Appeared in DIVER August 2006

Serial try-diver
Divernet
Novelist Lynne Reid Banks started diving later in life than most, and for one reason or another hers was not an entirely smooth transition from land to sea, as she explains

MY DIVING LIFE BEGAN with a try-dive in the Maldives. We were cruising the islands on a small liveaboard called Atoll Explorer. Passengers were offered try-dives and I bravely put my name down, but when the cutter got us near the shore it was discovered that there wasnt enough equipment, so I nobly (and nervously) opted out.
The next morning Saeed, the Maldivian divemaster, approached me during lunch. Im free this afternoon, he said, would you like to do a dive with me
I looked at my husband. I wouldnt, he said.
I would, I said, because I knew exactly what he was thinking, and I wasnt going to let age deter me.
Saeed gave me minimal instructions. They weighted me down, strapped me into the BC, clapped a mask on, stuck the regulator into my mouth, and down the ladder I went, sure that once in the water I would sink like a stone.
Saeed wrested fins onto my feet and gently drew me down into the bubbling, sun-patterned, glorious, multicoloured depths.
This was my epiphany, the moment that, I suppose, has changed thousands of peoples lives - the moment when you get below snorkelling level and find that you can breathe, and that this exotic weightless world of wonders is yours to explore and to revel in.
The next segment of time passed for me without fear, effort or concerns of any kind. Almost without conscious thought, I wasnt really part of my own life any more, and certainly my normal environment was nowhere. If there were a heaven, it would be like this: sheer aesthetic and bodily ecstasy, and no one would miss being tied to the Earth. Saeed, my guardian, guiding angel, occasionally signalled: OK
The Im OK reply didnt seem adequate somehow. I wasnt OK. I was transported.
The passionate collecting of fish, coral and fungus that seems to obsess experienced divers simply passed me by. I didnt know or care what I saw - the colours, shapes and sizes defied taxonomy, as if poured from Gods inventive hand into the sea in endless variety. Each fish, each growth of coral, was more radiantly, magically beautiful than the last.
The fact that none of the fauna fled away from me but placidly allowed me to invade their space without alarm was a wondrous aspect of my adventure.
I wanted it to go on forever, so when Saeed signalled that we were to go up, I signalled: No! Down, down!But he took my hand and up we went, will-me, nil-me. As my head cleared the water, I looked at him, dazed with happiness. You enjoy he asked.
I have never, in 70 years, enjoyed anything so much, I said.
His jaw dropped. You are 70 But if I know that, I dont take you down! You have dived for 51 minutes. You have been down to 16 metres. This is not supposed, for old... He stopped himself.
I kissed him on his wet black cheek and could find no words.
When I got back to England, I wrote a piece of ecstatic doggerel about my experience that was published, and I was contacted by Tim Ecott, author of that diving classic, Neutral Buoyancy.
You really loved it, didnt you he said. Why dont you try to get your PADI qualification That would make a great story. And he put me onto a dive school in Hammersmith that
shall be nameless, but they know who they are.
I did my PADI course over a single winter weekend in a manky private swimming pool in Putney and a bleak office. Nothing could have been more different from my experience of diving in the Indian Ocean, and nothing could have been harder, where my introduction had been so effortless.
I worked as I have never worked before, swotting at night and nearly killing myself by day. I got through the theory with 83%. I got through every test in the water, except three.
They failed me at the end of two exhausting days, on the removal and replacement of the BC, the removal and redonning of the weightbelt - and the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent).
I thought I might have been able to achieve the first two if I were not so tired and had some practice. But the CESA For this, I was expected to swim two lengths of the pool under water while breathing out. Impossible. Permanently. So I failed my PADI and didnt try again.
Youd think theyd have cut me a little slack at my age, but no. They treated me the same as the two revoltingly healthy 30-something female lifesavers who did the course with me. What really embitters me about this is that I now know that if Id been doing it in the sea, with a decent instructor, I could have done it five years ago. Because I could do it today.
My sporty friend Diana told me not to despair. She goes diving every year from a village in Tobago. Come with us! she gaily cried. My divemaster will get you through!
Alas for my fond hopes! To Tobago we went, January 2005. The rain didnt stop for three weeks. Theyd had hurricanes and landslips. The water was rough and full of silt.
In full fig, I rolled off the little boat backwards (Jesus!) and went down with Dis diver-man into 3m of murky water. For 20 minutes, he tried to get me to do the simplest things.
I couldnt even clear my mask. I felt hopeless. I felt frightened. I felt bloody old. I could barely manage to heave myself back on board, where I practically collapsed, sick with failure and disappointment.
Too late. Its too late for me. Ill never have that glory again.
And that might well have been that. Only, this January, we went to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, and there I summoned my courage and snubad. Yeah, I know. Not the same thing at all. Wimps scuba-ing.
But, what Down into the choppy, current-y water of the Caribbean on the end of that yellow hose, without a BC, without a tank of air (which, in case you dont know, was reposing on a blow-up raft over our heads), I discovered that I wasnt frightened.
I could stay in the water for 45 minutes without getting too tired and I could clear my mask with ease.
The only tiny problem was that there was nothing to see but a lot of dead coral and four forlorn little fish far below. So what was the use This aint it, kid.
But what it was, kid, was a renaissance of desire, confidence and hope. Back to Tim Ecott: Tim, I cant afford Mozambique at two grand a week, and I dont want to see whats happened to the Great Barrier Reef even if I could face the journey. Isnt there anywhere closer Somewhere where there are still some fish and coral Where I could try again without breaking the bank
He came back in a flash with a magic little word: Taba, on the Red Sea.
I tucked Diana under my arm, and off we went at two weeks notice.
I did two shore-dives and six boat-dives and I had the time of my life. There were all the wondrous fish and coral you could ask for, and I couldnt get enough of seeing them.
I didnt try for the PADI Open Water, because I didnt want to waste time. Listen! Ill soon be 77, so whats wrong with eight introductory dives
But I did nearly all the PADI stuff again: buoyancy control, exchanging regulators and, yes, the CESA, only this time, instead of swimming two lengths of a stupid pool, I came up from nearly the requisite 6m, carelessly flicking my fins and humming a tune, and I then, just to show off, took my mask off under water and put it on again.
And if you had asked me to remove my BC, fling it at the pufferfish and then retrieve it, I bet I could have done. Even the weightbelt holds no terrors for me.
Have I had enough I have not. We all know what happened at Taba 18 months ago, and it happened again at Dahab just down the coast while Diana and I were flying home.
If you offered me another week in Taba tomorrow, however, with my handsome, encouraging, wonderful dive instructors Mohammed and Elias (one Egyptian, one Israeli), I wouldnt hesitate.
Because there, straight off the beach or at one of 11 dive-sites from the boat, I was in la gloria once again.

Lynne
Lynne Reid Banks in Egypt with her instructors Mohammed and Elias
LYNNE REID BANKS graduated from RADA and worked as an actress, playwright and journalist. In 1955 she became the first woman reporter on British television. She has written 30 books, including The Indian in the Cupboard series for children, which has sold 6 million copies worldwide, and the controversial novel The L-Shaped Room, which became a celebrated film in 1963. Lynne lives in Dorset, writes full-time and occasionally acts on radio.