It was in the early part of the summer of 2017 and I had just completed my Advanced Open Water Diver course. Like all divers, I too was eager to dive at different places, look for new experiences and seek new career avenues. But I had a time crunch because of my master’s degree course, and didn’t manage to make any time for it. After long discussions with senior divers, scheduling and then re-scheduling college activities and finalizing our maximum limit of expenditure (which turned out to be rather low for diving in destinations like Bali or the Andamans), my friend and I zeroed down on diving at Netrani Island. A tiny island off the coast of Karnataka, Netrani is mostly unknown to non-divers.
‘Netrani’ means ‘eyes’ in Kannada, and the name seems to hint at the vast diversity that is seen underwater! Netrani Island is a heart-shaped piece of land located westward in the Arabian Sea, about 19 kms away from the coast of Murudeshwara, near Mangalore. The island has sharp, tall, wall-like edges, making it uninhabitable for humans or any large mammal, but at the same time has ideal conditions for marvellous marine life.
As instructed, we reached Murudeshwara a day before our dives. Looking at the sea in the starry night, I reminisced about my previous dives in completely different conditions. I couldn’t help but think of my dives at the Indian Institute of Scuba Diving (IISDA) where, even in very low visibility I furnished my navigation and search and recovery skills (after failing a lot of times), read dive instructions and so on. I listened to my favourite playlist on loop just to calm my nerves. After all, I was going to dive after a long time.
I was a bit anxious till we boarded the boat the next morning. But listening to the dive masters and instructors recount their underwater experiences at Netrani made me feel comfortable and relaxed. The moment we reached the destination, before getting my kit together, the first thing I did was to move to the boat’s edge and look down in the water. This was the place where many people had seen turtles swimming around. This was the place where Whale Sharks had been seen. This was the place where the Maori Wrasse roams!
Without wasting much time, we began our first dive of the day. As soon as I entered the Big Old Blue, the first thing I marvelled at was the water; water so clear that I was able to see shoals of Damsels along with Cardinals near the sea bed, moving in and out of the Boulder Corals.
As I began descending into the deep, I realized that there were hundreds of beings swimming around me – Monocle Breams plucking out algae from the rock, a great number of Red-toothed Triggerfish moving around fearlessly, Giant Clams lying around every few meters, huge number of Boulder Corals, Moon Corals, a few Branching Corals as well.
Most importantly, I saw Parrotfish in pairs, breaking those hard corals in small pieces using their sharp beaks and eating them. That was the first time I saw a female Parrotfish in person. I had only seen them in books and photographs. Unlike male Parrotfish, females don’t have the striking blue colouration. They are dark grey with a tinge of pinkish-purple colour and are much smaller than males.
As we moved ahead, our dive buddy told us to keep an eye on the bottom as well and soon we realized why. That patch didn’t have much corals but was rocky covered by algal growth, with sea slugs roaming on the surface. I was unable to spot them at that time, but saw the photographs after we surfaced.
There was another surprise in there. What looked like a bunch of algae growing on a rock with two pairs of shiny blue eyes was a well-camouflaged mating pair of Scorpionfish. My heart began to beat rapidly! And on the note of that astonishing sight, we ended our first dive.
The surface interval between the two dives made me really restless. I kept looking at the watch every two minutes, while eating bananas, drinking water and waiting to do the next dive impatiently. After an hour, we flipped ourselves into the water again. Obviously, there wasn’t any sign of nervousness in my mind like earlier in the day, now I was truly at peace.
We decided to go to another site this time. Unlike the previous site, this had a different terrain, more crevices and plenty of spots for fish to hide. The first thing we saw during this dive, swimming straight towards us, was a Batfish. It wasn’t in a hurry nor was it aggressive, it just seemed to be engrossed in its own world. This new site was full of big fish like Groupers, Triggers, funny-looking Porcupinefish and huge Moray Eels peeping out from the rock crevices.
We kept an eye on the oxygen tank’s pressure gauge and were about to end our second dive when one of the dive masters, who was a few meters ahead of us, called us by frantically waving his hand. Expecting to see yet another common, brilliantly coloured reef fish, I slowly swam towards him and looked ahead. What swam in front of us was a brilliantly coloured reef fish, but not that common, not even for the other divers! This was the biggest fish I’ve encountered underwater till date, a Maori Wrasse! Also known as Humphead Wrasse, the fish we were looking at was a huge female, approximately 5 feet in length (males are bigger than females when it comes to this fish), moving around with incredible grace.
She must have sensed our presence, for she moved away a bit, swimming parallel to us. Suddenly, she headed down and vomited a few meters away from us, creating a greyish white cloud in the water. Within a matter of seconds, all kinds of fish swimming around the reef rushed towards that cloud, and got busy picking up the food particles in it. We watched the rush like frozen, floating objects in the water. As the wrasse moved away from the ‘vomit cloud’, looking for clams and other organisms to feed on, we got back to our senses and moved away to make way for her. I was totally awestruck by that encounter, and looked on stunned until she disappeared on the other side of reef. We realized that we were supposed to end our dive long back and surface, as there was very less air remaining in our tanks.
That was the end of our dives. During the safety stop while ascending to the surface, I scanned the water below, looking at the fish activity. The world below me hadn’t changed a bit, small fish still moved in shoals, Parrotfish continued to break and eat hard corals with their sharp beaks and eels still peeped out of their crevices. The only thing missing in that scene, was me! I lost a piece of my heart in those reefs. I surfaced, making a promise to myself to return to the place where my mind still floats around that heart-shaped island.