Sea Walking in the Andamans


I stand on the sea floor, off the coast of North Bay, a small island near Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands. Facing a coral reef about 20 feet below the water surface, I am surrounded by hundreds of fishes, from tiny Nemos that nestle among the corals to large foot long grey ones gnawing at my fingers and jostling with each other for a morsel of fish feed. I experience near weightlessness, with the heavy air helmet I'm wearing pushing me down so I stay on the sea floor. Walking is a slow deliberate process, and I step gingerly on the shifting sand floor, trying to keep a firm footing, while minimizing the amount of sand I kick up in the water. 
 
Corals come in numerous shapes, sizes and colours. The ones here were orange with finger sized and shaped cilia. Nestled among them you find dozens of fishes and sure enough, as had been promised, there was Nemo, the orange and white striped clown fish. How strange that it was unaware of what a celebrity it was, its species known and loved by these large strangely shaped clumsy creatures that kept showing up, blowing bubbles as they paused and pointed excitedly at them.

The most fascinating were a school of hundreds of synchronised translucent rainbow finned fishes that moved in impossible unison. Each was tiny, no longer than a finger. Yet together they seemed to be part of an inseparable whole. All of them glide upwards now, across me, at an angle of 45 degrees when suddenly they all swing around in a startling instant and head towards me, head on. None touch me, or at least none that I could feel. I might as well have been a rock in their path, to be calmly avoided without taking much notice. Yet the experience was surreal, passing like a ghost through a wall, but one of fishes. Who was their leader and who were the followers? The answer was obvious. No one and every one. Such was their instinctual trust in one another, such a surrender of their self to the whole, that every movement, even every twitch of one, any one, spread through the mass instantly. As a wise man once said, know when to lead and when to follow.

The diver along with me brought out a packet of fish feed. Suddenly I couldn't see the coral right in front of me. So many fishes swarmed into my view, completely obstructing it, several brushing past my outstretched hands and scraping my legs. There were so many of them, the largest about a foot long, and so close, that I couldn't see my hands. I did feel the rough scales and perhaps a few fish teeth against my fingers. Watching them fight with each other, I couldn't help contrast them with the docile swarm I had encountered just a while ago. Cooperation versus competition. Go with the herd or fight for your space? 

I climb out of the water, grateful of the firm ground beneath my feet and elated at the experience. I sped my way back on a boat, with the wind in my hair, sand in my feet, the sun in my face and a smile in my heart.

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