I learned to dive at the ripe age of 40. Up until then, I was a fake marine biologist. I did work on sea turtles, but like most turtle biologists worldwide, only when they came up on land to nest. If I had seen them at all in their natural element, the medium to which they were so beautifully adapted, it was only on the water’s surface from a boat, and maybe once while snorkelling.
So, when my colleague from the Department of Molecular Biophysics at the Indian Institute of Science passed me on the street and announced that he was going to the Lakshadweep islands to learn diving (on the famed government LTC dime), I felt compelled to go as well. So many reasons. At 40, you feel the need to try something you haven’t before. I already had a researcher working on a pilot project on groupers there. And for heaven’s sake, I had never properly seen a turtle under water — a group I had been working on for 20 years.
We arrived in Agatti, families in tow, and spent an extra day or two lounging there because the speedboats to Kadmat had been cancelled. Marine biologist Rohan Arthur and his team had hired a fishing boat, so we set out with them, and seven hours across choppy seas later, arrived at our destination. We started our dive lessons the next day, including the utterly mindless PADI video lessons for the Open Water course, and “pool sessions” in the lagoon.
Breathing through a regulator is not exactly pleasant when you do it for the first time, especially if you are in four feet of water and know you can just stand up and breathe normally. After two days of these skills sessions, practicing clearing one’s mask, removing the Buoyance Control Device (a jacket with an inflatable bladder) and putting it on again, struggling with equalising and buoyancy, the old dogs were not entirely enjoying their new trick.
And then, we went out on our first open water dive. The waters around the Lakshadweep islands can be as clear and still as anywhere in the world. We descended gradually, kneeled on a sandy patch 10 metres below the surface, and looked around at the expanse — a deep blue calm, that faded into inky darkness, like a galaxy far away. Perhaps goatfish scrounged for food in the sand, maybe fusiliers swam above us. We barely noticed. At that moment, I knew I was going to keep coming back.
The next day, we saw a green turtle. As she drifted gracefully, effortlessly buoyant, almost balletic, and then sashayed away with an ever-so deft flap of her flippers, I knew they had been shaped by water. I thought I would never grow tired of seeing them glide over the reef. But you do. Green and hawksbill turtles are actually common in the Lakshadweep islands. A new diver will see one and be all “oh my god” while the rest of us are going “meh” and moving on.
The range of marine life that one might see at a good reef is just astonishing. Corallivores such as butterflyfish, herbivores such as parrotfish, and predators such as trevallies and groupers. The always elegant Moorish idol, the stunning blue tang, the clearly to-be-avoided scorpionfish and lionfish, the aptly named Picasso and moustache triggerfishes, the occasional moray eel, and an endless array of anthias, damselfish, and wrasses. Not to mention invertebrates from pistol shrimp to nudibranchs, to the ever-intriguing octopus.
But I now needed to find reasons to feed the obsession. Fortunately, my student Anne Theo decided (or was gently persuaded) to study mixed species groups of reef fish (shoals of parrotfish or surgeonfish or goatfish being followed by wrasses) for her PhD. At the same time, our researcher at Dakshin Foundation, Mahima Jaini, had also started a project on baitfish and tuna in the Lakshadweep islands. Needless to say, this meant that I had to visit and supervise their work. Amidst the data collection, we had many exciting dives — we saw sharks in Bangaram, eagle rays in Kavaratti, and mixed species groups everywhere. We made a three-day trip to uninhabited Suheli (where my sea turtle mentor, Satish Bhaskar had camped for five months by himself in the late 1970s) and dived at pristine spots.
But diving is not just fun and games unless you are paying a dive shop to do all the heavy lifting (literally). There is a lot of prep in filling tanks, getting the gear ready, planning the dive, and the work underwater. Getting the equipment to the jetty, on the boat, and back after the dive is a fair amount of labour. Long dives can be exhausting. And there’s all the cleaning afterwards (salt is evil) and general maintenance. It’s also important to acquire additional skills through a Rescue Diver course, or Scientific Diver training. Most important is of course experience, and safety is paramount in any sort of diving.
In addition to our ongoing leatherback project, I also started in-water work in the Andaman Islands. I tried (and failed) to convince my student Priti Bangal, to become one of the few (maybe the first person ever) to do a PhD on both birds and fish (she stuck to birds). But I joined other researchers at every opportunity, dived with my 10-year old son when he got certified (with much less fuss than me), and got training from doyens of diving such as Umeed Mistry, Sayeed Saleem, Vikas Nairi, and Leon de Nazareth.
More recently, our work has included setting out Autonomous Reef Monitoring Systems (aka ARMS), a series of PVC plates that look something like an underwater apartment block that marine fauna can settle on, crawl into, and hide under. Six months or a year later, these blocks are removed, and all the fauna is inventoried, some by visual identification, but mostly by molecular genetic methods. And as part of the Environment Ministry’s recently launched Long-Term Ecological Observatories Programme, a group of us will initiate monitoring of multiple marine ecosystems in the Andaman Islands.
In just 10 years, diving has gone from being a niche activity pursued by an intrepid few to an almost standard holiday pastime for many urban travellers. It has also become a pretty standard research option for the growing field of marine biology in India. But the trail was blazed by veterans of in-water research such as Rohan Arthur, Sarang Kulkarni, Naveen Namboothri (all coral reef biologists), Vardhan Patankar (reefs and reef fish) and Elrika D’ Souza (dugongs).
Diving is always a delight (except maybe in bad weather and cold water, but even then). The feeling of weightlessness, the illusion of grace (though some divers are truly dolphinesque), the sense of space, all make it soothing, even meditative. Even after hammering stakes into the ground, completing a transect against the current, or laying endless quadrats, you can let time stand still, neutrally buoyant in that space, surrounded by silence, and forget the world exists. And sometimes, after a night dive, suspended midwater during your safety stop, you twirl your arms and legs, so they light up the water with luminescent algae, and make the stars dance with you. And feel zen for just a moment.