The Andaman Islands (India)
Located approximately 800 kilometers northwest of Phuket, there are actually two island chains here: The Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands are a huge area extending from Sumatra in the south, all the way to the Bay of Bengal. India governs both. After a 50 year period of virtual isolation from the outside world the Indian government in 1993 made the decision to allow limited, environmentally conscious tourism development in the Andaman Islands. The Andaman Islands are one of the world’s newest diving destinations and have yet to be completely examined. Unfortunately, the Nicobar Islands remain closed to outsiders, and this scenario is unlikely to change any time soon.
The Andaman’s modern history began as a British penal colony for Indian radical elements. During WWII a small Japanese force occupied it. Once India gained its independence from Britain, the government initiated a limited colonization program and at the same time, committed itself to protecting the island’s aboriginal population and its natural environment.
Port Blair is the capital, the main port, and contains the most of the population of the islands. It is the only official port of entry to the islands, which comprise over 1,900 kilometers of coastline. It’s small airport receives flights from Madras and Calcutta, India. One can also enter by boat either from India or by special charter basis from Phuket, Thailand. However, if you arrive by boat, you must leave by boat, and if you arrive by air, you must depart by air as well. This makes diving the islands problematic, and the main reason why there are not more boats traveling there. The other reason for little diving development on the islands themselves is the problem of working permits. Immigration laws are tough, and Indian red tape is notorious for it’s inefficiency. The good thing about these restrictions, however, is that it does keep the region unspoiled.
On the surrounding islands live some of the last stone-age peoples on the earth. One tribe, the Sentinelese, are isolated on their own tiny tropical island, North Sentinel, and no visitors are allowed; no camera crews, no journalists, no scientists, and no researchers. The Indian Government attempted contact only a few times—and National Geographic one time. This story was featured in the magazine in 1986. The locals made it rather clear—by throwing primitive spears and shooting arrows at the party—that they did not and do not want to be disturbed.
The islands have no modern fishing fleet and commercial fishing licenses are granted to foreign operators only on an extremely limited basis. Thus, the waters surrounding the islands are simply full of fish that have almost never been disturbed by modern man—it’s like fish soup in many places. And, since the islands only opened recently, unbelievably few people have dived the offshore areas.
Although in many of the near shore areas the visibility is limited, the off-shore islands such as Barren Island and Narcondam have very good visibility as well as huge fish, sharks, manta rays, unbelievable coral growth— and are blessed with crystal-clear water. Jacques Cousteau made a film on the Andamans called The Invisible Islands and much of the footage was shot at Narcondam.
There are many, many different dive sites in the Andaman Islands, so instead of describing specific dive sites at two of the main areas, I've included a chart of the areas you would be diving on a liveaboard trip to the islands. Since so few people dive there on a regular basis, individual dive-sites names would have little meaning to anyone except the divemaster who named them.
The Andamans are certainly not for everyone. Visiting requires spending long periods of time on a boat and traveling almost every night in order to get to the best spots. However, for those interested in the best of frontier diving, this is it. It is one of the last untouched areas of the world.
Update February 2005:
I was fortunate enough after the Andaman Sea tsunami to be able to once again visit these fabulous islands (this time more as a tourist diver than a dive leader, which was more fun). We visited all of the dive sites that I had visited the last time (1994) except for Barren Island (nothing has changed there). However, I was lucky to be able to do a full circumnavigation of North, Middle and South Andaman. This was the first time I had had a chance to visit the West Coast. And, there were many rumors flying around that one, coral bleaching had killed much of the coral, two, fishing was getting out of control, and three, that diving was even more restricted than before. Fortunately, none of this was true. In fact, I found that the islands and especially the dive sites had remained almost unchanged--and in some ways were better. This may have been due to the almost perfect conditions we had, but whatever the case, the fish were still huge, the water still clear in some place–less clear in others, and there is still no one there.
I personally found the diving on the West Coast to be disappointing but not for the reasons I was led to believe. Since this area gets pounded with waves during the southwest monsoon, I had always heard that there was little coral. I found the opposite to be true. The coral is magnificent. The problem is the lack of fish and it's a little boring as the terrain is flat. Compared with the East and South Coasts, there were almost no fish. What made up for this was 500 miles of unbelievably rugged beauty, thousand year-old trees, flocks of rainbow parakeets (and many other birds) and beaches to die for. We even spotted some local Jawara hunting with bow and arrow along the water's edge.
We covered almost 2000 nautical miles in 14 days, and though it was a lot of traveling, it was an adventure of a lifetime. If you have a chance to go, and if you can afford it (it ain't cheap), do it. You'll never regret it.
About the Author
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.