“Messy”, “Magic”, “Dirty”, “Dazzling”
I heard so much before I touched the Indian ground for the first time! Dirty and messy? Well, this is kind of omnipresent reality, so much that most visitors get the view blurred about anything else and tend not to like India… at all! Even Indian recognise it: I had an interesting discussion at Mumbai airport while waiting for ages to check-in my luggage with a man telling me how much he loves his country, how beautiful it is but how challenging it is to get anything done. The conclusion to many stories of travellers and tourists is almost always the same, “India: you hate it, or you absolutely love it!” So when I heard about the opportunity to go there for a friend’s wedding, I immediately wondered… on which side would I be? I didn’t take so long to buy my flight ticket and start researching about how to turn this discovery trip in a World Adventure Divers expedition to go diving in India.
Testing the waters in the country of patience
My starting point was the wedding place in Goa, it was just perfect to test the “waters” of India for the first time. This former Portuguese colony, while being the smallest state of India (here you note that Goa is not a city but a state), is as well the wealthiest of India. I heard many times “Goa is not India”, it depends on where you are going to… The change of scenery between Baga beach and Ponda countryside is dramatic. To me, it is India. It is just one of the infinite nuances of this dazzling country.
It is also said there is a very different atmosphere between South India and North India, that South India is easier to travel to… All I know is from Maharashtra (Mumbai) to Karnataka (Netrani Island), I felt good and at ease walking around (please note that being a girl I always paid attention to my outfit to be respectful to the culture and to blend as much as possible). Yet, I had some weird moments… a beach in South Goa I should not have worn only a bikini, a cab in Mumbai at night where the driver thought he was playing Mario Kart video game or heartbreaking moments with children begging for money.
Yet, in the middle of this mayhem, something magical happens:
- The authenticity of a country far less touched by tourism than I thought (6,6 millions of tourists in 2012 in a country of 1.2 billion people, in comparison with Thailand who received 22,3 millions of foreign visitors in 2012 for a population of 67 million)
- The photogenic colours of women’s sarees in red, orange, pink, green and gold with shining glitters such like they were attending a wedding every day
- Millenary culture and history which could be seen such as in the Buddhist caves from the 7th century of Elephanta island next to Mumbai
- The streets blocked by sacred cows
- The kids playing cricket, India’s national sport, on the beach, in the streets, in the fields, just anywhere they can
- And so much more…
Besides, what also goes with this is patience… from the transportation issue to the time frame, the organisation is challenging. In a nutshell, every minute is an adventure, every moment can catch your breath away, but to make any plan no more than one goal per day!
Scuba diving in Goa
It seems Goa being the highlight holiday spot for India helped developing scuba diving businesses (I found 4 main dive centres). Unfortunately, the coastline of Goa includes 2 rivers’ mouths which bring a lot of particles and minerals in the water making impossible to get more than 5 (usual) to 10 m (lucky day) of visibility underwater. Nonetheless, it is still a beautiful place with 29/30°C water, perfect for beginners and open water students thanks to its shallow reefs where you won’t go deeper than 12m.
The main action occurs around Grande Island, offshore of the town of Vasco, although you won’t necessarily take the boat from there (in our case it was from Dona Paula, in the surroundings of Goa’s Capital Panaji).
A wreck of a cargo ship from the 1940’s in good conditions, tonnes of reef crabs all over the place, many nudibranchs and some impressive coral reef in spiral shapes which look like the petals of a flower.
So if you don’t have much time to go further than Goa, it is an excellent occasion to get your fins wet. The bonus of the trip from Dona Paula to Grande Island: Dolphins coming swimming nearby the boat!
Netrani: a tiny scuba paradise far from the crowd
The secret for diving from Continental India is actually 4 hours driving further South from Goa, in Karnataka, just a little further away from the beautiful Gokarna beach: Murudeshwar and Netrani Island. You have 2 options to get there:
- Taking the train for very little money from Margao station in Goa. It takes about 3 hours and a half to arrive in Murudeshwar. Regarding the time schedule of trains, you will have to spend at least one night in Murudeshwar. Watch out train booking especially in high season, it requires some organisation as you will have to go early morning the day before at the train station to get the last-minute tickets as most trains are now booked almost 3 months in advance for high peak season.
- Hiring a driver : If everything is booked because it’s high season (like in our case, in December, which is a holiday for Indian people as well), you still have the solution to book with a driver (which is the easiest solution and most common for tourists to go anywhere in India) for the day and drive between 3 hours 20 minutes and 4 hours (depending on the traffic). From a cost point of view, compared to the train, you will have to be at least 4 to make the journey not too expensive. To be in Murudeshwar at 8 am, we all woke up at 3.30 am: It was the earliest wake-up time to go diving ever, but it was totally worth it!
The scenery became wilder as long as we went further away from Goa to Karnataka. When we arrived in Murudeshwar, I directly felt that the atmosphere was different, I understood why a couple of hours later. This is mainly a holiday destination for Indian people, not really foreigners. They are visiting the Hindu temple with the famous-2nd largest-in-the-World statue of Lord Shiva (37 m high!). The statue is facing massive carved tower which is the gate of the temple and a mirador at the same time. It is on the top of the cliff, looking in the opposite direction to the Sea and surrounded by many other statues reminding of famous episodes of Shiva’s life… Well, we felt a bit like in “Shiva land” (Murudeshwar is actually one of the names of Shiva!), but the place and the view of the surrounding beaches are absolutely stunning.
Murudeshwar was quite crowded especially around the temple and on the small part of the beach next to it. But beyond this part, the beach is kilometres long and empty! According to the owner of the dive centre, it seems most Indian people are very uncomfortable in the water, and most of them don’t know how to swim… They still have fun in the water but staying close to the ropes of the boats parked on the beach. Yet, India is always full of surprises: We had the pleasure to share our adventure to Netrani with a delightful young woman working in Bangalore. Before jumping on the boat, we went playing in the waves, and I can tell by the way she was holding my hand she was terrified! But still, she was there for a discovery scuba diving and was really looking forward to it! She made me thinks about some observations I had about India… a tiger that is still a bit afraid of the water such as modernity that so eager for it at the same time.
After 1 hour 30 minutes boat ride, we arrived at the protected area of Netrani island (just remind you should have a copy of your ID/Passport all time on board, so prepare it beforehand). Diving in Netrani is quite shallow as well, no more than 15m. But compared to Goa, visibility here is about 20-25m and the fauna to be seen so much richer!
Dive sites are formed of rock slides and coral reefs in shape of little mountains. Among the large parrot fish and the massive schools of red-toothed triggerfish, I was mainly looking for one fish: the honeycomb or laced moray eel. Particularly beautiful with her white, yellow colour and her black spots looking like the ones of a giraffe. I was really not disappointed, I saw about 10 of them in 2 dives.
You can also expect smooth drift diving on the South part of the island and some surprising encounter… Following and shooting video of a beautiful big blue angelfish under a rock, here it was… Monster Lobster!!! I know masks with the water are making things seem about 30% than they are but still… This lobster was huge! I think about 50cm (I removed 30% of what I actually saw)! Unfortunately no pictures…
Finally, the last good point was to dive almost alone! It was just the six of us in the water. There was absolutely no risk here to get 10 divers on you every time you spot a nudibranch! Watch my video “Diving Netrani Island, India'” to get a better understanding of what to expect.
To summarize, between the very Indian atmosphere of Murudeshwar with the temple, the small market and the cows on the beach, the women swimming in colourful sarees, the delicious food 50 to 70% cheaper than in Goa but also the possibilities of lazy day alone on a heavenly beach in addition to the many diving opportunities of Netrani island, I would say 3 days is not too much to enjoy this pearl of South West India. This is why I decided to add Netrani Island to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.
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