There's seawater rushing up my nose, suddenly harsh and corrosive. My brain starts sending me danger alerts, reminding me that I have a nose, not gills, and I cannot breathe underwater. With the mask off, my eyes burn and I want to sputter and snort.
Instead I pretend all is cool. Like I'm the cat's whiskers and all that stinging salt water doesn't bother me one bit. I swab a palm across my forehead as though wiping off sweat on a balmy summer afternoon, and look around at my teammates giving them the thumbs up.
All this time my brain has been telling me I'm mad. It's shrieking that I'm completely, utterly off my rocker; that I'm not supposed to be immersed underwater in the ocean and certainly not without my mask. Another part of my brain, the more logical one, is telling it to shut up. The regulator bringing oxygen to my mouth from the tank strapped to my back is still firmly in place, it says. 'Stop being a chick' it adds, sounding dangerously like an annoying colleague.
I put the mask back on, tilt my head back, snort to clear it of water, and look to my instructor to see how I've done. She gives me the thumbs up. As she turns to the others, I smile smugly at the jellyfish that's been hanging around my shoulder. Minutes before, it'd been mocking me saying I had no business being here. I showed it, didn't I?
To swim or to sink
When you're learning to dive, the turning point between wondering whether you'll be able to and knowing you will is the first time you take off the mask and let the salt water use your nose and eyes like a playground. This is when most people go gasping up to the surface, losing track of themselves and their equipment. It's the part I was most skeptical about too. But get past this, and the rest is just steps of a learning process. And getting past is easy if you can keep the urge to press the panic button under control, even though every cell in your body is screaming in retaliation.
You'll discover that the more annoying part is the way the compressed air from the tank dries up your mouth. Getting thirsty 12m below the surface, surrounded by a crush of salt water and not quite able to swallow thanks to the big regulator in your mouth, is more than a wee bit inconvenient.
It's a lifestyle
Staying at the Andaman Bubbles dive resort during the four-day course, diving seemed more like a way of life than a sport. We woke early to get out while the sun was still climbing the sky.
By the time we came back I'd be too tired for anything more than a big meal and a night of sound sleep. Drinking and smoking were no-nos and everybody was fit and tanned, or on their way there. Conversations revolved around the day's dive, conditions, merits of the location, and the creatures spotted.
But before you're let into the water, there's the theory: facts and figures about the underwater world and the principles behind the equipment that will allow you to navigate it. For the first time in many years, I found myself studying along with breakfast so that I would be prepared for the day's quiz.
For a holiday, it was hectic. I didn't do the chilling by the beach, going for a swim, then lying on the sand and reading routine, and fell asleep two songs into the cool resort party I was invited to, live music be damned. But all these were worthwhile sacrifices for what I got in exchange.
Getting down and dirty
Once you get past the theory and get intimate with the equipment, you're allowed into the water. In the beginning, I felt graceless and bulky. I would sink to the bottom, held down by the weights tucked in my belt, or bob around on the surface, made buoyant by the air-filled jacket I was wearing. The mocking jellyfish was back, smirking translucently at me again.
The trick lay in figuring out that even the minutest change in the amount of air inside you can make a significant difference at a depth. When you're 12m below the surface at neutral buoyancy, (positive buoyancy makes you float, negative makes you sink, and when it's neutral you're a bit in water like an astronaut in zero gravity) swimming over a big boulder is a simple matter of breathing deeply to rise up above it, and then exhaling to float close on top of the coral bed again.
All my experiences after that are vignettes of moments that I'll never forget. Like finding myself in the middle of a school of bright blue and yellow fish, hundreds of them all around me. Or shivering together in a huddle, as the sunny sky turned grey after our dive, and the boat tossed on an ocean that heaved and shook in rain that fell in sheets. Then the clouds, suddenly exhausted, withdrew to let the sun back out, and two perfectly symmetric rainbows made the day bright again. And the most spectacular moment of them all -- the ocean at night -- a completely transformed landscape of bobbing, sleeping fish, and giant crabs skittering across the ocean floor. Holding the torch close to my chest to make the darkness total and then waving my hands in front so that the water around me came alive in a thousand pinpoints of lights that were the plankton, the fireflies of the sea. But don't take my word for it. Go see for yourself.
The writer was very tempted to sign up for the next course, and then the next one, and become a dive instructor. A life of sun, sand and diving on a tropical island is something she could get used to.
Try the one-day Discover Scuba course, where an instructor takes you on an assisted dive, to find out if you like diving. Cost, Rs 4,500.
If you want to get certified, sign up for the 3-day Scuba Diver (maximum dive depth 12m) course or the 4-day Open Water Diver (maximum dive depth 18m).
Where can you go diving?
If you don't have time for a holiday, go to Planet Scuba, Bangalore -- an inland dive training institute. Similar schools are planned for Delhi and Mumbai. Cost Rs 30,000, with ocean dive. Contact: planetscubaindia.com
Andaman and Nicobar
Andaman Bubbles, Beach no 5, Havelock Island; cost Rs 14,000-16,000 www.andamanbubbles.com
Dive India, Beach No 3, Havelock island; cost Rs 14,000-Rs18,000 www.diveindia.com
Fly to Port Blair via Kolkata or Chennai; take the ferry to Havelock. Or take a ship from Kolkata, Chennai and Vishakapatnam. Takes 3-5 days.
Places to stay: Rs 300 upwards.
Lakshadweep (Kadmat, Bangaram)
Lacadives Dive School, www.lacadives.com; cost Rs 24,000
Fly to Agatti from Cochin, take a boat to Kadmat or Bangaram.
Places to stay: Rs 3,000 upwards.
Goa (Grande Island)
Barracuda Diving, Baga. www.barracudadiving.com; cost Rs 10,000-18,000
Dive Goa, Panaji, www.divegoa.com, cost Rs 10,000-17,000
Karnataka (Murudeshwar, Devbagh)
Check out www.bmcindia.org and www.nikkistravel.com
Maharashtra (Tarkali, Vengurla Rocks)
Go to www.maharashtratourism.gov.in and search for Konkan Diving.