|In the Hurghada Hilton, three instructors from different training agencies are discussing underwater communications. |
A mobile phone rings. The NAUI instructor says: Excuse me, picks up his demand valve and has a brief conversation. Thats amazing, say the others, a mobile phone that fits into a DV!
Another phone rings. The BSAC instructor reaches for his dive computer, says: Excuse me and has a brief conversation. Thats incredible, say the others, a mobile phone in a dive computer!
A few minutes later a third phone rings. The PADI instructor leans forward in his chair, breaks wind loudly and says: Excuse me, fax coming through.
You can tell that one how you like, but the point remains the same; the British Sub-Aqua Club needs a product to compete with the PADI Open-water Diver training scheme.
The BSACs existing entry-level qualification, Novice Diver, was designed primarily for new members of the Clubs various branches, whereas Ocean Diver is purpose-built for use by diving schools, mainly at holiday resorts.
The difference is that you can go off on holiday, qualify as an Ocean Diver within five days and then be able to dive with other Ocean Divers or above. A Novice Diver needs an instructor around until he or she reaches the next grade up, Sports Diver.
Anyone who doesnt admit to some apprehension before their first dive is probably fibbing, says BSAC National Instructor Tony Cummings.
Saskia Campbell wasnt telling any fibs. She admitted to a lot of concern: about breathing under water, clearing her mask, depth, the bends, horror stories about underwater panic attacks, shark attacks - all the usual detritus that clogs the mind of the first-time diver.
But if anyone was equipped to defeat all these quite reasonable fears through patient training, Tony Walks on Water Cummings was the man to do it.
I feel that Ocean Diver is roughly equivalent to the PADI Open Water scheme, says Tony. This will make sport diving more accessible to new people. The BSAC can then ensure that even if access becomes easier, they will still learn safely. Nowhere is this more needed than in the varying standards of Red Sea schools.
So that, in a clamshell, was why we were in Hurghada, the popular Egyptian dive resort.
Saskia was introduced to the new-look BSAC course material, and it was a great improvement on that provided with my recent Novice Diver course - better printed and laid out, better illustrated, supported by modern CD-Rom graphics and a specially commissioned video
But that is only for back-up, emphasised Tony. The BSAC believes in the instructors, not the video, doing the teaching.
Diving has not been re-invented, but the presentation has. Saskia was soon whistling past Boyles Law, the mysteries of the Eustachian tubes, Archimedes and so on, without the brain-numbing premature detail of the Novice course, and was through her first theory test.
By her own admission she is no maths professor, but Tony did not allow her to become bogged down in technicalities, working on a need-to-know basis. Also, the BSAC written tests, still ambiguous in places, required occasional instructor intervention.
Saskia was becoming visibly excited about the first pool session, but was daunted by the concept of looking after herself at sea. This was not the only concept that would trouble us, as Tony started to struggle with his pupils name. Dont worry, Sasika, he said, it will seem a lot easier in the water.
After her first underwater breaths, I asked Tony how the aspiring Ocean Diver was doing. Sasha is doing well, he said. Her main concerns are now past her. She didnt panic, and the mask-clearing was okay.
Sashikas got three things going for her. Shes comfortable in the water, shes dead keen to learn and shes a woman; they listen better and learn quicker than men. Point taken, I retired for a quick sulk.
The first day Saskia had progressed rapidly on a tide of adrenaline and enthusiasm. On day two, zapped by the heat, the Egyptian cuisine and the potential enormity of the subject, she started to get nervous again. Her favourite bad feeling was no longer sharks but her ears, which had been troublesome even in the 2m pool.
In the space of a couple of days, she was ready for her Ocean I, her first Red Sea dive. How would she fare at 6m
Some new divers arrive bullishly confident and make a complete hash of their first dive, said Tony. Others you can hardly get in the pool but are immediately comfortable in open water. The majority, like Slashka, are a bit nervous, but get on with it. In fact shes doing exceptionally well.
First, time for a little relaxation. I am Khaled, 29 and very sportif, said our beaming Egyptian waiter. Please to explain to me, why do all the rich people leave on Fridays
We explained that we were not rich, but tourists on a fixed package, which is why we would try the Egyptian wine at £8 a bottle rather than a standard European table wine at £32.
The red Omar Khayam, served at tomb temperature, would have made Tutankhamun turn in his mummy. Jilly Goolden would describe it as having a whiff of unwashed wetsuit.
You could have fuelled a Mars rocket on its vapour. No wonder some believe the ancient Egyptians were visited by aliens.
Dont worry, said Khaled, the second bottle will be much nicer.
We took a raincheck. But enough of such frivolities; tomorrow was Saskias big day.
Having checked our kit at the Divers Lodge centre, which operates from the nearby Intercontinental Hotel pier, we boarded the 16m day boat for the one-hour trip out to Torfa reef.
Water temperature 25*C, air temperature 35*C, light breeze, minimal swell - it doesnt get much better than this.
As the boat tied up to the buoy, Saskia began to look increasingly nervous; very worried about her ears, she felt prepared - but what would the real thing be like
After a briefing, a buddy check and a BSAC-approved gob into her mask, she took that giant stride for Ocean Divers. The Red Sea didnt part, no shark fins sliced through the surf and she hit the water.
Many OK signs later, the thumbs went down and we slid into Jacques Cousteaus silent world. Actually, not that silent. Ten minutes later we were still at 5m, listening to Saskia struggling to equalise.
Tonys air bubbles were saying: I wish Satsumas ears would equalise (edited version). After 15 minutes we finally reached 7m and the dive got underway.
The descent was horrible, Saskia later agreed. I was miserable till I got to the bottom. I didnt know what was OK and what was not, how my ears should feel. This was a major concern - would her diving career end here
once down on that first dive she had visibly relaxed, eyes widening at the marvels of the underwater world.
Hammerheads, manatees, mermaids, coelacanths and walruses were just a few of the species we didnt see, but the very first marine life Saskia had spotted was a tiny clownfish playing in its parent anemone, just like the one she had seen in her local tropical fish shop at home.
Other wonders of the Red Sea had unfolded. Topside came the predictable silly grin of relief and the sheer joy of the first Ocean Dive. Im at a loss for words, she said as she began babbling about what she had seen.
Even a hunky Divers Lodge instructor couldnt have kept her from the water for Ocean Dive 2, on the Shaab Sabina reef.
She took a mere ten minutes to equalise this time. Weird extra-terrestrial noises of distant boats had us checking our equipment and looking for submarines. But she had done her first day, her first Ocean Dives. Crack open the Omar Khayam! On second thoughts, lets celebrate with a beer.
On the second day, at Goca Abu Ramada West, Saskia was introduced to triggerfish. We had been warned that in the nesting season they could be aggressive. She tried to stroke the first one, not realising what it was.
Throughout the dive we were harassed by these bumptious foot-long thugs, quite disconcerting for an inexperienced diver. As for me, suffering from falafel narcosis and mainlining on Immodium, I wished I had brought some spare pills underwater.
Another dive, another thugfish; we had to run the gauntlet again. They did have one advantage, said Tony, they stopped Splatka worrying about her ears.
This dive we got to 14m, Saskia increasing in confidence all the time. By the time we surfaced after Ocean Dive 4, Saskia was definitely not at a loss for words: Were in their world now... its so calm down there... other divers look so graceful... they seem so spooky, so small floating past in the blue, even from the many pictures I see in Diver, you get no clear impression of what ook like from afar...
Splashka, youre not meant to get nitrogen narcosis at 14m, said Tony. Not only was she going to be the first underwater Ocean Diver, she was going to be the first underwater Eric Cantona.
The fifth dive was pure pleasure. Her equalising was much quicker, her movements increasingly graceful, her buoyancy excellent - but I still held her hand to steady her, not just because I like it! said Tony.
Now Saskia was enjoying herself, fooling around for the camera. I gave her the international underwater signal for work, baby, work and we started recording her experiences for posterity at 15m on the Gota Abu Ramada East reef.
For the final dive we found a thugfish-free zone on Ishta reef. Now I was the fall-guy, mistaking a sea cucumber for a rock, a turtle for an anchor and inventing a tigerfish (Its a lionfish, you prat!).
Saskia was already visualising her next dive trips. She was now on course for Sports Diver, thirsty for her first wreck, her first live-aboard, perhaps even the great Ras Mohammed wall off Sharm.
Theory and practice passed with flying colours, she faced just one final challenge, as she was grabbed by the instructors and lobbed into the surf. Having missed that part of the theory, I assumed this was either saturation diving or immersion therapy!
The successful first Ocean Diver course could not have been achieved without the considerable assistance of instructors Callum and Kevin of Divers Lodge. After approving it as a BSAC school, Tony Cummings described it as one of the most pleasant and helpful Ive encountered.
A good atmosphere pervaded the Lodge, from the management down to cheeky 14-year-old Adam (youre not too old - this sport could change your life!)
The icing on the cake was an entertaining personalised underwater video prepared by Kevin Haigh of Red Sea Images, even though he did immortalise me reacting to a thugfish as if it were a killer whale.
The Hurghada Hilton provided superb accommodation in one of its palatial villas, with attentive smiling service, excellent cuisine and a memorable wine-tasting. Britannia Airways flew us there and back on time without making a fuss about excess baggage.
Thanks also to David Browning and to Marco Castellano of Goldenjoy Holidays who put the package together. Last but not least, Tony Cummings showed saint-like patience with yours truly the photographer, exuding the sort of confidence that makes him one of the gurus of BSAC instruction.
So, like the rich people, we left on a Friday, back to the chill and drizzle of an English summer. Bye, Tony, said Saskia. Bye, Sasquatch, said Tony.
Goldenjoy Holidays (0171 794 9767) offers seven days B&B accommodation at the Hurghada Hilton from £389. Return flights from London with Britannia Airways start at £249. A diving package with Divers Lodge costs £135. This includes ten dives from hardboats, air and weights.
The priceof the Ocean Diver course is £220, including all support materials. For more information on Ocean Diver courses call the BSAC on 0151 350 6200.