I breathe slowly, full of wonder. Behind me, my flippers paddle, each movement propelling me forward almost imperceptibly. Bubbles escape the regulator over my mouth when I exhale, trailing up slowly on their long journey to the ocean surface.
Now I peer upwards, to see sunlight reflected into shards, growing ever fainter as it travels down into the darkness where I am. Around me are dim shades of deep blue. This is 50 feet below the surface, next to the coral shelf that creates the magnificent tropical lagoon surrounding Minicoy, the farthest-flung atoll in the Lakshadweep archipelago.
The semi-opaque murk above me is in sharp contrast to the riot of colour at my fin tips. Here it is almost like an alien planet, bursting with extraordinary coral formations, protrusions, and mini-forests, looking like brains, stars and even swiss cheese, for miles into the distance. Some are close to the ground. Others are the size of small buildings. And all around us and everywhere visible are an incredible variety of fish in every colour.
Slowly swimming forward, I come to the edge of the coral ridge, where the shelf drops down to infinity and the bottom of the Indian Ocean. This is my fifth dive into the open ocean, doing my Advanced Open Water Diving course, and each time I learn more of the importance of these great underwater forests, which fill the oceans with life.
This is the first time I have mustered the courage to break away from the group and come this close to the edge on my own. It is something like being an astronaut, coming face-to-face with the great unknown of limitless space. Here, I hover, watching for what might emerge from the darkness.
Very soon, my heart leaps. A red grouper the size of a St. Bernard languidly comes into sight. Peering at me without very much interest, with its thick lips opening and closing, it quickly gets bored and disappears with a flick of its tail.
Right then, powering their way purposefully out of the open ocean, a school of hundreds of meter-long silver fish appears. This is a bit unnerving, as a wall of beady eyes swivel in their heads to fixate on me. Now they hesitate, getting into formation, ready to bolt if I offer threat.
Suddenly, far below me on a lower section of the reef, something catches my eye. This a rare sighting, an immense stingray roughly the length of a small car but twice as wide. It’s winging its way along the reed, a slow-moving behemoth.
Excited, hoping for a closer look, I grab the hose attached to my Buoyancy Control Device (BCD: an inflatable jacket that controls sinking or floating) and quickly release the stored up air in short bursts. In a few seconds, I am just above this giant, majestic animal.
Huge protruding eyes watch me, but unconcerned. The edges of its beautiful pale blue body ripple rhythmically, propelling it forward, just like you would imagine an alien hovercraft might move. I am breathless with excitement (and not un-fearful) at being able to closely observe this marvellous creature … before the piercing sound of an underwater whistle cuts through the water urgently.
I turn back. One of my instructors signals in diver’s sign language to stay closer to the group. Now we float as an ensemble, surrounded by different species of tropical fish. I pass the time by identifying some: triggerfish, parrotfish, needlefish, goby. There is never a dull moment on a dive. A tiny little sliver of a fish, not more than the length of my pinky, slides between two of my fingers, perfectly comfortable and unperturbed by my presence.
But then suddenly a shape shifts on the reef floor. Glancing down, my eyes widen, as I pick out the the shining green-blue silhouette of a massive seven-foot shark, its wide head resting just below my flailing flipper! Its tail, larger than my head, was slowly fanning the water behind it, steering its massive bulk forward.
Panic bubbles inside me. But then its eyes find mine. I can somehow tell it was looking at me with curiosity, without any malice. I calm down, slowing my breath and paddling as it starts to move past me.
It was then I realized that this creature, feared through the world for its supposedly bloodthirsty nature was actually profoundly majestic. Its skin shines like sea glass as it moves forward. An infinitely gentle but limitlessly powerful giant. I turn to signal the others, to approach for a look.
The shark gave me an indignant look as the others swim up. Rising a bit, and shaking off the dust from the ocean floor, it swims off, but not before making such an impression in my mind that I will never forget.
Soon afterwards the guides signal me and my father to prepare for our ascent back to the surface. We swim across to the boat. In doing so, we are forced to cross a vast desert of white bleached coral. So different from the life-filled portion that has retained its colour, there are very few fish here.
It is a stark ocean valley of death and destruction. Here, I am inevitably reminded that this world is being ravaged by climate change, mainly caused by heedless human activity. We release carbon dioxide into the air, which is absorbed by the ocean to become acidic, and the reefs begin to die. There was a major incident in 2016, due to the climate change exacerbated El Nino, where the world’s greatest reefs lost much of their coral to bleaching.
When we ascend, I ask our instructor how much of the reef on this ridge had been lost in 2016. “We lost about seventy per cent of the reef in that year alone. It’s the worst we’ve seen.” he replied. I can only nod in understanding and sorrow.
As the boat speeds away, I look back at the section of ocean we had come from. The vast shadow spreading beneath the surface, the wonders and beautiful denizens you can find within… as well as the desert that waits to spread its reach into the rest of the underwater forest, if humans continue to help it along.
I feel an intense protective feeling, and the urge to do something to save what’s left of what has existed for millions of years. It was then I made my decision for good. I would strive to protect it. And all the wild places in this world. I made a silent, solemn oath to commit my life to this task, as long as I could. I would try to make a difference, with every fibre of my being. This is what drives me forward. This is my reason for living.
Photos contributed by Ali Manikfan and Muhammad Nishad, diving instructors.