Travel: Voyages to the bottom of the sea: In chilly British waters or the Indian Ocean, diving opens a new world. How to learn, and a guide to aquatic holidays, by David Higgs

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The Independent Culture
THERE were fish of every imaginable shape and size, gaudily coloured as if designed and executed by a schoolboy with a new paint set: blotched, spotted and striped in an explosion of evolutionary pigment. Above our heads the dive-boat pulled gently on its anchor line, which stretched out of sight towards the reef's edge. Twenty metres down we hovered, finning gently beside the giant fronds of white coral jutting from the side of a huge boulder. Above its surface the water shimmered with tiny, brightly coloured fish. They darted and trembled like butterflies around a buddleia, scattering wildly into the depths of bleached and knobbled stalks as we approached, reappearing timidly as we swam onwards.

Here in the Red Sea, still one of the most popular warm-water destinations for European divers, the variety and abundance of life is breathtaking - and bewildering. For many potential and even experienced divers, however, the bewilderment can start long before they enter the water. In the last 10 years there has been a massive increase in the popularity of diving worldwide, and the number of dive holiday companies and resorts has increased accordingly. The success of classic undersea documentaries by Jacques Cousteau and, more recently, the BBC1 Sea Trek series with Martha Holmes and Mike deGruy, has further boosted the popularity of adventurous diving and the demand for yet more exotic locations.

But how and where should the newcomer learn to dive, and how does a more experienced diver find the best and most interesting places? The answers to these questions

depend upon your hardiness, your budget and aspirations.

BEGINNERS

Learning to dive in Britain is relatively cheap, but may mean coping with cold waters and moderate to poor underwater visibility. This

in itself is no bad thing. British adventure-sports enthusiasts often excel because they have had to learn in less than ideal circumstances.

In Britain, the governing body for the sport is the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), with more than 1,000 branches. If you simply want to have a go, to see if you might like diving, the simplest way is to contact the BSAC. Or enquire at the local swimming pool, which will probably have at least one club using its facilities for training. Anyone over the age of 14 can join the BSAC and train at branch level. The other main diving organisation gaining a foothold in Britain is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). If you want to obtain qualifications more quickly than you would at your local branch, you can pay to attend a BSAC or PADI course at a training school. The BSAC and PADI produce booklets listing approved schools here and overseas, with courses lasting two to 10 days. Typical cost per day of training is pounds 50- pounds 70, including all equipment but not food or accommodation.

There are many schools to choose from around the British Isles. Particularly well known are the London Underwater Centre, Plymouth Ocean Projects at Fort Bovisand, Rocky Cove and Stoney Cove in

the Midlands and the Edinburgh Diving School.

If you prefer to learn in warmer, clearer water you can book a training course/holiday at a wide range of locations around the world. BSAC courses can now be found as far afield as Borneo and Kenya; PADI has an even bigger choice of destinations. Always approach a large, or, ideally, specialist travel agent. The Mediterranean and Red Sea are still the most popular destinations for those considering diver training, and can offer excellent value for money. Especially alluring are Gozo, an island off the Maltese coast, and Eilat in Israel. Twickers World is offering seven nights on Gozo, bed and breakfast and flights, for between pounds 303 and pounds 410 depending on season. Basic BSAC instruction costs a further pounds 147 for four to five days, and pounds 199 for six days' diving to a more advanced standard. PADI courses are also available.

The Red Sea has the advantage of offering warm water all year round, though temperatures in the sun can be particularly fierce during June and July. Twickers World offers seven nights, with 3-star B & B accommodation in Eilat and flights, for as little as pounds 362 to pounds 385, depending on season. Basic BSAC or PADI training costs around pounds 150, tuition to a more advanced level is an extra pounds 130.

Beware of 'impulse' diving when overseas. There are many 'cowboy' dive centres whose poorly qualified instructors cause inexperienced divers serious injuries every year. Diver training should be undertaken with a similar mentality to mountaineering. You're going down, not up, but the potential for ghastly is there if you are ill- prepared or in the wrong hands.

INTERMEDIATE

Evidence of basic BSAC or PADI qualification is required if you want to go on an organised diving holi-

day. You must therefore take your qualification record and dive log book with you and your travel agent will advise you. However, with approved qualifications, the world is your oyster.

Specialist travel agencies which can advise you on destinations include Twickers World, Kuoni and Regal Diving. For those with a bank balance to match, Scuba Safaris offers very upmarket diving holidays in exotic locations.

Choosing a diving holiday is very much a question of how much you are prepared to spend. Live-aboard is a very exciting way to dive. You go to sea for several days, eating and sleeping on board, and have the great advantage of access to remote reefs and sites beyond the reach of a day-trip boat.

Regal Diving offers live-aboard facilities, and the opportunity to train with instructors and dive guides from the British-managed Red Sea Scuba School at Hurghada, Egypt. Seven nights half-board with five days' basic diving starts at pounds 469, four days' advanced diving at pounds 539.

Kuoni has a special offer to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, which includes a 14-night diving package, for only pounds 898. The Maldives is well known for its reefs and atolls. In deeper water, manta rays and non- aggressive shark species can be seen.

Twickers World has a reputation for developing new regions. One recent addition is 14 days' live-aboard diving in largely unexplored waters of the Molucca Sea off Indonesia. With prices starting at pounds 2,395, including all flights and transfers, you can spend three nights in Bali, one on the Sulawesi Islands, and seven on board a launch.

For the very upmarket, Scuba Safaris offers three weeks in Papua New Guinea with Jeremy Stafford- Deitsch, one of the UK's most famous underwater photographers. Approximately 14 days can be spent diving, including nine days on board. The price of pounds 4,380 includes all flights, transfers, tours, accommodation and a photo album of the trip.

ADVANCED

Training centres like Plymouth Ocean Projects and the Underwater Centre at Fort William run courses for the advanced leisure diver. Subjects include underwater photography, wreck locating, marine biology and archaeology.

For those who long to dive where nobody has gone before, ice and cave diving are at the 'sharp end' of the sport, requiring experience, technical ability and nerve. Those interested in ice diving can contact Current State Diving; potential aquatic troglodytes should try the Cave Diving Group.-

USEFUL ADDRESSES

WHERE TO LEARN: British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), Telford's Quay, Ellesmere Port, South Wirral, Cheshire L65 4FY (051- 357 1951).

Professional Association of Diving Instructors International Ltd (PADI), Unit 9, 306 Estate, Broomhill Road, Brislington, Bristol BS4 5RG (0272 711717).

London Underwater Centre, 13 Glendower Road, London SW14 8NY (081-876 0735).

Plymouth Ocean Projects Ltd, Fort Bovisand, Plymouth, Devon PL9 OAB (0752 408021).

Rocky Cove Diver Training, 78 Oldbury Road, Blackheath, West Midlands B65 OJS (021-559 0701).

Stoney Cove Diver Training, Stoney Cove, Sapcote Road, Stoney Stanton, Leicestershire LE9 6DW (0455 272768).

Edinburgh Diving Centre, 1 Watson Crescent, Edinburgh EH11 1HD (031-229 4838).

ADVANCED DIVING COURSES: The Underwater Centre Ltd, Fort William, Inverness-shire PH33 6LZ (0397 703786).

Current State Diving, 8 Kellaway Avenue, Redland, Bristol BS6 7XR (0272 247030).

Cave Diving Group, 25 Cross Street, Kettlebrook, Tamworth, Staffordshire B77 1AS (0827 60929, evenings). .

TOUR OPERATORS: Twickers World Ltd, 22 Church Street, Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 3NW (081-892 7606).

Kuoni Travel Ltd, 33 Maddox Street, London W1R 9LD (071-499 8636).

Regal Diving, 22 High Street, Sutton, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB6 2RB (0353 778096).

Scuba Safaris, Park House, 140 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 4NB (071-498 0003).

FURTHER READING: Diver magazine, Eaton Publications, 55 High Street, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 8HA (081-943 4288). Sent automatically to all BSAC members, but also available from many newsagents.

Undercurrents magazine, PO Box 1658, Sausalito, California 94966, USA (fax 010 1 516 466 7808). An exclusive guide to diving holidays and facilities worldwide, carrying in-depth reviews for serious divers.

(Photograph omitted)

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