Take up the challenge of scuba diving and find a whole new world waiting for you
Fancy trying a sport that will give you a massive adrenaline buzz without exhausting you, will allow you too see parts of the world that few have visited and will make you look pretty cool too? Scuba diving might just fit the bill, and right now there are some fantastic diving holiday offers available for those willing to dip their toes in the water.
There is nothing quite like the sensation of diving your first coral reef, or seeing a shipwreck appear out of the gloom, or even glimpsing your first shark. Once you put on your diving mask, strap on your jacket and scuba tank and jump into the water you’ll find a while new world of discovery. And it really does feel like a whole new world, with a wealth of different seascapes and topography, from the shipwreck littered coast of the UK to the cavernous springs of Mexico, to the fish-packed reefs of Egypt – we haven’t even mentioned the Great Barrier Reef yet!
Ever since Captain Jacques Cousteau first popularised the sport in the 1950s following the invention of the Aqualung in the 1940s, scuba diving has become an increasingly popular and accessible sport. That said, potential divers are sometimes put off by what is perceived to be complex equipment and a lengthy time involved in qualifying; but they shouldn’t be – the kit is not at all difficult to use and qualifying as a diver takes only a few days. The typical course will involve some theoretical work, followed by learning skills in a swimming pool and then finally your open water dives. You could compare it to a first ski holiday in which you will spend a few hours a day in ski school. Once qualified, the world truly is your oyster and you can start to explore the wonderful world beneath the seas.
Which training agency?
You’ll find a number of different training agencies around the world, but the two dominant providers in the UK are PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors www.padi.com) and BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club www.bsac.com). The two take a different approach to training. PADI takes a commercial view, the emphasis being on producing qualified divers in a short period of time using uniform training materials and methods. You will pay a set amount for your course and can expect to qualify within a few days.
BSAC, in contrast, is a membership organisation in which you join a branch of a club and will do your training typically at a slower pace over several weeks. All instructors are volunteers and while the training methods are standard, there is more scope for differences between branches.
Both agencies have their strengths. If you wish to take your time with your training and want the supportive framework of a club, then BSAC has much to offer. PADI is perhaps more flexible in allowing you to do the training when and within a period of your choosing. That said, there are significant number of dive centres which also offer BSAC training as part of the BSAC schools system – so you can complete BSAC training in a much quicker time through a dive centre or shop and then go on to join a club if you wish. Many people elect to do what is known as a ‘referral’ course in which they do all the theory and pool skills at a local dive centre and then complete their training with open water dives at their holiday destination. There is also scope to do e-learning for certain parts of the course.
What will I learn?
We’re not going to give you a mini course here, but the sorts of things you’ll be looking at will be the effect of pressure and nitrogen on the body, how to read decompression tables, how to clear air spaces in your ears and sinuses, the effects of buoyancy, setting up and using your equipment, safety, basic sign language, and skills for recovering your regulator and clearing your mask. It can sound like a daunting list, but training is broken up into bite-size chunks and few people fail to qualify as divers.
What kit will I use?
Your equipment will change depending on where you choose to dive – for instance, in colder water you will use a drysuit rather than a wetsuit. Here, we have listed the type of kit you would need in a tropical/subtropical location such as the Red Sea. Initially, you will probably choose to rent the equipment from our chosen dive centre or club, but it is worth considering investing in a mask and snorkel as your first purchase of scuba equipment.
Mask: allows you to see clearly
Fins: help to propel you through the water
Snorkel: lets you swim at the surface while conserving your breathing gas
Regulator: provides you with air from cylinder at the correct pressure
Octopus/alternate air source: a second mouthpiece that can be used by you or your buddy in case of emergency
Cylinder: contains compressed air for you to breathe during your dive
BCD: a jacket that attaches to your air cylinder and allows you to control your buoyancy so that you can move up or down
Wetsuit: keeps you insulated during your dive
Submersible Pressure Gauge: tells you how much air remains in your cylinder so that you can monitor your consumption and complete the dive with a sufficient amount in reserve
What will I see?
Go to the right places and you’ll see some amazing sights. Forget land safaris, underwater you get to see big animals up close – sea turtles, seals, manta rays, whale sharks. And it’s not necessarily a case of having to travel far to have a fantastic encounter – wherever you live the chances are that you are not as far as you may think from some excellent diving. Take, for instance, the UK which is far from being a stereotypical warm-water diving destination. Here, you can dive with seals and basking sharks as well as seeing historical wrecks. Head to popular destinations such as the Red Sea and you’ll find coral reefs are packed full of fish as well as a multitude of corals, and you’ll see multicoloured sea slugs, spotted moray eels and all sorts of crustaceans. See overleaf for our pick of some of the most popular learn to dive destinations.
WHERE TO DIVE
Those often grey waters off our shores may surprise you – there’s an abundance of life waiting to be discovered. Admittedly, it’s colder than the destinations listed above, but most divers in the UK use drysuits, which keeps them suitably insulated during dives. You don’t get the abundant coral reefs of the tropics but there are plenty of compensations – rich walls of anemones, historic shipwrecks and there is also the chance to see larger species such as seals and basking sharks.
In the southeast of England here are large numbers of shipwrecks – a legacy of the busy boat traffic through the English Channel. That said, these wrecks can be deep and visibility can be limited. A better bet for the new diver lies further west around Portland in Dorset and in Cornwall, where you’ll find clear waters, plenty of fish life and wrecks within a comfortable diving range. HMS Scylla off Whitsand Bay in Cornwall is the perfect diver playground – a frigate purposely sunk in 2004 to create an artificial reef. And if you make a trip to the nearby Isles of Scilly, you’ll find a sub-tropical haven of clear water and pristine white beaches. Underwater there are sheer walls covered with colourful jewel anemones, fan corals and sponges.
At Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel you can have fantastic encounters with seals, which will come up to and play with you like puppies. Further north in Wales there are some good dives with many species at the extent of their northern limits. Across the water in Northern Ireland is Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the British isles and packed with wrecks and a wide variety of fish.
Scotland’s west coast has become a magnet for UK divers attracted by clear waters, rich marine life and fascinating underwater topography. These waters offer the chance to see dolphins and basking sharks (the world’s second biggest shark is a gentle giant which feeds on a diet of plankton). The Scottish sea lochs are also popular with divers, but for those prepared to make the trip north out to the Orkney Islands a bigger treat awaits. Scapa Flow is a stretch of water that is home to the German High Seas fleet which was scuttled following the First World War. Here you’ll see historic cruisers and battleships covered with marine life – it’s a wreck diver’s dream.
The UK’s east coast is perhaps less popular with divers, but there are some standout destinations such as the Farnes Islands in Northumberland where you’ll see puffins above the water and seals underneath. St Abbs in Berwickshire is another east coast highlight where you’ll find all sorts of interesting native species from wizened-looking wolf-fish to large kelp forests.
A real value-for-money destination, particularly for European-based divers, the Maltese islands boast some of the best scuba sites in the Mediterranean. Year-round diving (although can get a little chilly in the winter winds), sunshine and jaw-droppingly clear waters, the limestone islands are perfectly equipped to cater for all levels of divers. It’s a particularly good choice for first-timers.
Located at the very centre of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese archipelago is 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles from the North African coast. Overfishing in the region has created a noticeable absence of marine life, nevertheless, what it lacks in creatures, it makes up for with great shipwrecks and open caves. While many of the larger, more famous shipwrecks lie in depths beyond a learners limit, there are still plenty of smaller sunken vessels to explore in shallow water and there are numerous reefs close to shore perfect for first dives. There are lots of competitively priced flights running everyday from various places in Europe, including UK, to the main island of Malta. This means you can opt for short or long stays; whatever suits your holiday diary and finances. There is also a huge range of tourist accommodation, including luxury spa hotels. Malta is not a traditional style holiday destination – there are few beaches and it is fairly built up with many historical buildings and apartments – but this does mean divers are not battling for space with the bucket and spade brigade.
While the standard of the dive centres around Malta and Gozo is excellent, it is worth sticking to those approved by Malta’s Professional Diving Schools Association (www.pdsa.org.mt)
Tropical warm water corals off the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland; cage diving with great white sharks off South Australia; whale shark and dolphin encounters of Western Australia; shipwrecks aplenty off Victoria; and the cold kelp water forests of Tasmania, Australia offers just about every type of scuba diving adventure imaginable.
By far the greatest concentration of divers is found along Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s biggest single living organism and is visible from space. The World Heritage protected marine park coral reef system covers around 345,000 square kilometres and is estimated to be home to around 1,500 different species of fish, more than 400 types of hard coral, one third of the world’s soft coral, 134 species of sharks and rays, six species of marine turtle and more than 30 species of marine mammals, including the extremely rare dugong. Cairns, the main gateway to the reef, is the scuba training capital of the Great Barrier Reef. As a general rule, learners complete all their pool work at the centres in Cairns and then head out to the reef on a two to three-day liveaboard excursion to complete their sea dives in the open ocean. For a little more rainforest luxury and space, Port Douglas, one hour’s drive north of Cairns is worth considering as an alternative base for taking the plunge into scuba.
Diving is possible across the entire coast of Australia and generally there are a number of diving centres offering open water courses in major coastal towns, most notably on the eastern coast. Although not so well known for scuba, it’s worth exploring the diversity of more temperate waters, including the surprising abundance of underwater life of places such as Sydney and Melbourne.
Scuba diving is a popular activity in Thailand on both the east and west coast of the country. In fact, the country claims one of the highest concentrations of dive centres in the Asia Pacific region.
In diving terms, Thailand is split between two seas: the shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the deep, current-abundant, nutrient-rich waters of the Andaman Sea to the west. While the reefs on both sides of the country share common marine species, the underwater topography on each side is distinct.
Part of the Indian Ocean, the Andaman Sea extends from Burma to Thailand’s north to beyond the Malaysian border in the south. Variety of life, shipwrecks, combined with good visibility and an excellent change of encounters with some big creatures, such as manta rays and whale sharks, makes the west coast a pull for scuba visitors.
By far the highest concentration of divers on the west coast can be found on the island of Phuket, which acts as the main gateway for liveaboards heading to the nearby Similan Islands and further north to Burmese waters. Other excellent diving hotspots along the west coast include Koh Lanta, Khoa Lak and Krabi. All destinations are well equipped for the needs of newbie divers, with courses running all year round.
Koh Tao is generally the area of choice for those wishing to learn on the east coast’s Gulf of Thailand as it offers something for every level of diver. While the reefs of the Gulf of Thailand are not as varied as those of the Andaman Sea, as the waters are shallower and as a result attract fewer nutrients, marine life is still prolific. As well as colourful reef fish, turtles are plentiful and there is always a chance of seeing large rays, barracuda and reef sharks. Diving is accessible all year round, however, weather changes around November often causes choppy seas and a drop in visibility underwater.
It’s worth noting the regulations in Thailand and southeast Asia are, as a general rule, not as strictly enforced as they are in other destinations, such as Australia, Caribbean or Red Sea, so it is always a good idea to shop around for reputable centres rather than be attracted solely by the price of courses.
The Egyptian Red Sea is a popular diving destination for European-based divers, as its warm tropical coral reefs and year-round sunshine are just a five-hour flight away.
The two main resorts for dive tourism are Sharm el Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula and Hurghada on the Egyptian mainland. Following three decades of experience of catering to diving enthusiasts, predominantly Europeans, the towns are the perfect models of successful scuba tourism.
The Red Sea is ideal for learners, providing a calm, clear and warm environment in which to be introduced to the underwater world. Most centres employ multi-lingual scuba instructors who teach open water courses over a three to five day period.
From Sharm el Sheikh, you have access to world-class dive locations, such as the Ras Mohammed National Park, Straits of Tiran and the famous shipwreck, SS Thistlegorm. Hurghada offers access to numerous local coral gardens often visited by wild dolphins as well as the fantastic wreck diving opportunities of the nearby Abu Nuhas reef system.
Less well-known areas offering great diving away from the crowds include: El Gouna, Safaga and Marsa Alam. These areas are all specifically built for tourists, particularly aimed at the more luxurious end of the tourist market.
In recent years Egypt has been the victim of a number of terrorist attacks – visitors should seek the latest travel advice at www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/egypt
While plenty of excellent dive sites can be accessed from shore and by day boats, for the true aficionado nothing can beat a liveaboard trip. A liveaboard is a dive boat in which divers typically spend a week travelling around various dive sites. There is onboard accommodation and usually a dining room, sun deck and diving platform. The great advantage of diving from a boat that you are staying on is that between dives and sometimes overnight, boats can cruise to the next destination. This means you can get to top sites earlier than the crowds and that you can visit more remote destinations. In addition, a trip on a liveaboard has something of an expeditionary feel about it, with groups of divers usually bonding very quickly. That said, it’s an expedition in luxurious surroundings – modern liveaboards have to offer the very best in accommodation and services. Most boats will offer at least three dives a day and often the chance to do a night dive, but you can pick and choose which dives you do. Depending on the boat and your location, you will enter the water from the diving platform on the liveaboard itself or in some cases a small tender or RIB (rigid inflatable boat) will be used to access sites that the larger liveaboard cannot reach and in places such as the Maldives dhonis (a separate boat that carries all the dive kit and compressor) are used.
Liveaboards can be found all over the world, but are particularly popular in the Red Sea and the Maldives, where the boats can go large distances to find the very best dive sites. Shop around and you will find that there are often several itineraries to choose from. For instance in the Red Sea, you can choose to visit the offshore reefs and islands of the south or do a wreck tour of the north.
Dive Worldwide www.diveworldwide.com
Scuba Tours www.scubascuba.com
Scuba Travel www.scubatravel.co.uk