Underwater Enigmas: Our Top Dive Destinations
We hope you have enjoyed Saevus’ celebration of our marine ecosystems over the month of May. To round up the month, we spoke with Nitish Chengappa of Fleetfoot Adventures – a legend in the diving community, with over two thousand dives under his belt across some of the most spectacular destinations across the world. Nitish shares with us his journey, his most favourite dive destinations, diving tips and tricks, as well as some important hacks for underwater photography. We hope you enjoy this piece, and also get to experience these sites for yourself once the global situation re-allows travel!
About two decades ago, my brother Nikhil Chinappa and I discovered the incredible joys of scuba diving in the Maldives and instantly fell in love. The colours that one sees underwater – some of the brilliant blues and yellows – we had never seen on land. The first dive site I went to after my certification was known as ‘Lankan ____ (dash) Point’. The dive instructor told us that the dash was meant to be filled with whatever we saw underwater. Initially, we didn’t see much, but the entire experience of breathing underwater was therapeutic and meditative.
And then came the mantas… On my first dive, I was fortunate enough to see not one, not two, but at least twenty mantas. It was a surreal experience to see all these huge spaceships just hovering around us. They really are the gentlest of creatures and could go past your nose without ever touching you. Their buoyancy control and the way they are in the water is just incredible to witness.
What started out as a hobby sport quickly grew into a passion. We loved it so much we wanted to share it – initially with our friends, and then with anyone we could convince to take the short flight to Male and hop into the ocean with us. So we started Fleetfoot Adventures in 2015 – a diving outfit committed to hygienic, environmentally conscious, and pocket-friendly diving in some of the best diving locations around the world. Now we dive all around the globe – with Bull sharks in America, to little Pygmy sea horses in Raja Ampat in the east.
Here’s a list of my favourite dive destinations around the world, curated over the past twenty years over my various underwater adventures.
Ari Atoll, Maldives
Ari has numerous cleaning stations and channel dives, and also something for everyone – especially across various experience levels. One could go to sites where even someone with 15-20 dives could enjoy themselves, and there are also sites where people with 100 odd dives can challenge themselves. Also, pretty much everything can be seen in Ari – from mantas, to sharks, to whale sharks, to very healthy coral structures. On our last dive, in fact, we were in Ari and saw seven whale sharks together. I was in the water and didn’t know where to move because there were so many of them – it was like a whale shark soup!
Photo Credit: Umeed Mistry
South Male, Maldives
South Male hosts Kandooma, which is my favourite dive site. It is a challenging site, and I wouldn’t even advise experienced divers to dive there during strong currents because they’ll be flung all over the place. But when it has medium, or medium to strong currents, the site is just phenomenal. In the channel there, I’ve seen among the most diverse and abundant marine life – fifty sharks, forty eagle rays, even an oceanic manta once. For me, deep channels are Ocean Highways, because one can never really predict what one will see there. Here, people with 25-30 dives can have a great experience. The soft coral here is beautiful, and the smaller species such as flowery flounders, scorpion fish, and stone fish are a treat to the eyes.
Photo Credit: Tasneem Khan
Fuvahmulah is the largest island in the Maldives, and we were fortunate enough to dive here when it had neither a dive center, nor any equipment on the island. Having heard from our local contacts that tiger sharks could be seen there, we managed to get some equipment shipped from Male (the capital of Maldives) to Fuvahmulah and dove there as early as 2015. We caught some fleeting glimpses of tiger sharks on those dives and also saw some very unique coral structures.
Today, Fuvamulah is a great destination to sight tiger sharks up close and personal, which to a certain extent can be attributed to them getting attracted to the scraps from Fuvahmulah’s local fisheries that are discarded right outside the harbour into the depths of the open ocean. I’ve seen thresher sharks, a school of thirty-eight hammerheads, and lots of tiger sharks here. The diversity here is such that some of us refer to Fuvamulah the ‘Galapagos of Asia’.
However, this proximity is now being abused to an extent as people are trying to feed the sharks with their hands, etc. Tiger sharks can be up to 15 feet long, and their space should most certainly be respected so that this beautiful dive destination can continue functioning safely and sustainably.
Sipadan is an island in Malaysia, discovered as a marine haven about 30-35 years ago, prior to which it was a bird sanctuary. Legend has it that a ship broke down here, a diver went underwater to check what went wrong, came back up and started Borneo Divers – because he couldn’t believe the thriving ecosystem down below!
At one point there was some insurgency in the region, and Sipadan still has some armed guards on it. They only issue 120 licenses for diving per day, and one must stay in the area for at least six nights in order to avail two full days of diving in Sipadan. Hanging Garden and Barracuda Point are the most stunning sites here, with countless barracudas, white-tipped reef sharks, turtles who are accustomed to divers, octopi, jackfish, and also the humphead parrotfish. Needless to say, both the soft and hard coral systems here are healthy and thriving.
The rest of the time, one can explore other fascinating regions around the area. About 20 minutes is Mabul, which hosts an oil rig that has been repurposed into basic accommodation for divers. One can simply have a cup of tea, dive off the oil rig to explore the house reef where to see crocodile fish, octopi, and a lot of other small marine life, come back up, spend the day discussing diverse experiences with other divers, and call it a day.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Home to perhaps the most diverse aquatic life on the planet, Raja Ampat is not easily accessible, and divers tend to do as many as four dives a day here to do it justice. Raja Ampat literally translates to ‘Four Kings’ and has four distinct regions, with over a thousand dive sites spread across them. One needs to be a confident open-water diver with excellent buoyancy control to be able to dive here.
The best way to explore Raja Ampat is on a liveaboard, with some preparation beforehand to be able to identify its thriving macro fauna. Its carpets of coral house the most fascinating creatures – from minuscule pygmy seahorses, to wobbegong sharks, to dragon sea-moths, to ghost pipefish, to the extremely poisonous blue-ring octopus.
It feels almost as if horror movie producers went to Raja Ampat to derive inspiration, because some of the creatures look almost alien. Of course, mantas, sharks such as the grey-reef, white-tip, and black tips can be seen here, but it is Raja Ampat’s spectacular macro life that attracts divers from all over the world.
The Red Sea, Egypt
The Red Sea offers two types of diving options. The first kind are land-based outfits in Sharm-el-Sheikh, that offer divers the opportunity to live in hotels and resorts on the shore. There are a lot of shipwrecks and easy dive sites here that can easily be accessed by inexperienced divers as well.
The other kind are further south, closer to Sudan, from a place called Hurghada. These essentially entail liveaboard-based, open ocean diving. Hammerheads, tiger sharks, oceanic mantas, oceanic white-tips, dolphins are just some of the species that can be seen here. That said, this kind of diving requires a lot of experience, with a good handle on currents and buoyancy, because one can potentially drift away all the way to Jordan! These are also deep-dives, with incredible visibility of up to 40 metres. May to October are the best months to dive here – after this time, the waters get extremely cold.
Photo Credit: Carlos
Top Tips for Underwater Photography
There are a few major differences between terrestrial and underwater photography. On land, one has the option of changing lenses and settings, which doesn’t really exist underwater. Also, on land, the photographer is stable while the subject might be moving or stationary. Underwater, both the photographer and subject are moving. So stability is of paramount importance and buoyancy control becomes critical. Just by controlling your breathing, you should be able to move a couple of meters up or down. Also, on land, one tries to click photographs at eye level. Underwater, always shoot upwards and with the sun behind you.
Finally, there is no substitute for experience. Focus on getting your diving basics right, develop an understanding of various creatures, and then begin tackling underwater photography.
For us, the ocean is pure magic and can only be experienced first-hand, no picture, no video actually does justice to the live experience of a dive. We consider diving to be like having ice cream – you never get tired of it. That said, as much as we love being underwaters, we also know that with fun comes responsibility – towards you and towards the ocean. We only protect what we love, we love what we understand and we only understand what we are taught.
Photo Credits (unless mentioned): Fleetfoot Adventures