I went for a much required Scuba diving holiday after 3 years to the Andaman Islands again. A lot has changed since 2010 when the only Indian airline which flew there was the national carrier and one flight by Kingfisher. Go Air got me to Port Blair in 5 hours flat from Mumbai. With Makemytrip, Yatraa and Cleartrip now bundling hotel deals with flights, it’s now a more accessible destination for honeymooners from Kolkata, Saddi  Dilli and namma Bengaluru.

Andaman Islands from the sky

Andaman Islands from the sky

If you have time on your hands and a shoestring budget, try the sea voyage from Chennai for as cheap as Rs.2000/- for a bunk seat. It could take 3 to 4 days to reach Port Blair depending on the conditions.

http://www.shipindia.com/services/passenger-services/andaman/andaman-fare-chart.aspx

Underwater Bliss
My 8 day nonstop diving jaunt was with Lacadives, one of the oldest diving schools in India. http://lacadives.com The missus and I went to their Havelock base camp in ’10 which now is defunct. The newer setup is at Chidiya Tapu, an hours drive from Port Blair. Since there’s only one other operator here, the dive sites are far less plundered compared to Havelock. Like someone aptly said “there more fish than divers here” !
Sumer and Rohin run the show with a snazzy new speed boat that can take you to Cinque Island is less than 40 minutes. One of the most spectacular islands, it has 2 hills connected by a sand bar which submerges at high tide. The visibility was a good 15-20 meters and there are a lot of big fish around. Turtles, Rays, Sharks, Bump head Parrotfish, Spotted eels and Napoleon Wrasse are common sight.

At Chidiya Tapu, we dived at some spectacular sites like Fish Rock, Lions Lair, South Rutland Island, Parrots Rock, Tinto’s treasure and the most well kept secret – the Shipwreck. At 30 meters depth the sunken vessel is a diver’s delight with schools of Blue Jacks, Snappers, Butterfly fish and many more. The roughly 80 meter long ship is broken at 2 places and the propeller is almost 8-10 feet in height. A rusty bathtub with barnacles got me dreaming about who may have had their last bath in it. It was almost like school boys finding a treasure in their backyard. Ashok and Rachel who were diving with us were equally excited about the piece of history we took back home. Not much is known about the ship which makes it even more intriguing. My last online search pointed me to a Dutch Slave ship which set sail from Burma or Calcutta and was headed to Fiji or Trinidad. I hope that there’s some definite answer to who it really belonged to and how it got there.

Shipwreck at Chidiya Tapu, Andaman Islands

Shipwreck at Chidiya Tapu, Andaman Islands

Shipwreck at Chidiya Tapu, Andaman Islands

Shipwreck at Chidiya Tapu, Andaman Islands

Astounding fact:  Rutland Island was once a Japanese naval base before the British took over.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutland_Island
Lacadives do not have accommodation yet, which could make your stay at the nearby Wildgrass resort a bit more expensive than expected. Wildgrass runs their own scuba outfit called Infinity Scuba, run by Commander Baht and his very enthusiastic young son Karan.  Lacadives also has another dive centre at Wandoor in collaboration with ANET. The Marine National Park here is ideal for snorkeling and many scuba diving sites are in close proximity.

I’d had my fair share of diving and was looking forward to spending a couple days with my old friend Amar who is a Sailor. He gave up his lucrative “Merchant Navy” career and now lives in Port Blair with his artist wife. He also navigates the state run people mover inter island ferries with funny names – Bambooka is one of them. He took time off and we did a couple days of hopping across the islands.

Havelock
Havelock island is where most of the tourists and scuba divers head to straight away. A ferry ride from Port Blair costs Rs. 400 and takes two hours. The beaches are named 1 to 7 and there are a bunch of backpacker bamboo hut resorts and also a fair amount of luxury resorts. If you are looking to dive, your best bet is probably Dive India on beach no. 5. http://www.diveindia.com/havelock.html Vinnie runs the show and is a veteran diver. The resort has more than comfy tents and a highly recommendable café,where fellow divers exchange their dive stories and marine knowledge.

Walking past the market and the jetty are pretty much all you can do post sundown. It’s quite refreshing to talk to the locals who mostly comprise of the indigenous tribes of Andaman or are settlers from Bengal and TamilNadu.
The other operators worth a mention are :
1.  Barefoot – Fancy, but on the other side of the island on beach no.7 – not much to do apart from dive and snorkel at the lagoon. Radhanagar beach was once ranked among the top 10 beaches in the world.
Talks of The Taj group opening soon is a bit disappointing, considering how fragile the ecology of the islands are and its slowly morphing into a mini Goa.
http://diveandamans.com/page/dive-sites
2. Andaman Bubbles http://www.andamanbubbles.com/facilities.html
3. Blue Planet http://www.blueplanetandamans.com/scuba-diving-andamans/

The A&N tourism board has also recently launched a sea-plane service which gets you to Havelock in 20 minutes for Rs. 4000/- There are a number of other fly-by-night, smallish dive operators who I would not really trust. Fishermen have become snorkel escorts over the years and snorkeling with that orange buoy or an inflated tire tube is only for sari clad aunties. Also walking from the beach to the shallow corals is really killing the ecology. DO NOT DO THIS for the sake of our environment. Elephant Beach which was very colorful and had a massive coral reef is almost dead in 3 years.  If you are not a trained diver, one can opt for a DSD (Discover scuba dive) which is a short half day course involving an instructor holding your hand through the entire 15 minutes of your dive. Most schools offer this now.

Amar and I spent one afternoon Game Fishing with Qutub who runs a great Fishing setup just off the Havelock jetty. This is probably your best option to find those elusive Marlins or Giant Trevaly. He also has his own boats and a sweet quaint resort Captain Hook’s http://www.andamansportsfishing.com/.

Neil Island.

One can see Neil from Havelock (about a kilometer away I think) and yet is quite an open secret. There isn’t as much tourism overload as in Havelock . It is 18 sq.km in size and one can watch the sunrise and sunset from either sides of the island. Small roads, one Bar (Kingfisher)  and a handful of resorts makes it a quant island. Since most resorts are very basic, Neil is a backpackers paradise.  We asked one of the ferry staff who Amar knew to recommend a decent resort and he sent us to “BallBark” – and we had the biggest laugh when we actually found Pearl Park Resort. http://www.andamanpearlpark.com/  You have to know someone from Calcutta to get this joke, sorry.  It is located at the tip of the island and there is access to the east facing and west facing beach from inside the resort. We got basic rooms for Rs. 800/- and their know all chef cum masseur made a decent Bangaali BBQ fish.

A couple of the other decent resorts are Tango (midrange) http://www.tangobeachandaman.com/ , Seashell (luxury) http://www.seashellneil.com/ (also in Havelock and PortBlair) and Kalapani (backpacker). There are only a couple of dive schools close to the jetty. Diveindia has a new setup which was pretty similar to their Havelock resort. I was also told to check out Johann of Indian Scuba Explorers http://www.indiascubaexplorers.com – but I did not manage to meet him at his dive shop.  I could not dive also because the Navy and Police had shut all dive operations for 3 days due to some terrorist attack drill they were running.

Neil is famous for a naturally formed rock bridge where sunset watchers race to in rented SUVs or scooters. The beaches are named by some Ramayana fan – Sitapur, Bharatpur and Lakshmanpur beach?!  And the most spoken about fact of Neil is the DUGONG! I’d read and heard many stories that these super docile gentle giant “sea-cows” were spotted by a few lucky swimmers. Very few!
After a night of catching up with Amar over many beers, we decided to just take it easy on the beach the next morning. The resort had masks and fins to rent and we took them along just for the sake of it. After snorkeling the shallow bay which had the most clear aquamarine waters, we were getting some sun when I noticed a small whale like air spurt from someone who looked like a freediver. This was less than 15 feet from the shore. I stood up and waited for the diver to resurface and saw this giant brownpaper bag coloured beauty surface yet again. I jumped in with my mask in the general direction and stood up in waist high water while the Dugong went slowly past between the shore and me. An excited French mom and her little daughter tried to chase the poor thing to get a closer look and that was all that we saw of our almost extinct beauty. I will surely return and hope I can am lucky enough to spot one again.

Lucky if you spot one

Lucky if you spot one

There are a lot of sand flies– so be well prepared with bug spray or some aloe vera cream for treating those bites. We also spotted a 5 foot long monitor lizard in the bushes on the shore.

The other islands worth visiting are Little Andaman or Hutbay which is an 8 hour ferry ride is half way between the more accessible Andaman Islands in the north and the southern set of Islands called Nicobar.  It is home to a variety of endangered marine turtles and is also a Surfer’s paradise. Backpackers and surfers live on very basic amenities and can be found tripping on the huge waves.