Being underwater brings out the artist in you, says diver and photographer Umeed Mistry

The water is everything to Umeed Mistry, it would seem. He dives to its depths, shows scuba divers how it’s done, photographs underwater secrets and when he speaks, paints vivid pictures of experiences not many could stake claim to.

He speaks passionately of wanting to watch a baby humpback whale being born in the warm waters off Hawaii, the “awkward” young one being pushed to the surface by its mother. Of watching out for the venomous lionfish in a stunning reef, or trying to get closer to a shark that’s disinclined to pose for his pictures.

“You see more spending 10 minutes on a reef than in 10 minutes of walking through a lush rainforest,” says this professional diving instructor and photographer.

Peace under the surface

Explaining the “greatest sense of peace, curiosity and inspiration” that he gets while being underwater, Umeed says: “There’s a hiss that comes with the scuba diving equipment. Just that sound gives me a thrill in anticipation of the experience.”

“Once you learn to move comfortably under water, you’re hovering weightless. You’re not bound by gravity. There’s a sense of freedom of movement.”

That is why diving is recommended and enjoyed by those with visual and physical disabilities, and back problems, he adds.

Spectacular initiation

Umeed distinctly remembers his first dive — in the clear blue waters of the Maldives in 1996, at the age of 15. He saw a honeycomb moray eel and a white tip reef shark. “It was spectacular. There was a phenomenal amount of colour and shape. I felt an incredibly strong sensation, and knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

The three and a half years he spent in university, pursuing a course in marine biology he never completed, only added to this conviction.

He has now been a diving instructor for 10 years. Starting out as an employee of Lacadives, a pioneering recreational diving school started by adman Prahlad Kakkar and his wife Mitali, Umeed is now a partner in the firm.

Recreational divers, he explains, go to depths of around 25 m, in sessions that last for 45 minutes to an hour. The organisation offers various diving courses, including a basic scuba experience that does not require knowledge of swimming. Some courses offer initial training in Mumbai and Bangalore, with students being taken to the Andamans, where Umeed is based for most of the year, for an open water diver certificate.

Creativity flows

With “more colours, more shapes and more textures”, being underwater brings out the artist in you, Umeed says.

He has partnered with Sumer Verma to teach underwater photography, and do professional shoots. “The skills required are slightly different. You need to be comfortable with water. You also need to be able to read light and colour differently.” In water, the colours of the spectrum gradually disappear, with red the first to go; deeper down, any photo would appear only violet, he explains.

Umeed has done a fashion shoot for Vogue India and has also shot action sequences, most recently for a Tamil film.

But more than models in fishnets, fine art photography would allows for more creativity, he says. “The hair, the clothes, the colour is all more dramatic underwater.”

He admits that the equipment is expensive; “housing” is required to protect and control photography equipment, and some shoots require underwater lights too.

A lot of his photography is for educational purposes. His latest project involves documenting a project to tag leatherback turtles; walking 12 hours along the sea in the dark, waiting for the majestic creatures to drag themselves to the beach for a laborious nesting process.

And there hasn’t been any Jaws-style incidents. “It is an honour, a privilege, when an animal allows you to be in its presence,” he says. His job, he adds, has allowed him to be around wildlife researchers, giving him an opportunity to accumulate knowledge.

As exciting as his life may seem, Umeed isn’t in his field for the adrenaline rush. Safety is paramount to him as an instructor. And as he points out, statistically, it’s safer diving in the open sea than driving on the highway. “I wouldn’t risk driving to Chennai.”

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