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Of Total Confusion


(Conde Nast Traveller - 2003)
Learning to scuba dive in the Cayman Isles

Three metres under the water in a swimming pool in Chiswick, I have my first serious doubts about the wisdom of this assignment. I’m encased in full scuba gear: wetsuit, mask, weight belt, compressed air tank, and a bulky inflatable jacket known as a Buoyancy Control Device (BCD). Breathing intently through my regulator, I’m trying to copy my instructor, Woody, in the tricky skill of clearing a flooded mask underwater with a single short, sharp exhale through the nose.

It’s just not working. I’m coughing and choking and I’m still twelve feet below the surface and I’m sorry, Woody, I can see perfectly well what your hand gestures are telling me - ‘Don’t panic, stay down, breathe normally’, all the theory we did in class this morning - but I’m not going to, I have to go up, thank Christ, I’m at the surface, breathing God’s own beautiful air at the pressure He intended, not at two atmospheres with a half-sized lung.

Woody follows me up. He’s not happy. It’s important to practice this stuff as if we are 40ft under. Because when things go wrong at sea you can’t just pop to the surface. Unless you want to rupture an ear drum, burst a lung, or risk decompression sickness, otherwise known as the bends. So down we go again, and eventually I get things right enough for Woody to sign the piece of paper that means I’ve passed the Confined Water section of the dive certificate course organised by the Professional Association of Open Water Divers (PADI).

I tell a few friends about my panic. The ones who’ve never dived advise me to stop right there, give up the assignment and kiss goodbye to my week in the Cayman Islands. One talks of a friend of hers who returned from the Maldives with the bends and never got over it. Those who have dived reassure me: it’s fine, the skills you need to pass your PADI are a bit unpleasant, but you never really need them once you’ve started diving properly. When I get down there, with the beautiful fish, I’m going to have a ball.

Flying in to Grand Cayman a fortnight later my nerves have returned and I’ve managed to catch a heavy cold. ‘Congestion can plug air passages,’ reads my well-thumbed PADI manual. ‘Don’t dive with a cold or allergy.’ The heat on the island is like a sauna. By the time I’ve hired the car and figured out the air con I’m dripping.

Driving along a coast road thick with gleaming Hyatts and Sheratons and Colonial Clubs and Caribbean Apartments, I come after half an hour to the quieter back roads of West Bay. There’s the occasional cow in a field, a dog nosing at the foot of a palm tree, a local sitting under a porch. Out on the dark coral shore is the Cobalt Coast, a dive resort newly built by resident Dutch owner Arie Barendrecht in the style of a Caribbean great house, with shutters and verandas in white and powder-blue. It’s to fill a little gap in the market, he tells me, as he shows me to my chilled suite: for divers who want more than just a bunk or a poky room to come back to in the evening.

Arie is tall, skinny and reassuringly calm. I’m not to worry about my cold. The dive guys will tell me if it’s safe in the morning. ‘If you can’t equalize, you won’t go down.’ I sit by the pool with a Red Stripe and some lobster bisque. Reggae drifts out from the Cheers style bar, where the all-American clientele yell matily at each other. ‘Where you guys from?’ ‘That’s a big money trip …’ ‘Holey Moley, man, give me slime!’ It seems hard to believe I left London at half-ten this morning.

I take my jet-lag to bed and wake abruptly at 5am with a head full of phlegm. My tongue is swollen and sore. I have a rasping cough. At seven, I go down to breakfast in a state.

‘And how are you today?’ asks Arie.
I bore him with my symptoms. Arie smiles and folds his arms.
‘My advice? Go full steam ahead. Give yourself a healthy breakfast. Get rid of the demons.’

So I drink strong black coffee and chase away my fears with Pancakes Served with Sausages and Aunt Jemima’s Real Maple Syrup. At 8 am I go round to the dive centre next door. I’ve been fully expecting to join the boatload of fit-looking types gearing up on the dock to head out onto the choppy open sea. But my induction is going to be altogether gentler. I’m driven round the bay to a sheltered shore site called Turtle Reef. Here it turns out that my new instructor – or ‘buddy’ diver in PADI parlance - is not going to be a lean Ubermensch with limited patience, but a gently-spoken blonde from the Welsh valleys. Not that you could tell by Kym’s accent, which veers interestingly between American and Australian.

To make things even more special, Kym is going to be joined by two trainee dive-masters, Canadian Sheri and Italian Cristiano, both lean as whippets and considerably browner. Any cock-ups I make are going to be clocked by no less than three buddies.

Oh well. There’s no going back now. Somehow just being abroad makes you braver. I gear up. In London Woody taught me to remember PADI’s crucial pre-dive safety check acronym BWRAF (Buoyancy, Weights, Releases, Air and Final Check) with ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellers’. Kym’s altogether sweeter version is ‘Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy’. As I mess it up, it becomes clear that my one-day crash course was too short. I can barely remember the constituent parts of the BCD, let alone the rest.

Eventually we’re ready to go. The first Open Water Dive is a controlled descent to thirty feet. First, we’re going to practice underwater cramp removal, losing our regulator and - God help me! – flooding and clearing our masks.

I have told myself very firmly that I’m not going to panic again. Kneeling on soft sand fifteen feet below the shimmering surface of the ocean, the cramp removal goes fine. Kym gives me the underwater OK sign. With magnificent control, I take the regulator out of my mouth, lose it, expel the required slow stream of bubbles, find it, and gaspingly get my air source back. Kym does an underwater clapping motion. Now for Mask Clearing Horror. As long as I have the reg in my mouth I’m going to be OK. However choked I become I can still breathe. Here goes! But no, no, try as I might I still can’t get the water out. There’s salt stinging my bunged-up nostrils and I’m gasping. I signal ‘I want to go up’. Kym is firm. Calm down, stay down, keep breathing. Do it like this. But it still doesn’t work. I’m coughing and spluttering and I have to go up. Now.

‘Sorry,’ I say as she appears beside me on the surface. She and the junior buddies look concerned and bemused. Am I going to make it, their expressions ask.

Kym shows me where I’m going wrong and talks me back down. Miraculously I manage it and am given the OK. We’re off, swimming deeper on the Underwater Exploration section of the dive. And suddenly, still shaking with nerves, I get the point of it all. I am weightless in a beautiful place. Ahead of me the ever-shifting foliage of the breathing reef: corals like ferns, corals like brains, corals like pillars, corals like cacti. One is like a mad sculpture made of stag’s horns, another a shimmering purple fan. And nibbling at them, swimming over them, round them, are the extraordinary fish: a darting shoal of blue; a sedate trio of yellow; an inquisitive loner with a huge black eye painted like a logo on its white sides; another awkward creature in pink and turquoise, like some chubby teenaged girl off to her first party in the wrong dress. Beyond it all is the gorgeous blue of the depths.

I’m enjoying this. I really am. But at the same time I’m longing for it to be over, to be back breathing normal air. Kym finger-circles ‘OK?’ I breathe deeply and reply in kind. Must see this through. We swim on.

Then, bliss, I realise it’s getting lighter and we’re getting shallower. There are fewer fish. More sand. That glitter right above me is the surface. I just have to wait for our three minute safety stop and we’ll be up there.

Back on the dock Kym is pleased with me. You see, my cold was no problem, was it? We get out of our gear and hang out for our Surface Interval, enough time for the excess nitrogen in our blood streams to disperse. Luxuriating in the hot breeze I watch the hordes of cruise ship day trippers descending from coaches to the turtle farm next door. Kym and the junior buddies are somewhat critical of their intelligence. A couple once came into the dive centre and asked how deep you’d have to go to swim under the island. Another asked whether Grand Cayman got moved when there were hurricanes.

On Open Water Dive Two I have to take my mask off completely. And do the CESA: the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, where you take three deep breaths and then return to the surface from 40ft on one slow breath, looking up and murmuring ‘Ah-h-h’ (‘Ar-r-gh’ in my case). It’s a breeze.

Two dives and one day later I’m a fully qualified PADI Open Water Diver, leaving the traffic jams and condos of Grand Cayman behind and wobbling in a tiny plane through a cloud-flecked sky to swoop down over the reef-fringed, mangrove-dotted green emptiness of Little Cayman and land with a bump at the famous ‘grassy airport’.

Little Cayman may well have the finest diving in the world. Certainly the Southern Cross Club is pretty perfect. Manager Ken, a Canadian in a flowery shirt, shows me to a semi-detached pink hut five yards from the turquoise lagoon. There’s a big double bed in the cool interior and a hammock out on the warm deck. Ken asks me about my diving experience and I explain that I’m newly qualified. Yes, it all went fine apart from one exercise that panicked me.

‘Not mask clearing by any chance?’ He laughs.

Up at the central clubhouse a Friday night party is taking place at the open-air bar. Resort guests mingle with instructors and locals from the island (population 110). Supper is equally gregarious. I’m put on a table with two couples and a dive-mad doctor from Idaho who bears a more than passing resemblance to Frasier. They tease me about the difference between shore and boat diving. ‘You’ll be too seasick to be scared,’ cries Stefan, leading the laughter with a wild shriek.

Out on the boat the next morning all the theory and exercises of London and Grand Cayman are left behind. My gear is set up for me by new ‘buddy’ Mike, a squat, muscled Welshman with a gung-ho attitude. The BWRAF routine never materialises. It’s just one giant stride into the choppy water and down we go, to a shallow plateau at 20ft, then to 40ft and the face of the reef, finally dropping over the edge of ‘the wall’ to 80ft.

This really is as ‘awesome’ as everyone has told me it will be: a sheer cliff face of coral, plunging away vertiginously to who knows what depths below. Despite my continuing nervousness about underwater breathing, I realise I’m starting to relax. I’m enjoying the feeling of weightlessness, the fun of being able to follow the fish, breathe out to sink a little, take in a full lung to rise and hover over the swaying tendrils of a coral. There are new varieties and species out here. One very neat little number I think of as Office Fish, dressed in black with a tiny white collar, heading off purposefully to an important meeting. Mike, swimming ahead, points out a lobster lurking in a hollow, then an octopus. A little later we follow a turtle, lumbering sleepily through the depths and into an underwater cave. Back up on deck, gulping water and eating fresh mango and paw-paw in our Surface Interval, Stefan shares my new enthusiasm. He has done over a thousand dives, he reckons. Once you get into it, you just can’t stop. Well, he just can’t stop. If he could develop gills, he would.

Over dinner that evening with Stefan the Would-Be Fish and two new couples - from Dallas, Texas, and London, England - I start to feel like an old hand. The danger of the whole enterprise, I realise, is at least part of the point. Twickenham Pete is full of tales of underwater derring-do: the BCDs in the Maldives that leak like sieves; the time his eyes were almost pulled from his head by a faulty mask. These are matched by the Americans. One time, Martha tells us, when she was taking anti-histamines she panicked completely at 60ft. God alone knows how she had the presence of mind to stay under and breathe, rather than bolt for the surface and risk bursting her lung.

So I’m well prepared for my own little drama the next day. On the second dive, I’m on the brink of stepping confidently off the end of the boat when there’s a clatter on deck. It’s the seal round the lens of my mask. ‘What would I have done if that had happened at 60ft?’ I ask Mike.

‘You’d have remembered your training, kept breathing normally, and made a controlled return to the surface.’

‘And if we’d been half way through a cave?’
‘We’d have got you out. The main thing is not to panic.’
Stefan has a mantra far more useful than BWRAF. Breathe, Think, Act. That’s the key to staying safe underwater. If anything goes wrong, keep the air coming, then get yourself carefully out of there.

That night at dinner I have my own tale to tell. With Stefan’s acquiescence, it’s already a little exaggerated.
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