa-based operators offer diving there.

Elsewhere: Sri Lanka (avoidable until conflict cools), Maldives, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Oman, Egypt, Tanzania, Cyprus, South Africa (cold water! sharks!), Seychelles, Belize, Micronesia, the US (Florida) and the Caribbean. Online searches — like ‘Diving in Thailand’ — yield an array of options. Search for diver blogs for tips.

When to Dive
In the subcontinent, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, dive schools typically work all the non-monsoon months. Likewise in Thailand, on the Andaman Sea, on the north-south Khao Lak to Krabi strip; but operators in the Gulf of Thailand and the Maldives (which has reef-enclosed lagoons) offer monsoon diving as well.

Dive Courses
All dive schools in India offer courses from PADI , arguably the most popular international training and certification programme; a few also offer certification from CMAS and SSI. It’s nearly the same outside India. PADI courses begin from Discover Scuba (the best way to figure out if diving is for you; one day, two dives, open to ages 10+, dives can be credited to more advanced courses), and progress to Open Water (mandatory before you’re allowed to dive to any significant depth), Advanced Open Water (mandatory for depths beyond 20 metres, and sites that require greater skill; most ‘live aboard’ trips insist on AOW certification), Rescue Diver and Master Diver. Pro courses include Divemaster and Instructor. Costs for non-professional certification typically range from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 25,000, depending on nature of course, and cover documentation and equipment rental. Costs abroad are similar, but check websites; each dive school has its own fee structure.

Pleasure Dives 
None of the tensions of coursework and certification. A day’s diving with equipment rental, transfers, divemaster guides, and snacks, averages Rs. 3,000 in India (two dives) to about Rs. 5,000 (three dives, Southeast Asia).

Don’t Be Stupid
•    Don’t dive alone. It’s plain silly.
•    Always listen to the divemaster or dive group leader; pay attention to dive briefings.
•    Plan the dive, and dive the plan.
•    Don’t touch anything underwater unless your dive master clears it. Don’t remove anything except trash.
•    Don’t show off. Besides endangering yourself, you can endanger your dive ‘buddy’ and group.

Don’t Dive If
you’re on heavy medication; have recently undergone surgery; are pregnant; have a cold (you won’t be able to equalise the
pressure in your ears as you descend); have just got off a plane — or plan to get on one — the same day as you dive. Clearly state your medical and physical conditions to your dive operator. Don’t fool yourself. It’s not worth it. Check for advisories on medical conditions.

There are no dedicated diving equipment shops in India. Some dive operators sell basic equipment, like masks, snorkels, fins and wetsuits (warm tropical waters don’t require insulating ‘dry suits’). Air tanks, BCDs (buoyancy control device), regulators, octopus (the 4-tube air-carrying variety, not the 8-tentacled one), weights, pressure and depth gauges are usually provided along with the course fee or ‘pleasure diving’ fee by Indian operators. Overseas operators usually charge for equipment rental beyond tanks, air-filling and weights. If you get hooked on diving, buy a mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit (together, about Rs. 15,000). The whole kit, including a dive computer, could cost you between Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 1 lakh, depending on what quality you buy. High-end gear, with the accompanying high-end cost, is strictly for hardcore divers, or show-offs.

If you plan to pursue diving, consider purchasing insurance at Divers Alert Network ( It’s reasonably priced, can be purchased online, and covers nearly all diving-related contingencies, including evacuation and decompression illness-related treatment. Most recreational divers sign up for the ‘40-metre’ insurance (the maximum recommended depth for recreational diving).

As in any sport, fitness helps. While diving is best enjoyed relaxed, moderate to high levels of fitness makes it that much more enjoyable. Smoking or drinking doesn’t help, especially just before — or after — dives. Get a good night’s sleep before you dive.

(This story appears in the 05 June, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sudeep Chakravarti

    @ Nilima: thanks. The navy is creating problems at Nethrani, but that should hopefully be sorted out. @ Sumita: You're very welcome. Tides tend to be tricky around full moon, so some operators caution restraint. In March I was in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, and dive operators were hesitant. But I managed to convince them for one dive. It was at 31m at a spot called Black Coral Point. Stunning. Bottomline: go with the Dive Master's advice. Enjoy, and may your bubbles be small ...

    on Jul 26, 2009
  • Sumita Thapar

    Awesome, very inspiring -- many thanks. Is it true that diving is out of bounds around full moon days?

    on Jul 25, 2009
  • Nilima

    Wow, need to visit this place.

    on May 21, 2009