UN­CHARTED WA­TERS

Be­neath the sur­face is a par­adise that is wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered

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IIMAGINE YOUR­SELF HOV­ER­ING, weight­less, above a gar­den lush with oth­er­worldly growth bloom­ing in ev­ery colour of the rain­bow. All around you, hun­dreds of crea­tures – big and small, of kinds that have never walked the Earth – glide by with grace. Sil­very bub­bles rise from your head, grow­ing as they as­cend like thought bub­bles in a comic strip, to meet the sooth­ingly blue-fil­tered sun­light beam­ing down from above. The loud­est sound is your breath­ing. Top that with the smug feel­ing you’ll have from know­ing that only a few hun­dred me­tres from this par­adise, mere mor­tals are pos­ing for In­sta­gram shots in their barely-there swimwear and scorch­ing in the sun. If only they knew. You don’t get to visit this par­adise by or­der­ing the magic mush­room pizza. You get there by learn­ing to scuba dive and ex­plor­ing the world be­yond the beach, be­neath the ocean wave.

Are you tempted by the prospect of frol­ick­ing like a mer­maid (or mer­man), far from the madding crowd? Any­body can do it but you must be at least 10 years old and ca­pa­ble of swim­ming. You don’t have to be a strong swim­mer but should be con­fi­dent in the wa­ter. These are the min­i­mum re­quire­ments for tak­ing prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar train­ing cour­ses, run by the Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Div­ing In­struc­tors, or PADI.

Maybe you are scared of putting your head un­der the wa­ter and be­ing un­able to breathe. The beauty of scuba div­ing is that it al­lows you to breathe nor­mally, no mat­ter how deep you plunge. Scuba is an acro­nym, stand­ing for self-con­tained un­der­wa­ter breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus. You can find out for your­self by do­ing an in­tro­duc­tory dive.

A PADI Dis­cover Scuba Div­ing course lets you feel what it’s like to use scuba gear to breathe eas­ily un­der­wa­ter, ei­ther in a swim­ming pool or in

a shal­low part of the sea, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a qual­i­fied in­struc­tor.

The in­tro­duc­tory dive doesn’t qual­ify you to dive but it re­veals the sen­sa­tion of be­ing un­der­wa­ter and, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced it once, you’ll be itch­ing to take the course that qual­i­fies you for a PADI Open Wa­ter Diver cer­tifi­cate. It sounds a bit like school, and it takes a few days of learn­ing that in­cludes tech­ni­cal de­tails, but safety comes first when find­ing par­adise be­neath the waves.

The most im­por­tant lessons of the course are prac­ti­cal ones, taught un­der­wa­ter. At the end of the course, you will feel at home be­neath the waves and safe.

What’s more, the course will teach you how to en­joy par­adise. It will teach you the tech­nique for mak­ing your­self weight­less un­der­wa­ter. It will also teach you to ex­pend the least pos­si­ble en­ergy when div­ing be­cause ex­er­tion makes you breathe harder, and the harder you breathe, the more quickly you use up the air in the tank on your back, and the more quickly you use up your air, the less time you have in par­adise.

All you need is a sen­si­ble re­spect for the sea and an open mind that is ready to be blown. Your dive in­struc­tor will do the rest. The in­struc­tor usu­ally pro­vides the scuba gear.

You may feel com­fort­able with your own equip­ment, so be­gin by buy­ing a well-fit­ting mask and a snorkel, and a good wet­suit for com­fort. Trop­i­cal wa­ters that feel like a warm bath when you are on the beach, feel quite chilly when you’ve been im­mersed in them for half an hour or more. If you de­velop a taste for par­adise, you can buy other items as the need arises.

With your PADI Open Wa­ter Diver ticket to par­adise in hand, where might you take the plunge? An­other of the as­pects of par­adise that makes it heavenly is that it has branches ev­ery­where – of­ten near places peo­ple visit to en­joy other forms of sea­side leisure.

In the Mal­dives, cur­rents sweep through the chan­nels be­tween the atolls that make up the is­land chain, car­ry­ing nu­tri­ents that feed the vast numbers and myr­iad va­ri­eties of fish, which are a sight to be­hold: Napoleon wrasse, par­rot fish, snap­pers, jacks and sweet­lips. Even the names of the best places to dive sound heavenly: atolls called Lhaviyani, Vaavu, Meemu, Laamu and Ari.

In­done­sia has more ma­rine di­ver­sity than any­where on

earth, be­ing in the Coral Tri­an­gle that reaches from Aus­tralia to the Philip­pines to the South Pa­cific. In­done­sia has 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish. It has deep sub-sea trenches, sub­merged moun­tains formed by vol­ca­noes and many wrecks of ships sunk in the Sec­ond World War. The names on the gates of par­adise here in­clude Raja Am­pat, Alor and Waka­tobi.

In Bar­ba­dos, the warmer wa­ter means you can dive all year round. Count­less ships have foundered on its shal­low reefs and divers can ac­cess about 200 wrecks. Ex­pect to see hawks­bill tur­tles, sea horses, frog fish, par­rot fish, tube sponges, moray eels and nurse sharks.

The Red Sea, ac­ces­si­ble from Egypt, has warm, clear wa­ter, and sur­prises that would strike you dumb if you could talk un­der­wa­ter, such as sub-sur­face en­coun­ters with dol­phins. An ocean away is Mi­crone­sia, where manta rays, reef sharks and whale sharks pop­u­late stun­ning reefs. There, Truk La­goon is an un­der­wa­ter grave­yard for planes, ships and a sub­ma­rine that met their end in the Sec­ond World War.

For a cer­ti­fied diver with ex­pe­ri­ence un­der their weight belt, a live­aboard ex­pe­di­tion is a crown­ing am­bi­tion. Divers live aboard a ves­sel, do­ing as many dives as time and safety al­lows. Liv­ing on a boat means you will visit par­adise that is oth­er­wise un­reach­able and en­joy an ex­pe­ri­ence that is off the charts.

“In­done­sia has more ma­rine di­ver­sity than any­where on earth, be­ing in the Coral Tri­an­gle that reaches from Aus­tralia to the Philip­pines to the South Pa­cific. In­done­sia has 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish”

Op­po­site: in the deep blue off Da­hab and free­d­iv­ing in Marsa Alam, both in Egypt

Clock­wise from above: un­der­wa­ter life around Yap in Mi­crone­sia; a sea­horse off the coast of Da­hab in the Gulf of Aqaba; a dol­phin pod

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