Dive in and enjoy the life aquatic

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Taking the plunge is easier than it might seem, with a range of enticing locations where you can learn the basics of scuba diving, from Red Sea resorts to idyllic Indonesian islands. Matt Barr explains

What's the attraction?

Since legendary underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau invented the aqualung in 1942 there's been a revolution in recreational diving – and the lure of exploring crystal-clear water in far-flung locations, with exotic marine life for company and shipwrecks as a playground, has never been stronger.

Today, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) is the world's leading scuba-diving training association, with more than 135,000 members worldwide. (The organisation is close to the 20 million mark for certified divers worldwide.) The Padi Open Water qualification is the most popular course for new divers. The first two days of the Open Water qualification – called a referral – are spent in the swimming pool, with some theory in the classroom. The last two days cover four dives at an open-water training site. On completion of the Open Water course, you are qualified to dive with a buddy to a maximum depth of 18m (60ft), and free to explore the world's many thousands of spectacular dive sites at your leisure, although if you want to undertake any wreck dives you'll need to take the Padi Wreck Diver course. For more information and prices go to www.padi.com (or call 0117 300 7234).

The British Sub Aqua club (0151 350 6200; www.bsac.com) also offers an equivalent qualification to Padi's Open Water – its Ocean Diver course is internationally recognised and combines classroom sessions with five "confined" swimming pool dives and five open-water dives. The course usually takes five days at one of BSAC's centres.

Don't sweat it...

You can, of course, do a course before leaving the UK. London's leading Padi dive centre, Diving Leisure, offers courses from beginner all the way through to instructor. It is a "five- star" dive centre, meaning it has achieved strict service and business standards. Situated near Clapham Junction, Diving Leisure (020-7924 4106; www.divingleisurelondon.co.uk) offers a weekend Padi Open Water course. Prices start from £249 for the weekend referral course and include all equipment hire. The open-water dives can be undertaken on your first learn-to-dive holiday. (Contact Padi on 0117 300 7234 for other regional offers.)

Bet on red

The Red Sea has long been a hot-spot for diving holidays. Dahab, 90km north of Egypt's Sharm-el-Sheikh, is a world-class dive location with some of the region's most unspoilt reefs, plus the opportunity to dive with turtles, manta rays and sea horses. Longwood Holidays (0844 770 4905; www.longwoodholidays.co.uk) offers dive holidays to Dahab. One week staying at the Hilton Dahab Resort starts from £935, including return flights from Manchester or Gatwick, half-board accommodation and the Padi Open Water course.

Alternatively, The Reef 2000 Dive Club (002 069 3640 087; www.reef 2000. com) is a Padi five-star rated dive centre at the Bedouin Moon Hotel in Dahab. Learn to dive courses at Reef 2000 start at €210 for the Padi Open Water course only.

No expense spared

If you have a vision of learning to dive while lounging around in the lap of luxury then look no further than the Eriyadu Island Resort ( www.eriyadumaldives.com) in the Maldives, a tiny atoll 45km from Male airport that can only be reached by a 55-minute speedboat ride. Eriyado Island Resort is surrounded by a fine white sand beach and crystal-clear lagoon, and the island has its own spectacular reef, buzzing with sea life.

Maldives Scuba Tours (01284 748010; www.scubascuba.com) offers seven nights on Eriyadu from £1,204 per person including return international flights from Heathrow or Gatwick with Emirates, return speedboat transfers, accommodation with half board and all diving equipment. A Padi Open Water course is available on the island with Eurodivers ( www.eurodivers. com), price £304, which includes all equipment.

Best for all-round experience

Chances are you're thinking of the Great Barrier Reef. The coral and marine life that call this 2,300km stretch of reef home attract divers from all over the world. What's more, it's great for beginners, as there are plenty of calm, protected and gentle reef sites. Mike Ball is one of Australia's dive tourism pioneers, having started introducing people to scuba diving in 1969. His "live-aboard" vessel boat Spoilsport is the perfect environment in which to get to grips with diving's bewildering array of gear, jargon and safety checks.

A one-week package starts from £1,789 including cabin, unlimited dives for the experienced, return transfers from Cairns, all meals and snacks and wine with evening meals but excluding international flights (0844 332 9396; www.holidays4scubadiving.co.uk). A range of Padi courses including Open Water run on board the boat, price £300 including all equipment.

What about Blighty?

The UK has a wealth of dive sites. Pembrokeshire in particular is a treasure trove when it comes to marine habitat, offering some of the most exciting diving in the UK, plus regular sightings of porpoises, dolphins and seals. In addition, more than 200 known wrecks scatter the coastline.

For a unique introduction, try the water around Skomer, a Marine Nature Reserve (one of only three in the UK, the others being Lundy Island and Strangford Lough). West Wales Dive Company (01437 781 457; www.westwalesdivers.co.uk) is a Padi five-star dive training school offering diving courses, snorkelling and sightseeing trips in the Pembrokeshire Waters (not including wreck diving). Prices start at £250 per person for the referral element only of the Padi Open Water course, including equipment hire.

Do it in style...

Specialist dive operator Dive In Style (020-7978 0505; www.diveinstyle.com;) offers top-end dive packages to mouth-watering locations such as Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Belize, Mozambique and the Caribbean. For example, you could take a luxury trip on the custom-designed Seven Seas, a 45m schooner which can be found plying its trade around Indonesia's 18,000 islands. The experienced crew can take you to popular dive sites such as Komodo, Wakatobi and Raja Ampat. A 10-night full-board package on the Seven Seas starts from £2,700 per person, including diving and scheduled activities, but excluding transfers and international flights.

What Google will tell you...

One of the first things you learn as a diver is that it's not safe to fly soon after completing your last dive as the difference in pressure is enough to get decompression sickness. So when is it safe to get on the plane? The US Navy ( www.navy.mil) says two hours is enough, whereas the Divers Alert Network ( www.diversalertnetwork.org) suggests you need 12 hours. Padi ( www.padi.com) also recommends 12 hours.

What Google won't tell you... until now

"The effect of light refraction under water makes things appear 25 per cent closer or 33 per cent larger than they really are, depending upon how your mind interprets the image. For instance, a fish that's actually four metres away will appear to be three metres away. New divers sometimes miss when reaching for something due to this refraction, however with experience most divers learn to correct their perception automatically."

– Claire Williamson, Marketing Manager, Padi.

Who said that?

"From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free." – Jacques Cousteau.

"You're going to voyage through a land of wonders. Stunned amazement will probably be your habitual state of mind. It will be a long while before you tire of the sights constantly before your eyes." – 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

"I can only think of one experience which might exceed in interest a few hours spent underwater, and that would be a journey to Mars." – Medal of Honor winner and marine biologist William Beebe

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