About 17 metres underwater in the Bay of Bengal, a few hundred cardinal fish were working on a deep-sea version of Swan Lake. We were diving, nine nautical miles off the coast of Pondicherry. Thirty metres under, when our descent was complete, I watched a pretty white dress floating past—it was a giant jelly fish. Dainty little damselfish danced, schools of surgeons swayed overhead, and sea plants quivered on the seabed, turning the ocean into an underwater Yash Chopra set.
My oceanic adventure in Pondicherry was only beginning.
When I discovered that it was possible to scuba dive in Pondicherry, I was delighted. I had spent a few days idling around beaches with a book and munching on croissants at the Auroville bakery. An evening stroll on the beach promenade amounted to an active day, and lunch with Spanish acquaintances warranted my Sunday best. Just when I was feeling the need to dial my visit up a notch, I saw a tiny poster glued to a lamp post during a visit to the botanical garden.
The Temple Adventures dive centre buzzed with divers of all levels. Wetsuits hung from a steel rod on the porch, where some people busied themselves cleaning the equipment. The atmosphere was decidedly international. One French instructor called out in Hindi, an Australian was giving directions in Tamil, while Stephen, who was also French, spoke English with a pronounced south Indian accent. Everybody at the dive centre, including the chef Elisa, shared a great love for diving and marine life. I half expected to see Rango the cat pulling on a scuba mask.
The dive centre is obviously popular with advanced divers. But beginners can pick the “Discover Scuba Diving” programme that allows even non-swimmers a glimpse of the world under water. My Advanced Open Water PADI certification, which I had obtained in August, meant that I could dive to a depth of 30 metres. At this depth, one can swim around wrecks and reefs.
The waters around India’s east coast remain largely unexplored. Every now and then, a new dive site is discovered. In the centre’s five years, Temple Adventures has found 21 new spots. As per tradition, dive sites are named after their discoverers. But occasionally, there is a lucky traveller on board after whom the site may be named. The spot where I was diving was one such exception. It was named “Sylviane’s” after a cheerful 58-year-old lady from Toulouse, France.
Sylviane’s was marked by bright red gorgonians (sea fan corals). I was admiring a great moray eel’s double chin when I realised there was a giant emperor grouper, about a metre long, staring at me to my left. The most important lesson I’ve learnt from my dive expeditions is that sea creatures, like all other wildlife in the world, are shy. Just as I turned around to take a good look at him, the grouper swam away.
An hour later, as we prepared for our second dive at Sylviane’s, I felt my heart pounding in excitement. As we discussed the topography and the marine life we could expect to encounter, the vast blue sea stretched out before us. This, I thought, was perhaps how Columbus and other early explorers must have felt. In my own little way, I was ready for the next discovery.
Officially renamed Puducherry in 2006, Pondicherry is located on the eastern coast of India, 310 km southwest of Bengaluru and 160 km south of Chennai.
Spicejet operates several flights from Bengaluru to Pondicherry (1 hour) during the week. The airport is 6 km/30 mins from Beach Road (autorickshaws charge around ₹200).
There are many trains between Chennai and Pondicherry, but they take much longer than the road journey. The Puducherry Express runs overnight between Bengaluru and Pondicherry every Friday. The station is 2 km/10 mins from Beach Road.
Pondicherry is 160 km/3 hours south of Chennai. The drive down the East Coast Road is rather scenic. Frequent buses leave from the bus station in Koyambedu (tickets from ₹240). Shared taxis are available at Chennai airport, and charge from ₹3,600 for four passengers for the one-way trip.
From Bengaluru, Pondicherry is a 310 km/6 hour-drive down NH 66 (taxis charge around ₹9,000 each way). The 7-8 hour overnight bus journey from Bengaluru to Pondicherry is perhaps the cheapest and most efficient route. There are both government-run and privately operated buses, most starting from Madiwala or Shantinagar bus stand (www.ksrtc.in or www.Redbus.in; tickets ₹500-1000).
Pondicherry is fairly easy to get around on foot but autos are also available for short distances (the unofficial minimum fare is ₹50). You can rent bicycles (₹50 per day) or motorcycles (₹250 per day) at Mission Street.
Pondicherry’s pleasant winters (Nov-Feb), when day temperatures are a maximum of 30°C, are the high season for tourists. Summer (Mar-Jul) is hot and humid, with highs of 40°C. The monsoon (Jul-Aug), lowers temperatures and brings relief. Light showers continue through Sept and Oct. Though you can dive all year round, the best visibility underwater is from Nov to March.
Hotel Coramandal Heritage is a simple, heritage building located on mission street. The rooms are simple, yet comfortable and there’s free Wi-Fi (0413-2260269; www.hotelcoramandal.in; doubles ₹999).
Dumas Guest House is a charming guest house located close to Beach Road in the French quarter. It is a convenient place to stay if you want to venture out on foot (0413-222 5726; dumasguesthouse.com; doubles ₹2,750).
Les Hibiscus is an old, colonial house on Suffren Street that has been converted into a popular guest house. Rooms fill up quickly (0413-2227480; www.Leshibiscus.in; doubles from ₹2,700). Hotel de l’Orient is a Neemrana establishment, a magnificent mansion with colonial-style interiors. Its restaurant serves Creole (Tamil-French) food
(0413-2343067; hotel-de-lorient.neemranahotels.com; doubles from ₹4,000).
La Villa Shanti is a hotel with contemporary design and facilities, attached to a 19th-century bungalow (0413- 4200028; lavillashanti.com; doubles from₹7,000).
Palais De Mahé is a brand new hotel on Rue De Bussy that manages to be luxurious without being fussy. It has a nice swimming pool for guests (0413- 2345611; www.cghearth.com/palaisdemahe; doubles from ₹8,500).
Temple Adventures is the only dive centre in Pondicherry. It is located in the residential area between the railway station and Pondicherry Harbour, near the Indira Gandhi sports complex (99402 19449; templeadventures.com; 5, Veeramunivar Street, Colas Nagar). It offers trips for qualified divers as well as certifications and courses, such as discover scuba, an introduction for beginners.
Discover Scuba Diving:
As the name suggests, this two-day programme provides a brief introduction to the activity by running participants through the hand gestures used for communication, and gives them a basic understanding of scuba gear (SCUBA stands for Self Contained Under Water Breathing Apparatus). The following day, they are taken out to sea for an assisted dive to a depth of 12 metres (₹6,800; two days; one dive).
Open Water Diver:
This is the basic certification level for divers. The four-day course teaches participants about the equipment and using it underwater independently. This allows participants to dive anywhere in the world up to a depth of 18 metres (₹24,500; four days, four dives).
You can simply opt to go on fun dives (₹4,400; 1 day, 2 dives) or get a higher certification like advanced open water diver, enriched air diver, and more.
Temple Adventures is run by a small team of friendly, helpful divers. Diving in Pondicherry isn’t exactly what one would describe as resort diving. Compared to diving in Maldives, it is like trekking through a reserve forest. You may or may not spot a manta ray or a shark while diving here, but will be sure to have an adventure.
Diving gear can be rented at Temple Adventures for ₹1,000 per day. They also have a dive shop that sells protective rash vests, scuba pro wetsuits, masks, and more. Elisa, the chef, is one of the best in town. There is free Wi-Fi.
Do not, under any circumstances, forget to bring your sunscreen lotion and a hat. Sunglasses will help too. Bring towels and a change of clothes. It is very easy to get dehydrated when you are out on a boat, so always remember to drink plenty of water.
Appeared in the December 2013 issue as “East Coast Adventures.”
is a multimedia journalist who loves all things adventure. She posts on instagram as @jyothykarat.
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