Diving in at the deep end

News presenter Joyce Ohajah never learnt to swim properly, but the lure of a scuba lesson in the Caribbean proved irresistible

Every year I say I'm going to learn to swim properly and every year I never quite get around to it. For this reason alone scuba diving has never actually made it onto my list of things to do before I die. Supportive friends have tried to persuade me that swimming isn't the key to diving - it's how comfortable you feel in the water. Well, on this trip to Barbados I finally decided literally to take the plunge and find out if that's true.

Every year I say I'm going to learn to swim properly and every year I never quite get around to it. For this reason alone scuba diving has never actually made it onto my list of things to do before I die. Supportive friends have tried to persuade me that swimming isn't the key to diving - it's how comfortable you feel in the water. Well, on this trip to Barbados I finally decided literally to take the plunge and find out if that's true.

You couldn't ask for a more perfect setting. It's 30š and I'm sitting in a beach hut overlooking the calm turquoise sea watching a cheesy American video about the joys of scuba diving. I'm in the "office" of Dive Barbados, the company putting me through the Discover Scuba course. It's a half-day course for people like me who want to try diving before deciding whether to commit themselves to a full intensive PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) course.

When I tell my scuba instructor John Moore that I'm a weak swimmer, he asks: "If you were walking near a pool carrying a couple of beers and someone pushed you in what would you do?" "Hold on very tightly to the beer" I reply. He smiles and tells me he is a very patient man and he will be with me for the whole dive.

I am the only first time diver on the trip. Keen to get on with it but still slightly nervous I ask, "Are there any sharks out there?" John assures me they haven't seen any in over 30 years, apart from the human variety on the beach.

Bit by bit we go through my equipment. I've been snorkelling before so I put on my mask and flippers. However, I am helped into the rest of my kit including a BCD (buoyancy control device) jacket and an air tank which is attached to my back. I feel really weighed down and struggle to stand up. Wobbling a bit with my knees bent I waddle across the beach feeling like an alien. A child on the beach who stops and stares at me with her mouth open confirms my strange appearance.

Once in a shallow part of the sea, my equipment feels much lighter. John teaches me the basics like how to kneel on the sea bed and we practice breathing under water through the regulator in my mouth. It's a strange sensation but I get used to it.

Clearing my mask when it fills with water proves harder. Just thinking that this might happen when I am 40 feet under water makes me nervous. I'm told to tilt my head back and blow sharply through my nostrils and it works.

On the boat, we head for nearby Merlin's reef at Weston on the west coast: it's just the right depth, I'm told, with plenty to see. Watching the two professional divers back flip into the water first gives me some confidence. I'm slightly nervous as I sit on the edge of the boat with my back to the water but remind myself that the other two divers came up again and looked perfectly fine. I enter the sea with an enormous undignified splash but the important thing is I'm in the water.

We use a guide rope to help with the descent. My ears hurt immediately and all my fears about diving start to run through my mind. But I equalise by blowing through my nose as I had been taught and give John the signal to show I'm OK.

The deeper we go, the more I relax. Hovering just above the sea bed shoals of bright blue fish swim past us. They ignore me but I'm fascinated. I can't believe I'm here with them, underwater and actually breathing. John uses hand signals to point out trumpet fish and peacock flounder. Holding my hand, he helps me explore this new aquatic world.

But when water starts to leak into my mask I feel the approach of panic. I had hoped this wouldn't happen. I clear the mask as I'd been taught, thankful that I'd been paying full attention.

Forty feet underwater, I get back in control and remember I've been told to just keep breathing. Calm again, I'm careful not to touch the delicate coral. But it's a joy to marvel at the strange shape of the tube sponge and soft-looking feather dusters. I peer up at the surface to see how far down I am and to convince myself I'm not imagining it all.

If you want to learn to dive, Barbados has got to be one of the best places in the world to do it. I was attracted not just by the opportunity to acquire a new skill, but also because there is so much else to see and do if the underwater life is not for you.

As we drive around the island, most people wave spontaneously; it's almost as if they are extras in a movie being paid to wave on cue. But there are no cameras apart from ours, and as a tourist you feel very welcome on the island. Having experienced diving, I was keen to explore more of the world underwater. I'd never seen a real sea turtle before ( Nemo doesn't count) and so diving and tagging Hawksbill sea turtles in the Caribbean Sea as part of a research project sounded very appealing.

Among others on board for this trip are two marine biologists from the University of the West Indies. We all head out to Allen's reef. Hightide Watersports runs three trips a week with two dives per session for people who want to get up close and learn about a critically endangered species.

The first dive was 90ft, far too deep for a novice like me. But staying on board the boat meant I watched as our first turtle arrived on board. It took a few minutes for the creature to adjust to its new surroundings, but it was soon calm enough for me to stroke its wrinkly neck. Jen Beggs from the Barbados Sea Turtle project told me this one was particularly exciting because it hadn't been caught before. All the turtles are numbered - this was the 700th to be caught since the project started in 1998. After engraving the digits on its shell she then surprised me by naming it "Joyce". I was, of course, as excited as a 10-year-old, and giggled accordingly.

Jen estimated Joyce is indeed about 10 years old. My namesake's vital statistics are logged: weight, just over 10kg; length, about 46cm. They take a blood sample so they can determine its sex back at the lab and attach a metal tag to its leg. Then it's time to say goodbye. I hold Joyce above the water and watch as she disappears into the depths of the sea: a magical experience.

It's time for my dive. I am soon moving through the water with my instructor at my side as we search for turtles. Within minutes marine biologist Barry Kruger is swimming towards us clutching a small turtle. He holds it up for me to see and touch. It just about fits into his hands. Then he swims off towards the boat. I feel warm and satisfied having seen a real live turtle underwater.

Then Jen is in hot pursuit of a huge turtle hurtling through the water. I'm surprised at their speed. My instructor joins the chase. It's like a scene from an action movie; I can almost hear a soundtrack. I try to follow but quickly realise how being a decent swimmer has its advantages. I tread water until Jen and my instructor return - empty handed. This turtle was just too quick for them.

Overall, it was a successful trip. We caught four turtles and, because so little is known about juvenile turtles, Barry is pleased. "We study how fast they are growing and their movements around the reefs so we know how we can protect them." So two dives down and I think I've got the hang of it. There is still of course a huge amount to learn but now at least I know what I've been missing. Would I do it again? Well, there's a turtle out there with my name on it and it would be great to meet up again.

Joyce Ohajah presents the news on the ITV News Channel and London Tonight

On Your Bike: Another Side To Getting Around

Every place has its optimum form of transport. America cries out to be crossed by car; in Venice, the waterbus is the only rational way to get around; and Barbados was made for the bicycle. Or perhaps, I speculated as I freewheeled down to Bridgetown after another fine day on two wheels, it was the other way round.

At its most basic, cycling simply provides a good means to amble back and forth along the coast roads, perhaps making the odd trip into Bridgetown. The roads are reasonably well surfaced, traffic travels at a moderate speed and most drivers give bikes a comfortably wide berth. The streets of the capital are busy but well ordered - though if you are a nervous cyclist you might prefer to avoid rush hour on the ABC Highway that acts as the Bridgetown by-pass.

Even if you last took to two wheels some decades ago, the size and shape of Barbados makes it eminently bike-able: rides are available for all sizes and shapes of cyclists. If you are based at one of the resorts on the south or west coasts, a bike is the ideal way to explore the world beyond the beds, beaches and bars. But trust me: the deeper you explore, the more you will appreciate the dimensions of this delicious island.

If you listen to some of the propaganda (possibly put out by the St Lucians?), you might arrive expecting to find that Barbados has but two dimensions, that the whole island is as flat as a punctured rear tyre. Wrong, as you discover as soon as you head inland from the coast. The landscape rolls onwards and upwards in a series of increasingly scenic folds.

One trick is to gain altitude early, before the sun takes full command of the day. Every foot of altitude gained before noon will reward you after lunch. Just as important, though, is to take it easy. If your usual cycle ride at home does not include swishing along a lane hemmed in by sugar cane as high as the sky, or swerving through forests of the deepest green, you have to wake up and smell the countryside: an intoxicating aroma of fruitfulness.

You also need to stop often, to talk to the people along the way. In the part of the island known as Scotland, this was easy. The steep gradients mean that the repertoire of my bike's three gears were soon exhausted. To avoid the same fate, I took to dismounting early and often. Almost every time, a local would fall into step beside me, offering a word of encouragement or a vignette about the village to which I was slowly ascending. Cycling and walking are the most human forms of transport, and the hills of north-eastern Barbados make it easy to combine the two.

By late afternoon, I was well up in the altitude reckoning. During the course of the day I had probably climbed, in total, about a mile - but the sum of descents left me with a good few hundred feet in the bank of potential energy. So I took the weight off my feet and floated down to Bridgetown, massaged by the rush of warm air. The sounds of the animal world waking up after a collective afternoon snooze drowned out the whirr of the wheels, as the lights of the capital began to twinkle on. One problem: having experienced the exhilaration of a fast, fun descent into a Caribbean sunset, the ride home from work is even more of a slog.

Simon Calder

You can rent a bike from various locations, such as Flex Bicycle Tours and Rentals (001 246 231 1518; flexbikes@barbados.org). Some hotels offer guests free use of mountain bikes. Organised rides are available from companies such as Highland Adventure Centre (001 246 438 8069), which offers a 90-minute tour in the Scotland District; the route is designed to be 85 per cent downhill

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