Monday, 21 February 2011

Kadmat - I'm sharing a secret

You do not have to go far to dive, but if you can it is often magical. ‘Magical’ is not the most original word in talking of India. Many have found magic there - in its yogic wisdom, in its ayurvedic potions, in its multiple Gods and Demons. Many have found magic in its billion bustling people, smoke, colour and chaos. But few, very few, have found a little piece of India that lies far out in the Western waters. This little piece of land is called Kadmat, and it is magical not for stories born of the time and tides of history, but for the vibrance of the blue waters surrounding it, the life-supporting coral reef fringing it and its secluded, fiercely protected existence. 
Kadmat is a long, narrow island - 11 kilometres from North to South and a mere 400 metres wide from East to West - and it is a part of the Lakshadweep, literally translating into ‘A hundred thousand islands’. A two and half hour flight from the port city of Cochin followed by a two hour speed boat ride will get you there just in time for a spectacular sunset.
The sight of the wooden jetty extending out of white sand and coconut trees is welcoming enough, but you are here to dive and so to welcome you come the smiles of the dive team and fresh coconut water. Remember this as you walk further inland, when you are taken to your room which will be comfortable but not luxurious. Remember when you eat the food which is filling but not original, and interact with resort staff that are stubborn service providers, that you are here to dive. The luxury of Kadmat lies in its waters - diving, swimming, bathing alternatively in the sea and the sun - not on land. 
So settle into your room, put away your shoes and put your bare feet on, and head over to the dive shop. The dive team will have you sign the requisite papers, size you up for equipment and then talk you through the plan for the next day. Whether you are here for a PADI dive certification or looking for some fun dives to add to your log book, you will soon be sure that you have chosen your destination well. Turtle town, they will say, Sting Ray City, Shark Alley, the Cave, the Wall, and you won’t be disappointed. Sleep early, rest well, for the next day the diving begins. 


The first dive of the day leaves at 7:30 in the morning in a quaint little wooden boat with a thatched roof. You don’t have to be there much earlier than that as your equipment has already been assembled and waiting for you. Tide permitting, the first dive is on the East side. Kadmat is protected by a large, shallow light blue lagoon, with three gates in the reef from which you enter and exit it. The main gate on the North side is usable at all times, but the East and the Small Gates cannot be used at the lowest of tides. The life in the reef surrounding the island is very rich though, and short journeys of about twenty minutes take you to dive sites worth traveling hours for.  
Sting Ray City is an East-side favourite, perfect for beginners as well as experienced divers. Just looking down from the surface reveals the promise as you see schools of large snappers and the occasional ray resting in the sand. It is about 8 am when you deflate the jacket and descend into your dive, and the early morning sunshine is just beginning to bring activity to the reef below. You start your dive in mysterious, misty visibility, but on most days it does not take long for the tropical sunshine to penetrate the depths and allow you to see anywhere from 15 to 40 metres. The dive begins at a shallow shelf, but right away your dive leader begins to point out the misunderstood moray eels, skulking octopus, minute sea slugs and playful clownfish. You might be quite content to spend the entire hour nose-down in the coral, but the fusiliers won’t have that. As you find your depth they come raining down on you in their thousands of electric blue bodies and sun-kissed backs, obscuring your vision so entirely that it is impossible to see anything beyond the curtain of fish. Look up and you will see the occasional giant puffer fish hovering up by the surface. 
Most of your dive will be at 18 metres, and this unique dive site takes you through alternating strips of coral reef and sand patches. The sand patches are a stark white disappearing into the deep, and they provide a stunning contrast to the bright blue of the water. Here as the dive leader would have already briefed you to, you look for resting rays and turtles. As you are scanning the distance you notice a shimmer in the water. You train your eyes towards a flash here and a flash there and you realise you are swimming to a huge school of silver sides. They cross the sand with you, and looking up towards the reef ahead you see a group of sleek and cruel-bodies trevallies cutting their way through the water. Atop the reef now, you find yourself in the midst of a feeding frenzy - silver sides dancing, trevallies attacking - neither paying much mind to you. And then from the distance she comes, the elegant eagle ray with her full mouth and her long tail, sweeping into the scene, swooping into the fish, spinning and twirling until she spreads her spotted wings to fly off again. 
You swim on to see schools of five-lined snappers, standing still in the current, bright yellow like a pool of sunshine. You see orange chromis sprinkled above boulder coral, oriental sweetlips perched on table coral, and a heartwarming plentitude of live soft coral with purple and blue and green branches swaying.
Sting Ray City, from 8 to 9 am is morning rush hour at its best and most colourful. 


‘Turtle Town’ at the North-West side of the island is a Kadmat classic. What India calls a village most would call a town, what India calls a small town is for many a capital city, and Indian cities have populations of mid-sized countries. It is fantastic to see that the populations are not of people alone. For turtle-lovers this Town is pure indulgence. 
As you begin your descent down the gradual sloping reef, you might be disappointed. The waters are often murky and the coral looks depressingly dead in its dark browns and greens. The increasingly frequent El-ninos have not been kind. But nature, you learn, has a quiet resilience and none epitomise this more than the slow, wise old turtles.
You look at the topography around, the round heads of boulder coral cascading down the slope, and as you get close one lifts off and swims away. You stare, surprised, but now start to examine more carefully and find that many of the coral are in fact turtles slumbering in a way only the old and cold-blooded do. Some lie in the several sheltering alcoves and rock out-croppings, their necks arched up in pleasure as the tiny blue and black cleaner wrasse nibble away on their sensitive shells, freeing them of salt and sand in a beautifully symbiotic relationship. Occasionally you come upon a giant green, quite possibly a century old, and feel small and young and inexperienced under her patient majestic gaze. The hawksbill turtle is more playful, and will sometimes swim to you, investigating your alien self. He might nudge at your equipment with his sharp beak and in return allow you to stroke his shell, and before you start to feel too special turn his head casually towards the next diver in the group, dismissing you with a flick of his hind leg. 
Look ahead at your dive leader and you notice her hand is perpetually in the sign for ‘turtle’, pointing this way and that. After a while though, when you have had your fill of the turtles, you start to look out for other creatures. You search in the blue and see graceful silver tunas, shiny rainbow runners and the lumbering bodies of Napoleon Wrasse. Looking now not just at the boulders but also the space between them you may see extravagant lionfish, long white antennae belonging to lobsters lying below, nudibranchs, sponge snails and scorpion fish. Blotched fantail rays rest on the coral too, and if you approach them with steadiness and calm they will let you run your fingers along their sides to join the wrasse in cleaning their wings. 
After 60 minutes you ascend to 5 metres for the safety stop and watch turtles swim up through the snappers and fusiliers to get their breath of air, then arms and legs splayed they turn and flap head-first back into Turtle Town leaving you wishing you could do the same. 


Most dive sites of Kadmat are just off the reef, in the periphery of the lagoon. Shark Alley is the exception, it is reserved for experienced divers alone and it truly is as exciting and darkly enticing as it sounds. This dive takes you away from the reef, and out into the open ocean. When the island is no larger than a speck on the horizon, the boat captain throws down his anchor. The currents are usually strong and the anchor does not always catch. If its does, the anchor line can be used as a reference for descent. If not you kit up on the boat, back roll together at the count of three with buoyancy jackets deflated and immediately begin a free descent into the blue. 
You descend head first, exhaling deeper and deeper with your eyes on the dive leader. For several moments you see only a dark indigo blue lit up intermittently by glowing specks of plankton. With no view of the surface or the sea bed these glowing specks become your only natural reference of depth. Then at about 35 metres beneath the surface you spot an oasis of life, a coral patch sheltered in the deep that you must fin towards. Before you arrive there though you pass by a school of a hundred ephemeral batfish. Flat but wide like sheets of paper, their ghostly grey and white bodies flit around. They hover in place, while you continue to descend. 
Finally you arrive at the base of the site, and there under the rock outcropping is Shark Alley. This is where, on a good day you see remoras and white tips and large grey reef sharks hunting. You are at depth now and though there is plenty of action to keep you there, your dive computer will soon beep at you to ascend. So you comply, a little, and ascend a few metres to the top of the coral. You look out into the blue edging into darkness and out come the strong vicious looking bodies of dog-tooth tunas. They swim swiftly and menacingly towards you, cutting a sharp turn just milimetres before you in defence of their territory. Sometimes in the distance you also spot an army of giant barracudas, still against the currents and prepared for attack. As you go along the top of the coral you see groupers, Napoleons, lionfish and the bizarrely out of place clownfish. 
Unfairly soon it is time to ascend, the currents are pushing you resolutely out of this secret spot, but as you rise keep an eye on the ocean floor for you may see sharks sleeping on the sand. Look far into the blue too, for dolphins are known to be playing around in the area. Look around you, and you see the most shapeless yet graceful iridescent bodies of jellyfish suspended mid-water like works of abstract art. 
Shark Alley can be a difficult dive, with currents, with poor visibility and at the very edge of no-deco diving, but it is a thrilling one, exciting for all experienced divers. 


Surprisingly for a group of islands so close to the famous dive destination of the Maldives, most of Lakshadweep’s waters remain unexplored by divers. There are less than a handful of dive operations and most use wooden fishing boats that do not allow distant exploration. Luckily for those visiting now though, Lacadives has very recently acquired a new speed boat specifically designed for dive safaris and allow for diving around near by islands including Chetlat, Kiltan, Bitra and others. Ranging between 45 minute to 3 hour journeys, this boat allows for twin-tank diving and one day expeditions to these pristine, virgin areas. 
Not many in this day and age have the opportunity dive into waters yet unseen. This is particularly so for casual recreational divers on vacation, making Kadmat and its dive safaris a rare and temporary opportunity. The night before is spent scouring marine maps of the area the chosen area, and the excitement of discovering a new site coordinates onto the GPS is palpable amongst the staff and guests alike. The last such dive trip found groups of great manta rays, another found areas of reef where coral seemed to be thriving despite recent trends. Who knows what might be found in the next - whale sharks? Guitarfish? Brooder whales? Considering the area’s richness and habitat in its surrounding regions, these are real possibilities. 
The expedition departs early in the morning with a packed breakfast and lunch, plenty of tanks and a few expectant divers. The boat is comfortable and well stocked with fresh water and gear with lots of space to spare. You can choose to gamble with a new site, or go to one of the recently discovered ones if you are uncomfortable with the unknown underwater. Either way you can be assured of a good day of diving away from the island when you’ve been in Kadmat long enough to get an itch in your feet.


Kadmat, like any other diving destination, has its periods of quiet and its periods of extraordinary exciting sitings. The best time to visit is from late-December to mid-March. The ocean is calmer now, the water temperatures are ideal, the fish, the rays, the sharks, the turtles, though present through the season are at an abundance at this time. The visibility is clearer during this period and the rarer visitors come by too. This is the time when, if you are lucky, you will see the gigantic mantas coming in from the blue, as well as the singing dolphins who are seen often enough from the boat but occasionally underwater too. 
While all sorts of fish are welcome here, visitors of the human variety face an enormous struggle in accessing Kadmat. All tourists visiting the Lakshadweep, Indian and foreign, require permits that are issued in limited numbers. Flights go only as far as Agatti Island, and inter-island ferries are unreliable. The resort in Kadmat is Government run and making a booking can be a struggle. If you are a diving guest however, the most convenient way to circumvent the red tape is by booking through Lacadives - the dive shop - who will handle the permits, the accommodation bookings as well as the speed boat transfer for you. 
However you choose to handle the arrangements, once you do arrive here you will be grateful for all the inaccessibility of the place. Here you will find yourself in the only dive boat at the dive site. Sites that comparatively few people have had the privilege of diving at. You will be in a groups rarely greater than 6 people, and receive specialized individual attention whether you are a beginner, a veteran, an underwater photographer who likes to linger or a nervous one that wants a hand to hold. When you are done with your diving for the day you can find yourself a secluded spot on the south-tip to watch the sun dip below the horizon or a join the quiet communal gathering of divers and fishermen on the jetty. 
The children in the village might try to elicit from you your name, but never your money. Far from pandering their goods to you, you will struggle to buy an odd trinket to take home for the proud islanders spend their time harvesting the ocean and the coconut trees, and do not produce for tourists. So as you leave the island, waving once more to the dive staff standing on the jetty, your only souvenir from the holiday is a head full of vibrant underwater images and a heart full of peace. 

Coming up... Pictures!!!

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