Subha J Rao takes in the sights and silence of a world peopled by multi-hued fish and pristine corals
Even a rookie can revel in the underwater delights of the Andamans. Ask me. Playing in the shallow waters of the Cauvery hurtling down near my grandparents' home is the closest I've gotten to a water body. Compared to that, the Bay of Bengal is mind-boggling. It stretches till what seems like eternity, varying shades of turquoise and azure.
And, even if you know nothing about swimming or snorkelling, which is the thing to do here, slide into a life buoy, bob about in the aquamarine waters, and know that all is well with the world!
But, first things first. We set off from oh-so-picturesque Havelock, where everything seems so photogenic — dead coral fragments swept onto the shores, and half-broken molluscs in shades of pink you haven't seen outside your box of watercolours — and head to Elephant Beach, perfect for amateurs to indulge in snorkelling. Our motor boat, handled by two confident lads, leaves behind wisps of petrol fumes as we embark on a 45-minute journey across the middle of the ocean.
Water, water everywhere
As you look around at the schools of flying fish, the nursery of sorts where the waves take shape before lashing the shore, and the horizon in the far distance, Nature takes over in all her splendour.
The profusion of water can overwhelm you, but don't let that prevent you from focussing on the little things that make the boat ride interesting — experienced snorkellers gliding in the water like they were meant to be there, small dinghies dropping off divers at spots known for their marine life, and birds swooping down on their next meal.
Finally, Elephant Beach is upon us, and we hurriedly get off from the boat and into the cool inviting waters. The boatman allows us three hours here, and we wonder if that's too much time on a secluded beach, peopled by just tender coconut sellers, a couple of tourists, and trees, rendered barren by the tsunami, that almost touch the waters.
How wrong we are! Casting aside any remaining urban hesitation, we join the other families, in the ocean. The first hour is spent frolicking in the waters that are so clear you can see the sand and pebbles underneath. We grudgingly get up when it is time to snorkel.
The son, all of six, is raring to meet his brother Nemo (yes! there are loads of clown fish frisking about pretty anemones), but one look at the equipment, and he chickens out. Now, snorkelling works on a simple principle — forget that the nose exists, and breathe through the mouth.
Easier said than done. Many of us sputter our way to the surface after fighting the equipment. Not a foreigner couple, though. They don their snorkels, and with graceful strokes, wade into the ocean like they belong there. The friendly local diver talks to us as if we were difficult children, and teaches us the right technique time and again. When you finally figure it out, you wonder what the fuss was about.
The world of Nemo
The first couple of strokes out into the ocean are nothing special. But, once the eyes get used to the silent, dimly-lit world underneath, it's like you've got a free ticket to Nemo's universe! You struggle to take in the riot of colours — fish coloured sunshine yellow, electric blue, vibrant orange… phew!
Even as you resist the temptation to gape wide-mouthed, the diver gently leads you along deeper coral reefs.
Down below, in the fathomless depths, the corals stand in all their glory, in myriad shapes and sizes. As the diver points out to the various fish, sea cucumbers, star fish, anemones, and the occasional sea-horse, all you feel is an urgency to lock within your eyelids a world you've never seen before, and then, a primal fear— that you are after all, a land animal!
Evidently, I am alone in my thinking — our foreigner friends are but blips on the ocean now.
I beat a hasty retreat to the safe confines of the beach, and partake of refreshingly sweet tender coconut water. There's a thatched hut where you can change clothes, and the branches of the stricken trees double up as clotheslines.
But, then, they say that about snorkelling — one smitten, never shy. The next day, we head to the well-preserved Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, about 30 km from Port Blair (for details, visit http://tourism.andaman.nic.in). After a 45-minute ride on a packed boat, we reach Jolly Buoy Island, a pristine, plastic-free stretch with an exquisite beach and near-white sand. A ride in a glass-bottom boat later, we resist, and then give in to the temptation of snorkelling.
We now possess a day's experience, and are more confident and venture a little deeper. Clown fish, angel fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish and more frisk about unmindful of human presence. My eyes go click, click, click, and Waterworld is forever etched in the recesses of my mind.