Hob-nobbing with the dolphin fraternity

Armed only with his enthusiasm,

John McVicar set out to learn how to

scuba-dive. He had some surprises.

Hurghada: Buddy can you spare some air? I had always fancied going scuba-diving; probably the ambition derives from watching those early Bond movies where the action shifts effortlessly from the air, to the ground, to underwater. And I saw myself taking to it easily. I swim well, I am used to intensive exercise and I'm a risk-taker. But things didn't quite work out as I expected.

It began with a miserable yule-tide and the decision that what I needed was a sun, sea and sand holiday. So the New Year saw me browsing Teletext's holidays and flights pages. I quickly sniffed out the cheapest - Egypt. Of course, the tourist industry there is still recovering from the appalling incident last November when 58 tourists - including six Britons - were butchered in Luxor.

My best deal was a pounds 109 package from Goldenjoy Holidays - including flight, three-star hotel and breakfast for seven days in Hurghada on the Red Sea where, as a unplanned bonus, I could also realise my ambition to go scuba-diving.

During the five-hour flight I daydreamed about diving with the dolphins, between blasting away on the hashish pipe and compiling a consumer's guide to the local brothels. The reality was very different.

Hurghada strings out along the shoreline of the north-eastern side of the Red Sea. The town looks like an abandoned construction site, which until the Luxor incident was clearly aimed at out-Benidorming Benidorm. Everywhere along its 30-kilometre length and 1-kilometre depth there are unfinished hotels, condominiums and holiday homes beginning to look like bleached skeletons in the desert. Behind it is a band of lowland desert backed by bleak sandstone mountains.

Hurghada airport doubles as a military base, and there are a lot of Kalashnikov- totting security guards around who smile at Europeans - but what they do to fundamentalist suspects would probably make Saddam Hussein blanch.

Still, the sun shone for seven whole days; even in January the midday temperature is in the high seventies Fahrenheit, with only an occasional windy spell chilling me into jeans and a sweater. Soon after arriving, given that I couldn't find any brothels or dope dealers, I began sussing out the diving. There are 90 or so dive centres in Hurghada.

For 20 years the town with its exotic reef diving-sites was the experienced divers' destination of choice. But in the past 10 years, as diving has become more popular, the centres have switched to recreational scuba. In fact, it was this change that established the beachhead for mass tourism, which is now the mainstay of the local economy. Probably up to a third of current tourists are either diving or doing a diving course. Generally the courses cost between pounds 120 and pounds 220 and last five days; it is these courses that are most profitable for the centres, so there is a lot of competition for the newbies. Normally my Scottish ancestry propels me to the cheapest offer going, but the thought of being 15 metres under the sea with gimcrack equipment made me question my usual priorities.

I rang a friend in London who knows his scuba, and he literally ordered me to Barakuda, which was top of the price range. The Barakuda is located in one of the oldest hotels in Hurghada, Giftun Village. But the untutored eye cannot see why it is better value than its cheaper competitors. The owner, James, explained: "There are too many diving-schools in Hurghada. There is as yet no real inspection that takes out the cowboys, but of the 90 or so here I know that only about 10 are following the proper maintenance procedures."

I signed up with Barakuda and was initiated into diving by Jonas Mentz, 28, a wiry, spring-heeled, English-speaking Swede who is a kind of underwater hippie. "Planet Earth is really planet Oceania, as nearly 80 per cent of its surface is water. Life sprang from the oceans. As a diver you are privileged to go back to where we came from, and you should respect and honour that."

He quickly disabused me of any notions I had of breezing through the course. "Scuba is an equipment-intensive activity and to get the most out of your equipment you have to learn to use it as if it is an extension of your body. To dive safely you have to understand what pressure does to your body, and what measures you have to take to protect yourself from that pressure."

After a couple of days alternating between the classroom and the shallows, I was out in a boat among the coral reefs around Hurghada. The light here is a photographer's delight, and this is matched by the translucence of the waters, which are rarely clouded by sediment or plankton.

Whenever I put on all the 60lb or so of gear I felt like Donald Duck playing Super Bowl, but once you are in the water and have mastered the buoyancy controls to achieve weightlessness, there is only the cumbersome nature of the equipment to contend with. Although January is the coldest month, the water temperature was about 68F, and with a wet-suit on, it felt warm.

My first dive, which was to practise various safety measures, was only to six metres, but I was instantly absorbed into a world of fish and coral. Slipping into a mesmeric trance is quite common; Jonas quickly snapped me out of it, and the training began.

Over five dives in three days, I went through the card: controlling buoyancy to go up and down effortlessly, adjusting to pressure on the ears, communicating with sign language, taking off my equipment underwater and putting back on, doing safety drills, learning to navigate by compass and use an underwater computer ... It was intensive and very tiring: I was sleeping nine or 10 hours rather than my normal six.

On my last dive, while we were on the bottom at Turtle Bay, Jonas etched "DIVER" in the sand, pointed at me and clapped his hands, then bowed.

Yet I am not, nor will I ever be, a serious diver. My experience of scuba-diving was never unalloyed; every time I dived I had mixed emotions, doubts, reservations. People buy into the most diverse and bizarre packages to give spurious meaning and content to their lives.

Early on, while gliding among the parrot fish and looking for moray eels in the coral, I suddenly thought this was like trainspotting underwater. I mean, if you want to look at fish, then why not go to an aquarium or watch a video? And then there's all the paraphernalia and cost, just to stay underwater.

And yet, and yet. I remember Jonas stopping 12 metres down at Abu Hashish, tenderly to disentangle a hessian beanbag with "Produce of China" written on it, that had become snarled around a piece of coral. I remember hearing the squeak of dolphins and seeing the delight of Samir, the boat's captain, when he alerted us to a school of them as we sailed back. Alongside me, Jonas said sadly, "Dolphins like us, but they are naive."

easy egypt

Crusader Travel (0181-744 0474) quotes pounds 129 for a week's package departing next Friday. Goldenjoy Holidays (0171-794 9767) is offering seven-night packages in Hurghada, including flights from Gatwick, transfers, breakfast and three-star accommodation for pounds 289. Regal Holidays (01353 778096) has holidays for the same price, based at the Royal Hotel.

British citizens require a visa, issued by the Visa Section of the Consulate- General at

2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (0171-235 9777). You need a passport and a photograph; since the Luxor attack, the pounds 15 visa charge has been waived. Egyptian State Tourist Office: 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (0171-493 5282).