Ask any avid scuba divers in India who know their way around the country’s many underwater hotspots, Havelock Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will definitely be at the top of their lists. Even for a novice diver in Havelock, some of the most easily recognisable diving terms here are, “Johnny, Jackson, Dickson”. For the uninitiated, this may seem like a case of some foreigners coming to India, finding diving sites previously unheard of, and naming them after themselves. But the more time you spend on this island, you realise it is actually three brothers belonging to the Karen community after whom these sites are named.
The Karens are a Burmese tribe that were brought to the Andaman Islands by the British during the 1920s and 30s. After a malaria outbreak wiped out a number of British soldiers, it was decided that the Karens, who knew their way around the similar tropical landscapes, would be brought in to clear out forests and work on construction projects. Today, the descendants of these Karen people are mainly concentrated around Mayabunder, in the Middle Andaman region. While their primary occupation includes farming and fishing, if there is one thing the Karens must be known for, it has to be their skills underwater. They easily go down under, on a single breath, and catch fish with their traditional spears—without fins, masks or snorkels—instead of sitting on a dinghy and waiting for the day’s catch.
Taking after their Karen ancestors, the Poayasay brothers, Jackson, Dickson, and Johnny, are no different. They spent their childhood helping their parents in the paddy fields during sowing and harvest periods, and swimming and spearfishing during their spare time. In 1998, Jackson, the middle brother, was the first of the three to be formally introduced to scuba diving. “I had heard of people going in the water with air cylinders and all that fancy gear. But I could never understand what it was,” the 50-year-old says. When a Swiss PADI Instructor, Herbert Burri, opened up a dive shop at Chidiya Tapu, Johnny had his first tryst with the cylinders and fancy equipment he had heard so highly of. “It was like discovering magic! I could never free-dive very deep like my brothers but scuba diving felt like a whole different world had opened for me,” Soon after, his brothers followed suit and became certified divers at Herbert Burri’s dive shop, I’m told, as we sip on chai one March evening sitting at Ocean Tribe, the dive shop the brothers now own and run.
While Burri had to close shop in 2003, serendipitously, Havelock’s first diving outfit, DIVE India, opened up around the same time. DIVE India’s Vinnie did not only end up receiving most of Burri’s scuba equipment, but also his three best divers, Johnny, Jackson and Dickson. “We did a lot of exploratory dives with DIVE India. It was also here that we got our Dive Master certifications,” Dickson recalls. Back then, only Minerva Ledge and The Wall were the two dive sites around the island, and the only divers who would come here would be foreigners. “But the 2004 tsunami put the Andaman Islands on the tourist map. The news made people aware of these islands in their own country. Earlier, when we used to go to the mainland, people would ask us if we needed a passport to go to the Andaman Islands,” Jackson chuckles softly.
“In the 2000s, permits were not an issue so we used to go on exploratory trips once, sometimes twice a week,” Dickson reminisces. “We would do exploratory trips as far as North Andaman near Diglipur, sometimes around Long Island and often go south near Cinque and South Passage Islands.” Today, these dive sites are a far-fetched dream trapped somewhere in the web of red tapes that is the administration of the Andaman Islands. Official rules are always shifting and who gets a permit and who doesn’t are constantly moving goal posts.
When they were young, the Poayasay brothers would hop onto a fisherman dinghy and go where the fisherman suggested. “These fishermen people, they have an excellent idea of what might be under the surface without ever going under. That is actually how we found Dickson’s Pinnacle,” the namesake tells me with the same wonder in his eyes I imagine he had all those years ago on that small boat.
Having spent so much time out in the open sea, the fishermen, while anchoring their dinghies, can tell what kind of a formation lies below. For Dickson’s Pinnacle, it was the fact that the anchor goes in once and then slips in deeper, meaning there is a long, rocky formation that might be worth exploring. And it indeed was. Of the three dive sites, Dickson’s Pinnacle was the first one to be put on the Havelock diving map in 2006 and is now known for its abundance of soft yellow corals with resident moray eels, eagle rays, barracudas, trevallies, and many other species.
Soon after, Johnny’s Gorge and Jackson’s Bar were introduced as well, each known for different things—from giant sponge corals to white tip reef sharks and currents just about right for drift diving. Smruti Mirani, an advanced open water diver from Ahmedabad, spent almost a month working from and diving in Havelock. “The moment I heard there is a boat heading to Johnny’s Gorge, I made sure I ended up on it one way or the other. I’d heard so much of these three dive sites when I reached Havelock, there was no way I was missing that chance!”
“Diving in Havelock has changed a lot since we started”, Jackson recounts. In 2011, the brothers opened up only the sixth dive shop on the island by the name of Ocean Tribe. Today, there are over 35 diving outfits in Havelock, each of them listing Johnny’s Gorge, Dickson’s Pinnacle and Jackson’s Bar as the top dive sites to explore in the region. These three diving sites have an almost cult-like following now. Most divers come to Havelock with a mission to dive at Jackson’s, Johnny’s or Dickson’s, while others eventually find their way to these prestigious sites all located within 20 kilometres of Havelock.
It is not just the recreational divers, however, that wait for a chance to dive at these sites, but also the professional dive masters and instructors who spend most of their time teaching students at the shallower sites. “I was taking a few divers at Dickson’s Pinnacle once,” recounts Sahil Khanna, an instructor at DIVE India. “Dickson happened to join us on this trip and took it upon himself to show my divers around his home turf with childlike excitement. I ended up having all the time to myself slowly moving around and observing life around the Pinnacle. Now I hope to go to Johnny’s Gorge with Johnny and Jackson’s Bar with Jackson one day.”
Not only did the Poayasay brothers change the diving game in Havelock, but also created new avenues for the Karen community to benefit from the tourism. Almost every single dive center on Havelock today employs divers from the Karen community, “because Karens are simply just that good under water,” Dickson beams. But the Poayasay brothers remain humbly nonchalant by the change. “Our love for the ocean stays the same”, Jackson says as he goes back to focusing on the maintenance of his equipment. Come rain or shine, the brothers can always be found in the ocean—whether diving in the waters of Havelock or spearfishing in the waters close to home.