A part of India, the Andaman Islands are one of the world's newest diving destinations and have yet to be properly explored for diving. After a 50 year period of virtual isolation from the outside world the Indian government has made a decision to allow limited, environmentally conscious tourism development in the islands.
The Andaman's modern history began as a British penal colony for Indian radical elements. During WWII it was occupied by a small Japanese force. Once India gained its independence from Britain, India initiated a limited colonization program and at the same time, committed itself to protecting the island's aboriginal population and its natural environment.
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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. Contact has been attempted only a few times by the Indian government and the locals have made it rather clear-by throwing primitive spears and shooting arrows at the party-that they 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 never been disturbed by modern man. And, since the islands only opened recently, most of the off-shore diving areas have been dived by less than 50 people.
Although in many of the near shore areas the visibility is limited, the off-shore islands such as Passage Island, Barren Island, and Narcondam are rich in marine life-huge fish, sharks, manta rays, unbelievable coral growth-and are blessed with crystal-clear water.
About 70 kilometers to the south of Port Blair, the capital and main port of the Andamans, Passage Island features an offshore pinnacle -- appropriately named Fish Rock -- where two-meter long dog-toothed tuna compete with sharks for food. Groupers larger than most men cruise the reef unafraid of divers. Large eagle rays patrol the plankton rich waters completely at ease in the strong currents.
The active volcano Barren Island, almost 20 hours cruising northeast of Port Blair, last erupted in January of 1994. The eruption covered almost everything underwater and above with a thick layer of black sand, creating an unusual landscape to explore. Although most of the coral was killed by this layer of sand, tunas and sharks swim along its black walls, which plunge to over 500 metres. Hammerhead sharks have been seen here. Visibility can exceed 50 metres, and even though there is not much coral left, the contrasting vivid colors of bright fish against the jet-black walls is almost psychedelic.
The most fantastic spot in the Andaman Sea is an extinct volcano located another 160 kilometers north of Barren Island. Walls drop to over 500 metres here as well-just off the shoreline-but the difference is that here everything is alive and healthy. This is truly a diver's paradise.
Imagine four-metre tall barrel sponges. Fans twice as large as they are in the Similan Islands. Monstrous dog-toothed tuna -- one animal we saw was almost three metres long. The best part of our first trip to the area was the herds of manta rays that visited us on every dive -- both in shallow and deep water. In four days we saw at least 50 mantas -- no kidding, and we snorkeled with three groups of 12 feeding animals for over two hours our first day there.
The Andamans are certainly not for everyone. It requires spending long periods of time on the 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.