I THINK OF ALL THE LOVELY UK lady divers with whom I have dived over the years, with their average-size 12-16 bodies, diver hair, no make-up and general jolly-hockey-sticks attitude, and wonder how this week is going to turn out.
Is this a beauty pageant I can’t believe any woman can look that good in a thick wetsuit. Millimetres of neoprene really don’t hide the lumps and bumps but accentuate them – as I know only too well.
Underwater light refraction also makes things look 25% closer and 33% bigger than they are, so no hope for most of us. Add to that a bulky BC…
Perhaps this is why most of us choose to go with the ow, foregoing hours of primping and preening and just enjoying what we do under water.
I keep thinking about the movie Miss Congeniality. Would Miss Scuba UK be similar
Diver’s May Big Question asked what divers thought about scuba beauty contests. There were strong views on both sides of the fence, although the antis were in the majority.
The first Miss Scuba UK was held late last year. The idea was to find a woman to compete in the Miss Scuba International contest, which has been running since 2011.
The international event is designed not only to “celebrate the inner beauty and courage of today’s modern women” but to advocate worldwide marine conservation. The winning contestant, or “delegate”, as the Miss Scuba International organisation prefers to call her, will undertake a year of ocean-conservation campaigns to “educate and inspire the desire in all of us to do our best to safeguard our oceans”.

MISS SCUBA INTERNATIONAL was the brainchild of Robert Lo, proprietor of Sipadan Mabul Resort and Mabul Water Bungalows in Malaysia. A strong believer in sustainable development within our marine environment, he hopes the beauty and vulnerability of the underwater world will be made more accessible via the beauty queens.
With contestants from 15 countries, the lofty aim is also to promote safe diving practices and elevate international tourism and cultural appreciation.
The first Miss Scuba UK, Jaime-Lee Faulkner, went on to beat her 14 rivals to win Miss Scuba International 2013. I meet her in London a few weeks before the competition. A very charming Rotherham girl, when not fulfilling her role as ambassador for the seas Jaime-Lee runs her own beauty salon.
She tells me of her long-held passion for the oceans. She had always wanted to scuba-dive, and when the opportunity of combining this with her other love – beauty pageants – arrived, it seemed too good to be true.
Born with natural beauty and a stunning figure, I can imagine Jaime-Lee looking good even in a wetsuit and BC.
She explains that she has held the Miss Scuba UK title for only six months, the UK having arrived late at the party. Winning in November, she had immediately been dispatched
to Sipadan to compete in the international event.
The intervening months had been a whirlwind of trips to Egypt, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, advocating diving and marine conservation, in particular a shark-finning ban. She had been at the London Dive Show and others on the Continent, trying to make diving more appealing to the younger generation, especially women.
Around 85% of the current applicants for Miss Scuba UK are either university students or graduates. Brains as well as beauty.
Jaime-Lee and the other contestants had also been involved in beach clean-ups, with another taking place in Torquay this summer.
I check the rules to see whether I could conceivably enter the competition. I am a permanent resident of the UK, I am a minimum of 5ft 4in (just), I am female by birth – and I am definitely not pregnant. These, however, are the only boxes I tick.
The rules are extremely strict. The contestants must be 18-28, healthy, of good moral character (some might say I am, I suppose), never been married or given birth, have no afliation with the organisers, and be able to swim at least 200m and tread water for at least 10 minutes (I might have to get fit for that).
Are the girls really enthusiastic about diving and the oceans, I ask Jaime-Lee, or is the contest just a means to an end
She tells me that she dived at every opportunity offered during the competition, as did most of the girls, but also did extra dives in Sipadan. She hasn’t dived in the UK yet but is looking forward to it. Her enthusiasm for the marine environment seems quite genuine.
Miss Scuba 2014 is being held in El Gouna, a self-contained Egyptian town only 20 minutes from Hurghada, and home to 17 hotels. It has a large marina, shopping area, 100-plus restaurants and many sports facilities, but is particularly known for kite-surng and diving.
El Gouna has nine PADI and SSI dive centres and we are promised that with a number of new boat-dive sites (there is no shore-diving) there is little risk of overcrowding.

AT THE LONDON BRIEFING the girls squeal with excitement at the prospect of snorkelling with dolphins and meeting Project Aware ambassador Katrin Felton, professional freediver and mermaid model, who will teach them how to be mermaids.
The excitement is infectious. I almost catch myself squealing along with them.
Sponsored by PADI (IDC trainer Mike Byfield of Torquay Dive Centre is to co-teach the Open Water course), the Egyptian State Tourist Office, El Gouna, Hotel Paradiso, Colona Divers (the PADI 5* centre where the girls are to be trained) and Aqua Lung among others, the event is well-supported.
We travel overnight to Hurghada on 26 April. Told to pack light, but not believing that the others will, I am ashamed to find that I have far more luggage than any of the contestants.
I feel I’m back on my daughters’ school trips, amid the in-flight gossip about boyfriends and pageants. A lot of these girls clearly do the rounds of UK beauty contests and it’s clear that their focus is not yet on diving.
Ten contestants remain of the 40 original entrants. Each of the event’s 12 rounds carry 1-10 points, awarded by specialists from the beauty as well as the diving and freediving worlds.
Scuba-diving is sandwiched between Fund-raising, Interview, Social Media, Fitness, Beach Body, Photographic, Talent, Congeniality and the final events held on stage, Fashion, Bikini and Gown.
The £175 registration fee has bought the successful girls an all-expenses trip to Egypt, suitcases, bikinis, sunglasses, and snorkelling equipment. The overall winner will receive a trip to Malaysia, an Aqua Lung wetsuit and hair extensions by Inanch. I wonder how the latter will react to prolonged exposure to the sun and salt water.
The finalists are Melissa Reeves, Alicia Caley, Beth Greenham, Katie Farr, Tammy Brown, Amber Gamble, Michelle Paraskeva, Annabel Mizel, Emily Kishere and Melanie Gilbert, who was named Miss Scuba France 2014.
I wonder how this will work out, as the participants are meant to be non-divers. It turns out that Miss Scuba France never got off the ground, so Melanie won the title by virtue of being the only contestant, and hadn’t needed to get wet!

AT HURGHADA airport the girls nip into the toilets to change into the skimpiest dresses and highest heels, ready for a photo-shoot that causes quite a stir.
Arriving at the 3* but really nice Club Paradiso at 10am, it’s straight down to business. There are photo-shoots around the hotel, a briefing, and the swimming and treading-water tests.
Another underwater photographer, Greg Brown, joins me to try for some half-and-half shots of the girls in the pool. Unfortunately for us, our dome-ports very quickly became covered in a thick film of make-up, hair-spray, lotion and fake tan.
Tiredness is kicking in. Talking to some of the girls about how excited they are to be doing the diving course, the response is a tad underwhelming.
The following day, while the girls do the confined-water part of the course in the pool, Colona Divers squeezes Greg and I onto its luxurious dive-boat.
At Fanadir, a long reef running perpendicular to the coast at Hurghada, I am surprised by the amount of marine life. The vis is more than 30m.
We had planned to sit on the bottom at 15m to do practise shots ready for shooting the girls, but are frequently pulled towards the reef by the sights of a free-swimming giant moray, large unicornfish, thousands of anthias and even a tiny frogfish.
The second dive is at Shabaha, a small submerged circular reef bottoming out at 14m. We swim the whole way round, and the last time I saw so many soft, multi-coloured corals in one place was in the Maldives 10 years ago.
I look forward to shooting the girls, with their perfect model figures, against this colourful backdrop. The Egyptian sun and bright blue sky should help.

BACK AT THE HOTEL, I ask the girls how they enjoyed the first part of the course. Dolled up in fancy dresses and stiletto platforms, they seem to have reverted to their beauty-pageant personas, and only one or two want to answer my questions.
I quickly pick out the few who seem serious about learning to dive rather than regarding it as just a competitive necessity. The other two photographers seem to share my conclusions.
Instructor Mike tells me he is very impressed with the girls’ abilities, and says they were one of the easiest groups to teach. We both wonder whether this is because diving is the part of the competition with the most points up for grabs. I have gathered that quite a few of the girls have previous experience of trial dives – whether in preparation for Miss Scuba UK or for the pleasure of diving, I can only guess.
Mike feels there is perhaps a 40-60% split between girls wanting to learn to dive and those doing it only as part of the competition.
I ask David Douglass of Eclat Promotions, which is organising the event, how many of the previous year’s contestants have dived voluntarily since competing. “I have no idea,” he says. David is the Beauty Pageant Machine, barking out orders to all and sundry, including me.
On the first open-water dives, we visit the Sachwa Abu Alawa site on Colona Divers’ year-old safari-boat New Francesca. It is well-equipped, with space to spread out and lots of sun-decks for the girls to work on their tans.
I am even more impressed by Niklas Funk, Colona’s managing director, who
is co-teaching the girls with Mike. He goes out of his way to help me and everyone else
on board.
David and his crew of past contestants, including Jaime-Lee, have declined to go on the boat, preferring a day on the beach.
This seems to have had a very positive effect on the contestants. Once over their early-morning lethargy, most seem to open up and delight in the thrill of being on the boat and diving.

A FEW ARE OBVIOUSLY VERY NERVOUS – and a couple are very obviously faking nervousness. However, after the first dive the fakery seems to disappear, with the girls exclaiming how incredible the water is. One even tells me: “It’s much better under water than on the land.”
A couple really struggle with mask-removal – a skill that worries a lot of people, but Mike and Niklas are extremely patient.
The contestants no longer seem worried about their image. Many laugh at how they look in their 5mm wetsuits, and coming up with snot all over their faces. One breaks wind while pulling her wetsuit on, causing riots of laughter – especially from her. It’s refreshing – although still very pretty, the girls are now unconcerned about how they look. Perhaps they are fledgling divers, after all!
Just as we’re leaving, a little later than expected, I spot a pod of dolphins in the distance. Niklas tells the captain to try to intercept. The dolphins see us coming, and spend an amazing 30 minutes playing around the boat.
Niklas jumps into the cold water with only ns and mask and the dolphins join him as he snorkels along, eyeballing him.
We arrived back at the hotel happy but exhausted. David is waiting at the entrance with steam coming out his ears.
Telling all of us off, none too delicately, he orders the girls to shower, change into very specic outfits and be at dinner within 30 minutes. After dinner they have to do a two-hour dance practice.
I glimpse discontent on some contestants’ faces before they resignedly file off to shower. After all, this is a career choice. The girls have been on the beauty-pageant circuit for several years, have competed against each other and know the schedule. And it must be stressful for David to keep such a large event running smoothly.
Next day we’re to be on the boat from 7.45am to 7pm so that the girls can complete the second part of the course and the exams on the water.
The atmosphere has changed. Everyone is more anxious, and the girls a little on guard with me again.

DAVID AND ALL THE PAGEANT CREW are on board today. I have the impression of too many cooks in the kitchen trying to organise the girls, with David as head chef.
Kat Felton is very warm and friendly, keen on ocean conservation and active in bringing young girls into freediving through her mermaid courses.
She is an amazing model, and the other two underwater photographers can’t get enough of her, although, both being fairly inexperienced, they spend a long time trying to get a decent shot.
In 23° water but with no wetsuit to keep her warm, Kat doesn’t complain even when on the verge of hypothermia.
I have no chance of getting the image I want while the other two are in the water, so decide to wait for another opportunity.
Kat has realised what’s going on, and tells me she will secretly get in the water with Niklas as her safety diver and me to get the shots we both want. I know it will take only 10 minutes.
I am able to get many beautiful shots of this consummate professional. I am pleased, and a little surprised, to have escaped the pageant machine.
By the end of the day every girl but Katie, still trying to overcome her fear of mask-removal, has completed the course. Dishevelled but happy, they almost snub David’s attempts to make them beautify themselves for photos around the boat. In the end, it’s Jaime-Lee and the crew who are left to pose.
I never get to dive with Jaime-Lee. She does only one dive while I am there, part of her Advanced Open Water course.
I do photograph her and Kat in the water in some of the dresses given to the girls by sponsors, however. Obviously less comfortable in the water than she had led me to believe (or quite as passionate), it’s fairly difficult to get a shot at all.
We’re very close to the boat, with David shouting directions for the images he requires. He isn’t a diver, or even getting wet, and while his ideas would work wonderfully on land, they don’t work under water.
In the end, I quietly direct Jaime-Lee to try a different technique and we get the shot required.
On my final day as part of the pageant crew, I am happy to see the girls so full of natural joy at having completed their course, hearing them chattering away about how they did their skills, what they saw under water and how they couldn’t wait to go diving again.
I wouldn’t miss hearing the ordering about, the strict time schedule and dress codes. I much preferred seeing the girls with natural smiles and looks than the fake posing for the cameras – but that’s what beauty pageants are all about.
Chi, one of the girls I hadn’t been convinced was in it for the diving, shared her absolute surprise and delight at loving the diving so much. I believed her completely when she told me that she couldn’t wait to go diving again.
Meant to be flying back to the UK on the Saturday, she had gone to the trouble of finding out whether she could change her flight and do some more diving after the event.

IT WAS EMILY WHO WON THE Scuba-Diving round. Wearing an almost constant smile, she had been full of enthusiasm. I felt sure she would go on to dive as much as she could after the event.
The next part of the competition consisted of a Finathon Event for Project AWARE. The girls were tasked to raise awareness about shark-finning and as much money as possible for the charity, then to compete in the event. There is a twist to this tale, however.
The girls were to carry out a freediving race wearing mermaid tails, with Kat providing the lessons. They all loved the experience – in fact diving instructor Mike thought it looked so much fun that he had a try too. The girls were clearly far more adept at it than him.
By the end the girls had raised a fair amount of money for several ocean charities. With hair and eyelash extensions just about surviving, and only a few nails broken, I did feel that over those few days most of the girls had gained a respect for the ocean and for scuba-diving.
I wonder whether there will be a Mr Scuba UK…

Miss Scuba UK 2014
Alicia Caley was crowned Miss Scuba UK 2014, and I was pleased to hear that, as Alicia was one of the girls who had been most natural and friendly towards me.
Alicia now has the following aims: to protect the planet’s oceans, to stimulate worldwide dive tourism, to promote diving education and careers, to foster marine conservation, to promote a healthy lifestyle, to celebrate women’s beauty and courage and to inspire future generations.