Forget the fruit machines and roulette wheels, Julie Morrissey decided to play the diving card in the Nevada desert
Las Vegas does not spring immediately to mind when planning a diving holiday. Its situation in the middle of a desert would appear to pose a problem. However, Lake Mead, 20 miles south-east, offers possibilities. My vow is that every holiday will contain a 'diving day', no matter how unlikely the destination. Diving Vegas seemed a natural challenge. Information in the mainstream guidebooks being predictably thin, I turned to the ultimate travel guidebook - the Internet. Keying in 'Las Vegas + diving' produced 4000 articles, ranging from the extremely weird ('ALT.SEX with your Octopus') to the extremely useful. Among the latter was the website of Neptune Divers, a school with shops in Las Vegas and Henderson, a city just south of Las Vegas airport. In fact there are eight dive shops listed in the Las Vegas telephone directory, most of them offering tuition and gear rental. Phoning Las Vegas from the UK is as easy as making a local call, only the line is clearer and the person at the other end helpful and polite. Arranging a day's diving at Neptune Divers took about two minutes. A minor disappointment was that Neptune's chief instructor was off diving in Mexico, so I couldn't do the Altitude Diver Speciality. I had figured this to be dead rare, and that people back in the UK would gasp in awe when I mentioned it. In fact they had just looked at me strangely. Instead I arranged the Peak Performance Buoyancy Course, which was probably just as well as it turned out. Neptune charges $90 for the course, plus $40 for gear if required. Henderson suffers something of an identity crisis on account of its larger, more glamorous neighbour. It lacks the high-rise hotels and theme parks of Las Vegas but shares its penchant for scattering slot machines and casinos everywhere. The continuous 'ching-ching-ching' of the machines produced in me a condition called 'Casino Fever'. Its symptoms are mad, staring eyes and an emaciated wallet. Neptune Divers is easily located on West Sunset, the main road into Henderson. A typical dive emporium, it is full of things you didn't know existed but soon realise you can't live without - especially as kit here costs in numbers of dollars what it costs in pounds in the UK. Restrained by my meagre, hand-baggage-only travel policy, I had to content myself with fondling various BCs and sighing wistfully. Owner Dwight Tarter is a typically laid-back Nevadan, complete with tan, cut-off shorts and 'Life's a beach and then you dive' T-shirt. So are the instructors, Don and Greg. My diving knowledge checked, I went off to pick up kit. That took five minutes, but the waiver forms took 20. Americans take waiving their rights seriously. I believe I ended up waiving not only mine but also those of as yet unborn generations. Mind you, in a country where people who get completely ratted before driving their cars into bus queues of pensioners can sue the barman who served them, I guess you can't be too careful. We headed off to the Lake in Don's pick-up. It is a 20-minute ride from Henderson and we stopped to pick up lunch and water on the way. Nevada is hot, and even 1000m up at Lake Mead you need water, believe me. With a massive length of shoreline and up to 300m depth in parts, the lake offers room for everyone. Diving and canoeing are segregated from motorised activities and there is a separate 'canoe and scuba park' from which to launch. I had never put on a wetsuit in temperatures of 28?C before, but with the water at a fairly chilly 16*C it was unavoidable. On the point of becoming a boil-in-the-bag diver, I waited in the back of the pick-up until the last moment, then ran down the beach to fling myself gratefully into the water. All divers are required to use a surface marker buoy, and there were a few bobbing about that day. Greg told me it could get pretty busy on a weekend or holiday, but never enough to cause problems. Underwater visibility was generally around 6 or 7m until anyone touched bottom, when a cloud of silt would reduce it to zero. By the second dive I was starting to get the hang of things, and we moved onto the 'obstacle course', a series of weighted diamond-shaped hoops suspended at various levels under water so that divers can swim through them without touching. This being Las Vegas, we had a bet on the outcome. Fortunately I was not held to it, or I would have been hitching home. We finished with a leisurely swim back to the Scuba Park, eyeballing the marine life on the way. The lake is stocked mostly with catfish and bass, and the fish are obviously not as stupid as they look, as they seem to hang out round the scuba park, where they are safe from anglers. De-kitting in the baking sun made a pleasant change from the British-style scramble for warm clothes and hot drinks; T-shirts and cold beers are de rigeur in the Nevada desert.
Julie Morrissey dived with Neptune Divers, 600 West Sunset, 103 Henderson NV 89105, tel. (00) 702-564 5253/6323