There was a sense of anticipation as we kitted up and went through the routine of checking dive gear and refreshing underwater signals. I descended into the alien yet familiar world that reached out to embrace me. The water was pleasantly warm and as I adjusted my buoyancy to be truly weightless, my mind adjusted to its new found freedom and a 3 dimensional environment. I heard the familiar and loud rasp of air rushing through the regulator and watched again the mercury gleam of the bubbles created by exhaled air. They ascended in a stream of shimmering silver, small ones expanding as they distanced themselves and reached out towards the surface. "When you leave take with you only the experience and leave only your bubbles behind."
As I descended, it was a paler underwater world, less colourful than the previous year. The El Nino of 1998 had a very destructive impact and global warming had left many corals bleached. The mortality rate of the coral in this stretch of islands had been between 43% and 87%. Directly below me was this table coral, 6 feet in diameter, lying upside down like an overturned mushroom. Around it, pieces of dead staghorn coral littered the sea bed like bleached bones in a vast graveyard.
Moving ahead, I was slowly in the midst of surgeon fish, blue striped snappers, angelfish and anthea. A pair of parrotfish nibbled at the coral. We kept a wary distance from the lion fish with it's mane of poisonous tentacles waving. Finning over a vast underwater valley, weightless in a three dimensional environment, the open valley revealed a hawksbill turtle moving over a stretch of sand and we quickened our pace to catch up with it. I stroked its back in a soft hello and with quick thrusts of its front flippers it accelerated away. A redtoothed triggerfish in a small crevice purred angrily at the intruders.
At the end of the dive, while suspended below the surface for a decompression stop, we heard the familiar squealing sound of 3 dolphins much before they swam by us in haste.
The afternoon dive at the East Channel carried us on a slow underwater current for 30 minutes, a magic carpet ride. Coral formations appeared and disappeared. On the right emerged a green turtle, then another. We moved towards a dusky moray and examined it closely. Humans fear moray eels, as they do sharks, because of the myths associated with them and owing to a lack of knowledge about their behaviour patterns. In the day time they are shy and usually rest. The moray rhythmically opened and shut its mouth in characteristic fashion as it circulated water over its gills, each breath revealing the predatory inward slanting teeth. Morays, like many varieties of sharks are night time predators. They normally hang part way out of crevices while anchoring their tail to a rock or protuberance inside to get a firmer hold on struggling prey. When swimming they are marvellous to behold. We keep alert for any sign of aggression. This underwater picture was completed by a sea fan and sea anemone swaying in tune with the current, tentacles outstretched to catch any passing food.
Barring a few well known exceptions, most marine life will ignore divers, if left undisturbed. Morays do not display pectoral or ventral fins but have one large fin running on the back, a combination of dorsal, tail and anal fins. They are born as males and change into females after becoming sexually active. Cleaner Wrasse and shrimp can sometimes be spotted near morays and venture into their mouths to clean them, an example of many symbiotic relationships that exist.
Then emerged a sleek grey streamlined shape, with unblinking eyes and that distinctive silhouette of the dorsal fin. There was a rush of adrenaline as I identified it as a white tipped reef shark, about 2 metres in length. This one majestically ignores us as it glides by. In its unhurried and confident motion it displays all the characteristics of a predator on top of the food chain in this reef. Reef sharks feed on reef fish and octopus.
We settle into the routine of getting up at the crack of dawn, kitting up, waiting for high tide not to damage the coral on the way out. After lunch we rest before heading out for the second dive of the day. The evenings are spent chilling on the beach, sometimes with the music washing over the tides at full volume as the stars emerge, larger than ever.
On the third day we headed out for "sting ray city". A green turtle greeted us as we descended. A sting ray cruised past. An odd shape in the sand below metamorphosed into another ray that took off as we approached.
I fulfilled a long standing desire to dive in the soft glow of sunset the next day when the timing of the tide was perfect. At Seven Hut Rreef we went through the familiar routine of clipping on tanks, fins, masks, checking air pressure, inflating buoyancy jackets, breathing through the regulators and flipping backwards overboard, a method of entry that always fills me with childish glee. The sun was a large golden orb, left behind in another world.
Underneath the waves in the subdued light of sunset, the ocean displayed a surreal hue. It was a near spiritual experience as I found myself in a soft scape of coral mountains, sand valleys and colourful formations teeming with myriad creatures of the ocean depths. There was an immense air of activity as diurnal fish hurried homewards to rest and the creatures of the night stirred to action. Will future generations see this or would we have destroyed it all? This was the Blue Planet as it was meant to be: pristine in its harmonious balance.
When we emerged from the dive, I saw blood dripping from Siddhartha's nose and instinctively looked to see if the blood had attracted any sharks. Siddhartha suffered a nose bleed during the next dive too, probably because of the water pressure acting on blocked sinuses. He skipped a couple of dives and cleared his sinuses by a time tested yogic method. I buddied someone else, but my partner did not adhere to dive discipline, kept touching coral and picking up sea slugs and urchins, did not maintain eye contact and tended to wander off by himself. Diving was not the same fun.
A few dives later, back with Siddhartha, we saw a spiny lobster in a small cave. As I peered into the small crevice, it suddenly advanced, waving its antennae at my face and I beat a hasty retreat to the merriment of my dive companions. To the right, a small sting ray shot off with a flap of wings at high speed. Unreal.
For those who remembered what the reef looked like earlier, the sight of the bleached coral was saddening, indeed. Then one day, at Seven Hut Reef, we were finally rewarded by vast stretches of a celebration of colour. This was the first time this season that we were delighted by the many varieties of coral living together. Staghorn coral, brain coral, carpet coral and the bright yellow and orange fire coral truly aflame. There is a diver's belief that fire coral will not burn if you touch it with the back of the hand and sure enough it did not.
Heading out for our last dive, we saw a school of at least a hundred dolphins and veered to intersect their path. There was no time to kit up so we skin dived into their midst. We were surrounded by the squealing and clicking dolphins as they sped by in lightning bursts. A group of 5 or 6 reversed direction and passed below me in a flash, in seeming playful interaction, as dolphins are wont to do. Two dolphins separated from their compatriots intermingling with the divers. I surmised that these must be the pilots or point dolphins who check out intruders. There followed an exciting ballet of divers and dolphins with the dolphins flashing past in large numbers at such a rapid pace that there was only a flurry of images of excitement and activity.
The ocean had rewarded us with one of those Zen moments in which one is truly alive.
Photo Credit: Lacadives