Shout-out! for the great guides
IT WAS A VERY QUIET, COLD, WET and windy New Year’s Day in Surrey. Rather than TV re-runs, I was craving the warmth of some sun rays on my body and the feel of liquid sunshine as I slipped into a lovely warm ocean to watch the underwater world come alive before my eyes.
That wasn’t on, so I decided that my dive fix would come from digging out old dive-logs and reminiscing about my most memorable and enjoyable dives.
Reading the detailed logs I keep religiously from every dive I do, it soon became clear that I had enjoyed the majority of my best dives not only for their beauty, location or marine life, but also because of the dive-guide or spotter I had.
What’s the difference between a guide and a spotter A guide shows you the reef, but a spotter shows you what’s in the reef. My best dives had almost always been led by dive-guides who were also excellent spotters, whether of large animals such as sharks or macro life like pygmy seahorses.
They also had great knowledge and passion for the oceans, and would delight in showing me the best of the dive-sites where they worked, unlike more lacklustre and now forgotten guides, who treated divers more like cattle and the dives simply as a money-making occupation.
Passion is a key to the survival of our world’s oceans – not only for conservationists, but for those who work in the water for hours each day, leading dives. Without passion, there is no thought of imparting the knowledge that the ocean and its marine life is sacred and should be treated as such.
I’ve lost count of the number of guides who touch marine life, picking up living things and disturbing their natural habitat – “look at me, aren’t I a great guide for showing you this” – when leaving the animal alone, but taking the time to show divers its natural behaviour, would mean so much more.
Guides who think that zooming around a reef to cover as much distance as possible are just as bad, and they are often the same ones who pick creatures up. Compassion is important in a dive guide. Taking time to examine the reef in detail is one of the most important things they can do, spotting unusual behaviour or species, noticing and removing debris such as fishing-line or rubbish that could harm the reef, and teaching their divers to do the same.
Many of the best dive-guides also have a great sense of humour, and it’s a bonus under water when they suddenly appear with silly grin and a floating piece of seaweed on their head.
I hope that sharing a few stories about my best dive-guides will make you stop and think about the best you have had.
My first memorable dive-guide was way back when I started to dive and take photographs. It was my first time in the Maldives and I arrived on an impossibly beautiful island resort in the north, where Kurt was introduced as my guide for the week.
Passionate about Lhaviyani Atoll and its colourful soft corals, immense amount of marine life and especially sharks, Kurt was on a mission to show me the best of the atoll.
Filling the surface intervals with stories of shark encounters, marine life and his favourite dives as well as of the islanders and the Maldives in general gave me a real thirst for travel and adventure, and my first feelings of passion for the ocean.
Kurt was a keen underwater photographer and helped me immensely with my little film equivalent of a point-and-shoot.
From that holiday on, I didn’t dive only for pleasure but because I was passionate about marine life and reefs and their health, and making others aware of this as much as possible through my photography.
AFTER A FEW TRIPS with OK-but-nothing-special guides, I went to the island of Lombok in Indonesia with my daughters Megan, 12, and Camilla, 14. Both had been PADI Open Water Divers for 18 months.
Working at the dive centre were Kristen from Germany and his lovely Japanese partner Yuko. They struck me as the happiest couple I had met in a long time, and both loved the ocean.
Even on their day off you would see them hand-in-hand, fins under their arms, walking towards the shore for a snorkel. They even held hands whilst snorkelling!
So keen were they to show everyone Lombok’s underwater life that they let their imaginations run riot on briefings.
Yuko’s English wasn’t that good, but her widely sweeping arm gestures, little dances and funny facial expressions as she tried to describe the fish we would see made me often remember her, and Lombok, with fondness.
The couple let me know when they moved on to the Maldives a couple of years later. I was happy to find they were every bit as enthusiastic and passionate about diving when I visited them there, at Island Hideaway.
I was also happy to see them still holding hands while snorkelling on their day off!
MY FIRST TRIP TO RAJA AMPAT was in 2009. I was staying on Kri Island, about 90 minutes by boat from the airport in Sorong. After a few minutes settling into my room, my Papuan dive-guide Otto appeared. He proceeded to unpack my dive gear into a large crate and carry it off.
I didn’t have to lift a finger for my whole trip there. Otto would set everything up each day, change tanks, rinse my kit and even carry my camera.
Under water, Otto was almost too enthusiastic. The vast quantity of different species meant that he kept beckoning to me every few minutes to show me something new, without giving me time to photograph the subject properly.
After a quiet word, he slowed down his pursuit of interesting subjects to allow me time to get the images I wanted before bringing me to the next subject. Every subject he found was positioned perfectly for photographs, because he had listened to my instructions very carefully, bypassing anything that wasn’t suitably positioned unless it was a subject I hadn’t seen before.
He delighted in showing me my very first pygmy seahorse, followed by three more different, and very rare, kinds, delicately and gently pointing to the tiny creature with his metal stick.
Otto realised that diving with a camera was difficult in a current, so would often change dive-sites if he thought the current was too strong that day, promising to go back the next day when the current would have subsided.
True to his word, we visited all the sites, but on days on which the current was the best.
On one of the deeper dives my first stage froze, leaving me with no air. Feeling panicked, I signalled to Otto. Very efficiently and calmly he gave me his octopus, grabbed my BC and looked into my eyes until I had calmed downed sufficiently, before buddy-breathing our way to the surface.
He later stripped down and repaired my first and second stages, but stayed close to me for the remaining dives of the trip, in case I had a problem again.
Otto took us to a tiny uninhabited island between dives so that we could relax on the beach while having lunch.
He went off to find some native plants – he had told me that he could cure most things with these, and that it wouldn’t be a problem even if I got stung by a stonefish!
Whilst he was collecting the plants he came across a small illegal shark-finning operation, and was keen that I photograph it to make people aware.
NOT SO MUCH A DIVE-GUIDE as a dive god, Sven was an enormously tall Swede who worked on the liveaboard Nautilus Explorer when I went to Isla Guadaloupe to dive with great white sharks.
My initial thought was that the sharks would be frightened and intimidated by Sven, rather than the other way around.
In fact Sven was a real gentle giant. He went into so much detail on our dive briefing that no one felt frightened by the prospect of being in the water with the infamous animals.
In fact he made us feel so excited that we couldn’t wait to get in the water.
Standing on the top of the cages, manhandling divers through the small hole in the top, he made us all feel safe.
On one of our dives, feeling comfortable within the cage at 15m while being circled by a huge female white, I signalled to Sven that I wanted to get out of the cage.
He gave me the OK sign and helped me climb the ladder to stand, unprotected, on the top of the cage while the magnificent beast swam closer out of curiosity.
Having Sven’s huge bulk next to me I felt very safe, and privileged to have been given this opportunity to experience the sharks in this way.
IN 2010, TWO DAYS BEFORE a long-awaited trip to Asia, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano exploded in Iceland.
With practically all flights within Europe cancelled because of the ash cloud, my dream liveaboard holiday to the remote atoll of Tubbataha, halfway between the Philippines and Borneo, looked likely to be cancelled.
The weather window for trips to Tubbataha was only 2-3 months a year, so I was sure I wouldn’t be going again for a long time.
I scoured the Internet day and night, and finally managed to get a flight out of Rome the following week.
I contacted Worldwide Dive and Sail to tell them that I would be delayed, and it got Marco Santos, who was to be my dive-guide for the trip, on the job.
Not only did Marco manage to arrange for his friends to get me across several islands within the Philippines, including the now-devastated Tagbilaran, he organised another friend to take me on a two-hour journey out to sea on his tiny outrigger bangka fishing boat, to meet the liveaboard. As a result I was only two days late.
As the outrigger pulled up next to the big boat, the biggest smile awaited me, along with a very strong arm to pull me aboard. Jovial and happy, Marco gave me a big hug, then told me to get changed as quickly as I could, because he was going to make up for lost time and take me diving straight away!
While I got my bikini on, he sorted out my dive gear, loaded it onto the RIB and was ready and waiting within half an hour of my arrival to proudly show me his native country’s beautiful reefs and marine life.
I HAVE HAD TWO DELIGHTFUL FEMALE DIVE-GUIDES. One, Clare Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club in Egypt, always impressed me with her professionalism, as well as her passion for the sites around Roots Dive Camp. Before every briefing, she would say: “I really love this dive-site because…”
And she really did love them, delighting in showing us a large red anemone here, some beautiful caves there or a tiny clownfish in only 2m near the entrance to a shore-dive, as if she were proudly showing us her new house, or new pet.
I also liked the fact that she had no qualms about admonishing clumsy divers who might kick up the sand, or look likely to damage the reef – especially as a lot of those divers were burly men’s men.
The second woman who impressed was Cruz Gonzalez, of Native Diving in Lanzarote. She was just one of those people with a beautiful personality, an extremely cheeky smile and a total love of the water.
Guiding me around the reefs of Lanzarote, she delighted in showing me angel sharks, seahorses and beautiful caves.
Her cheeky side really came out when she took me to a dive site on the north-east coast – home of a German nudist colony! (See feature in this issue.)
ONE OF THE FUNNIEST but most knowledgeable and memorable dive-guides I have met was Miguel Riberio, who worked in Wakatobi, Indonesia. This trip was a long saved-for and much-anticipated return to Indonesia.
Miguel was assigned to me as a private dive-guide, because the resort had a large group staying and taking up most of the other guides.
I was in luck, because he not only had extreme passion for the ocean, but also for underwater photography.
Delighting every day in showing me the best sites around, as dive-centre manager he was able to ensure that we would have them to ourselves.
Staggering entries in the calm waters, we would be dropped rst at one end of the site while others would be dropped later at the other.
This meant that on almost every dive, we would see the others only for a minute or two, if at all. He would also plan my profile very carefully to get the most out of the air in my tank. Every dive lasted more than 90 minutes!
Miguel would show me something special to photograph, then go off to find something else, returning while I was still absorbed with the subject, often coming close and pulling a face, or putting my camera cover on his head, or waiting for me upside-down in a giant sponge.
He made me laugh so often that I almost lost my regulator!
As I flicked through my dive-logs, frequently smiling as I remembered happy times and the people who had made them special, I thanked my lucky stars.
I wouldn’t have had my life enriched by these experiences had I not taken that step of becoming a diver.