WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE... BUT WHERE DO I START?
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE... BUT WHERE DO I START?
Once the preserve of playboy adventurers, scuba diving is now one of the planet's fastest-growing and most accessible adventure sports activities. Package holidays incorporating training programmes, five-star dive resorts and luxury yachts have transformed the world of bearded, gadget-laden SAS types into a user-friendly, leisure activity.
Many first-time divers, before they get in the water, begin by conquering a set of ill-informed fears: sharks; an unknown bottomless pool of inky water; air supplies running out. Usually, after the first dive, it all changes - a transforming, safe, introduction to the serenity and beauty of the sub-aqua world.
In more practical terms, many dive schools offer, for a small charge, what are known as "try dives". These often take place, with strict guidance, in a shallow swimming pool, offering the novice a chance to feel what it is like to be able to breathe and equalise underwater using scuba (which stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) equipment before they commit to a full training programme.
I LIKE IT BENEATH THE WAVES - WHAT NEXT?
Before choosing a dive school it's important to find out which training organisation suits you. There are two main organisations in the UK.
The largest international instruction body is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), a worldwide organisation that has developed a simple training programme that is designed to get you in the water as quickly as possible. At most PADI dive schools you'll be able to rent equipment - the basic Open Water PADI qualification will allow you to scuba dive, under the supervision of a Dive Master, virtually anywhere in the world. There are PADI schools throughout the UK. Most operate referral programmes allowing you to complete your Open Water qualification by doing the pool and classroom elements in the UK and finishing with three requisite dives at any PADI school worldwide. If the occasional holiday dive is your thing, PADI is a great route into diving. For more information, see www.padi.com.
The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) is the UK's national governing diving body. BSAC training programmes have an admirable reputation for excellence that is borne from diving in the cold, difficult waters of the UK. BSAC is built upon a club structure that requires a level of commitment most holiday divers would baulk at. After you've reached the basic level (Ocean Diver), you are expected to buy all your own equipment (see box below for cost) and share skills with newer members. BSAC training, at a club level, is free to members - there are 1,500 BSAC clubs all over the UK (0500 947202; www.bsac.com) with many offering low-cost try dives (from £5).
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
Milton Keynes-based Dive Central (0870 770 9799; www.divecentral.co.uk) specialises in dive equipment (you can order online) and in BSAC and PADI courses. Open Water/Ocean Diver qualifications are £350, including equipment; £125 for dry suit training; try dives £20 or free when signed up to a course; referrals available.
Ocean Leisure (020-7930 5050; www.oceanleisure.co.uk) is a five-star PADI dive centre in London that has a purpose-built training centre. It costs £350 for Open Water; £25 for a try dive; referrals are available.
HANG ON, I WANT WARM, BLUE SEAS, CORALS, PRETTY FISH...
From the murky, water-filled quarries of the Midlands through to the tepid, transparent Caribbean, where there's water there are divers. With two-thirds of the planet covered in the wet stuff, the problem is in choosing your spot.
If your budget is limited, try the Egyptian Red Sea. Excellent facilities, warm water, a good range of marine life, clear visibility and high safety standards make this a popular place for UK divers of all descriptions - and it's a great place to learn. There are numerous "Liveaboards" (see box below) and dozens of exceptional schools - BSAC and PADI are both represented here. In addition, flying time is relatively short (five hours) and many package deals are available with reputable British dive specialists - Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; www.diveworldwide.com) offers seven nights, including 12 shore dives, meals, accommodation, flights from £695 and learning-to-dive packages including a full PADI Open Water course from £799; Regal Diving (0870 2201777; www.regal-diving.co.uk) offers seven-night Liveaboards from £615, including accommodation, meals, flights and three or four dives a day.
For those with cash to burn, the Cayman Islands offer top-end facilities and some of the best dive conditions on the planet. Stunning turquoise seas, exquisite coral beds and reefs stuffed with a plethora of exotic marine life complete the picture. Harlequins Holidays (01708 850330; www.harlequindiving.com) offers seven nights, room only, including flights and transfers from £1,100; with three dives a day, at £58 per person. Other good starting points are Malta, the Maldives, Thailand and Australia - contact the tour operators listed above for more details.
BSAC run a Travel Club ( www.bsactravelclub.co.uk) that has good offers for BSAC members - up to 10 per cent off the brochure price of many leading diving tour operators including those listed above. The Travel Club's website boasts great search facilities that can even tell you where to find specific fish, a global water temperature guide and a comprehensive list of international BSAC schools and resorts. Subscriptions to the website are free.
Remember, when you've mastered the basics and are arranging any diving trips: always ask the age of the equipment; do your own safety and equipment checks (any BSAC or PADI dive manual will take you through the basics); and check the student to instructor ratio - six is a good limit. Finally, your last day on a diving trip should be spent re-acclimatising to sea level pressures to avoid problems with decompression. The golden rule is: no flying within 24 hours of your last dive.
THAT'S FINE, I HATE FLYING - WHAT'S GOOD IN THE UK?
The UK boasts superb training facilities and schools but does lack the one thing that most novice divers hanker after - warm waters. However, if you've been bitten by the diving bug, the UK has some world-class dive spots. If you want to be comfortable in the cooler waters, you will need to learn to use a dry-suit - both PADI and BSAC provide dry-suit training.
"For me, the top spot in the UK has to be just off Land's End at a dive site known as Long Ships," says Charlie Hood, senior correspondent for DIVE magazine. "It has the best visibility in the UK, reasonably warm waters and superb marine life. Pods of dolphins, vast shoals of bass and mackerel, rays, a resident grey seal colony and a huge variety of anemones are the regular attractions. I've also seen loggerhead turtles, basking sharks and blue sharks." Land's End Diving (01736 787567; www.landsend-diving.co.uk) can take qualified divers there from £32 per dive, including equipment .
Other excellent UK dive sites include the sunken German fleet at Scapa Flow: Orkney-based Scapa Scuba (01856 851218; www.scapascuba.co.uk) offers guided dives for qualified divers including equipment and boat fees for £50. Or try the West of Scotland, particularly the wrecks and marine life off the Isle of Mull: Oban-based Puffin (01631 566088; www.puffin.org.uk) offers dives for qualified divers for £33 including equipment. Or there's HMS Scylla, which was purpose-sunk recently just off Plymouth Sound: Aquanauts (01752 228825, www.aquanauts.co.uk) offers guided dives for qualified divers including equipment and boat fee for £45 and PADI wreck speciality courses for £195.
ESSENTIAL DIVE TERMS AND EQUIPMENT
Start by buying your own logbook, fins, mask and snorkel then move onto wetsuit and dive computer before finally buying expensive items such as BCD, dry suits and regulators.
Logbook: You will need a record of all your dives, usually signed and stamped by your instructor or Dive Master, in order to progress up the training pyramid - from £5.
Dive tables: A set of simple-to-use mathematical equations that allow a diver to work out how long they must wait between dives and what depth it is safe to dive to. Most dive computers can work this out for you.
Mask, fins and snorkels: Never use the terms goggles and flippers in the presence of seasoned divers. Good quality masks start at £35; fins from £30; snorkels £15. Prescription masks are also available.
BCD: A Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) is an airtight, armless jacket attached to the air cylinder and worn by the diver over their wet/dry suit. The diver controls buoyancy by inflating or deflating the BCD. Prices start at £200.
Regulator: Regulates the flow of pressurised air from the cylinders into the mouth. It is made up of pipes, a valve and a mouthpiece - from £250. Most people dive with a back-up regulator known as an Octopus - from £70.
Dive computer: Will record depth, time and automatically organise dive tables. Suunto make everything from simple, watch-like devices for regular leisure divers through to complicated arrangements for serious technical divers - from £280.
Wet and dry suits: A wet suit is basically an insulator that traps a body-warmed layer of water next to the skin. A 5mm thick wetsuit is comfortable for long periods in 20C water - from £90. A dry suit is a sealed, airtight piece of kit, mainly used for diving in colder waters. It requires special training and allows the diver to remain completely dry - from £350.
Dive Master: If you have the standard Open Water PADI dive qualification you can only dive while under the supervision of a Dive Master, or higher, qualified diver.
Liveaboard: A type of holiday where you literally "live aboard" a boat designed for diving. Can be anything from an on-deck hammock through to five-star purpose-built dive yachts. Most Liveaboards will only accept divers who have done a minimum number of logged dives.
THAI DIVE: MY FIRST SCUBA
Diving has more in common with yoga than swimming. I discovered this on day two of my four-day PADI course on the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi. I had been told to float cross-legged, two feet from the ocean floor using only my breathing to keep me buoyant. While I flapped about like a harpooned octopus, my Belgian instructor, Claude, hovered in front of me as serenely as Buddha.
Back above water, he said, coolly: "You'll get the hang of it." I wasn't so sure: it had taken me all of the previous day just to perfect the art of clearing water from my mask by snorting through my nostrils.
Later came the rehearsal of a terrifying scenario in which my "buddy", Eliot, and I had to share the same breathing apparatus in something called an assisted ascent. Your natural instinct in this scenario is to panic, but panic means injury or death, and so you have to learn self-control. All of this while adjusting to the surreal sensation of breathing under water.
Then there was the ignominy of waddling around the shallows in heavy diving gear and flippers surrounded by sunbathers: it takes two days of shoreline shame before you're ready for the deeps.
But once we'd mastered the basics, and our heads were packed with life-saving acronyms such as BCD (buoyancy control device), AAS (alternative air source) and BWRAF (buoyancy, weights, releases, air, final OK - the PADI safety checks), it was time for the open water.
All self-consciousness and fear bubbled away as we sank towards the sea bed beneath Koh Pida Nok, a limestone outcrop a short boat ride from Phi Phi. The underwater world transformed us from ungainly frogmen into sleek, weightless sea creatures. The yoga kicked in: arms were folded loosely up by the chest to stop them flapping about, and our BCDs helped us up over delicate coral and down into canyons 18 metres below sea level.
Hovering like alien spacecrafts - and praying we wouldn't make any clumsy mistakes over this pristine world - we watched clown fish dart in and out of silky anemones, imagined the aquatic parp of a trumpet fish, peered into open clam shells and glided over the lattice-work of table coral.
Claude used hand signals to point out ghost pipe fish, a bandit sea snake, yellow-and-black angel fish, a boxer-jawed trigger fish, an exotic-maned lion fish, a porcupine fish, a harlequin sweetlip and the pièce de résistance: a slumbering leopard shark. Following Claude's lead, we sat Buddha-like (we'd nearly mastered that position) beside the six-foot beast's head. Suddenly it made a snake-like swish of its tail that sent a cold bolt of fear right through me, and disappeared into the blue.
Forty minutes into the dive, Eliot and I checked our air to discover we were nearly out. Our hearts were pounding, and we'd started sucking air greedily. It clearly takes greater yogic skills to maximise what divers call "bottom time". But we still had one more day to try to improve on that.