What's in the deep Red Sea? Children grappling with masks

Kids love playing around in water, so why not teach them scuba diving? Nick Hanna, himself an accomplished diver, takes his two boys, aged 11 and 13, on a week's course off the coast of Egypt - and watches them frolic

'When can we learn diving, Dad?" It had been a constant refrain from my two sons for some time: like most kids, they loved being in the sea and they snorkelled whenever we went on holiday. They had also seen me disappear underwater and come back with tales (and pictures) of friendly turtles and colourful parrotfish. Children's natural curiosity about the marine world - combined with the desire to gain beach cred by being kitted out in all that cool-looking gear - means they're often keen to try scuba diving.

'When can we learn diving, Dad?" It had been a constant refrain from my two sons for some time: like most kids, they loved being in the sea and they snorkelled whenever we went on holiday. They had also seen me disappear underwater and come back with tales (and pictures) of friendly turtles and colourful parrotfish. Children's natural curiosity about the marine world - combined with the desire to gain beach cred by being kitted out in all that cool-looking gear - means they're often keen to try scuba diving.

But scuba is a risky sport. Even though it is generally very safe, if you don't follow the rules you will be in danger of having an accident. Millions of adults go diving every year and come back with nothing more harmful than an expensive addiction to scuba holidays. But people do foolish things underwater - and some die. Is it worth subjecting children to this risk, especially when "following the rules" is often something they're not very good at?

The issue has split the diving world, which has been unable to agree on a minimum age for children to start learning. Clubs belonging to the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) only take children from 14 years of age, whereas the more commercially oriented BSAC schools accept them from 12. The world's biggest training agency, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (Padi), allows children to dive from 10 years old.

I took my two sons, Luke, 13, and Oscar, 11, to the Red Sea resort of Dahab, where I had booked them on a Junior Open Water Diver course at the Reef2000 dive centre. There we were joined by two other children on the same course, Jordan, 12, and Francesca, 11.

On the first day, we checked into the dive centre and got the four children kitted out. Soon after, we were heading towards Lighthouse Reef, in the centre of Dahab. From the moment they got underwater the children were cavorting in the shallows like demented sea lions. Their instructor, Monica Farrell from Reef2000, was brilliant. I felt sorry for her trying to teach the children when there was almost zero chance of getting them to sit still on the seabed and do any of the required exercises, but she managed with no problem at all.

"Children are like little fish, so let them be fish," she told me afterwards. "As long as they're safe, let them have fun and the learning will follow." This lot were certainly having fun, and I was amazed at how easily they accomplished many of the tasks which they had to do over the following days. Adults, for example, usually balk at the idea of taking off and replacing their masks underwater, but the children just went straight ahead and did it.

On the second day we headed out of town to a site called the Three Pools, where the children could safely practise their skills in enclosed underwater areas before heading out for a look around the reef. I felt like a wise, ponderous old marine mammal, as I finned calmly along and watched the youngsters frolicking energetically in the sea. They were enjoying the sensation of weightlessness in the water with the exuberance of baby dolphins.

But Monica also had a sneaky habit of coming up to them any time they were underwater and faking an out-of-air emergency, for example, forcing them to respond and help her. I was impressed with the way that she built skills into their diving without it seeming like "training". By the third or fourth day all the children were able to remove and replace their kit underwater and had acquired other essential skills.

"Children aren't able to focus for very long, especially underwater," said Monica. "They're more interested in chasing fish than anything else, so I try to channel those energies in a positive way. And I keep repeating exercises, again and again, in real diving situations - not just sitting around in a circle when you're expecting it."

Officially, Padi only requires adults and children to complete four dives in the sea in order to qualify for its open-water certificate. With Monica, the children were lucky enough to do around eight dives each (it's at the instructor's discretion if they've done enough or not). We crammed all this in from Monday to Friday, normally with two dives per day, plus watching training videos and doing "knowledge reviews" in the afternoons at the Reef2000 dive centre. It was an exhausting week: up and out of the hotel by 8.15am, returning around 6pm each night. My boys hardly saw the hotel swimming pool until the Saturday, after they had finished the course. And they barely had the energy to eat dinner before flopping exhausted into bed each night. Ideally, it would be better to take a two-week holiday, so that there is time to relax after the course.

All four children passed their tests, and are now the proud holders of Junior Open Water Diver qualifications. Oscar, sadly, had a cold before going on holiday which severely limited his ability to clear his ears (or "equalise") and descend to more than a few metres. But the rest of them were able to dive to around 8 metres and swim through the "dolphin hoops" - triangles suspended above the seabed, which you have to swim through without hitting in order to perfect your buoyancy control.

Clearly, the children loved simply being underwater and looking at the fish. But there are also limits as to how deep they should go until they are mature enough to grasp the implications of a rapid ascent (which can cause a burst lung). Padi allows 10-11 year olds to descend to 12 metres, and 12-15 year olds to go to 18 metres. After watching my two precious sons closely, I'm inclined to agree with Monica. "With children, the shallower the better. I like to keep kids at around five metres," she says. Most child fatalities occur when adults take them to insane depths - would you believe 40 metres? - which are way beyond their capabilities. And no one knows the effect of the increased nitrogen in their small bodies at these depths.

In the end, it depends on the maturity of the child and whether or not they are really able to understand the potentially serious implications of, for example, bolting for the surface in a panic. I am inclined to think that the Bsac limit of 12 years is a sensible compromise.

All four underwater argonauts worked - and played - really hard. "Saw lots of fish, and did lots of exercises on the seabed," wrote Oscar in his diving logbook. I'm sure that it was a holiday that they will remember for life.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Nick Hanna's family stayed at the Hilton Dahab, Egypt, on the beach, set against the scenic backdrop of the Sinai Mountains.

One week at the resort with Longwood Holidays (020-8551 4494; www.longwoodholidays.co.uk) costs from around £510 per person per week, based on two sharing including return flights from London Gatwick or Manchester, transfers, b&b accommodation and taxes. An upgrade to a suite costs £28 per night; half-board costs an extra £12 per person per day.

An alternative for those on a tighter budget is the charming Bedouin Moon, which has recently been extensively refurbished and has a new swimming pool.

This small hotel has a lovely position overlooking the sea and costs from £399 per person per week, based on two sharing, again through Longwood Holidays, including return flights from London Gatwick or Manchester, transfers, b&b accommodation and taxes.

The diving instructor Monica Farrell can be contacted through Reef2000 ( www.reef2000.com), which charges £155 for the Junior Open Water course, including full equipment hire and all diving.

What the children say

Jordan

The hardest bit was when I took off my mask and then accidentally knocked out my regulator and I couldn't find either of them. Monica put my regulator back in my mouth and then I found my mask. The best thing was seeing giant Barracuda, a moray eel and the black-spotted puffer fish. There was quite a lot of studying but I did most of it beforehand, so it wasn't too bad.

Oscar

The worst thing was the equalisation, which is quite hard and just hurts your ears. I was trying to go quite deep but I couldn't. The best thing was using all the diving equipment underwater and looking at the fish. The theory work was a bit hard.

Luke

The course was fun - it was much easier than I had expected. The theory work wasn't that hard. The worst thing was missing a day's diving because I had an earache. The best thing was just being underwater, looking at all the fish, and mucking about on the seabed.

Francesca

There were a few surprises that popped up that I didn't imagine we'd have to do on the course, like taking off all our scuba gear underwater and putting it back on again, especially the weight belt - I didn't like taking off my weight belt at all. Otherwise, it was brilliant. The best things were the dolphin hoops and seeing lots of colourful fish. My favourite fish is the bumphead parrot fish - I think they're really cool.

Diving FAQs

Can they try out scuba before committing to a course?

Both BSAC and Padi will give children a "try-dive" in a pool, usually costing between £20 and £30 (in Padi resorts, it is called the Bubblemaker course). This gives them an introduction to the fun of breathing underwater.

How do I know if my child is in safe hands?

Insist on checking the credentials of the dive centre and ask to see the individual instructor's certification card.

How else can I assess the dive centre?

Once you have checked their credentials and the equipment it becomes a bit more subjective. Do you like the feel of the centre, are the staff professional and courteous, do you feel comfortable entrusting your child to their care? "Ask the instructor what his or her attitude is towards training young people," says Jim Watson, BSAC's coaching manager. "If it is anything less than a very positive and enthusiastic answer then I would be inclined to go elsewhere, because teaching young people requires a very specific approach from the instructor - a level of patience and skill which not all of them have."

Will the centre automatically accept my child?

Any good dive centre will want to make their own assessment before accepting a child. They should want to know if the child is physically and mentally ready, independent and mature enough to be able to sit and listen to an instructor. They will also ask why your child wants to dive: are they really interested, or is there some pressure from a parent?

Will my child find the theoretical aspects hard?

The theory on an entry-level course is the same for a child as it is for an adult, and many adults start with little or no physics knowledge. "Possibly the instructor will have to spend more time on this area, using smaller-syllable words to explain things," says Eric Albinsson, Padi's training manager. "That's where we need a child who is attentive and keen to learn, and mature enough to concentrate, read through the manual and do some more work if necessary." When it comes to tests, both children and adults are allowed to ask the instructor for clarification if they don't understand a question. "Children pick things up very quickly," Albinsson continues. "In my own experience of teaching children I've not come across that many who've had problems understanding it, whereas some adults are quite slow to take it up."

What about the practical exercises?

The biggest physical constraint is the weight of the equipment, although that seems less in water. Diving does not require great physical endurance (particularly in the early stages).

How can I find a convenient dive centre?

Contact Padi (0117-300 7234; www.padi.com) or the British Sub-Aqua Club (0151-350 6200; www.bsac.com).

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