Adman Prahlad Kakar has had many an adventures in his lifetime, but there’s one that stands out—discovering the marine treasures of Lakshadweep and making them accessible to the world with Lacadives.
My introduction to scuba diving was purely accidental. It happened on a cold, windy day in Mauritius. I had gone there on a business trip with a friend; since we were doing nothing on a Sunday morning, we decided to accompany some friends to a local diving school. We convinced the instructor to let us tag along with the divers to a nearby dive site at Trou- aux-Biches. Once there, all the divers kitted up, rolled off the side of the boat, and disappeared, leaving the two of us and the boatman rocking on a rough sea. I get seasick in a bathtub, and I definitely had not found my sea legs by then. Looking slightly green behind the gills, I urged the boatman to drop us back to the shore. But he could not leave the divers behind. As I was about to upchuck my breakfast into the heaving ocean, the boatman took pity on me and gave me a mask (which I had never worn before) and snorkel, and told me to jump off the side with the reassuring final words, “I promise, you’ll feel better”. With a prayer, I scrambled off the boat into a very cold sea; the shock of the chilly water cured half my nausea, the other half disappeared when I put my head under the water. I could suddenly see everything below the surface—the divers, the reef, the fish. It was an introduction to a whole new world that I had never even imagined. After the brief swim, we convinced the very French instructor Hugh Vitry (we nicknamed him His Royal Baldness, for obvious reasons) to take us for a beginner’s dive. He had never seen Indians dive before, so his reluctance wasn’t unwarranted, but our persistent pleas paid off. The next day, before we could think things through, we found ourselves clad in a 5mm neoprine wetsuit. Then came the moment of truth: my friend, a very nervous Pradeep Upoor, asked me to inform the instructor that he couldn’t swim.
I blurted it out to Vitry mid-sea, “My friend can’t swim in the middle of the ocean.” Vitry looked at us both, shook his head in despair, and told Upoor, “No problem. You
come with me. I take you first.” Before Upoor could protest, the Frenchman inflated his BCD (buoyancy control device) and bundled him off the boat. After a bit of splashing around, the two disappeared into the blue, leaving me peering into the depths. Around 20 minutes later, they both surfaced with a whoosh, and to my great relief, Upoor was alive and smiling in a slightly insane manner.
“So how was it?” “Brilliant!” he replied in his slightly dismissive, laconic manner. I knew I couldn’t chicken out now. Guarding my goolies, I jumped off the boat clutching my breathing apparatus as if my life depended on it (it did!). As Vitry deflated my BCD and took me under, I stopped breathing, thinking I should conserve my air. The Frenchman waved a teacher-like finger at me and signalled that I should keep breathing. I let go of a lungful and replaced it with another, overcompensating in panic mode, and started floating up. Vitry looked at my panic- stricken eyes and gestured that I should relax.
As I descended, I saw something fluttering on the reef. Somehow, I swam towards the object, a book in Urdu. As I ran out of air, with most of it depleted in my surface-level anxiety, we both came up to the surface with the book pressed against my chest. It was a Quran. Thus started my unlikely journey towards setting up the first Indian dive school in the union territory of Lakshadweep—on Kadmat Island, which boasted a commanding Muslim majority. Prophetic event or just a coincidence? Nobody knows. Of course, it would take us nearly four years and certifications as dive masters with His Royal Baldness to get there. This is the story of our first explorations.
When the 10 of us, including my wife, were done with Vitry’s commando-like dive master training, we acquired a bunch of marine charts to look at the possibility of diving in the Indian Ocean. This is when we stumbled upon the coral islands of Lakshadweep on a merchant marine chart; most people hadn’t heard of the islands and no one really knew how to get there.
In those days, the only tours to the restricted islands were heavily supervised and totally government-run. After a year of red tape, we managed to get the permits required to go to the islands as an independent group of divers gauging the possibility of commercial diving.
We set off by train to Kochi, loaded with diving equipment, a small compressor, and
other supplies, then hopped on the rusty ‘Tipu Sultan,’ an old cross-channel car ferry converted into a passenger ship. As we sailed into the sun, the muddy waters gave way to an aquamarine sea. Our first stop was Kavaratti Island, the capital of the union territory.