Daring diver’s tales from the deep end!

Underwater marvels at Sawtry swimming pool hardly rival Australia s Great Barrier Reef, but for AMANDA BREEN as a scuba diving beginner, blue-tiled walls held their own mysteries... TO be honest, just concentrating on not swallowing half the pool s liqui

Underwater marvels at Sawtry swimming pool hardly rival Australia's Great Barrier Reef, but for AMANDA BREEN as a scuba diving beginner, blue-tiled walls held their own mysteries...

TO be honest, just concentrating on not swallowing half the pool's liquid contents when my mouthpiece started to fill up was enough to contend with.

It was my first "try-dive" with Huntingdon's Splash Divers, but it certainly did not put me off.

Invited along for a special taster session with the local sub-aqua club, I jumped at the chance. Diving with dolphins in the Red Sea 10 years ago whetted my appetite, but on a more recent trip to Thailand I must admit I was too lazy to get off the sunbed to stroll some 100 yards to sign up for a class in the hotel pool.

Instead, I agreed to have another go on a freezing cold Sunday afternoon at a Huntingdonshire leisure centre - I sometimes do question my own logic...

Before D-Day (dive day), club secretary Gareth Phillips calls me to let me know about suitable attire - and that does not include string bikinis. Apparently, there have been previous "incidents" with women and their rather skimpy swimwear - something I'm not keen to repeat.

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So armed with several underwater wardrobe options, including shorts and T-shirt, I meet my fellow divers at a Sawtry pub for the briefing. The afternoon is planned with almost military precision, as with only one hour poolside and a mass of equipment and kit to organise, there is no time to lose.

With not an alcoholic drink in sight for obvious reasons, members gather into their small diving groups. As well as the try-dive, safety training and a swimming test are on the schedule. The club's governing body is the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) and divers can work towards all levels of qualifications, the first of which, the Ocean Diver Course, covers the preliminaries including safety skills, the body and effects of diving and diver rescue.

My instructor, Ray Palmer, a forensic scientist by day, runs through the basics. With safety paramount in what can potentially be a dangerous sport, I must confirm that I'm not ill with a cold or suffer from any other respiratory condition.

Hand signals are an important first lesson, but there is still room for some confusion. Thumbs up, meaning 'I'm going up to the surface', is not to be mistaken for 'I'm okay' which is signalled with forming an 'o' with the thumb and index finger.

Diving is certainly not a clutter-free pastime - a seemingly-endless stream of fins, air cylinders, masks, weights, boots, regulators, wet and dry-suits appear from the cars and promptly cover one edge of the pool.

Certain items of kit are essential for each individual - especially masks, where the fit is crucial if you don't want to walk around with an attractive red rim around half your face for several hours after emerging from the depths.

Now I remembered the air cylinders to be heavy but once in the pool's shallow end, I did nearly keel over backwards when I put it on my back. Along with fellow first-timer, Chris, we went through the basics of breathing through the regulator, achieving neutral buoyancy (the point at which your body weight is equal to the water around you and you therefore feel the strange sensation of weightlessness) and mask and regulator clearing.

In just one hour my success at some of these skills was limited. While trying to clear my mask (not waterlogged to start with but an important task for divers), I was more paranoid about losing a contact lens than getting rid of the H20. In fact, I seemed to be letting more water in than getting rid at one point - not the desired effect.

Removing and clearing the regulator was much easier. If only I had learnt that at the start of the session, it would have been much easier to deal with the water that I kept having to swallow.

The biggest challenge of the afternoon was posing for a photograph - the things I do for the job... Trying to stay still in the deep end long enough to obtain a decent snap for the album all proved too much when I realised that I was not supposed to be drinking the pool water. All hand signals eluded me when I knew I HAD to get to the surface there and then, to avoid this article appearing on our Announcements pages.

Happily though, the incident did not deter me, although I was tasting chlorine for a good few hours afterwards...

Back on dry land in the pub, I hear tales of diving experiences around the world. It seems Splash members have visited most of the planet's renowned diving destinations.

Club secretary Gareth tells me: "I think the only places the club has not dived are the North and South Poles. The thing about the sport is the places you can go and practice it - there's nothing like catching your own dinner by grabbing a lobster and cooking it on a beach".

Diving is fantastic. I'm actually gutted that I didn't learn sooner. The hardest part is the first few skills to learn like mask-clearing, (removing water from your mask while still under water). Once you've mastered those, you're away."

INFORMATION: Splash Divers sub-aqua club meets at Huntingdon Boat Club, Riverside Park, in Huntingdon, each Wednesday from 7.30pm. New members are always welcome. Members pay an annual fee, but training and tuition is free. The club does not teach under 18s without their families. See www.splashdivers.co.uk or www.bsac.com.


According to Gareth and Ray...

* Only good swimmers can dive.

"You don't have to be a strong swimmer, it's more about confidence. At least two of our members did not know how to swim until their late 20s. Divers should have a reasonable level of fitness, but nothing above average really. To gain the basic qualifications, you just have to be able to swim eight or nine lengths of a pool in your own time. The course is designed for everyone and our members are aged from 17 to 50 years-old, from all walks of life. We have police officers, teachers, scientists and government workers to name but a few."

* The UK offers no decent diving sites.

"The coastal waters around this country offer world-class diving, which many people do not realise. The whole place is littered with submarines, battleships and so many other remnants from the two world wars. There is plenty to explore in The Solent, between Portsmouth and Plymouth, where D-Day landing craft went down just off our own shores. There are also amazing sites off Orkney, in Scapa Flow, where the German fleet was scuttled (to elude Allied hands) in 1919. I swam with a 35ft basking shark off the coast of Scotland. The Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, also have one of the largest colonies of seals in the world."

* Scuba-diving is only for the rich.

"People are often put off the sport by the perceived expense, but it's no more expensive than golf. There's no need to go out and buy every single piece of kit before you've been anywhere near the water. A mask to fit should be the first investment and, after that, just take it from there. We have communal club equipment which beginners and others can borrow, and then you can just buy pieces as and when. Once you're hooked by diving though, there's so many gadgets and extras you could splash out on."

* Divers just swim around in deep water.

"Diving is just a means to an end - once you're in the water, you get to decide what interests you. There are many different areas you can get in to - wildlife, photography or technical diving. Some people are keen to explore the historical aspect underwater with wrecks, while others like the wrecks for the wildlife they attract. An amateur can end up sometimes in places where very few people have been. We generally try to pair up people with similar interests.