The Andamans is a curious place. There is a veil of mystery that shrouds the archipelago, as if the forests and the sea are trying to protect a sacred child, afraid of losing him to the glaring world. Many elements add to the suspense; the ruins of ghost towns and abandoned prisons, the mangroves that hide a different world in their roots, the endemic wildlife that includes giant leatherbacks, and the tribal islands that remain untouched by human greed and civilization. I am most intrigued by the ocean that cloaks chapters of history in her folds of blue.
The islands have made for prominent accounts in early explorations of the seas. “They’re cannibals,” wrote many of the early white explorers in their memoirs, referring to the indigenous people. “The white spirits of the oceans will haunt us,” the indigenous tribes told tales of horror to their children, describing the explorers on big boats. The clashes between the two mark the dark times of colonialization of the islands, from the days of the British Raj to the invasion of the Japanese.
I’m in Chidiya Tapu, the southernmost tip of the archipelago, facing a beautiful channel and Rutland Island. Leading up to the open ocean, the channel has played an important role in the battle of the seas between the British and the Japanese during World War I.
I’m here to try and see if the ocean will let me in on one of her well-kept secrets.
Many believe that it has to be the ‘Amagi Maru’. There are different records of a Japanese ship carrying 600 Japanese soldiers being torpedoed by the British in the channel. Others believe that this was the ship that marked Britain’s withdrawal from the islands. But no one knows for sure. Rumours are rife about the shipwreck here, since the time it was first explored by Herbert Burri in the 1980s, one of the first divers in the Andamans.
I’ve spent about a month diving in drifty waters, around corruption rocks, in the dark nights of the ocean, all to prepare for this day. The day when we explore the 80-meter long, beautiful and mysterious shipwreck, that has also become home to some of the most incredible marine life in the waters of Andaman. Will it let us know its story? There is only one way to find out.
Finding ‘Amagi Maru’
We set out on a sunny afternoon. Unlike other dives, this one has to be well planned. The tide has to be just right, the conditions and visibility have to be favorable. Sumer, the lead instructor of this dive expedition, is the reality version of a merman. He has spent the bigger chunk of his life within the blues as an expert dive instructor and an unbelievable marine photographer. Before we take the plunge, he briefs us about the wreck. He tells us about the bends, the curves and the cracks where we might find clues to its identity. I notice that he refers to it as ‘her.’ For him, she is secretive but not unknown. Resting on the seabed peacefully for years, she has now become an artificial reef, a home to the disappearing marine life that thrives in the ocean currents. She is a mysterious, but a protective mother of sorts.
“That’s the thing with her,” says Sumer. “You can be completely sure and might have seen her many times, but she’ll still throw a surprise at you every single time. It’s as if she’s playing a game with you!”
Sumer tells us about the risks of this dive. At the depth of 32 – 35 meters. the bottom time you get is around 12-15 minutes. It would take us about ten minutes to descend and a bit more than that to ascend. The dive would be a packed 40 minutes and we need to make every second count. Importantly, he tells us about the dangerous levels of nitrogen we’ll be consuming at these depths, the risks of shooting up too fast, exploding our lungs and the slowing down of our perceptions makes my eyes roll. You are only one tiny mistake away from death. But we aren’t the sorts who turn back.
The boat captains lead us to “The Explorer,” Lacadives’ (the dive shop Sumer owns) aptly named dive boat. Tintu, one of our boat captains, after a 30-minute sail to the open ocean, refers to the GPS location of the wreck, throws in the anchor and a bunch of us take strides into the water only to find the surface too choppy for an easy dive. One last signal to the captain and we descend using the anchor line.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, equalise, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, equalise. The routine continues as we slowly see the last rays of sunlight fade and reach the deeper, darker ends of about 20 meters. We reach the bottom of the anchor line only to realise that it hasn’t hit the wreck. Swimming against the currents, in dark waters trying to find her isn’t an option. Sumer decides that it was best to go back up and try our luck again. Facing one side to the open ocean and the other to the channel, she sits at 35 meters below the surface, surrounded by nothingness. She was playing hard to get today but we are determined to meet her.
After a second attempt with the anchor, we are sure it hit the wreck. The descend is nothing short of an exhilarating, magical journey into the deep. Somehow, I knew that she will allow us to meet her this time around. Or maybe I am just hoping.
I check my equipment, mutter a silent prayer and dive. The turquoise water engulfs my senses in a matter of seconds. The ocean changes colors, starting from a navy hue, turning into a patchy green as the light dims and then the complete void of black. I follow the anchor line, fighting the current and holding on. As my eyes search for her, I can’t stop thinking if she really is the Japanese Amagi Maru. If she is, then I will be exploring a vessel that possibly lives with the souls of nearly 600 soldiers! As the eerie feeling crawls on the back of my neck, I try to divert my mind. A saying rescues me – “The ocean isn’t something to endure, but to embrace.”
Soon after, Sumer points towards a looming silhouette. There she is. Forgotten for 80 years, reclaimed by the ocean, she is breathtaking. She no longer belongs to the surface but to the depths of the seas. Broken by vision, but yet alive and breathing.
Maybe Sophie Marie?
As I cruise around her, I think of her as the ‘Sophie Marie’. Around the time she sank, the sole naval presence of the British in the Andamans was a Royal Indian Navy minesweeper. On March 1, 1942, HMIS Sophie Marie was suddenly ordered to sea to evade an expected Japanese bomb raid. As the captain was returning Sophie Marie through the channel after receiving clearance, the ship was struck by an underwater mine that the British themselves had laid six months ago. In the blink of the eye, Marie sank to the bottom of the sea.
Nine days after Sophie Marie’s unfortunate sinking, the British claimed that the Andamans were indefensible from a Japanese invasion, and as a result, they fled their women and children along with the Indian Hindu priests back to Chennai on a troopship.
As I squeeze through the broken hull, the possibility of glorious shipwreck being Sophie Marie starts becoming even more evident. Sumer points to the side trails that could have been used to store depth-charges (anti-submarine weapons). Just as I steer to explore more, my dive computer starts beeping. The nitrogen level in my body is rising with every extra second I spend on the ocean floor. We have to abandon search and ascend immediately.
Once back on our dive boat, Sumer sighs, “She allowed us to meet her, but not know her. All she wants is not to be forgotten, but not really to be understood.”
As we sail back to the shore in silence, I can’t help but reflect on Sumer’s words. She’s kept the mystery alive for over 80 years now. How much longer will she hold her secrets? Many more will try to discover her, for the first time or again and again. Maybe someday, she’ll shine her carved name to the lucky one.
Will she read Amagi Maru? Or Sophie Marie? Only the ocean knows the answer.