Travel: Diving - Taking the plunge

Hamish McRae takes his family on a five-day course in the Red Sea to find out why diving is the fastest-growing activity holiday,

Scuba diving is the new skiing. It's not only the fastest-growing form of mainstream activity holiday - skiing used to be - but it also has a similar mix of holiday ingredients: a physical activity, the opportunity to learn a new set of skills, a different view of an extraordinarily beautiful aspect of our planet (looking up through the water instead of down through the clouds), the camaraderie of interesting people, and maybe also that tiny edge of danger. And, yes, if you go for warm waters you get enough of a tan to irritate your colleagues back in the office.

For Britons interested in learning how to dive there are two main options. The first is, or at least until recently has been, a rather military-style training, stiff-upper-lip stuff. Here in Britain, under the auspices of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), you get a thorough training which will equip you to dive in the murky, difficult and often dangerous waters around the UK as well as more exotic locations. The other is to take a basic course in warm waters on holiday, usually with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).

The PADI standard full-time, five-day course was designed, originally by Americans, to be fun - and unsurprisingly PADI now trains more divers than all the other diving associations put together. While BSAC now has a similar five-day course, Padi established a global lead which has been hard to challenge.

So, when we were faced with a spare week that might have been allocated to late Easter skiing in the Alps, but wanted to learn a new craft, we chose PADI. The "we" in this instance were myself and my wife plus, to our surprise, our 21- and 19-year-old daughters (as with skiing, the prospect of a free and interesting holiday overcomes any latent irritation at the prospect of holidaying with fiftysomething parents).

On the advice of an experienced diver, we chose the Red Sea. Enthusiasts may debate whether that or the Maldives, the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef offer the best diving in the world. But for the learner, the Red Sea is perfect: clear warm water, an extraordinary abundance of marine life and established training facilities. It also offers, for British- based divers, the nearest coral reefs in the world and - if you stay in the Sharm el Sheikh region of Egypt - it's just a five-hour flight from Gatwick and a 20-minute transfer at the other end. In practical terms (allowing for the shorter transfer and the cheaper cost of accommodation), the Red Sea is as quick to reach and as cheap to book as the Alps.

And the diving? There are a number of skills that you have to learn, such as clearing a mask underwater and adjusting your buoyancy so that you don't keep bobbing upwards and plunging back down, which are not difficult but do require familiarity with the water. There is also a certain amount of theory that you need to know, like how to calculate the amount of nitrogen the body has absorbed during its time underwater and how long it will take for that to return to normal. Errors can prove very serious.

If this sounds a bit daunting, the PADI course is a brilliantly designed example of structured adult learning: a mixture of videos, classroom teaching, pool training (our "pool" was a coral-rimmed, fenced-off bit of the Red Sea) and open-water dives. I suspect we were particularly well taught. The school (the Red Sea Diving College at Na'ama Bay, just north of Sharm) specialised in diver training up to instructor level and we were also lucky with our instructor, Tamer, a thoughtful Egyptian who had exchanged the hassles of computer programming in Cairo for the lifestyle of the Sinai. And the learning was fun. Compared with five days being shouted at in a ski-school, the Padi course was a joy.

The reward? As a newly qualified diver you are limited to 18 metres depth, and the practical time limit for a dive is about an hour, maybe less. But during an hour underwater you can see 50 or more species of fish and coral forms: the smaller multicoloured reef fish nibbling away at the coral, the occasional visit from a giant tuna sashaying in from the deep blue beyond, the grey moray eel poking its nose out from a rock, the blue spotted stingray doing a little floor-show shuffle in the sand - and so on. For the novice it is thrilling, educating and humbling.

Finally, one worry and one pleasant surprise. The worry is the extent to which diving may itself damage the environment. Coral is threatened everywhere. At Sharm, the authorities have worked hard to preserve their reefs and one has to hope that the money from diving will encourage continued efforts at conservation, but the explosive growth of the urban sprawl must be putting great pressure on the environment.

Decompression rules require that divers do not fly within 24 hours after diving, so we used the spare day to head up the coast to a nature reserve and then into the mountains. So far, the development is contained to a narrow band on the coast, but the danger that we might kill the things we love is ever-present.

The surprise was to find out just how nice scuba divers are as a breed: helpful, thoughtful, tolerant of the incompetence of novices - and with none of that brash, showy-offy style of skiers who should know better. Yes, I think we will probably go skiing next year, for it is hard to match the exhilaration of swooping down a mountain. But we will certainly try and grab a few days scuba diving too. Are we hooked? I guess so - it is, after all, wonderful to discover a new excitement.

A really quite youthful Hamish McRae paid a total of pounds 4,000 for his holiday, which was booked through Crusader Leisure (0181-744 0474). The package included return flights from Gatwick to Sharm-el-Sheikh airport, all transfers, bed and breakfast accommodation at the Marriott Hotel and the open water PADI certification course for a family of four.

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