Icy water trickles into the neck of my dry suit. My teeth begin to chatter. Just five more minutes and I hope to successfully use my compass to navigate to the sunken wreck. Admittedly, it isn’t a Spanish galleon with a cargo of gold and silver coins, but a 1999 Volvo estate with a few wheels missing. But as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. And finding this old car would complete my fourth and final training dive — meaning I’d passed my PADI Open Water Diver course.
After 10 more minutes, I admit defeat and give the thumbs-up to my instructor to signal we need to head for the surface. Little do I realise that I have indeed passed. And found the Volvo. I just hadn’t seen it. Visibility was so bad I could barely see my hand in front of my face.
Welcome to the world of diving — in a lake in Kent in the middle of a bleak British winter.
Since then, I’ve clocked close to 50 dives around the world and realised there are far more agreeable locations to feel the euphoric experience of floating weightlessly in water. Places where you can see up to 30 metres in front of you and fin for hours in the tiniest swimsuit without feeling the slightest chill. On dives such as these, it’s been hard to keep an eye on the clock (and air tank). Time ticks by as swiftly as a tropical fish darting in front of your mask — after all, it’s easy to be entranced when a graceful manta ray glides and soars majestically above you.
But while some wannabe divers still complete the entire course — theory, pool dives and open water dives — in the UK, a large majority opt to take it abroad.
Dive holiday specialist Regaldive offers more than 20 destinations around the world, with popular learn-to-dive hotspots including Egypt, Malta and Gozo, the Caribbean, Bali, Thailand and the Maldives. “Most of our clients choose to learn to dive in the Egyptian Red Sea,” says marketing manager Jane Herbert. “It offers crystal-clear warm waters, year-round sunshine, fantastic marine life, award-winning dive schools and great value for money — all just four hours’ flying time from home.”
Many beginners opt to complete the theory element before they go. After all, who wants to waste precious holiday time in the classroom when they can do it on a comfy sofa at home?
PADI allows beginners to enrol in Open Water Diver Online, its eLearning option, or use PADI Open Water Diver Touch, a tablet app, and do this section at home, rather than at a dive centre. By completing this, and your pool dives, in the UK, you can fly into a resort with only four open water dives outstanding. That means in just a couple of days, you’ll be able to dive to depths of 18 metres, exploring the ocean with your buddy (a safety procedure, whereby divers pair up to minimise risk).
Diving holidays, like many group activities, are a great way to meet new people. “The camaraderie of being on the dive boat with like-minded souls makes a diving trip ideal for those travelling on their own,” says Jane. “The buddy system means you make instant friends, sometimes for life.”
Regaldive’s clients, however, aren’t always travelling solo. Many are couples, families and groups — of all ages, shapes and sizes. “Diving is for pretty much everyone,” says Jane. “We have clients ranging from eight to 80 years of age.”
There’s a growing trend for divers, once certified, to book a liveaboard trip. These fully-equipped boats with cabins enable passengers to reach remote destinations far from the crowds — and dive three or four times a day, often waking up in a different location each morning. They also give the opportunity to swim alongside a huge range of sealife, particularly large pelagics (open-water fish). This was certainly the case when I dived from a liveaboard on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and ended up taking photos of potato cod up to two metres in length.
According to PADI, most new divers want to see turtles, dolphins and manta rays, although the dizzying array of underwater species means novices are rarely disappointed, even if this maritime Big Three fail to show up. Nilima Marshall, 32, who learnt to dive last year, tells me, “It was enchanting to see parrotfish, sea cucumbers, fireworms and bright orange starfish. I felt like I’d stepped into the technicolour world of Finding Nemo.
“Initially I was nervous. My biggest fear was how I’d manage my breathing, but once I started to get the hang of it, it was so much fun. I realised the slower you move, the better. And I actually found the feeling of weightlessness quite relaxing. It’s probably one of the most exciting yet relaxing adventure sports I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to go back.”
Admittedly, some beginners are concerned about sharks, even though few attacks on divers have been recorded and diving is statistically safer than cycling. Conversely, many other divers are keen to learn to dive with these fearsome fish. While I don’t have an irresistible urge to dive with predators such as great whites, I have to say I’m fascinated when a baby shark makes an impromptu appearance. Far from being afraid, I’m overcome by a curious temptation to start finning for a closer look. It’s surprising what happens beneath the waves.
Five easy steps into deep water
Diving is generally a safe and relaxing sport, but you need to be a competent swimmer and relatively fit and healthy, free from any respiratory and circulatory problems, and certainly not pregnant. Before you sign up to a course, download a medical questionnaire from PADI’s website to ensure you’re OK to dive. Be aware that children can take a PADI Bubble maker course — diving to a depth of up to two metres — at the age of eight, but typically have to be over 10 years old to gain Open Water Diver certification. There’s no upper limit, and it’s common to see people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s still taking the plunge.
02 Take a test dive
If you’ve always wanted to try scuba diving, you can book a free 30-minute PADI Try Dive or a one-day PADI Discover Scuba Diving Experience (around £60) before you commit to a full certification course. PADI dive shops offer this programme, either in a pool, off a beach or from a dive boat. A PADI professional will teach you how to use the dive equipment in the shallows. Use PADI’s online Dive Shop Locator to find a PADI-certified dive centre — this way you’ll know equipment is tightly regulated and instructors are fully qualified.
03 Choose the right course
If you want to explore the underwater world once or twice a year, you could take the two-day PADI Scuba Diver (from £140), which allows you to dive up to 12 metres with a Divemaster. But if you’re serious, it’s better to opt for the four- to five-day Open Water Diver course (from £215), enabling you to dive with any qualified diver to a maximum of 18 metres. The course consists of five theory and five pool sessions, plus four open water dives.
04 Do your homework
Many people opt to take a PADI Open Water Referral Course, taking theory sections and pool dives in the UK, leaving just open water dives to be completed abroad. While the dives will be scheduled at a local dive centre, you can complete the theory section at home — simply enrol in the Open Water Diver Online, PADI’s eLearning option, or use Open Water Diver Touch, a tablet app. Taking just the theory sections at home in the UK — PADI Open Water Fastrack — is another popular way of cutting down classroom time when on holiday, enabling you to qualify in just three days in-resort.
05 Dive right
Ideally, beginners want the water to have high visibility, and be warm and calm, free from any currents and choppy waves. Some resorts have ‘house reefs’, which you can reach from the shore. Others require a short trip in a boat. If you’re flying, you should wait a certain amount of time after diving before boarding the plane to allow your body to safely decompress: 12 hours for single dives, and 18-24 hours for multiple dives. Ideally, also allow some pre-dive flight recovery time, so you can rehydrate, rest and eat before taking the plunge.
DIVE – The World’s Best Diving Locations, by Lawson Wood. RRP: £16.99 (Quercus).
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)