Aged 22, 16 and 14 respectively, there is not much that my three children agree on. But there’s one thing on which they hold a unanimous opinion. The family holiday has to be an exciting diving destination or they will make bleating noises and want to do their own thing.
For 15 years, scuba diving has been seen as an elitist, exotic, adventure sport meant for the idle rich or the adrenaline junkie. But now it’s rapidly becoming popular among the middle class as a great choice of family holiday – provided, of course, that the family is outgoing and outdoorsy.
When I began diving, it was purely by accident. I had gone to Mauritius on a business trip and ended up on a small boat on a rough sea. That’s because I had accompanied some diver friends out of curiosity, to see what they were doing. It was a slightly squally, cloudy day, with hints of rain. The sea was cresting with white horses and as my friends began disappearing into the ocean one by one, I started feeling extremely sea sick.
Looking at my queasy appearance, the boatman advised me to put on a mask and fins and get into the water because, he said, I’d be less sea sick. He was right. And the mask and fins opened up an amazing world for me. I was determined to dive.
The next morning, I convinced Hugues Vitry, an instructor from Blue Water Diving of Trou aux Biches, to take me and my friend Pradeep Upoor for a handheld introduction to diving. So at 6.30 on an overcast and cold morning, there we were: in a boat in the middle of the ocean, learning hand signals that signified ‘I’m okay’, ‘I’m not okay’, etc. It was at that moment that Pradeep confessed he couldn’t swim! “Shit,” I thought in disgust. “Now the instructor’s going to take us back for sure.”
But all the instructor did was look at Pradeep and say: “Trust me and whatever God you pray to! Now, let’s go!”
Twenty minutes later, Pradeep and Hugues surfaced, beaming. All Pradeep could say was “Fantastic!” Which meant I couldn’t chicken out now. So I rubbed Ganpati’s stomach vigorously (he hangs around my neck on a gold chain) and took the ‘dupkee’. Then, all I could hear was my heart pounding, my breath hyperventilating and me struggling not to panic.
But the apparatus actually worked! I couldn’t believe it. It took me 15 minutes to calm down, and by that time I had already used up most of my air. Still, I started noticing things around me. The fish, the coral and, at a distance, something white fluttering in the water.
I made wild gesticulations to attract the instructor’s attention. He pushed me gently towards the object and communicated with his eyes. “Go get it, boy,” he seemed to be saying. So I struggled across and discovered it was a Quran.
I clutched my prize to my chest and resurfaced in a welter of bubbles, excitement, and a need to talk. This was in 1990. Three years later, my wife and I discovered Lakshadweep on a map and, against all odds, set up the first diving school in India on Kadmat Island in 1995. The island is 100 per cent Muslim (thanks to the Quran).
Having started the diving school on Kadmat and Bangaram Islands, they became our second home. And though it’s been 20 years since I first went into the water in Mauritius, I still remember Hugues Vitry’s words: “Melt your body into the ocean and become one with it and you will become as powerful as the ocean itself.”
India’s Neptune Factor
Some of the best places to dive are the Lakshadweep Islands and the Andaman Islands. Accommodation in the Andamans can start at Rs 200 a day for a beach ‘lean-to’ and go up to Rs 6,000 per room per night in a resort. Higher-end accommodation is limited.
These are pure coral islands, each no bigger than 2.5 sq. km. Since they are very little dived, the fish life is not shy but curious. The water is crystal clear and the lagoons safe.
The Andamans are volcanic islands rising out of the sea. The diving is spectacular when the weather is good. Visibility under water is sometimes not very clear, but you can see Manta Rays and Barracudas.
Take the plunge
The latest craze among certified and experienced divers is the Liveaboard – essentially a well-appointed passenger boat that carries from 12 to 20 divers, fully equipped to cater to anybody's diving needs. It has air-conditioned cabins, attached toilets and a spacious lounge with lots of upper deck space to laze around on, soaking in the sun.
The Liveaboard diving boat is free to sail to any destination within 150 km of the shore, and has access to virgin reefs and hidden banks inaccessible to land or island-based diving set-ups.
The cost can range from US $180 to $350, per head per day inclusive of all meals and a minimum of three dives a day. Most Liveaboards expect you to bring your own mask, fins, regulators, BCD (buoyancy control devices). But they provide unlimited tank refills, weight belts and weights.
Some of the best places to go on a Liveaboard are the Maldives (especially off-season), the Red Sea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Andamans. (In the Andamans, you will have to take a Thailand-registered Liveaboard, as the Indian authorities have yet to permit small, specialised passenger boats dedicated to ocean research and diving to carry the Indian flag.)