Andaman Islands Liveaboard Scuba Diving
India’s Andaman Islands
Located approximately 800 kilometers northwest of Phuket, the Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands connect Indonesia to Burma. This huge archipelago extends from Sumatra in the south all the way to the Bay of Bengal in Burma. India governs both. After WW2, the Andamans entered a period of virtual isolation from the outside world. In 1993 the Indian government decided to allow limited, environmentally conscious tourism development in the Andaman Islands. Andaman Islands liveaboards visit Barren and Narcondam Islands. The Nicobar Islands remain closed.
Liveaboard dive boats and sailing yachts have been visiting the Andaman Islands since the 1990s. There are limited dive shops, resorts and bungalows set up on the resort islands of Havelock and Neil in Ritchies Archipelago. Currently the Diva Andaman yacht is the only boat offering join-in scheduled liveaboard trips. She visits in April each year.
The Islands’ Modern History
The Andaman’s modern history began as a British penal colony for Indian radical elements and was first used as a prison in 1857. Prisoners and their guards were moved several times due to malaria and poor living conditions. The Cellular Jail was constructed in 1896 on what is now called Port Blair. During WWII a small Japanese force occupied the islands hoping to use the large port as a jumping off point to invade India. Once India gained its independence from Britain, the new Indian 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 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. Hindi and Bengali are widely spoken, and many people speak excellent English.
On the surrounding islands live some of the last stone-age peoples on 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 appeared in the magazine in 1986. The locals made it rather clear—by throwing primitive spears and shooting arrows at the party—they do not want to be disturbed. To this day no meaningful contact has been made with the Sentinelese.
The Nicobar Islands remain closed to all outsiders, and this scenario is unlikely to change any time soon. Protection of the environment as well as the native tribes are a priority for the Indian Government. Movement is highly restricted. The 2004 tsunami killed many people of various tribes native to Nicobar and their populations are threatened with extinction.
Flights to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands depart from either Kolkata or Chennai, India. There are no international flights into Port Blair though the idea has been floated numerous times. Limited entry by boat is possible. The boat owner or captain must arrange all permissions. The closest ports are Phuket (740 km), Kuala Lumpur (1365 km), and Singapore (1670 km). The trip from Phuket to Port Blair takes at least one full day and two full nights depending on the boat’s speed. A sailing boat will take four to five days to reach the islands from Phuket. The journey by ferry from Kolkata and Chennai take four days.
Arrive by Boat. Leave by Boat.
If you arrive by boat, you must leave by boat. If you arrive by air, you must depart by air as well. This makes diving the islands problematic with lengthy trips. Another reason there is little diving development on the islands is the problem of working permits for foreigners. Immigration and maritime laws are tough, and Indian red tape is notorious. The good thing about these restrictions, however, is that it does keep the archipelago unspoiled. There are seaplanes and ferries offering transportation from Port Blair to Havelock and Neil Islands for resort access.
An Indian visa is required to visit India. There are both agencies and consulates who provide these services. There are also online agencies which issue Indian visas. It usually takes a few days so plan well ahead. Your permit to enter the Special Zone of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is issued either at the departure airport or upon arrival in Port Blair. All you need is a round-trip air ticket. You are not allowed to fly in one-way.
You’re not allowed to visit the Nicobar Islands to the south, and you’re not allowed on North or South Andaman unless you have permission from authorities. Your tour organizer will arrange these permissions if necessary.
The Best Time to Visit
The diving season for the Andaman Islands is from November to April each year when the northeast winds are balmy and mild. However, since the Andamans are the area where storms generate, the best season is January until May, sometimes June. There is no diving from July until November. However, you may visit the islands themselves all year around. There are no closures of Port Blair and Middle Andaman Island.
The Scuba Diving
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. We call it the only place in the world where fish die of old age.
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. In 1988 Jacques Cousteau made a film on the Andamans called The Invisible Islands and much of the footage was shot at Narcondam.
Andaman Islands Liveaboards (India)
Popular Andaman Islands Dive Sites
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.
There are many dive sites in the Andaman Islands. Ritchies Archipelago is well documented with dive sites named by the staff working at the resorts on Neil and Havelock. There are some shipwrecks and coral dives but it’s mostly focused on open water courses and beginning divers fun dives. Visibility is limited and variable. There are interesting dives in mangrove areas, and crocodiles are still living in and around the cluster of islands. There are two offshore banks, Minerve Ledge and Campbell Shoals, which offer better visibility and abundant marine life. These are also visited by the dive shops on Havelock.
When liveaboard operations are allowed boats visit areas to the northeast and to the south of Port Blair. Barren Island, an active volcano which erupts regularly, lies approximately 100 km from Port Blair. Narcondam Island, a dormant volcano which has an active but small security base, is another 130 km north of Barren, both overnight trips by most vessels. Day boats cannot visit these islands, yet they offer the very best diving in the Andaman Sea. Both have surrounding depths of over 700 meters. Anchorages are limited because of depth and the lack of coves. It’s possible to see just about “everything” here including mobula rays, reef and oceanic mantas, sharks, rays, game fish, and all the normal tropical beauties we see in the Andaman Sea. The water at these offshore islands is nice and clear. The coral abundant and healthy. It’s some of the best diving in the world when conditions and your luck are just right. There are some casual names for dive sites here but since they are not dived weekly, most of the names are made up on the spot and then forgotten.
About five hours south of Port Blair by boat lie some stunningly beautiful islands. Passage Rock or “Fish Rock” as we like to call it, is a small rock on the surface off Passage Island which forms a huge dive site underwater. The currents rocket through here moving many nutrients for the fish and coral to feed on. The action is almost as exciting as a bait ball. Sometimes you have to hook in or hold on for dear life, so it’s an advanced dive site twice a day when the currents are running. You won’t find exciting dives like this many places.
Cinque Island has some pretty dive sites in front of the gorgeous beaches, some shallow coral gardens and some drift dives along the island’s capes. Humphead parrot fish are pretty common in this area still.
Sometimes you’re allowed to travel to South Sentinel Island and even to South Andaman, but the diving is not that interesting. On longer charters some boats will explore the West Coast of the Andaman Islands. In 2005, just after the tsunami, I was fortunate enough to once again visit the Andaman Islands by liveaboard to do a full circumnavigation of North, Middle and South Andaman. We visited all the dive sites that I had visited the previous time in 1994. I visited Barren and Narcondam again in March 2012 and found them both to be fabulous as usual.
Both in 2005 and 2012 there were 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 looked after. 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 places and less clear in others–and there is still no one there.
This was the first time I had had a chance to visit the West Coast. 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 tropical trees, flocks of red-breasted parakeets (and many other birds) and beaches to die for. We even spotted some local pygmy Jawara hunting with bow and arrow along the water’s edge.