We’re getting to the Andaman’s out of season as usual.. The month of May here brings with it the monsoon and the possibility of violent cyclones…but it’s also the best season to have a chance to see manta rays when scuba-diving which I think should be an easy trade-off for anyone in their right mind!
The Andaman Islands lie far from India, closer to Burma or Sumatra if close to anything at all. They also lie a bit out of time..still on the Indian time-zone but much further east so the sun rises at 4am and sets at 5pm. We spent one night first in Port Blair – despite having been used as a penal colony for 150 years it’s not too bad a place, nice waterfront one end of town, and it’s definitely the cleanest town we’ve been in in India.
Andaman islands is also famous for it’s indigenous population, closer to African bushmen than Asians or Aryans it’s still a bit of a mystery how they got here. Marco Polo, who’s most redeeming quality is that he brought us ice-cream, described them as “All the men of Angamanian have heads like dogs, they are the most cruel generation and eat everybody they catch“. Once the islands were colonized this “cruel generation” (who weren’t cannibals and had been getting on just fine) finally got some “help” and in exchange for the islands natural resources they were generously given the usual western blessings of disease, deforestation, alcohol-addiction and missionaries. Today they make up just 0.5% of the island’s population, some tribes went extinct altogether and some like the Jarawa still have their reserve sliced in half by a road the Indian Supreme Court ordered closed in 2002. Just one tribe – the Sentinelese – still manage to live in total isolation on the small North Sentinel island to the west – any attempts to visit are met by a hail of arrows. There’s one really iconic photo taken after the 2004 tsunami when the Indian government sent a helicopter to check up on them from the air – they came back with a photo of a single man on the beach aiming his bow and arrow at the helicopter.. “we’ll ride out any storm, just leave us alone”. The plane from Chennai that we came in with actually flies close enough to North Sentinel that it is possible to spot it in the distance, nice to just look down and know that below the canopy there lives perhaps the worlds most isolated people still undisturbed.
North Sentinel is of course closed to tourists, and so are quite a lot of the other islands – the Andaman permit we got on arrival lists the permitted ones. In Port Blair we got a rickshaw to the forestry department to find out about a special second permit we would have needed if we wanted to go to Interview island to the north, but it looked a bit complicated (they were surprised we wanted to go there when we didn’t have our own yacht..) – we would also probably have needed to take the infamous Andaman Trunk Road through the Jarawa reserve so we decided to head straight for Havelock island instead to dive. The final major event in Port Blair was I had something killed for my plate for the first time in well over a month! It’s very easy to be vegetarian in India; we hadn’t even really meant to try – half the places serve only veg.food and it might also be safer and less gone-off than meat so we had stuck with it most of the time. Anyhow, it was time! I wanted to make it special so I made it a lobster and named him; Hubert. After all that time Hubert was actually a bit of a disappointment though, and for all I know he might actually be the reason I went down with my second round of amoebic dysentery on Havelock a few days later…
On Havelock island we moved in to one of those postcards-from-paradise with white-sand beaches, palm trees and turquise water. We slept in a small bamboo hut where you can’t lock the door, and I didn’t wear shoes for 5 days. In the evenings we’d wade out into the warm shallow water to watch the sunset together. The huts are built a little in from the beach under the trees so the island still looks green and beautiful from the water. It really was this great, except of course the amoebas that struck me down with a fever on day 3. I had felt that I had had all the fun you can have with amoebas back in Manali, but there you go. We had stocked up on some extra medicine the last time luckily though so I recovered in a couple days.
The first dive on our second day was interesting – strongest current we ever dove in. As we descended down the anchor line it was stretched like a violin string or as Edel put it we were like prayer flags in the wind holding on to it. At the bottom we had to hold on to rocks and work our way around the fairly small dive site this way before finally letting go and flying back towards the anchor line making sure not to miss it. The second dive was more relaxing – still some current but a much bigger site so we could just drift-dive. If diving is being weight-less drift-diving is actually flying! We just hung in the water and watched the amazing fields of hard-coral and big table corals pass by just below. We saw many big Napoleon wrasse which is nice – they’re fished out completely from many places for the Hong-Kong market – I think only the lips are eaten as they’re supposed to be a delicacy.. This huge fish is also the only thing that eats COT-starfish, which can kill whole coral-reefs when there’s an outbreak of them. We didn’t see a single shark in our 12 dives though – they’ve collapsed by over 90% over the last couple decades for the horrible shark-fin fishing which again use just a tiny bit of the animal.. On the fourth day of diving we saw the mantas! The dive-site was called Dixons pinnacles – starting at 18-20m depth it consists of two peaks rising up the deeper bottom around, the bigger of the pinnacles with a flat top maybe 10m across and the two peaks separated just a little further than your eyes can see underwater. As we descended at first we saw a juvenile manta ray, 3-4 meter wingspan, just swimming away. I was so excited and busy signaling to Edel, who had already spotted it, that I only got about a second long look before it disappeared.. Luckily it came back, hovering and gently moving the huge wings just above the top of the pinnacle where dozens of small cleaner wrasse worked on it. We held on to the rock just a meter or two away and just watched. Then a second manta, an adult with around a 5 meter wing span, came gliding by above and then dove down and disappeared into the depth behind us. We spent most of the hour-long dive with the first manta, on pinnacle #1 where it circled around, then moved to pinnacle #2 and then back to #1 where it was joined again by the bigger manta. On some of the glide-by’s they came so close I could’ve touched..maybe 20cm away. We decided to do the second dive of the day at the same site hoping they’d still be there, and waited an hour and a half in the boat above for the safety surface interval. The pinnacles were empty when we went down again, but after 5 minutes the smaller manta came back and we spent most of the dive swimming with it. I hovered in the water to meet the big alien-looking fish come swimming towards me, and swam along with it underneath looking up as it passed by just above me. Swimming next to it on eye-level it curled up the one of the two horns on it’s head next to me..didn’t know they were so flexible..wonder if they use it to communicate? The second manta came back again just as we went up, and we waved good-bye to them from the 5m/3min safety stop. It felt incredibly lucky to spend almost a full two hours with these giants, so alien-looking and moving the big wings to gently flying slowly through the water. This was probably the best dives we’ve done anywhere, but we had one interesting wreck dive left the next day before we left. The wreck, almost two hours away in the dive boat, is from a 70m long Chinese ship that sank in 1956. The ship has plenty of “ghost-nets” lost by two generations of fishermen stuck high up in the wreck and moving in the current, looking like sails moving in the wind and giving it a great “Flying Dutchman” feel. It looked so broken and cursed I half expected Tom Waits music to be playing down there in the depth..