MY ENTRY into the diving world had a lot to do with a blonde actress who had a villa in the South of France, very close to St. Tropez. This was before the time of Brigitte Bardot.
For reasons that are none of your business, the blonde invited me to use her private beach whenever I wished. This was just after the war, when the travel allowance was so small that the drivers of British cars on French roads used to wave to each other because there were so few of us.
Unfortunately the blonde had a husband and children with her on the same beach. It was while I was sun-bathing and watching her children in the sea that I first laid eyes on a mask and a snorkel.
The childrens use of this equipment seemed to involve a great deal of coughing and spluttering, so much so that I tip-toed down the burning sand for a closer look. My schoolboy French was excellent for conversing with French schoolboys and I was soon being instructed in the use of the mask and tube.
I struck out from the shore in the funny kind of breast-stroke that the elder of the boys had told me was an essential part of the art. Under no circumstances was I to allow the tip of the tube to dip below the surface.
When I looked down I could see. I could see! I saw sunlight patterning the seabed like a gold-outlined jigsaw. And I saw fish - gaily-coloured wrasse that the French call girelles, and a mob of tiny golden fish, baby bream, which we call goldline and they call saupe.
It seems ridiculous now to say that, at that moment, in chest-deep water, wearing a childs underwater swimming mask that was far too small for me, my life was changed. But it was. From that moment I was hooked on underwater swimming. I was so entranced that I ducked under to get a closer look and choked. But it didnt put me off.
That started everything. On following visits to the blonde - and her husband - I graduated to spearfishing. This was mainly because the blondes husband could cook up a wondrous fish soup and it needed the stinging rascasse, or scorpionfish, without which no real bouillabaise is complete. So hunting fish for the pot became my grande passion - well, one of them.
I cannot say, however, that the fish soup was my only reason for spearfishing, for the hunt had an excitement of its own. I linked up with the spearfishing champion of the South of France, who was also a friend of the blonde, and only then did I find out that, however hard I practised, I would never reach the depths that he achieved with effortless ease. As a spearfisherman, I was definitely in the lowest class.
Back in London I met Oscar Gugen, who asked me to help him found a British diving club - not just for spearfishing, but to train people to use the Cousteau Aqualung diving apparatus which was just starting to come to Britain. I agreed and wrote a story about Oscar and his new club for Londons Evening News, where I worked as a reporter.
A few days later I went back to France for my annual holiday and returned with a massive pain in my chest. I had a pleural effusion of the right lung. By the time I emerged from hospital, Oscar had formed the British Sub-Aqua Club.
Of course, I joined. I had been told by doctors that spearfishing, if indulged in moderately, would do me no harm, and assumed that applied to all forms of underwater swimming.
I tried out an aqualung for the first time in Chelsea Baths during a BSAC training session and was not mightily impressed. Spearfishing was still the thing for me. It is odd now to realise that, at that time, I completely failed to grasp the possibilities opened up by the aqualung. I found the ability to breathe underwater a marvellous thing, but entirely missed taking advantage of that freedom to explore the open sea.
Spearfishing now took me to Spain, where there were huge groupers in depths more suited to my poor breath-hold diving skills - some in less than two metres of water - and big fish under every rock.
Then, on my honeymoon (my wife Penny had taken to snorkelling like there was no tomorrow), we went to all the places I had heard about from spearfishermen in Spain and Portugal. The next year we went to Sicily, where I saw my first shark - trapped in the tunny nets.
Next year it was Sardinia and by now my old spring speargun had given way to a very modern compressed-air version.
It was when using that gun in Spain the following year that my spearfishing came to an end. I had been well pleased to find a big fat corb under a rock at moderate depth. I made no mistake. The fish was pierced right through. As I floated, sucking in air on the surface, the fish looked back at me along the length of the harpoon, which was wedged just behind the gills.
Two big globules of blood glowed in the water against the blue as the sunlight struck the fish. As I finned forward, the fishs eyes followed me. It looked so sad. And I was suddenly ashamed. I hastily finished the fish off.
|Nail-biting moments for a learner facing the sea for the first time.|
That same week I discovered the Anglo-Spanish Undersea School in a back street of San Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava. Pat and Joan Harrison were earning a precarious living from teaching visitors to dive. It was perfect timing. I was on the rebound from my disillusionment with spearfishing, and ex-Marine Commando Pat Harrison was keen to teach me to dive.
He revived my enthusiasm for the undersea world by means of some well used twin-hose valves, battered bottles and a noseclip inside my mask. Penny was his other pupil. It was worth every peseta, and on our return to London we joined Bromley Branch of the BSAC and started training all over again.
Thats the story of how I started diving, but I still dont know why it took me so long to get around to it.
Escape from adland
Every time the stresses of the advertising world over-whelmed him, John Bantin picked up his dive bag and headed for Paradise under water. Now its his life
WHATS your idea of Paradise White sands, a turquoise sea and palm fronds gently rustling in the cooling breeze This is a stereotype peddled by the advertising industry - and it was in that industry that I worked.
Every script began with the optimistic words Open on sunny beach. Usually we ended up shooting in beautiful downtown Bermondsey, but from time to time the original idea got into production. That is what brought me to the Caribbean in 1979, producing the shot for an advertisement for Krug champagne.
We had chartered the most amazing schooner and all we needed was that turquoise sea and a little bit of sunshine.
Not much to ask, you may say, but a deep depression hung over the whole Caribbean area.
It was deep, but it was nowhere near as deep as the depression in my hotel suite. Time is money - lots of it in this case. The schooner alone was costing £1500 per day and it was raining.
It was raining so heavily that many of the hotel staff were given time off to bale out their homes. That turquoise sea was a muddy grey colour with masses of dead eel-grass bobbing among the waves. The palm fronds dripped forlornly, and I saw my budget gushing down the drain that the hotel really could have done with. The models were bored and the camera crew resorted to endless games of pool. We ate conch chowder, we ate conch salad, we ate conch fritters. Boredom ate away at our spirits. There was nothing to do but wait for the weather to clear.
I was never much of an athlete. To me, early-morning exercise meant a buffet breakfast. But one wet, fateful day, I found myself idly talking to a couple of lads who were mopping rainwater from a little white hut which bore a sign saying, Learn to Scuba Here.
Totally out of character, and to my own disbelief, I found myself enrolling on a scuba-diving course.
The horror of my own recklessness left me with no appetite for lunch, and that afternoon I was led like a lamb to the slaughter into the shallow end of the hotels swimming pool.
It was about four feet deep. I am more tha six feet tall, but trepidation was obviously written all over my face. My instructors kindly suggested that, if I felt uncertain about anything, I should just stand up. Four feet of water may not sound like much but its a lot when all you have done is take a bath in fifteen inches. I wondered if I should have learned to swim properly first.
Every time I encountered a problem with a particular skill they encouraged me by saying it would be a lot easier in the sea. In the sea At this point I barely had my head under the water.
By the end of the day I was swimming round the deep end of the pool, still unable to clear my mask if it flooded, but otherwise enjoying myself. Early next morning I sneaked alone into the pool armed with mask and snorkel. I was determined to crack the underwater mask-clearing business.
I blew air out of every orifice of my body without shifting that water in the mask. It was only when I realised it was just like blowing your nose without a hankie that success was mine!
That afternoon I was in the sea, and the following day I was doing my first dives from a boat.
|Gardening gloves, casual wear, no direct feed: John Bantins first dive|
Within four days I was doing things I had not contemplated doing in my wildest dreams - and it seemed easy. We dived down to 30m and on one occasion into a cave which was occupied by me, my instructor, and an enormous nurse shark! It was the perfect pastime for me. I could strut about looking very macho before I disappeared under the ocean. I then reappeared about an hour later, armed with all sorts of incredible anecdotes about the experiences Id had during my absence.
This really impressed my non-diving audience. Little did they know that I simply drifted dreamily and effortlessly with the fish, and that I could barely swim. I fell in love with diving. It was easy. The more I found out about it and the more time I spent underwater, the easier it became. It began to take over my life. In fact it became a very demanding mistress.
Every time the stresses of the advertising world seemed over-bearing, I would pick up my dive-bag and head for the airport and that advertising mans idea of Paradise. I had found what I was good at - taking it easy!
I found out all I could about the subject. I put myself through the whole gamut of BSAC courses, diving in the more turbid waters around Britains coastline, and I started writing down some of my wilder experiences.
I always was a photographer so I found the trials and tribulations of underwater photography relatively straightforward. I also became a diving instructor with a number of training agencies, including the BSAC.
By 1990, I had completely disposed of my business liabilities to concentrate on diving-related activities. Since then I have made some instructional videos, taught diving in the Mediterranean, and even worked as a dive-guide on a live-aboard, patrolling the whole length of the Red Sea from Egypt to the Yemen.
I liked diving and I liked telling people about it, so I suppose it was inevitable that I should end up working for Diver Magazine.
In the curious case of Andy Blackford (right), the experience of discovering diving so profoundly affected his imagination that its been on the rampage ever since. But a close reading will reveal that the truth is in there, somewhere.
I LEARNED to dive the hard way. My father handcuffed me to an aqualung and threw me over the rail of a cross-Channel ferry. By a happy coincidence, I landed on the wreck of the Sir Frederick Starr, a freighter out of Santa Harmonica, Peru, with a cargo of Conquistadores gold. By the time I ran into decompression, I was fabulously rich.
I spent it all on a PADI introductory course, not realising that I could have done the BSAC equivalent for £1.10s.
Only joshing. The truth is, nobody taught me to dive. I invented the sport myself in 1942.
I vividly remember that moment of divine revelation: I was a corporal in the Swiss Army, and, having little to occupy me (Switzerland was in the middle of the Second World Peace at the time), I was idly whittling with my standard issue Swiss Army pen-knife at an old, wooden vacuum cleaner.
Suddenly, I found myself carving out a complex shape at one end of the cylindrical body. I stopped. I stared. You know, I whispered hoarsely, that looks uncommonly like the sort of thing one might call a First Stage!
The rest was relatively easy. The concept of a First Stage is quite redundant without the existence of a Second Stage, so I quickly fashioned one out of mud, attaching it to the cylinder with the tube from a hookah I picked up in Marrakesh. It wasnt long before the Big Day - the first in-water trial of BUBA - the Blackford Underwater Breathing Apparatus. What an anticlimax. The mud dissolved in the salt water, I inhaled a strange, tarry residue from the hookah pipe and hallucinated an entire menagerie of mythical beasts with fins and gills, then the vacuum cleaner unaccountably switched to suck mode and turned my lungs inside out.
Not really. I was having you on. What really happened was this: I was a plain-clothes priest, working undercover for the Russian Orthodox Church. I was researching the life of Pyter Alexinov Bulgarovich, the 14th century Belorussian patriot and mammal juggler. His modern-day disciples argued vociferously for his canonisation, but for years his good name was tarnished by a rumour that he had harboured an ill-disguised affection for the music of the tripe-organ (a proscribed instrument in those dark days).
My investigations led me to the Lake District, for Bulgarovich, ordered to perform a penance by his confessor in Constantinople, had spent the winter of 1323 as part of a dry-stone wall on Scafell Pyke.
One dreary evening, when the chill mists for which that region is so famously known swirl down from the mountains like candyfloss (only grey), I found myself staring into the crimson canyons of a fine log fire in the snug of the Stupid Man at Pissenthwaite.
Hypnotised by the flickering flames, my mind wandered free, alighting like a butterfly upon one topic after another - the extraordinary courage of Bulgarovich as he faced death by tickling in a cell the size of a hat; the colour and consistency of taramasalata; the remarkable upper torso of Brenda the barmaid who, it turns out, was the ninth-born girlchild of a Stokesley family, all noted for their epically proportioned forward tackle.
It was into these idle meanderings that an imperative phrase insinuated itself, spoken (or rather urgently imparted in lowered tones) by a rough and ready individual to his shifty companion: If youre doin the Icon Dive, be at the bridge at Beastly at 8 oclock sharp! And with that he drained his jar, turned his collar to the fog and strode from the bar.
My heart leaped. Could this be the clue I had sought so fruitlessly Was the truth about Bulgarovich lying in the mud at the bottom of a Cumbrian lake Would I find, among priceless icons, those glorious artistic expressions of the Orthodox faith, the evidence to support or dash the martyrs claims to sainthood
Next morning at 7.45am I waited under a lowering sky at Beastly Bridge. At 9.50am, a battered van bearing the legend Kendall BSAC groaned to a halt and spewed forth a mess of bleary individuals upon the roadside.
Icon divers, kit up! growled a large, ill-defined person. I soon found myself clad in a patched and tattered wetsuit, weightbelt, aqualung - and a pair of hiking boots.
I was mystified as we trudged up a muddy lane, my back already complaining about the unaccustomed load. An hour later we were high above the tree-line on Grimshiel Cragg. I was technically dead.
I was joined by a red, jovial sort who threw an arm around my shoulders, bringing me finally to me knees. Eh-up, lad! he brayed. Is this yer first Hike and Dive Needless to say, there were no icons. In fact, in the freezing glacial tarn at 900m that was the dive site there were no anythings - no fish, no plants, no invertebrates, nothing.
But, on the other hand, it was my first dive.
What Not really. I was mucking about. This is really how I learned to dive. I was thinking one day, Id really like to learn to dive. So I went to the Red Sea and a bloke taught me.