After an eight-month long pandemic-induced hiatus, if you are wondering where to go, head to Netrani Island. A tiny, uninhabited island glistening on the horizon in the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea, the island lies off the coast of Karnataka in Uttara Kannada district. If you want to explore the hidden treasures of this incredible underwater world, grab your flippers and descend to the depths of this vibrant scuba diving site for an aqua adventure.
With the opening up of tourism in several parts of Karnataka, MN Nandakumar, an advanced certified scuba diver, diehard naturalist and underwater photographer, could not curb his urge to dive. Accompanied by his family of scuba divers along with a motley group of hardcore scuba divers and underwater photographers, he headed to Netrani Island, which is just a boat ride away from the temple town of Murudeshwar. Located 10 nautical miles from Murudeshwar, it is called ‘Netraguddo’ or Netra Hill in local parlance. The British called it Pigeon Island because of the large number of pigeons that nest here.
An arduous trek takes you to the top of the hillock, which offers a stunning view of the sea below. There’s a small temple at the summit where local fishermen go every year and leave hens and goats as offerings to Jattiga, a local deity. But the trek is not for the fainthearted or weak-kneed. Ensure you carry a stick with you when you climb. The approach is tricky and you have to literally scramble over rocks covered with barnacles, but the effort is worth it.
Divers among shoals of fish (Pic by MN Nandakumar)
The seas are crystal-clear and the vibrant coral reef is a veritable underwater paradise teeming with hundreds of marine species. The stunning coral reef forms the backdrop for creatures in myriad shapes, sizes and colours to swim against, protecting their secrets from the world above.
Lionfish (Pic by MN Nandakumar)
This eco-sensitive island was earlier used by the Indian Navy for target practice. Subsequently, this was stopped by green activists. For security reasons, casual tourists are not allowed on the island without permission from the coastal police. Some hotels in Murudeshwar have tie-ups with dive centres – organisations that arrange the diving expeditions, permits, boat, provide food, etc.
“It’s not only Karnataka’s best underwater treasure trove but also one of the best dive sites in the country. There are about seven dive sites around here. Visibility is generally good and the island is an ideal location for all levels of certified divers to experience the grandeur of the underwater world. There are opportunities for beginners, seasoned divers as well as underwater photographers. The mesmerising colours, underwater caves, coral reefs, wrecks, idols and fascinating marine life provide exciting photographic opportunities,” says Dheeraj, another avid scuba diver who has clocked more than 30 dives in Netrani.
Moray Eel (Pic by MN Nandakumar)
“In Netrani, one can explore nooks and crevices for sea creatures. On your dive, you can swim amongst needlefish, goatfish, groupers, a thousand mackerel, a million silver blue fusiliers, a billion sweepers, and a zillion damsels. You can see a band of silvery barracuda streak across algae-covered rocks. It’s fascinating to see moray eels darting in and out of crevices, with their mouths open displaying razor-sharp teeth,” says Nandakumar, who has to his credit more than 750 dives in over 35 destinations, including more than 60 dives in Netrani.
“You’ll encounter sea creatures like stingrays, pufferfish, sharks, turtles, sea urchins, colourful corals, fat sea cucumbers lazing on the sand, and large, brightly coloured parrotfish chomping down on rocks and coral. In the southern unsheltered side of the island, when you dive deeper you’ll find snappers and surgeonfish, morays, lizardfish, the deadly scorpionfish, squirrelfish and the curiously bright blue red-toothed triggerfish,” Nandakumar explains. Divers and snorkellers have even spotted the rare blacktip and whitetip sharks, whale sharks, orcas and Olive Ridley turtles on dives around the island.
Honeycomb Moray Eel (Pic by MN Nandakumar)
So abundant are the fish here that snorkelling can be just as productive as diving. According to Nandakumar, Jenny’s Aquarium, Nursery, Grand Central Station, Pebble Beach and Dini’s Delight are some of the popular dive sites. “These dives are exciting for their amazing variety and sheer volume of marine flora and fauna. Ocean currents bring in huge shoals of fish like jacks, trevally, tuna, reef sharks, pickhandle barracuda, moray eels and red-toothed triggerfish. You can snorkel almost within touching distance of the normally timid blacktip shark. Bigger varieties include giant barracuda, shoals of skipjack tuna, giant Indian pufferfish, boxfish and lobsters,” adds Nandakumar.
The Nursery, aptly named so, is ideal for beginners and starts out only at about six metres. It is a shallow dive site (10 m), with juveniles of many fish species. At Grand Central Station, a 20-m gradual slope, you can see rabbitfish, parrotfish, batfish, barracuda and more. The 35-m Abyss is a favourite with deep-dive fanatics. Dini’s Delight, going down 8 m, is home to incredible aqua life including lobster, moray eel, angelfish and surgeonfish. At Cul de Sac, a gentle surge takes you into a dead-end teeming with tiny reef fish. Alladin’s Cave is the mouth of a tunnel which leads into the island’s core. If you are looking for adventure, you can find a small fishing boat resting at 22 metres. It acts as an anchor for corals to grow on.
Diving and fishing must be regulated around the island and regular clean-up drives undertaken. This pristine ecosystem needs to be saved and preserved as a protected marine reserve.
Preparing to dive (Pic by Dheeraj)
Important tourist information:
Permit for diving: Dive centres such as NATX, Planet Scuba India, Dive Netrani, Netrani Adventures, etc. arrange permits, boats, diving gear, etc.
Food: Hotels like RNS Residency in Murudeshwar have good restaurants. Dive centres provide divers snacks, fruits and water. However, divers can carry their choice of snacks to eat on the boat between dives.
Toilet facilities: Some dive centres provide toilet facilities on board.
Best season: Depends on water conditions, but diving is ideal between December and May.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bengaluru.