For a marine biologist and conservationist, this phase of social distancing is a time of learning and rediscovery. Nayantara Jain tells us why she chose diving, the ultimate form of isolation, as a lifestyle, and what we can all learn from stillness. Text By Nayantara Jain & Photographs By Sumer Verma
Photos shot underwater in the Andamans, India; Komodo, Indonesia; Seychelles; and the Galápagos Islands.
No man is an island, wrote a solemn John Donne 400 years ago, to remind us all of our interconnectedness, to highlight our predominantly social selves, to urge us to pay cognisance to the fact that our pain is shared, that we rely on companionship and the comfort of others, that loss resonates, that happiness spreads. And so too, we are ruthlessly reminded today, does a virus. And to this microscopic virus—less than a millionth of a metre long—we must give two metres of space. We must lock ourselves in our homes, stay off the streets, stay out of the world, and wash our hands repeatedly. We mustn’t touch our faces. We mustn’t hug our friends. We must all become the islands that we fundamentally are not—and it’s driving everyone crazy.
While I must admit that I am going a bit crazy too, I realise now why people looked at me the way they did when, 10 years ago, I chose a life that involved living on a small island with no phone coverage or internet, miles and miles away from friends and family and almost all of the basic infrastructure like restaurants, malls, theatres, and bars that we’ve just realised how dependent we are on. As I enter forced isolation, to do my part in saving the world, I look back at my years of voluntary isolation and the journeys—both inner and outer—that saved my soul.
When I was 22, I began what would end up being over a decade of living on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, working first as a scuba diving instructor and then as a marine biologist and conservationist. There is nothing quite like going underwater to take you deep within yourself, and through that, to open your eyes to a beautiful, vibrant world you never knew existed. Scuba diving is a lot like self-isolation. Even though it is a ‘buddy sport’—an activity you never do completely alone—you require a mastery of breath, a focus on body and form, and firm faith in the strength of your own mind. The ocean demands those things of you. She also supplies them. As you deflate your BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and descend into the blue, and take that first deep breath of compressed air stored in the tank on your back, there are a few things you become startlingly aware of. Held in a liquid medium, your body becomes almost weightless. And as you stretch all the way to the tips of your toes, fins extended to cut through the current, you find a grace you never knew you had. The first time you look skyward from the bottom of the seabed and see metres and metres of saltwater between yourself and the familiar world of fresh air and sunlight, your mind clouds up with fear and suffocation and your panicked eyes find your instructor’s. He holds your hand, eyes firm, and silently invites you to breathe… 1, 2, 3, in… 1, 2, 3, out… until you discover the tenacious bond between deep breath and peace of mind. And now, body extended, the heart opened, breath steadied, and mind calmed, you are able to bring all your attention to the world around you—a world that hides beyond a reflective surface and reveals herself to you only through the lens of a scuba mask.
In this silent state of grace, a world of beauty is unveiled—one whose light cannot penetrate the fog of our otherwise preoccupied minds. In the isolation of the Andamans, I’ve known the ancient gaze of a sea turtle. I’ve stared skywards to see tornados of colourful fish swirling around me in neon blues, fiery oranges, and sunny yellows. I’ve swum through schools of glassfish, so small and transparent that you almost cannot believe they even exist. In the cold southern waters of the Galápagos Islands, I’ve swum amid hundreds of sharks—full-bodied and rippling with power, ruling the seas since the beginning of time. In the choppy cobalt seas off the coast of Sri Lanka, I had the honour of holding my breath to free-dive with the largest animal on our planet—a blue whale mamma and her calf. In the sleepy forgotten waters off the tiny island of Kadmat in Lakshadweep, I played hide-and-seek with a curious adolescent dolphin. In the Maldives, in waters green with plankton, I somersaulted with a hundred manta rays.
Isolation, for me, meant communion—with my mind first and with nature next. And I discovered that to connect is to care. So began my journey into the anatomy of a fish, the chemistry of a drop of seawater, the physics of light and colour, the conveyor belts of currents, the web of life that is the ecology of a coral reef. I studied marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and came back to India to run ReefWatch Marine Conservation, a not-for-profit that restores corals, rescues turtles and dolphins and educates children and grown-ups alike about the vitality and fragility of a balanced ocean. What started off as an escape from a crowded city and the shock of a life that had transitioned from academic to professional became a journey, a life, and a reason for living. And it began, as does everything meaningful, with a little solitude.
If we can use this forced separation from all the distractions we so lust after, to reconnect to our own breath, our own bodies, our strange complex minds, we may find ourselves open to all kinds of wonder—the languid curve of a branch outside the window, a gust of wind and suspended swirls of dust catching golden sunlight, the quirky cocked head of a little bird on the tree. And once the doors are open again, we may find ourselves, once more, in the infinite blue sea. This time, perhaps, softened by the vulnerability of solitude, with a greater awareness of the power of our touch and the weight in our tread, but with our pride subdued by the sheer havoc a wayward microscopic cell at the edges of life can cause. Perhaps, we might move through the world more gently and with committed care.