Solo Trip to Andamans for Scuba Diving Certification

23rd Mar 2016

DIVING!!! I know a lot of Indians have a fascination for this sport after the movie – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – had become a rage wherein they had featured various activities to satisfy one’s adventurous appetite! But for me, it was not the movie. It was the fact that someone I know had done it and had adored the experience. It was my boss. He had gotten himself certified in scuba diving in Kho Tao in Thailand. He was in high spirits whenever he discussed about his experience with us. That got me going.

Day 1

I wanted to go on this trip with a couple of friends to Bali or Thailand. But, since I was getting ditched from all angles, I thought of doing it on my own and restricted myself to destinations within India. I must have asked atleast 5 to 6 of my friends. But since I had a break in between – due to me quitting my job and moving onto grab another one – I was lucky to have about 14 full days to myself which none of my friends had. Pondicherry was one of the destinations that I had shortlisted. But got to know that Andamans is the best one within India. Since I was doing a solo trip and did not want to compromise on my experience, I did not want to let go off the opportunity of visiting this island.

I must say this trip happened to me at the right time. This is because I was disheartened with the fact that I was leaving the firm where I had spent 5 years which was indeed a splendid phase of my life. After shedding some tears the previous night and with a heavy heart, I left home at about 3 am to catch an early morning flight to Port Blair. I must admit that my feelings had a blend of apprehension (for doing solo) and depression (for leaving such a wonderful organization). Even the fact that I was going to do an adventurous sport failed to cheer me up. The only reason I was going for this trip that morning was because I had paid for the diving course and had also done all the bookings!!! There is no direct flight from Mumbai to Port Blair. There is a layover in Chennai. By the time I reached Port Blair it was about 10 am. Boarded a cab from the airport and checked into the hotel Aashiaana Residency. I had done all my bookings (hotel, ferry, travel, diving, etc. in advance since I was doing solo and did not want to get stranded anywhere). On reaching the hotel, I was asked to wait at the reception. At that time I encountered a couple from New Zealand. The guy struck a conversation with me. It was quite fascinating to know that they had taken 3 months off work and were touring Australia, Colombo and India. Andaman was the last leg of their journey. They were here for diving as well. The concept of taking a long break from work is quite strange to a lot of Indians but I think these are the things that I admire foreigners for – living lives to the fullest knowing you only live one (YOLO - rather than just earning money, partying, saving, investing and perishing one day). I found the couple quite fascinating but had to leave after a 30 minute conversation when my room was ready. I quickly freshened up, had a conversation with the hotel executive for details about the places to visit in Port Blair and went out in search of a restaurant for a good meal. I must say that half the crowd in Port Blair was filled with Tamilians. Being a tamilian myself, I did not have any issues conversing. Moreover, the auto drivers were quite honest and reasonable in their rates. I was quite impressed at my first conversation with the natives there. I quickly finished my lunch and headed for Chatham Saw mill. This place had become quite famous during WW II when Japan had struck a bomb in this location. (shown in the pic below). I must say that it wasn’t an interesting visit but the journey to that place was quite remarkable. On the way I got to click pictures of quite a few ships embarking on their journeys which was quite a captivating sight. Post that, I headed to the garden near Cellular jail. I had spent some good half an hour there engrossing myself in the natural surroundings that this park had to offer. My next visit was to Cellular Jail which was about 5 minutes from the park. After waiting for a good 1.5 hours, I got tickets for the 7:30 pm Light and Sound show. I had to wait so long because the tickets for the initial show were sold off in like 10 minutes and I was still in the queue. Looks like you have to wait in the queue atleast 1 hour before the show to get the tickets for the 5.30 pm show. The show lasted for a good 1 hour on the torments that the prisoners had to go through during the Freedom struggle. Stories like they were made to extract 3 times more oil than a buffalo could and were beaten up harshly if they couldn’t, were allowed to get out of their rooms just thrice on a day to use washrooms, etc. were quite depressing. I wanted to take a tour of the jail but since it was quite dark at that time, they had already shut the touring experience. I thought of getting back again to witness the entire jail during daytime. By the time I got out, it was 8:30 PM. I could not find a single auto to head back to the hotel. I had to walk a lot but somehow managed to find one. I must admit that I was again nervous. I mean, new city, no daylight, commuting alone in an auto on deserted roads – I was just wondering why am I even doing all this? Luckily the auto driver was quite helpful in ensuring I reach the hotel and charged me reasonably. I slept off after having some snacks as I wasn’t quite hungry. The next day, I had to visit Ross Island and Chidiyatapu.

Day 2

I had booked the tickets for Ross Island and Chidiyatapu through They picked me up from the hotel at about 9:30 AM and dropped me near the same park that I had visited the day before. I was made to board a boat to visit this island which was about 10 minutes ride away from Port Blair. On reaching there, a cute couple from Delhi initiated a conversation with me. The woman – Ekta was quite amused to know that I was doing a solo trip and she expressed her desire to do one quite soon. I had spent about 1.5 hours in that island with the couple. This island was the home to British officers of higher ranks. They lived in bungalows and had a lifestyle that our country cannot offer its population even today. They had water distilling plants, had swimming pools, played golf, etc. This island seemed quite haunted because the roots of the trees had grown on the buildings. There were some bunkers that were used during WWII. Happened to spot quite a few deers as well. I had to depart back to Port Blair and bid goodbye to the lovely couple. I had clicked a few pictures of the couple and Ekta which I had promised to mail them once I got back. Upon my arrival at Port Blair, the ExperienceAndamans agent had picked me and dropped me back to the hotel. I had good 3 to 4 hours to have my meal, take rest and get ready for my evening trip to Chidiyatapu.

Ross Island

Photo of Ross Island by Pavithra Paulraj

At about 5.30 PM, another agent picked me up from the hotel for Chidiyatapu sunset visit. The driver was from Andhra Pradesh. The drive took me about 1 hour and during the entire ride, the driver ensured that I wasn’t getting bored by providing me some interesting facts about Andaman. It seems there is an island in Andamans – Sentinal Island - where a group of tribals reside. All they know to do is to hunt and eat (even human beings). If any aid is being sent by the government through some people, these tribals capture them and murder them. They never give back the bodies. Hence, now they just drop the food from a helicopter. They do not understand what is being communicated and they do not trust anyone, even those helping them. Anyways, after hearing such interesting stories, I finally reached Chidiyatapu beach where I could witness the consequences of Tsunami in 2004. Many trees were uprooted by the nature and they were still there in the same condition. Had some beautiful sights to capture on my camera. I then went onto witness sunset close to the beach. Frankly speaking, the clouds had hidden the sun and I was quite disappointed. On my way back, I happened to interact with one of the tea sellers. I was expressing my surprising observations about the people of Andamans to the tea seller. He revealed that tourists throng this island because of the natives’ honesty and also went on to declare that in case any native misbehaves with a traveler, he himself would strike him down!! I was quite taken aback. The driver dropped me back to the hotel safely and I expressed my immense gratitude to him for the insights he shared with me during our drive.

Chidiyatapu - Consequences of Tsunami 2004

Photo of Chidiya Tapu, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj
Day 3

So yes, today was the day I had come to Andamans for. The day to enroll for the diving course!!! I had booked a ferry – Makruzz - through ExperienceAndamans site as I knew that it would not be possible to get a ticket on the day of travel. I reached the dock at about 6 AM for my ferry which was about to start at 6 45 AM. My journey aboard the ferry had started. In a while I went to the deck wherein I could view the entire sea. The sight of watching the sea, the various aquatic life, the gala celebrations (dance and music) and interactions with strangers kept me occupied. On reaching Havelock, I hired an auto to my place of stay – Gold Star Beach Resort. I quickly checked in and headed for the diving institute which was about 10 minutes of walk from the resort. The institute – DIVE India – also had some huts for residing but they were available only from the next day.

I quickly met with the instructor who had asked me to fill up an application form and sign on a few declarations. There were a hell lot of health conditions that would prevent a person from taking a diving course. I was really petrified since I was suffering from a bad cold and was wondering if they would not allow me to dive. But I revealed my health condition and the instructor assured me that it was perfectly fine and just asked me to continue my course of medicine for 1 more day. I met up with 3 dive buddies – Ankita, Ayush and Akash who were friends and 4 of us were together for our certification course. Our instructor Sahil Lokhandwala asked us to quickly change into our dive suits for a snorkeling session. Please make sure you carry our swimsuit!! I was really excited for the snorkeling session which lasted for about an hour. He also tested our swimming skills. You need to be able to swim properly to pursue this course. So please make sure you take a 1 month’s swimming course before you go for this one. Post our session, we were asked to change our clothes, head for lunch – at Full Moon’s Café – and meet the instructor at the video room. We were asked to view 6 videos on the diving course. The course I enrolled was SSI Open Water Certification. It costs about 20K. The video sessions lasted for about 2 hours. We were handed some study material with 6 chapters and assignments at the end of the session which we had to complete before we finished the course. This course involved 4 dives, 2 shallow water dives, theory sessions, 1 test and was going to last for about 4 days. But we ended up doing 6 dives!

As the day was getting over, I headed to my resort to do some assignments. I could not tag along with my buddies as they stayed over at the Dive Resort.

Day 4

I shifted to the dive resort today. We had to report to the instructor at 6:45 AM. This course teaches one the techniques to communicate under water, assembling of the equipment (which was a tough one), wearing the equipment, plunging into the water and various ways to maneuver in the water. The depth limit is about 18 meters. With the advanced course, you can go upto 30 meters.

We were taught to assemble the equipment. Post that, we had a theory session on communication and activities to be performed under water.

We headed for our 2 shallow water dives in a boat. We wore our equipment and plunged into the sea. As I went into the waters, I really started feeling uncomfortable and the images that I had surfed through the internet crossed my mind. I had a feeling that I would not be able to complete the course because I just could not comprehend anything underwater and it was a totally different world. But I persisted since this was the ultimate goal of my solo trip. I did not want my efforts to get ruined. I told myself that everything would be fine and I just need to go with the flow. The instructor taught us the same skills underwater that he taught us on the shore. We were asked to watch him do the skills and perform them underwater. Some of the skills were – wearing the weight belt, helping the opponent with the alternate regulator in case his is out of air, removing the belts, removing the regulator and getting it back without looking at it, removing the mask and wearing it, etc.

We did about 2 shallow water dives and got onto the boat. Now, we were headed for our official dives. We headed to NEMO Reef in Havelock. I was really excited with the fact that I wasn’t that bad in my initial sessions and I was going to DIVE!!! This place literally had white sand and green waters. We wore our equipment and plunged again. One of our dive buddies – Akash got quite uncomfortable and he could not do the dives. He was asked to rest at the boat. Meanwhile 3 of us went to explore the waters. These sessions again were more of learning ones wherein we had to perform the activities that we had learnt. I found it a little tough this time. I was actually finding it quite difficult to control my movement in the waters. And there was nothing to enjoy – I mean just sessions. Now, again, I wasn’t sure if I would pass the certification and if I really wanted to pass. The dives lasted for about an hour each.

After lunch, I strolled around the resort for a while, lied down in the hammock and went through the water filled images in my mind. In a while, I carried my camera and me and my dive buddies went to the beach side to click some pictures together and of the nature. I really enjoyed this time with the nature, new friends and the camera. We spent a couple of hours there. The pet dogs of the resort were entertaining us. Post sunset we got back for our dinner and hit the sack.

Just outside our beach resort !

Photo of Havelock Island, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj
Day 5

All of us headed to Peel Island and Slope for our 2 dives. It was going to be an experience as we were not going to do any sessions as such, but just dives. We would be witnessing various corals, different types of fish, etc. Before going for our dives, Sahil had shown us a chart with the various types of fish and the hand symbols to communicate to us the name of the fish.

The 4 of us did a somersault together and that was being captured in Ayush’s GoPro. It was a beautiful sight unlike the previous day. We did not have to worry about our learning skills today but just observe the various species that the underwater had to offer. In between my dive, I had to remove my mask as water had immersed into it and I just could not put it back properly without the water not seeping. I got a little petrified, lost control of my movement, could not spot the dive buddies (since the vision wasn’t clear) and I somehow started moving towards the surface of the sea. Worst case, I would have to swim towards the boat. As soon as I reached the surface, the instructor had come in search of me and calmed me down. He made me wear my mask properly and accompanied me below. I got quite annoyed with myself. In a while I was enjoying my dive again. Akash was doing pretty well today and hence he was able to complete both the dives without any issues. The other 2 dive buddies were already experts. We witnessed Octopus, Star fish, Corals, Stingrays, Flounders, Scorpion Fish, Bat Fish, Clown Fish, etc. We came back on the boat and discussed the various sea life that we had observed. We even had some samosas and cookies.

Once we headed back to the resort, changed and had our lunch, we had to go for our theory sessions with our instructor. We went upstairs of the café wherein we sat on the wooden floor and listened to everything that the instructor was explaining us. The session went on for about 2 hours. After the session, we thought of going to Radhanagar beach which was about 12 kms away from the Dive resort.

We hired 2 bikes and headed to the beach. I did not know that I was going to witness the most beautiful beach I had ever come across. White sand beaches with red leaves with the sunset was a perfect view. Just behind the beach was a thick green patch of trees. The view in the front, back, sides, and on the sky – was totally mesmerizing. I had never come across something that was so pleasing to my eyes. We took a path behind the beach which was covered with trees. There again, the entire land was covered with red leaves. At a time I had seen multiple colors – Red, Green, Brown, White… It was the most vivid path I had come across. Felt like staying there for a while. We were there for quite some time and headed back to the resort in our two wheelers. It was getting dark but I must say that the ride back was totally adventurous. Pitch black sky, no streetlights, with the only thing visible – few steps ahead and the twinkling stars. I happened to gaze at the sky during the entire ride. At that point, I was living in the present. All that mattered to me was what I was gazing at, the ride and this journey. I was thankful to the Almighty for making me experience all of this! We reached the resort and headed for dinner at a different restaurant and went back to our respective huts.

Radhanagar Beach

Photo of Havelock Island, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj

Path behind Radhanagar Beach

Photo of Havelock Island, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj

Sunset at Radhanagar Beach

Photo of Havelock Island, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj
Day 7

That’s it… We were done with all the dives. Now, we were headed to finish our assignments. We took a couple of hours to finish those and were given our test papers. Yes. We had to take our tests. We took about half an hour to complete the test. We discussed the answers during the test! Somehow, managed to pass. We headed to the first floor of the café wherein we chatted for a while. And had some weed. I don’t remember if it was heroine. This was my first time. I did not even get high. Sahil was there with us and we all had a gala time. It was my last night at the institute. Finally, we were all certified. The other 3 were going to stay back to do their advanced course. I felt gloomy that I had to leave the next day. I should have just stayed back here.

Me with my Dive Buddy !

Photo of Neil Island, South Andaman, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India by Pavithra Paulraj

I woke at about 5 today to spend my last few hours here with the nature that I had fallen in love with. It was simply holding me back. I did not want to leave this place. The huts, the sun kissed beach, the hammock, the white sand, the café, my dive buddies and instructor – I was going to miss everyone and everything so much. I just lied down on the hammock for about half an hour before getting ready to leave the place. At breakfast I met up with my dive buddies and bid them goodbye. I made the final payments, met Sahil, hugged him and thanked him for the beautiful experience that he exposed me to and left the place with a heavy heart. There are some moments in life which you want to hold on to forever and just don’t want to move forward. This was one such moment! But, I had to leave.

The ExperienceAndamans agent picked me up from the resort and dropped me at the ferry location. I had boarded the ferry to Neel Island. After an hour of ride, we had landed there. It was quite sunny and pretty hot. I did not enjoy my day there since I was missing my previous experience and I was quite alone. Another agent picked me up from the ferry location and took me around Neel Island. I took a boat ride, went to a deserted place wherein there was a rock bridge and finally headed back to the board the next ferry back to Port Blair. The night ride in the ferry was quite different. Pitch black everywhere and it was flowing in a great speed. By the time I reached the same Ashiaana Residency, it was about 9 PM. I freshened up, had some meals and resigned for the day.

Day 8

Today was my last day in Andamans. My flight was at 2:45 PM. Hence, I had ample time to go around the city. I had to visit Cellular Jail which I had missed on my 1st day. While I was having my breakfast, I befriended a Turskish lady who wanted to come with me to the Cellular Jail. We hopped onto an auto and went to this hell of past. Read a lot of stories of gruesome lifestyles of our strugglers in the past. Witnessed the hanging dungeon. Read about the independence struggles across the country. After spending about 1.5 hours there, I parted ways with her and went to an Archaeological museum. I was there for an hour and headed back to the hotel. There I waited at the reception for good 1 hour and befriended a Balinese guy. He had come down to Andamans to do surfing. The turskish lady was also back by then and the 3 of us were engrossed in our conversations about the world issues and traveling. I got to know that he was taking the same flight as mine. We bid goodbye to the lady and headed to the airport. My Andamans journey was getting over. I was thanking my stars that I finally did this trip and with this I could tick off 3 items from my bucket list:-

1. Visiting Andamans

2. Completing the Open Water Diving Certification

3. Doing a Solo Trip

Sometimes, in life, when you have nothing to look forward to, it is better to prepare a dream list and immerse into the satisfaction of having achieved them as and when you tick them off. This trip of mine was a well-deserved break for me before entering the new phase of my professional life. It made me realize that I could do a trip all by myself. Finally, I am accomplishing the goals that I had always dreamt of!!! I felt ALIVE…

Day 6

Today, we were supposed to do the ship wreck dive. I was really excited but we got to know that the visibility wasn’t great there. Hence, we had to cancel the dive. We headed to Pilot Reef for our last 2 dives. On reaching there, Sahil revealed that we were actually doing the ship wreck dive. I was head over heels on hearing this. As I went into the waters, I just couldn’t help my excitement. We witnessed it – MV Mars Vessel – covered in sand. There was a bunch of fish moving around the vessel. This vessel had sunk in 2008 when a storm had hit it. Luckily, all the passengers were saved. It was great coming close to a Titanic sort of an experience! The next dive was a normal one – just learning the different types of species underneath. We saw Electric Clamp, Feather Stars, Fusiliers, Parrot Fish, Lobsters, Golden Damsel, Staghorn Coral, Octopus, etc. on both our dives together.