WE OFTEN HEAR THAT FAMOUS ACTORS ARE 'SCUBA DIVERS'. A little research usually reveals that while many actors have tried diving once or twice, it's not a sport they actively pursue.
Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek are known to dive, and those who have genuinely fallen in love with the deep include Robert Redford and Sean Connery. Even before that, I know that Errol Flynn was a diver, and Tom Cruise is said to enjoy it, but tracking down those actors who are willing to talk about the sport is not easy.
In my ongoing quest to interview British thespians who are genuine divers, it was a pleasure to discover that double Oscar-winner Emma Thompson and her husband, the actor Greg Wise, are both keen scuba-doers.
Actor and director Richard E Grant is another experienced diver (not long ago offered up on TV as Celebrity Shark Bait), and perhaps most recognisable of all to fans of X-Men and Star Trek is the Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart.
Like many famous divers, the actors in question were slightly surprised that I wanted to talk to them exclusively about diving, and their favourite fish. It's an activity in which their fame, or celebrity, is irrelevant, and perhaps that is part of the appeal.
Patrick Stewart OBE
has been starring as Prospero in The Tempest in this summer's RSC Complete Works series at Stratford upon Avon. He also appears in the recently released blockbuster X-Men: The Last Stand as Professor Xavier, but worldwide fame came with the part of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he starred from 1987-94. Born in 1941, Stewart's acting career began on the stage at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and he has performed many Shakespearian roles. His distinctive voice has featured in episodes of The Simpsons, and in 1998 Stewart earned both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.
Patrick Stewart began diving in Los Angeles in 1993, while he was still filming some of his 178 episodes of Star Trek.
'I honestly don't know what made me do it,' he told me in his famously stentorian voice. 'I'd been going through a difficult time personally and professionally and I think one of the cast suggested we sign up for a scuba course.
'He dropped out, but I carried on, eventually doing my first dives off Catalina Island, which was a very rough three-hour boat-ride from Santa Monica.'
For Richard E Grant, a boyhood spent in Africa inspired him with a great love for all things natural, and he would go snorkelling off the Mozambique coast.
After years of wanting to try diving, it was a holiday in the Seychelles in 1986 that provided the opportunity. 'My God, that first immersion was better than sex!' exclaimed Grant. 'There's nothing like being in another dimension and being able to stay under like a fish for so long.'
For Emma Thompson, it was a case of trying diving because her husband Greg Wise was already a diver. She first dived about 10 years ago during a holiday on Mnemba Island,
near Zanzibar.
'I just remember that glorious feeling of relaxation,' she says, 'of being in a different world. Far from being frightened, I wanted to dive deeper and deeper into the blue, even on that first dive.'
Greg Wise learned to dive after graduating from drama school and setting off on a back-packing trip with a schoolfriend. 'We found ourselves in Borneo and were able to go to Sipadan, when you could still stay on the island,' he told me. 'We both loved it so much that we did our certification and stayed on to do our Advanced qualification.'
For Wise there was something tantalising about breathing under water surrounded by moray eels, turtles and sharks.
Emma Thompson
is one of Britain's leading actresses, and the only person ever to win Hollywood Oscars for both acting (Howard's End in 1992) and screenwriting (Sense and Sensibility 1995). Born in 1959, she was in the Cambridge Footlights with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Thompson's first film part was in the comedy The Tall Guy, and subsequent roles include Remains of the Day, Howard's End and Dead Again. She is married to fellow-diver and actor Greg Wise, and has more recently starred in Love Actually, Harry Potter and Nanny McPhee.
'It felt like we shouldn't have been down there with these creatures,' he laughed. 'It felt almost naughty, like we'd done something that human beings aren't supposed to do!'
Thompson and Wise returned to Mnemba three times, and dived each time. 'One of my best memories was of going out into the open sea and diving in the blue,' she recalls.
'I think I did a 40m dive then, and it was amazing to swim in that vast nothingness.
I also did some night dives, but didn't really enjoy that.'
Emma Thompson has since dived in Dominica, and after a break from diving when her daughter was very small, has returned to the sport more recently in Seychelles.
Last year saw the release of Nanny McPhee, for which Thompson wrote the screenplay and played the lead. In the film, her real-life beauty is transformed into the rather forbidding and warty character of McPhee, a feat that required extensive prosthetic make-up.
To create the make-up for the role, Thompson had to endure several hours with a plaster-cast over her face, during which time she could breathe only through straws in her nostrils.
Most actors would describe it as a horrible experience, and it was one which Thompson said was to affect her when she next dived. 'I had never felt claustrophobic under water,' she explained, 'but as I submerged it brought back all those sensations of being smothered, and a sense of panic that I might not be able to breathe.
'I won't let it stop me diving, but it spooked me at the time.'
Emma Thompson told me that one of her favourite films is Luc Besson's freediving classic
The Big Blue, and that her diving dream is to see a whale under water.
'I love baby squid, and octopuses,' she chortled. 'You sense that they have intelligence, something about them that wants to communicate. It's that entry into a special world that diving allows me, there's nothing like it!'
For Greg Wise, the diving on Sipadan led to experiences in Jamaica, Dominica, the Indian Ocean and New Zealand's Milford Sound, where he saw hammerheads.
He doesn't have any one favourite marine encounter: 'For me, the magic of diving is the sense of expectation,' he explained. 'You never, ever know what you're going to see
under water and it's the unexpected that stays in your memory.'
For him and for Thompson, the joy of diving together is part of the sport's appeal. Being able to talk about the dives together afterward adds to their experience.
'Last time in the Seychelles,' Wise revealed,
'I managed to take my young daughter snorkelling and we found an octopus that
flashed deep, deep red as we watched it, with its skin changing texture as we hovered over it.
I know she'll remember that for a long time.'
Richard E. Grant
(born 1957) came to prominence with his role in the cult comedy Withnail and I (1985) and has never been out of work since.
From appearances in Absolutely Fabulous to leading roles in How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jack and Sarah, his lanky good looks make him instantly recognisable. An accomplished writer, he has now directed The Wah Wah Diaries, a film about his childhood in Swaziland.

Richard E Grant is sheepish about his appearance in Celebrity Shark Bait, where he went cage-diving in South Africa with great white sharks.
'We didn't know the programme would have that dumb title when we agreed to take part,'
he says. 'But never mind, being in the water with those ultimate predators was a real thrill.'
For Grant, who has recently completed The Wah-Wah Diaries, an autobiographical film about his childhood in Swaziland, diving takes him back to boyhood. 'Being under water is
the closest thing to feeling like you're seven years old, wide-eyed and drop-jawed at the
world around you as it's possible to get.'
Grant is the actor who was perhaps most obsessed with the sea for the longest time. He confesses to collecting National Geographic for most of his life, devouring articles about the deep, reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child and watching all the Cousteau programmes.
Since learning to dive, he has managed to go to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Caribbean, Atlantic and Indian Ocean. 'I haven't yet dived the Great Barrier Reef,' he told divEr, 'but I will get there one day.'
Asked to name a best underwater experience, he paused before telling me: 'Probably one of my first dives in Seychelles, when my instructor Rick Howarth and I were completely encircled by a massive school of tuna in a great silvery vortex.' Like Emma Thompson, Grant revealed that the only time he ever felt fear under water was the result of a filming experience.
During the making of The Scarlet Pimpernel for the BBC, he had to perform an action stunt involving swimming out of an escape hatch in murky water.
'The water was cloudy and I was weighed down with heavy boots and period costume.
I somehow lost my bearings, and really thought I was a goner.' Grant hasn't stopped scuba diving, and says he jumped at the chance to cage-dive with the great whites in South Africa. 'Those magnificent predators haven't changed since the days of the dinosaurs, and they showed no interest in me. Beautiful.'
Greg Wise
(born 1966) has starred in numerous TV dramas including The Moonstone, Madame Bovary, Horatio Hornblower and the comedy series According to Bex. He has appeared in episodes of Taggart and Miss Marple, with film roles including Sense and Sensibility, Tristram Shandy and Greyfriars Bobby.
The actor harbours one underwater dream, and that's to visit the wreck of the Titanic in a submersible 'before she finally disintegrates under the weight of all those rusticles'. Coral reefs are his favourite underwater sight.
For Patrick Stewart, fresh from a successful season with the Royal Shakespeare Company
in Stratford, diving is something he says he can't do without.
'Those first dives at Catalina were magical, those forests of kelp that I imagined would
be frightening were an entrance into a magical world.
'Even after my first dive - all of 25 minutes - I couldn't wait for the surface interval to end
so that my instructor Hal and I could get down there again.'
Since then, Stewart has dived in the Caribbean at St Barths, the Bahamas, and Turks & Caicos. He's also been on a liveaboard in the Sea of Cortez, as well as to Fiji and Hawaii.
He confesses to seeing diving as a physical challenge. 'My dad was a paratrooper and
I always promised myself I would do a parachute jump one day. Well, I haven't, but I have taken to diving, which I think provides a similar sort of confrontation of the emotions.'
Under water, Patrick Stewart is equally happy to drift across a shallow reef or swim in the blue with a whale shark. 'I saw them in the Sea of Cortez,' he told me, 'and the only problem with diving is not being able to shout with joy!'
Mexican waters also provided memorable encounters with sea-lions. 'Two of them danced around me for several minutes, and at one time I found myself staring straight into their eyes
and being drawn closer and closer until the instructor tugged me away.
'I felt this strong sense of having shared the ocean with those magical creatures.'
Not all of Stewart's diving experiences have been as positive. 'Once, in the Bahamas, my buddy had a weightbelt problem and we lost sight of our instructor under water. We surfaced but the current took us onto some rocks.
'Then I lost my regulator and in choppy conditions starting swallowing water, weighed down by the extra belt. We were being dragged onto the rocks, and it took me several minutes to work out that I should drop the weights. Afterwards, I felt really stupid.
'It's that classic scenario of an accident building up from several small incidents.'
Like many divers, Patrick Stewart says the incident, though minor, gave him a wake-up
call that nothing should be taken for granted when in the water.
'It was a great lesson, in retrospect, that an accident can strike any time - even when you're quite experienced. I know now to take things one step at a time if something starts to go wrong.'
Stewart, partly because of his TV fame, and his appearances in blockbusters like X-Men, has an instantly recognisable face. I wondered if diving could be difficult when you're that famous.
'Well, I'm privileged that I can often arrange
a private dive, or boat charter,' Stewart acknowledged. 'But sometimes I will just turn up at a dive centre and get on the boat with everyone else.
'I did it recently in the Bahamas. We're all divers together, and so what if I appear in a few holiday snaps with my diving buddies?'
I will continue in my search for famous divers. Who knows, if I'm really lucky, I might find myself on a boat with Salma Hayek one day.

  • Tim Ecott is the best-selling author of Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World