Deep Sea Adventure
By Charu Soni
It was only on the second day of my arrival in Agatti that I gathered enough guts to dive into the inky blue sea. With a heavy oxygen cylinder strapped to my back and a mask clapping my face, I was as jittery as an electric eel. I had never dived. Half-an-hour later walking the sea-bed 25m under the sea, I couldn’t believe I had done it. The dive could not have been any smoother and the world that unfolded before me, more enchanting.
As I descended into the magical aqua world, a majestic large green turtle greeted me while passing, so close that I reached out to feel its amazingly warm back. As I touched down on the sea-bed, a rather large manta ray (probably disturbed by my sudden arrival) kicked sand to rise and swim away. I looked around in wonder, taking care to breathe regularly and not allow my excited heart to pump crazily. I took in the colours; multi-coloured ribbon fish, ornamental fish that I could not identify and far away, from the corner of my eye, definitely something that looked like a shark…
Back on land an hour later, I learnt from the the diving instructor that the Lakshadweep waters are home to four different species of shark — the spade-nosed or yellow-dog shark, the milk shark, the black-tip shark and the hammerhead shark. What I had glimpsed was probably the harmless (!) milk shark.
Between October and April four types of dolphins also visit the sea here; the spinner dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and Cape dolphin. And whales; according to marine scientists, Cuvier’s beaked whale and the world’s largest mammal, the Sperm Whale, have been spotted in Minicoy’s waters. Dugongs were earlier seen, but not sighted recently.
On land too the Lakshadweep atoll presents an extraordinary ecology. There are no river systems or fresh water lakes on the island. The soil here is composed of finely granulated coral sand (95 per cent calcium carbonate with little or no silica!) and all that grows in it are palms, coconut and scrub. Most of the islands are surrounded by large lagoons full of seaweed that prevent erosion.
Even though they may not be highly visible, there are 127 different species of birds identified on these islands. At the Bangaram Resort one can ask for a list and get locals to help identify terns, whimbrels, curlews and sandpipers.
As I swam in its waters, the bounty of the Lakshadweep Sea had me enthralled engraving in my mind, Christopher Paolini’s simple words, “The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, it hates, it weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it in words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.”
ABOUT LAKSHADWEEP ISLANDS
The Lakshadweep archipelago is one of India’s 13 marine hotspots. Declared a Union Territory in 1956, it has 36 coral islands in the Arabian Sea, a lagoon area of about 4,200 sq km, and 20,000 km of territorial waters. The islands were called Laccadives, Minicoy and Amindivi till 1973, when it was renamed Lakshadweep. Only 11 islands are inhabited of which only some are accessible to tourists (see Fast Facts on facing page).
Most studies agree that Lakshadweep is a part of the old Jurassic-age continent that connected India to Africa. The seismic changes that fragmented this mass also led to the emergence of the Himalaya. The south-west monsoon washes directly over these islands; three to four tropical gales rip through Lakshadweep every year as the monsoon advances and recedes.
To protect these fragile islands and their ecology, the government closely monitors eco-tourism packages and limits tourist traffic. However, one can still access Lakshadweep through direct bookings with private resorts at Agatti and Bangaram or the diving schools at Kavaratti, run by Lakshadweep Tourism Sports in collaboration with PADI or through Prahlad Kakkar’s Lacadive Dive School in Mumbai, which organises diving at Kadmat and Bangaram islands.
Lakshadweep’s prolific marine life can be explored by boat and by diving in and around uninhabited islands. Most organised diving is conducted in and around Bangaram and Agatti which is also linked to Tinnakar, Parali I and Parali II isles by interconnected lagoons. It is also possible to dive at Minicoy and nearby Vringili Island; however, other than picnic excursions, the LTDC does not currently offer any guided dive tours here. PADI diving courses sometimes access the deep sea near Kavaratti but that’s usually strictly for experienced divers.
Lakshadweep lies on the northern ridge of the 2,500-km long North-South aligned Lakshadweep Chagos Ridge which is separated from the Malabar shelf by the Lakshadweep Sea.
Arriving by air you land in Agatti. Agatti and Bangaram to its north-east offer the most accessible marine sighting sites. Lying to Agatti’s north-east, Kadmat is accessible from both Agatti and Bangaram with prior resort bookings. Kavaratti, south of Agatti, offers great diving sites but not many seem to be heading here. Its shabby PWD-built resort is a put off.
Further south-east, Kalpeni is a beautiful island with Cheriyam to its north and Pitty II, Tilakkam I, II and III to its south-west; but these do not offer overnight stay options, neither is there any diving equipment available except snorkelling masks.
Minicoy, the southernmost inhabited island, is closest to the Maldives archipelago. The crystal clear waters of Minicoy are ideal for diving and snorkelling, as is Vringili but there are no competent diving instructors here.