Mystical Underwater in Maldives

(Published first in the Deccan Herald, Feb 2018)

It  is a  myth, usually uncontested,   that  mountaineers and seafarers are given to tall tales. The fact is that we are so far  removed from their experience, that it all   seems such  gobbledegook  Many years ago after my mountain expedition (Kanchenjunga), I discovered that  even the quotidian snippet  from the Base Camp seemed fanciful.

It can get  all the more complicated with oceans. While there are ready mountain vocabularies to mythologize mountains, how do you mythologize a mythology?   Oceans, below their surface , have after all, hardly been part of the human experience. Our obsessions, our aspirations, our pursuits are all firmly on land. Oceans, in stories, across cultures,  have been long odysseys to undertake , to arrive with relief at some shore. We are content to live out our dreams on 29 percent of the planet.

Therefore, when you descend into the deep, hyperbole falls short and you are your own  Columbus and Marco Polo.

Perhaps, a  reason why diving has been compared to  something of a spiritual experience. Could it be a harking back to when we were not even vertebrates and yet to slither out to land from the primeval soup?

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Diving has also been compared with space voyages. The vulnerability, the strangeness of gravity, the star-trek movements and the science fiction landscape are all the same.  A reason why astronauts are dunked into water- tanks to simulate the weightlessness of space to  practice their space walks.

In fact, diving is the best pranayama.  You no longer have to trick your ‘monkey mind’ to focus on the breath.  Breathing is diving’s main event.

And it was just as well, that my fascination for the deep began with Maldives, a country, usually described as,   99 percent water.  A very clumsy snorkeling dip here, many years ago, with a no nonsense female Russian instructor set me on a blitzkrieg of diving and snorkeling across the Indian Ocean from East Africa to Indonesia.

In this second diving trip to Maldives,  I was in the southern atoll , with its relatively healthy corals. And once again, the epicurean delights on offer in the island resort, weighed heavily against any open water escapades.

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The Residence – a new property, had on offer all the hedonisms of an island resort, plus personalized pampering, designed to make the resort your oyster.

Amidst all the mollycoddling, its easy to forget that just beyond the placid lagoon and the infinity pools, just where the light blue of the ocean meets the dark blue, the coral reefs cradling Maldives’ 1190 or so islands, in a protective embrace, are crumbling. And that if global temperatures continue to rise, this Eldorado barely one meters above sea, would all be submerged.

Those diving for years can best gauge the coral’s health from a few years before. The diving group I was with this time, however,  were shark freaks. So we ebbed along on the crystal-clear waters, just off the island reef,  waiting for the ‘incoming’. The incoming tide hauls with it sharks, signaling the time to jump.

But despite plunging in with the ‘incoming’ we had to wait  and it was only after we descending to about 15 meters below water that we saw the sharks. They were   overhead, skimming the surface in schools, ignoring us completely. The sharks in Maldives along with other creatures of the deep are famously non aggressive. It is as easy to swim with them as it is to take  selfies  with half-sedated felines in tourist traps around the world.

But I was there for one boring reason. Corals. And it is getting increasingly boring and depressing what with the corals dying all around the world. In an event called coral bleaching triggered by rising water temperatures,  corals, as a defense mechanism, shed the algae that lives on them, dying in the process. One can see wrecks of dead or half bleached corals at almost all diving spots in the world.

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To see unharmed corals we had to drop deeper, where the water temperature had remained comfortable for the corals to thrive. The fish here was the variety that that came in shoals and like a single organism danced and swerved this way and that without any apparent reason.  It was eerie when the shoals swum below us and we floated, as if on a fish carpet.

Among the reef’s warrens many unfamiliar creatures popped in an out to see the  aliens. The dive instructor pointed to a piece of coral rock repeatedly. On the boat he told me it was a  camouflaged scorpion fish. The ubiquitous clownfish were a bit more wary in these depths. They peeped cautiously from behind the swaying tentacles of the anemones.

But the sight, rather unexpected and one that stayed, is that of the turtle. The  ‘incoming’ hauls them in too and we saw one giant green turtle swim along the reef just as we had used up the air in our tanks.   I had seen green turtles slither painfully to the shore on a hatching site in Oman. The turtle is as nimble and graceful in water as its awkward and cumbersome on land.

The  ‘spiritual’ moment for me occurred, as always, when I popped back  on the surface and began to breath with my nose again.   A spiritual experience is often a relief, a sort of catharsis from a preceding episode of physical or mental stress.

From Buddha to Jesus, mystics have documented their days and years of ordeal before entering a blissful state, which the followers called enlightenment.

Perhaps a  mystical phenomenon of a dive is sometimes overstated. But its only a secret that a minority will know.

How to get here:

Srilankan Airlines has at least one non-stop flight to Maldives’ capital Male per day from many Indian cities, including from Bangaluru. Thiruvananthapuram has three non-stop flights per day while Delhi has one stop flight to Male per day.

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