LAUGHTER IS OFTEN TAKEN to indicate happiness, but it can denote fear. People laugh when they’re nervous, as Karen discovered in the classroom at Red Sea Diving Safari’s base at Marsa Shagra in southern Egypt.
Karen had not dived for some years, and she was about to re-enter the water. There must be thousands of people in a similar situation, because life can easily get in the way of scuba-diving.
The commitment in time and money can be hard to maintain – miss one year and it slips to two or three, and while you still tell friends that you’re a diver your logbook is gathering dust in a drawer.
Of those who miss a year of diving, the number who restart is quite small. Many people leave diving behind for good, but they don’t have to. The dive fraternity is by and large a friendly, welcoming and understanding bunch.
The reason for Karen’s jittery laugh was Pavlina, an instructor about to conduct her Scuba Review.
“I was nervous I’d balls it up,” Karen tells me. “I knew to be safe in the water I needed to do a Scuba Review, but was scared I’d fail.”
Karen has around 160 dives in her logbook, many done in the UK. She learned to dive in December 2002, completing her PADI Open Water in the takes-your-breath-away frigid waters of Stoney Cove.
She started her PADI Advanced OWD training soon afterwards. Like many in their first year of diving, her enthusiasm overcame the cold and she was diving Falmouth’s Pendennis Point to do her drysuit speciality on 1 February. “I did two dives that day,” she says proudly.
After her 13th dive she travelled to Bali for her first taste of warm water. One site called the Eel Garden remains joint-first on her list of best dives: “It was the last dive of the trip and there were so many things to see, such as the massive eel garden, lots of fish, and a huge drop-off. A current that took us by surprise in a gully made it a challenge,” she tells me.
Mega-keen in the first few years, Karen dived at every opportunity. After diving the Volnay wreck off the Lizard she got a taste for wrecks and went in off the wild north Cornish coast. The number of dives crept over 100. Foreign trips included the ubiquitous Sharm and more exotic places such as South Africa.
Enthusiasm and opportunity combined and she was well on the road to becoming a seasoned diver with a raft of pub stories.
Joint top with Eel Garden was a tiger-shark dive in South Africa. “It was a baited dive and I was filming a tiger shark with a GoPro. At one point the shark came right up to investigate the camera, and I had to push her away. It was scary, but awesome at the same time.”
By 2006 Karen had moved to London and her pressured job stopped her doing any serious diving. Finding herself without dive-buddies put an end to UK diving, and the overseas trips became few and far between.
She kept her dive-kit, however, because she never believed she’d give up the sport for good. But in 2010 fate grabbed her arm and pulled her aside from life as her father was diagnosed with cancer, and she was determined to spend as much time with him as possible.
He died in 2012 and fate kicked Karen when she was already down as her house was flooded in the terrible July weather.
Diving was so on the back-burner that it was barely warm. Then, in 2014, a sudden opportunity arose to rekindle her old love of diving.
After that eight-year break, Karen wanted to find a place that exerted no more pressure than the kind with which Boyle would be familiar.
She didn’t want a timetable, depth- and time-limits, just to be free to take each fin-kick back into the underwater realm at her own pace, at comfortable depths and without upsetting anyone waiting on a dive-deck in full kit.
“I was excited but quite nervous about doing a dive-trip,” she confesses. “I worried that I wouldn’t fit into my suit any more. Also I hadn’t used my equipment in a long time and I bought a new mask and fins that I hadn’t tested. I was a little worried about my fitness, too.” How many lapsed divers never overcome such butterflies as they develop over time
“I did some research on Marsa Shagra,” says Karen. “I was confident that it would cater for people who hadn’t been diving for a long time, just as it caters for people who’ve just passed their PADI Open Water.”
Marsa Shagra is an eco-minded Red Sea beachside resort offering stone chalets and tented accommodation. It’s located close to Marsa Alam, with a 45-minute transfer from the airport, and caters for all levels of diver, with dives on its house reefs, truck-dives to nearby locations and RIB dives to the offshore Elphinstone reef.
On the morning of her first dive, the new reservations about the Scuba Review crept in. “The last time I’d properly used many of the skills was 2002, when I did my Open Water. I was pretty confident about simple tasks like mask-removal, but was worried about taking my dive-kit off under water and putting it back on.”
Pavlina was cool, calm and very professional. “I knew I was in good hands, but I was still nervous that I would fail,” Karen admits. “I had this nervous giggle, and it made my tummy hurt a bit. I was really keen to get in the water again, but scared of messing something up.”
August in Egypt is stupidly hot, so Karen didn’t need to check her 5mm suit for fit. She hired a shortie from the dive centre and walked tentatively into the water clutching all her equipment.
She had forgotten nothing, if only because she checked three times to make sure that she had it all.
Pavlina went through the surface skills first, and Karen showed that she could take her weight-belt off and put it back on as well as her scuba unit without too much trouble. Her mind seemed to be darting about, which made concentrating tricky, but she managed to roll the right way and tighten her straps correctly, with minimal flailing.
Pavlina talked calmly and encouraged Karen to think things through. She wasn’t just running through skills, she was confidence-building, and as the minutes ticked by the nervous giggles abated and the diving skill-set switched back on in Karen’s head.
“Once I got in the water, I knew I would be absolutely fine,” she says. “I knew I could still dive; it’s still there. But I’m glad I did the Scuba Review because I needed to brush up, and I needed to do it to give me the confidence again.
“It didn’t scare me once I was in the water. I was past the nervousness and I was enjoying it and having a bit of a giggle. I actually enjoyed taking my mask off and putting it back on – though I’m not so good taking my BC off.”
“I learnt something important as well.
I couldn’t remember back to 2002 when I did the non-mask swim. I couldn’t really see much without my mask, so it was important to know to put a spare mask in my pocket. If I lost it, I’d be stuffed.”
Karen was learning, as many Scuba Review students do, how rusty skills learned years before can become.
For example, she tried to remove her equipment as she would a coat, without thinking about the air-hoses.
As she tried to get out of the right side first and move the scuba unit around from the left, Pavlina tapped her forehead to get her to think about why the BC would not come off that way.
The prompt worked, and the BC with tank slipped off easily. Getting it back on caused the same confusion, and again Pavlina tapped her forehead. Think! This time, Karen realised her error first time.
With one skill to go, we all went for a bit of a dive. Karen’s buoyancy was still good and, the skills done, she looked confident and happy.
We were at the start of Marsa Shagra’s north wall, and although we didn’t get far, we did get to see how healthy this reef was. Visibility in the bay was a bit low because of the high water temperature, but as we passed some mooring buoys it cooled and the vis opened up.
Pavlina stopped at one of the buoylines and indicated that it was time for the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent). Karen, like many, was nervous about this. All divers, no matter how experienced, have a scratch on the brain telling them that swimming to the surface is wrong. To do it, you must be in trouble.
“Doing the CESA is a bit scary and it made me think,” said Karen. “I thought about the situation I’d be in if I had to use the CESA, and it made me think about people who have had accidents.
“If I was at the bottom and had to use it, I’d think: hell, that was 12 years ago,
I can’t remember.”
“I recommend people do a Scuba Review, because it gave me so much confidence. You’re never normally in a situation where you have to swim with your mask off or take your BC off, or do a CESA unless you’re unfortunate. And you never know what situation you’ll be in.
“A Scuba Review could save your life and someone else’s.”
A reborn diver
“I got 3s, 4s and 5s for my scores,” Karen says proudly. “I got a little bit tangled up in my BC, that was my 3, but it was fun. I was totally confident when I came out. A smile from ear to ear.”
They say you never forget how to ride a bike. The same is true of diving, but it’s rather more complicated than pedalling while balancing. As well as confidence, you need practice and a reawakening of the skills.
“I had to think about things in the beginning,” Karen remembered. “Stupid things like which way I had to put the BC on the tank and which side the hoses go, and to remember to take everything with me when I walked out to the pontoon.”
Shore-diving at Marsa Shagra, if you were to forget something it would be no big deal. There is no dive-boat to hold up and no other divers to annoy. People don’t appreciate the embarrassment lapsed divers feel about the possibility of inconveniencing experienced divers.
Remove the risk of upsetting anyone and the diver relaxes. Marsa Shagra was busy when we dived there, but no diver was bothered by us three.
After a couple of days it took Karen less time to get ready. Kitting-up became natural again.
“Marsa Shagra was awesome, because I was nervous in the beginning and it was great to get up and just chill with no rush, pootle down to collect our kit, which was in the same place every day, and walk into the water at my pace. Knowing I wasn’t jumping off a boat into deep water with drop-offs was calming. The reef was just a gentle slope down.”
Karen’s appetite for challenge had reawakened, and she was ready to board one of Marsa Shagra’s RIBs to go round to the north reef.
“I was a bit nervous the first time being on a RIB again,” said Karen. “I was looking forward to rolling backwards off it as that’s fun, but I was worried about not being able to get back. However, I did manage it… with the finesse of a badger!”
We were dropped at a spot that gave us a good 45-minute swim, prepared to be picked up on the corner near the channel leading to the bay at Marsa Shagra.
The reef slopes steeply to around 15m. We descended slowly and I could see that Karen was relaxed and calm – and a little overweighted now.
At the start she had needed an extra kilo as more oxygen was being stored in her stressed muscles, but being more relaxed in the water meant that she’d be able to remove a kilo for the next dive.
Marsa Shagra’s north reef is a classic Red Sea fringing variety with healthy corals and plenty of fish. Blue-spotted sting rays are common and other species more abundant than further north, especially considering that this is right by the shore. On the other side of the bay, however, the topography is different.
The southern reef, I believe, is even better. It offers more depth and more to explore. Pavlina showed us two huge ancient anchors embedded in the coral wall at 30m. This was Karen’s first time that deep on this trip and she was relaxed, acting and thinking like a diver again.
She checked her computer and air regularly. She was looking around and spotting things, so Pavlina decided that Karen was ready to do something she had never done – enter an underwater cavern.
In the shallows, the reef is cracked and full of chambers big enough for divers to swim through. The entrance was about as easy to find as a polar bear in a desert, but Pavlina knew what to look for.
Inside, the light-shafts danced like ballerinas on Red Bull. It was an Avatar-like magical scene, but Karen coped well with her new environment, concentrating on not kicking up sand behind her, and moving gracefully through the system.
I exited last and saw a big grin and two positive OK signals from a happy Karen, supremely confident under water again.
Back at the shore, we broke the surface and heard children laughing, divers being briefed and another couple discussing what they had seen. Standing there in full kit, rubbing the snot from my nose, the scene was so natural and Karen, I could see, felt the same. Her journey back to being a diver was almost complete.
The next day we ventured further afield and did have to stick to a schedule. Marsa Shagra offers truck dives to several locations, and the most popular is Sha’ab Abu Dabab – translated as “the bay of the father of echo” and a large 6m-deep clearwater bay.
Karen had seen hawksbills in Bali and Sharm, but this was her first time with the larger green turtles that munch on seagrass at Abu Dabab for most of the day. When I first visited this was a bay in the middle of nowhere, but now a massive hotel surrounds it, and the water is alive with divers and snorkellers.
It’s easy to find the turtles – just look up and see where the snorkellers are going. They charge around like midges in a Scottish glen to get close to the turtles as they come up to breathe.
Divers, of course, don’t need to be so frantic. Settle on the seabed close to a turtle and chances are it will come close while feeding. As the bay is so shallow, there’s no need to keep a constant eye on the time or air, and the experience is far removed from coral reef-diving.
At first Karen wasn’t keen on getting close to the turtles. Not because she was scared but, having seen them hounded by the snorkellers, she wanted to give them some peace.
That changed when, kneeling a few metres away from one, it came closer until it almost pushed her out of the way. She exited the water beaming.
Karen had started the week with severe butterflies but emerged a relaxed, happy diver. “Marsa Shagra is a perfect place to get back into diving,” she tells me at the end of the trip, “and a perfect place if you haven’t got much experience because it’s so relaxed, and there are professional instructors there to help you.
“Plus you can dive as much or as little as you like to get your confidence back.”
Oonasdivers charges £895 for a standard package to Red Sea Diving Safari at Marsa Shagra, which includes flights from Gatwick, transfers, seven nights in a beach safari tent (upgrades available), full board and five days’ unlimited shore-diving. A Scuba Review costs 66 euros, www.oonasdivers.com