LAKSHADWEEP

The ultimate exotic diving location lies two hundred and fifty miles off the south-west coast of India in the Arabian Sea. Here, 36 islands are scattered like emeralds in a sea of aquamarine and deepest sapphire blue - The Lakshadweep Island Group.

What brought me to this remote place was an e-mail query. My Web Page, "Exotic Diving Locations," contains several articles that I have written over the years about diving in far-off places (such as Sipadan in Borneo and the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia). Doctor Evan Sharma of Orlando, Florida had been surfing the net and arrived at my Web Page. He was looking for an island that could offer a diving honeymoon. He had heard about Lakshadweep, but did not have any information on the diving there and wondered if I could assist him.

I was determined to obtain more information about Lakshadweep. I was surprised by what my internet research revealed. Tourists are permitted to stay on only one of the 36 islands: Bangaram. I made up my mind to visit Bangaram and made all the arrangements via fax with the Casino Hotel, the only resort on the island. It has the capacity for only 60 guests. Visitors at the Casino Resort on Bangaram will be glad to know that at $200 U.S. per night, the calibre of the accommodations and service will be nothing less than 5-star. The Casino Hotel offers 30 chalet-style rooms that are tastefully furnished, fan cooled and have attached bathrooms. Air conditioners and hot water require too much fuel and are bad for the ecology.

Bangaram Island is slowly becoming the destination of choice for the rich and famous. According to the hotel's general manager, Mr. Thyagin Menon, the attraction of the island is best summed up in the words of their latest celebrity guest, Richard Gere, who said "I have been to many island resorts, but what I found unique about Bangaram is that it is totally private". Mr. Menon added that in the coming weeks the Prime Minister of India was planning a short stay at this resort. It is probably the ultimate vacation spot in India.

Bangaram is also an island on the move. Doctor Wendy Darke (a Marine Biologist who was on the island with a crew from the BBC filming a documentary about the indigenous wildlife) noted that the windward side of the island loses three metres of land each year and deposits it on the leeward side. Thus the huts that were once right on the beach facing the lagoon on the leeward side are approximately 100 metres away from it today.

The Lakshadweep chain of islands are coral atolls. An atoll is a coral organism lying exactly at the surface of the ocean where air and water meet; this being the only condition under which coral can live. The coral here is shaped like a ring and encircles a staggeringly beautiful emerald-blue lagoon. Each atoll is the topmost point of a submarine pillar of limestone extending several thousand feet from an extinct volcano. The purpose of my visit to Bangaram was not to delve into the geology of the area, but to explore the underwater world these atolls have to offer.

The dive centre is the star attraction for most visitors to the island. It is run by Andras, a man with a very soft-sell approach to diving. He leaves it up to the diver to show up at 9:30 a.m., at the dive boat "Dolphin" to go diving if they are so inclined. Andras is very thorough in his approach to diving in the surrounding reefs as he is aware that the island does not have any decompression chambers. In the eight years he has been on the island there have not been any serious diving accidents. Andras is also an ecologist at heart and ensures that the reefs are left as unspoiled as possible. Anyone who has been diving there will attest to the pristine condition of the coral.

My first dive was at Manta Point. Unfortunately, March is not the season for Manta, so it was not surprising that we did not observe any. We did, however, see a pod of six eagle rays glide by in the distance. This was possible because the visibility was very good: we could see approximately 30 metres. We dove for 10 minutes at 30 metres, and spent the remainder of our time at 20 metres.

On each of our dives we were escorted by a pod of ten to twenty Asian dolphins. They rode the waves made by the dive boat at the bow. On all my dives at Bangaram I discovered the best coral formations I have ever seen. If the old adage is correct that the essence of the reef lies in the health of the coral then the reefs that surround Bangaram are as close to perfect as you can get. The coral provided plenty of hiding spots for the Leopard Moray Eels. I witnessed something I have never seen in my ten years of diving: five to six frog fish all in a group hiding in the coral. Our dive was often interrupted by a friendly turtle swimming by.

Andras took us to the wreck of the Princess Royal. She lay in 35 metres of gin-clear water having been sunk in battle by the French and British two hundred years ago. Andras had salvaged several artefacts which he had given to the Lakshadweep Museum on Karavetti. I was left with the distinct impression that there is much left to be discovered. Broken pottery was scattered all around the ship, and a swim to the west of the wreck revealed four very large cannons, about fifteen feet long, each weighing about one ton. As we swam away I knew that this would not be the last we would hear of the Princess Royal.

The tenor of life on Bangaram is refreshingly tranquil and in direct opposition to the hustle and bustle of the city. It glides along to natures soft rhythm, the salt-laden winds perfuming the air and rustling the leaves of the coconut palms. The murmur of the waves constantly caressing the shores gently lulls one to sleep as they rock in a hammock suspended between the coconut trees.

The week had just vanished in time. As I was leaving Bangaram, the guest manager, Manorit, approached me to sign the islands guest book. I thought for a moment and concluded that words cannot do justice to this island paradise. To understand the magnificence of Bangaram, you must experience it yourself by visiting the island.

BY CHRISTOPHER FERNANDEZ

Copyright 1998 - 2000


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