Diving - Take the plunge
I was not more than 10 or 15 feet underwater. It was calm and warm, and just a few yards from the shore off Playa del Carmen, on Mexico's Riviera Maya.And then I started to get nervous.
"What if the air stops," I thought. "How will I get to the surface?
"What if a shark suddenly appears?"
"What's that dark shape over there?"
My instructor, Henri, a Jacques Cousteau-type character with a great big grey, drooping moustache and hang-dog eyes, sensed my concern.
He took hold of my hand, looked me in my eyes and made the sign for slow breathing, like a slow, hand wave, up and down, up and down...I followed his lead and then a few seconds later my breathing stabilised, my head cleared and I looked around.
Off in the distance, the dark shape began to materialise - a turtle.
I smiled and pointed at it, and then we both swam towards it, slowly and calmly.
That was my first-ever dive and I shall never forget it.
Most people get nervous the first time they try diving - it is, after all, an unnatural situation. But with the right instructor and environment it could well be the start of a life-long love affair.
It has been for me. Since that date, I have clocked up more than 100 dives and taken numerous courses, and I am now a Master Scuba Diver, which is the highest non-professional qualification recognised by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).
Diving was once the preserve of explorers and adventurers, but it is now open to almost anyone thanks to Cousteau's invention of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (hence the acronym, scuba).
And although there are upper and lower age limits, as well as certain pre-existing health conditions that might preclude you, essentially it is accessible as a round of golf...except under water.
The key consideration when choosing where in the world to dive is to ensure that the resort is an accredited dive centre.
The three main dive associations which provide this accreditation are PADI, BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) and NAUI (National Association of Scuba Instructors).
PADI is by far the largest with presence in 180 countries and more than 5,300 dive centres and resorts worldwide. It has a wide range of courses to take you from novice to experienced diver.
BSAC is mainly confined to the UK, but has 300 overseas centres and also offers range of courses.
NAUI is the choice of US Navy Seals and NASA pilots. However it has limited presence worldwide.
A beginner course takes about three to five days (depending on resort), usually including five dives. But it is not just about jumping in the water; it also involves theory,which means sitting in a classroom learning the amount of residual nitrogen left in your body after a one-hour dive and suchlike... perhaps not the best way to spend your two weeks by the sea.
One option is to do the theory in the UK before you leave and get straight in the sea when you arrive in resort. Another is to take an online course, like a distance learning course, and you'll be ready to dive when you get there.
Some all-inclusive resort operators such as Club Med, Mark Warner, Sandals and SuperClubs include free diving, and sometimes a try-dive session. Courses cost extra but less than at other centres.
The great thing about diving is that once you have mastered the basics and you feel confident and comfortable about being in the water, the sea really is your oyster.
Here is where you can learn:
Malta is widely regarded as the best spot in the Med to learn to dive due to its spectacular underwater scenery, in particular around the island of Gozo. Greece has recently relaxed its restrictions on diving and there are also some good spots in Cyprus, the Balearics and south-eastern Spain.
However, the drawback with diving anywhere in the Med is that there is little or often nothing to see in terms of marine life or corals. Sadly, the ravages of mass fishing techniques have taken their toll.
The Red Sea
Egypt: The Red Sea Riviera, which includes the resorts of Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada and Taba, is one of the most popular places to learn to dive. It is accessible (less than five hours' flight time), reasonably- priced, well-regulated and full of accredited dive centres. The beauty of the Red Sea is the sheer number of dive sites available in a relatively small area. Probably the best place for a beginner is Sharm because the sea there is sheltered. Diving is in areas including Ras Mohammed National Park, so the corals are pristine and sea life abundant. Israel: Gentle currents, shallow waters and good visibility make Eilat ideal for learning to dive. The coast here is a marine reserve. Highlights include Japanese Gardens, a protected area near the border with Egypt with breathtaking coral formations and teeming with fish.
The Riviera Maya has all the attributes to put a beginner at ease: calm, clear and warm sea (an average of almost 27ºC year-round), the second-largest barrier reef in the world and excellent dive centres. Plus a hyperbaric (or recompression) chamber in Playa del Carmen for emergencies.
It also has another added attraction unique in the world - huge freshwater caves, known as cenotes, with crystal-clear water.
The Caribbean in general is an excellent area for the novice diver, and there are a number of stand-out places to take your first tentative steps into the underwater world.
St Lucia is top of my list. The island has all the attributes of the Riviera Maya, with one huge bonus: a reef that you can literally walk to from the shore.
A stretch of the western coastline was declared a marine reserve sanctuary 14 years ago, and since then the reef has flourished. The most accessible part is just off Anse Chastanet Beach, where Scuba St Lucia runs beginners courses.
The Bahamas is also excellent for novice divers, for the extraordinary number of sites at which to learn and its rich marine life. The Bahamas has a lot of sharks, although most are harmless.
Barbados also offers a gentle environment ideal for learner divers, although the reef here is not in the same league as that of St Lucia.
The Cayman Islands are great for learning to dive and also a real challenge for the expert. Clear waters and a shallow reef near shore suit beginners; and as all three islands are submerged mountains, there are deep walls just offshore with incredible marine life. The most famous is Little Cayman's Bloody BayWall.
Grenada is another spot perfect for both novices and experts. Most dive sites are near the shore, marine life abounds and visibility is excellent year-round. Grenada also has the Caribbean's largest shipwreck, the Bianca C.
The best place to learn in Jamaica is in the sheltered waters off Negril, a protected marine park. Other good sites are along the west and north coasts, including Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay.
Little-known Dominica has pristine coral and giant sponges, and regularly wins awards for the beauty and variety of its dive sites. It has also become known as the whale-watching capital of the Caribbean.
Other islands with excellent diving and learning facilities include Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, the Dominican Republic and the Turks & Caicos.
North America's only living coral barrier reef and the third longest barrier reef in the world lies just off the Florida Keys, and it offers the best diving in Florida. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary surrounds the entire archipelago and protects 2,800 square nautical miles. It also has several artificial reefs - wrecks sunk deliberately as havens for fish and corals - including a new one sunk in May. This stretch of coast offers frequent sightings of harmless reef sharks.
The Far East
The sheltered waters of the Gulf of Thailand, off Thailand, are one of the best places in the world to learn diving. The sea is always warm and generally calm with excellent visibility (outside of rainy season), and despite the rather lax enforcement of rules in marine reserves, the marine life is extraordinary.
The best spots for beginners are Koh Samui, which includes the Ang Thong Marine Reserve, and the Phi Phi Islands, also in a national marine park. The setting, beauty of the corals and sheer variety of fish are hard to beat. The quality of instruction is excellent, and it is also far cheaper than the Caribbean.
It's hard to beat the Maldives if you are looking to try diving for the first time. Every island is a coral atoll, so you are effectively on the reef and only have to swim a few yards from the beach. The water is bathwater-warm and the visibility is usually excellent.
Learn to dive facts
Who can dive?
Anyone from eight to 85 years old. You can't dive if you are pregnant, have sinus problems, epilepsy, chronic asthma or heart problems. It's also not advisable to dive if you have a cold.
Centres affiliated to diving organisations offer courses around the world. PADI has a Seal Team course open to eight-year-olds, which teaches them the basics of diving.At 10 years old, they can do the Junior OpenWater Diver and at 12 the Junior Advanced, both of which carry depth restrictions.
For holidaymakers curious to try it, there are two short courses available: Discover Scuba Diving, a one-day course including one pool session and one sea dive; and Scuba Diver, a two-day course with three theory sessions, two pool dives and two sea dives. All count towards the OpenWater certification.
From 15 years old, you can do the adult courses: OpenWater, Advanced, Rescue and Master. All include various speciality courses.
Dive centres will kit you out with everything, for a price. So if you plan on diving a lot it is worthwhile buying the basics: a wetsuit, fins, snorkel and mask. A dive computer is great to have but they cost £300-plus.
Before you dive
- If you don't feel 100% comfortable then don't dive.
- Talk through the dive in detail with your instructor to allay any fears you may have.
- Don't drink alcohol the night prior to a dive or have a big breakfast just before diving.
During your dive
- If you get nervous the first time, get back in again; it's always better the second time.
- Try not to think about breathing - let it happen automatically, and enjoy the view.
- Keep breathing - don't hold your breath at any point.
And remember: sharks don't attack divers - there have been no known diver fatalities from shark attacks.
- Club Med: www.clubmed.co.uk
- MarkWarner: www.markwarner.co.uk
- Sandals: www.sandals.co.uk
- SuperClubs: www.superclubs.com
- Couples: www.couples.com
Several tour operators offer holidays with diving courses. They include:
- Longwood Holidays: 020 8418 2570,www.longwoodholidays.co.uk;
- Regaldive: 01353 659 999, www.regal-diving.co.uk
- Explorers: 0871 231 4932, www.explorers.co.uk
- Peltours: 0844 225 0120, www.peltours.com
- Kuoni: 01306 747 002, www.kuoni.co.uk
- DiveWorldwide: 0845 130 6980, www.diveworldwide.com
- Barefoot Traveller: 020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com
- Goldenjoy Dive: 0871 226 8701, www.goldenjoydive.com
Explorers (now part of Thomson Holidays) has a learn-to-dive holiday with flights from £499 per person for seven nights at the Ocean Club, in Sharm el Sheikh, including PADI Scuba Diver course. For details, go to: www.explorers.co.uk/learn_to_dive.aspx
All prices and details were correct when publlshed, please check before you travel.