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Going scuba diving in an aquarium in Chennai

Scuba diving at VGP Marine Kingdom on East Coast Road.

Scuba diving at VGP Marine Kingdom on East Coast Road.   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

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Scuba diving can be a scary prospect, especially for those with a deathly fear of the open waters. So, we go underwater in an aquarium to see if it weighs up as a viable alternative...

I’ve not been a great fan of water for much of the time I’ve spent on Planet Earth.

Aqua phobia — in my case, it is an irrational fear of swimming pools and open waters — is a big reason. It has remained even after I ‘mastered’ the art of swimming in three feet of water.

It is also why water sports like synchronised diving or water polo, or an underwater activity like scuba diving, are things that I am only comfortable with watching others engage in.

Leap of faith

Though I list these reasons to detail my fear of water, a few days ago, when a colleague suggested that I attempt scuba diving at the VGP Marine Kingdom on East Coast Road and document my experience for this column, I remember nodding yes in an instant.

As confounding as it seems, I held a boorish perception about scuba diving in a controlled environment like an aquarium.

For starters, it is incomparable to diving in the Bay of Bengal where dangers lurk in the unexplored depths.

I was bullish because I knew the experiment will happen with a certified diver hovering over me at an arm’s distance, ready to pull me out of the water if my phobia acted up. There was little else that could go wrong.

A lemon shark at the VGP Marine Kingdom.

A lemon shark at the VGP Marine Kingdom.   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

At the Marine Kingdom, after filling out a questionnaire about my physical fitness to the establishment’s satisfaction, I meet S Kannan, the facility’s curator.

The 60-minute scuba-diving experience at this three-metre deep marine life aquarium, which boasts over 80 species of fishes including the blacktip and lemon sharks, has a 15-minute session where Kannan, or Ahmed Ismail, the lead instructor, will brief you about what to expect underwater.

“You will be feeling 0.3 bar pressure at the bottom. You won’t feel the pressure on your body because the human body is not compressible. But air is, and air enters your lungs, sinus and ear cavity,” he says. For an incident-free diving, it is crucial that I keep breathing through the mouth piece, and, more importantly, not hold my breath.

By the rulebook

To release the pressure build-up in my ears, Kannan advises that I release air out of my ears, in a move that I called ‘doing the Shrek trumpet’ (pinching my nose and blowing air out the ears in one short and sharp move).

“Because the ear drum is like a flat screen, and the high pressure means air volume will reduce, and squeeze the drum. If you do not release the pressure, you will start to feel pain, and eventually you will rupture the ear drum,” he adds.

There is a ground rule too: I should keep my hands and feet to myself — meaning touching the fishes and swimming using the fins are disallowed.

This is so because the purpose of scuba diving at Marine Kingdom is primarily to offer first-timers and aqua phobics like myself with an underwater experience, and to provide an as close to real as it gets sort of experience with marine life, explains Kannan.

A blacktip shark at the VGP Marine Kingdom

A blacktip shark at the VGP Marine Kingdom   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

Ahmed elaborates that these rules also help them from subjecting the fishes to undue stress, which is what happens when an unwelcome visitor disturbs the sanity of their surroundings.

“That is the opportunity the sharks are waiting for. It can somehow read stress levels in fishes. When stress levels spike, the shark’s predatory instinct kicks in,” says Ahmed.

Another reason is that it becomes easy for instructors to keep amateur divers from causing damage to the artificial corals and acrylic glass.

Almost famous

But the sharks are not the only ones I need to be mindful of in the aquarium. There is also the trigger fish. “It will bite your fingers off like it is a biscuit,” says Ahmed, adding, “Even our divers avoid it when it tries to be friendly with us. That is because even with a friendly bite, you will lose some flesh.”

Ajith, who was recently a victim of this friendliness from one of the trigger fishes in the aquarium, is my diving guide. Before Ajith and I enter the waters, I am offered a wet suit and a heavyset diving equipment with an oxygen tank, which I am told will last two hours.

Scuba diving at the VGP Marine Kingdom

Scuba diving at the VGP Marine Kingdom   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

“The wet suit maintains a temperature of 24 degree Celsius because the underwater temperature is significantly lower,” adds Kannan.

And then, off we go, after a little bit of acclimatising near the entry point. Ajith holds my hand through the initial descent, and asks me to do the Shrek trumpet multiple times in the first couple of minutes to help me adjust to the water pressure.

The artificial structures inside the aquarium — including replicas of a Chola-era temple in ruins, and a ship that drowned in the high seas during the mid 19th century — slowly appear in my line of sight.

There is also the tall, flat glass viewing panel through which visitors to the aquarium get to see a man in a tight wet suit blowing Shrek trumpets every few seconds.

“After the sharks, our divers are one of the main attractions at the Marine Kingdom,” explains Ahmed.

And it shows. The young children on the other side of the glass panel lose their minds when Ajith and I descend to the bottom of the tank. One child waves his hand at me, and I oblige by waving back, which only encourages the other children and families to wave at me.

Scuba diving at the VGP Marine Kingdom

Scuba diving at the VGP Marine Kingdom   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

Before long, I am no different from a British Royal standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace — waving my right hand at anyone pointing at me from the other side of the acrylic enclosure.

Monsters in the tank

As I move through the 30-metre long aquarium, I observe a school of rabbitfish and a bunch of golden trevallies moving around at an arm’s length — curious about the new visitor.

Though the curator and diving instructors insist that the sharks are not afraid of human presence, and that it may even swim past while brushing against my body, I notice that they are nowhere to be seen.

Code of conduct
  • The universal scuba diving code for “all is well” is the three finger pose (like the one WWE’s John Cena made famous). A raised thumb indicates direction, and you could move it upwards, downwards or to your sides to suggest the direction you wish to move in. A closed fist suggests a lurking danger, and if you are out of oxygen, run your thumb across the neck region as if you were slitting it (like the signature pose of WWE’s Undertaker). At this point, your diving instructor will either inflate your life jacket or lend you his/her secondary pipe (also known as buddy pipe) so that you can continue to breath as you swim to safety.

On the contrary, I do get real close to three grouper fishes. Huge in size, the groupers move about with a Yoda-like air about them. But looks can be deceiving, as groupers that grow in the open waters have been documented to prey upon a predator like the shark.

At the end of this 20-minute guided session, I exit the water wanting just a bit more. Watching marine organisms up, close and personal — irrespective of the fact that it happened in a controlled environment — was enough to bring the child out in me.

Kannan succinctly described my experience. “It is also about breaking inhibitions about water, and letting go of the stress.”

Scuba diving at VGP Marine Kingdom cost ₹3,000 (exclusive of taxes). The price includes entry fee for the aquarium.

In this column, we hunt for adrenaline-filled activities in and around Chennai.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 2:10:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/going-scuba-diving-in-an-aquarium-in-chennai/article30027803.ece

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