The boys of Gravesend Grammar School hit the streets of Marsalforn in Gozo.


WHEN I WAS A NIPPER, school trips took the form of visiting the local old people's home for the day, handing out the cans of soup or baked beans that wed collected for the Harvest Festival.
Kids didnt relish these trips. We feared being kissed by a coffin-dodger who smelt of pee and sported more stubble than David Bellamy.
Things have clearly moved on apace since then. School trips have become a little more international in reach, and activities considerably more interesting.
After ski trips, now its scuba-diving. One school running these desirable field trips is Gravesend Grammar School (GGS) in Kent.
DIVER asked me to tag along and document the below-waves action of 30 GGS school-kids as they learnt to scuba dive in the Mediterranean. I also got to watch with awe as their teachers-cum-ringmasters kept the entire group safe from dangers, both real and imaginary, under water and topside in a foreign country - all while trying to dive themselves and stay sane if possible.
I take my hat off to these teachers. Imagine getting 30 kids on a coach to an airport in darkness, on a plane, off a plane, on a coach to a ferry, then yet another coach to arrive at a hotel, all before 10am and with not so much as a tear, a tantrum or even a call to Interpol!
Gozo is reached by flying to Malta for just 2.5 hours. Sounds easy, but our flight was at 6am, which meant arriving at Gatwick at 4am and getting out of bed at 1.30am.
I tried for an early night but really only managed some long blinks.
Where I live in London we get 24-hour police sirens and hovering helicopters, which means I am used to functioning with very little sleep, but this meagre 90 minutes was too little even for me.
In the departure lounge at 5am, snoring kids were draped everywhere. They had met up at 9 the previous night! Later the teachers would herd everybody about like a sedated flock of sheep, sleep deprivation in the group helping them enormously - cunning.
During the hours wait at the Gozo ferry terminal the group consumed their weight in fizzy pop, which clearly awakened the zombie army. Energised by Red Bulls and Panda Pop, many started firing on more than one cylinder, and the prankster gene emerged with gusto. Despite this, we managed the final furlong to the hotel and settled into our rooms without so much as a single fire extinguisher being set off.
The sea was rough, but after some bargain pizza and a minute staring at the sun through bleary eyes we met up at the dive centre for a marathon form-filling session.
Liability releases and medical forms can be time-consuming at the best of times, and although the group had previously filled out all the various disclaimers they were apparently not the special ones needed for Malta, so had to be duplicated. Scribbling knowledge reviews in a stifling restaurant for hours once again wilted even the most Ritalin-deficient of the group.
A wetsuit measuring-up session was aborted in favour of some much-needed free time. We would rendezvous the next morning to collect equipment and get on with the job.
The group was divided into two legions of scuba newbies to ease the burden on the rental equipment. While 12 cherubs did academics, the other dozen headed to a nearby bay for some wet work.
I tagged along with the group destined for class to take some photos and, I hoped, get a chance to prepare my rebreather for the afternoon. The output of the classrooms electric fan was akin to that of a flys beating wings.
A dozen jittery youngsters in a room already solar-heated like a Tenko prison cell was not conducive to learning.
American voices can be soporific, and the high-fiving and never-ending good-job comments from the training video were causing more than a few of the students to nod off behind their sunnies. I took some photos of the snoozers for fun, which seemed to infuriate the instructor but, hey, I was here to document proceedings for DIVER, warts and all.
Everyone had already managed a try-dive experience at their local UK dive centre, so potentially that make-or-break first hour when new divers tend to struggle and hate everything about the equipment would be avoided.

AS GOZO WAS GETTING WHIPPED by some strongish winds, we were relegated to a nearby murky bay complete with stinging jellyfish. What might have taken an hour was dragged over four, what with boating traffic, poor visibility and some questionable organisation by some of the instructors.
Some of the more hyperactive new divers needed clear solution-based instruction and unambiguous direction, rather than the typical high-fiving youre the best monkey show you can get from new instructors, even to pupils giving nervous, sub-optimal performances.
The sea takes no prisoners, and if youve paid your money you want to be able to do it, rather than have someone simply tell you that you did it.
By sunset some of the group had barely completed the first pool session. The others would get a repeat performance during the open-water dive the next day. What we needed now was more hot pizza and orange Fanta - the food of champions.
Our hotel was a part of the Basil Fawlty empire. On day one we had no water with which to shower or flush the toilets but, despite our protests, the staff kept serving up boiling water disguised as soup. The waiter was also the heaviest sweater on Earth, which added a piquancy of flavour for some and gave others a reason not to touch a drop.
The food hovered daily between minging and tolerable. Most of the kids just went out afterwards to eat some proper food, so nobody starved.
Next morning, after the breakfast scrum, we trotted up the hill to the dive centre and split into groups heading for the next training session. Todays dive site was much nicer, with clear warm water and the chance of seeing something fish-shaped.
Before the confined-water session began, everyone needed to complete a swim test. Armed only with Speedos, the group started to paddle out. Within minutes the Texas Chainsaw Massacre screams began, followed by a mass exodus for shore. The bay was full of jellyfish, and they were clearly ravenous.
The group exited the water, keen to show off their new scars, elicit some sympathy and get treated with an empty bottle of vinegar.
I didnt get hit by the killer jellies so could only laugh at the victims, which did help to re-install some Dunkirk spirit and a brave face or two.
With the drama behind us, we waddled back into the water to meet our next fate. The next hour under water, spent innocently taunting their peers, was more than enough to get even the most aquaphobic into the swim of things. By the end of this session, everybody looked at one with the ocean.
Masks were being cleared as if the divers were PADI pros, and even the usually mythical skill of buoyancy control was being demonstrated by a fair percentage of them.
The completed skills checklist was starting to fill up nicely but, most importantly, by the end of the day confidence was improving and the troupe were realising that diving was something they could do and even enjoy.
Some of the more experienced instructors were getting more out of their charges than others in the time allotted.
It would have helped to rotate the groups through the different mentors. The needs of the customers must rank higher than the mood swings of the instructor, and temper tantrums should mean P45s rather than group hugs.
Gozo is the smaller sister to Malta but still has plenty to offer below and above the waves. The dive sites are plentiful and varied, if a little weather-dependent, but once the wind direction is established its barely a 10-minute drive to a leeward shore.
Most of the sites are shore-based but reefs and walls abound, as do caverns and caves plus, unusually, the ability to dive three interesting wrecks from the same entry point.
I had the opportunity to join a group of divers from the school completing their Advanced Open Water Diver training. I opted out of the Naturalist and Peak Buoyancy dives, thinking it strange that an agency could certify a diver who didnt have buoyancy skills in the first place, never mind asking for more to acquire these skills.
I swerved also at the opportunity to do a multi-level dive from the shore. Planning to go from 18m then 12m and finally 6m following a very gentle slope all inside 30 minutes didnt really sound particularly advanced to me.

THE NITROX AND WRECK DIVE OPTIONS sounded more interesting, but some bizarre instruction had the trainees using nitrox mixes that would have been better suited to far shallower depths. I waved at them from below as I explored the wreck with my buddy Jesus.
Gozo authorities take diving dollars seriously, and scuba tourism makes up a high proportion of the islands GDP.
To this end they have organised wrecks to be sunk as artificial reefs, and even arranged kitting-up benches and signposts to The Wrecks at Ix-Att LAhmar point.
I was impressed by this, and by the nice sign that described the wrecks and compass bearings, together with a bit of history.
During the safety stop after our wreck dive, a lady tourist snorkelled above us for a while and, without prompting, posed topless for a few photos before swimming off.
Back at the hotel the kids were looking at my photos de jour, clearly looking for some bragging currency. They were disappointed, because I had deleted them.
Then one of them pulled out his PSP, complete with pics of his own mum topless, which had an effect on the group similar to throwing a handful of 20 notes in the air.
What with diving and classroom sauna sessions all day, then knowledge-review homework assignments, there was little time for the group to wander round the resort town, which was Marsalforn on the north coast.
Like many seaside towns it seems very quiet during the day, with just a small army of strollers on the small beach road and a postage-stamp-sized area of sand always hi-jacked by an early-rising Italian contingent (why sunbathe before sunrise anyway)

AFTER DARK, THE TOWN CAME ALIVE as the day-kippers rose and local Gozitans came down to eat while watching the sunset. Most evenings the group were given some free time to cruise the streets, with strict instructions to stay out of trouble.
The teachers had clearly trained at some special forces camp, and were kitted out with walkie-talkies, binoculars and rosters. They kept a tight ship, but on the whole the kids toed the line and kept out of the newspapers and jail.
One evening we boarded a coach to attend a religious festival in a nearby town. The streets were packed with priests carrying a Jesus figure aloft on sticks towards a very grandiose church. Religious gatherings are sedate affairs in the UK but Gozo does it differently. The only manufacturing capacity appears to be for fireworks.
The people must have been worshipping the god of stun-grenades, because there was more gunpowder exploding over our heads than at a wedding party in Fallujah! The noise was incredible, not so much oohs and aahs as Oerlikon cannons set on continuous fire, followed by a volley of Stinger missiles exploding above our heads!
The teachers were in Meerkat mode with all this action, as the cherubs had clearly been energised by consuming their own weight in green candy-floss, Red Bull and the odd foot-long hotdog, but all the high jinks culminated in was some relatively sedate hair-dye spraying.

THE DIVING COURSES WERE HEADING in the right direction, and all those 15-minute sessions spent between 3 and 5m were turning most of the kids into mini-Cousteaus. The final day had some of the group doing three dives to catch up and meet various course standards, albeit using only a single full tank of air to do all of them.
I tagged along, snapping the action. It was nice to see so many new divers enjoying themselves and performing the various skills with apparent ease.
Between dives, many were even discussing future dive holidays on which to show off their newly acquired skills.
One evening I showed them some video footage of deep dive action and what can happen when it all goes wrong under water. For those struggling to carry the 10- and 12-litre tanks during the week, scenes of divers carrying seven or eight big tanks during deeper technical dives got some Adams apples jumping up and down, but the viewing was well received.
The GGS dive trip culminated in logbook signing and a schmoozing session with the course instructors.
It had been a huge success, with almost three dozen new certifications being earned during the week, from Scuba Diver and Open Water Diver right through to AOWD and specialties.
The kids had some good banter and the teachers remained professional and generally sane throughout. Many new nicknames were issued, or fine-tuned!
Introducing diving to any school curriculum is fantastic for the sport and invaluable for all involved.
I only wish that my school had got involved 25 years ago, but the sharkskin wetsuits didnt fit so well, and without todays globally warmed oceans I suppose it might have been a less positive experience.
This trip had a carbon footprint the size of 50 elephants. I and class joker Fanta Pubes offset the CO2 emissions produced by donating 50p each to a company that aims to teach polar bears and penguins Ark-building skills, ready for the next great flood.

Fatigue
Fatigue had set in at the Malta-Gozo ferry crossing.
Waiting
Waiting to be fed (before wishing they hadnt been)
still
still reasonably alert at the first classroom session
getting
getting the hang of assisted breathing
trying
trying on wetsuits for size
Getting
Getting to grips with kitting-up.
Gathering
Gathering of the flock.
Ready
Ready for the first open-water descent.
Mastering
Mastering the giant stride entry.
Practising
Practising mask-clearance.
Buddy
Buddy checks become second nature
confidence
confidence under water
regular
regular drills become more tightly disciplined.
Well
Well on the way to being fully-fledged divers.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Mark Ellyatt and the school group flew to Malta from Gatwick with Monarch Airlines, www.flymonarch.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:Diving was with Gozo Aqua Sports, www.gozoaquasports.com.
The group stayed at the Seaview Hotel in Marsalforn.
PRICES: For individual divers, UK tour operator Oonasdivers offers a seven-night diving tour of Malta and Gozo from £465, excluding flights. If youre in education and thinking of organising a school trip call Oonasdivers for a school group price, 01323 648924, www.oonasdivers.com
FURTHER INFORMATION:020 8877 6990, www.visitmalta.com, www.divingmalta.com