I HAD SPENT TIME WITH A SMALL DIVE OPERATION on a sleepy Turks & Caicos island shortly before reaching Stuart Coves dive centre in the Bahamas. The contrast could hardly have been starker.
It was like leaving the corner shop and driving up the road to a Tesco megastore.
Stuart Coves Dive South Ocean base lies on New Providence Island south-west of the capital Nassau, and it has to be well-organised, because it's throughput of boat-divers can reach 200 a day, plus snorkellers and underwater scooter-riders. Catering for so many visitors is a staff of 50-plus, including 20 instructors.
Stuart Cove is a man, not a geographical feature, and his declared mission is to get as many people under water as possible. Hes become pretty good at it.
The scale of the operation becomes apparent as you step onto the quay, which separates a narrow boat-lined channel from a row of two-storey buildings. There are nine 14m or more dive-boats, and whichever is not flying the blue flag will be moored up here, loading or unloading.
You line up to be processed. You sign the forms and move along the quay to collect whatever rental kit you might need, like a new recruit in the army.
You find your boat, you kit up, you listen to exhaustive safety briefings, you listen to the house photographer explain what he requires of you, and finally the boat leaves and you go diving.
That day we were to do four varied dives, building to a crescendo in the afternoon. Then we would collect the evidence of our adventures on DVDs - videos and stills that would remind us forever of our day in this underwater adventure playground.
All of which does sound very American, very slick and, I know for many of you, uncomfortably sanitised.
I would agree, except for one thing: it was to be one fun days diving!

THE WARM-UP DIVE is usually at one of the shallow sites atop the wall, which plunges 2000m to the Tongue of the Ocean. Sand Chute was not outstanding Caribbean reef diving by any means, and although there were plenty of hard corals and purple tube sponges, it was hardly a riot of colour. A large spiny lobster in the open at the top of the drop-off was the main diversion.
What did surprise me were the numbers of lionfish in evidence. While I always enjoy seeing these colourful wonders of nature east of Suez, they are not native to the Atlantic/Caribbean.
But they have been breeding there at an impressive rate ever since a hurricane reportedly liberated a handful from a Florida aquarium in 1992, and there have been fears that they are throwing the food-chain out of whack.
The good news, according to Paul Noakes, the staff photographer on our dive-boat, is that Nassau grouper seem to be developing a real liking for the incomers, though not in a good way if youre a lionfish. So perhaps the balance of nature will be maintained after all, as these large grouper enjoy an enhanced if spiky diet.
If Sand Chute was underwhelming, our second dive on the Willaurie, an old mailboat wreck, was a pleasant surprise. The 45m vessel, with its distinctive post cage, was sunk upright on sand at around 22m more than 20 years ago, so it is well-colonised, particularly with fiery-coloured soft corals, tube and vase sponges and gorgonians. The prop and rudder assembly and winch were particularly photo-friendly.
The Willaurie was crawling with mobile lifeforms, too, including very large barracuda lurking in the shadows in the main hold and eyeing intruders impassively. Other giant barracuda hovered above the wreck.
The 25m visibility afforded good overall views, particularly at the bow end, and there was plenty of see over the course of a long dive, including an angry-looking tiger grouper on deck.
It was in a strikingly red state, so perhaps looking for a clean-up.
The many trumpetfish apparently take over here at night, while swarms of schoolmasters patrol the scour. Lionfish were inevitably dotted about, no doubt avoiding Nassau grouper.
Sometimes, of course, sand gets into even the best-oiled machines. It happened back at the jetty at lunchtime, when one of our group was standing on the side of the boat to retrieve a dive-bag through a forward window.
The water level was low, and another dive-boat coming up the channel caused a wash that rocked our boat and pushed her sideways against the wall.
The afternoons much-anticipated shark-diving was sadly off the agenda for Alison, and a Stuart Coves manager accompanied her to hospital. Five months later she was still in considerable discomfort from injuries sustained to her hips. We were told that unloading procedures would be reviewed.
Two months later at Stuart Coves, a shark would bite the leg of a snorkeller dangling on a line from a boat while watching a feed. When youre dealing with the natural world, even with third-generation sharks, nothing can be rendered 100% predictable.
For which I suppose those of us who arent casualties should be grateful.

SO ONTO THE THIRD OUTING, the shakedown shark dive. The briefing was uncharacteristically vague, presumably because the dive guides like to get the measure of the divers before the main event.
As we finned along the Shark Wall drop-off, they would certainly have noted that one member of the group was giving a convincing impression of a yo-yo. Several divers later took time out to visit the Shark Arena and rehearse the art of kneeling on sand in ones or twos with a boulder between their knees without toppling over. They werent going to be caught out later (though in fact one of them would be).
Aware that tea-time was approaching, Caribbean reef sharks started appearing, one by one, until they were all around us. We were turning constantly to see which of these self-propelled missiles was where.
But while the situation is in its way as artificial as the Willaurie wreck, because we were on the move and the sharks fairly close, it felt like a proper dive.
I referred to tea-time partly because of the mid-afternoon timing of the shark-feed, which would be our fourth dive, and partly because, as Paul Noakes told me, the sharks that attend are content to take turns to share what are comparatively small morsels.
This he calls the Mars Bar Effect. While we humans might enjoy a snack with a cuppa in the afternoon, we dont depend on it - its more social ritual than refuelling. Apparently sharks are no different to us (apart from being uninterested in chocolate, of course).

SO TO THE GRAND FINALE. After a surface interval we descended to around 12m through the waiting sharks, laid claim to a rock each and knelt there, under strict instructions from our chain-mail-clad leader Eric not to wave our hands about.
This is in case a dozy shark should mistake it for its version of a Mars Bar.
Soon some 20 Caribbean reef sharks were taking turns to dive at the morsels Eric poked out of the baitbox with his spear, the others darting in and out of the semi-circle we had formed, occasionally brushing us with their fins as they moved past. All we moved were our eyes and camera-fingers.
A big Nassau grouper was always there by the baitbox, hoping for crumbs, while a nurse shark, programmed to hoover up food, refused to queue and battled relentlessly to get its nose inside the box. On one occasion it grabbed a large piece of fish and shot outside the magic circle, pursued by reef sharks.
Paul videoed everyone in turn (and it is certainly interesting later to see the shark action that goes on behind your head). As he reached me, a Mexican diver to my right went ballistic. Paul made a lunge for him, but he was long gone. He said later that he had hit his inflate button by mistake, but seemed to have suffered no ill effects. Speedy Gonzales - fastest ascent Ive seen.
The dive lasted 45 minutes. When the food and the sharks had gone, we all plunged forward into the sandy arena to look for shark teeth as mementos.
They usually shed them freely (its all those Mars Bars), though apparently not on this occasion.
Say what you like, for all but the purists I reckon Stuart Coves is a very enjoyable way to spend the day (along with $150 plus $75 for your personal movie on DVD).
Then consider the other diving possibilities with this operation (35 sites, James Bond movie wreck etc), the other dives on New Providence and, expanding outwards, all the dives on the many other islands of the Bahamas.
From divings own Disneyland, thats all folks!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Nassau with Virgin Atlantic.
DIVING: Stuart Coves, www.stuartcove.com.
ACCOMMODATION: Many divers stay at the homely 32-room Orange Hill Beach Inn (www.orangehill.com). Other options moving upmarket are Wyndham Nassau Resort (www.wyndham.com) or the 4* Sheraton Cable Beach Resort (www.sheraton.com).
MONEY: Bahamanian or US dollar - the value is the same.
WHEN TO GO: You can dive year-round, though June to November is hurricane season.
PRICES: Bahamas Flavour (www.bahamasflavour.co.uk, 08700 669975) offers seven-night packages including flights, seven nights room-only (two sharing) and 10 boat dives from £1199. (Orange Hill), £1350 (Wyndham) and £1599 (Sheraton, which has special deals for bookings before the end of the year). A two-tank shark dive at Stuart Coves costs $140.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bahamas.co.uk, www.bahamasdiving.com