Exclusive Guest Article from John Bantin: Persia Learns To Dive

Standard

Image

My youngest daughter, Persia, first expressed an interest in learning to dive while we were on holiday at Taba in Egypt. She was then only nine-years-old. Notwithstanding that, my I entrusted old friend Mohammed Ali, the manager of the AquaSport dive centre, with looking after the well being of our little girl. He is a highly intelligent and sophisticated man and the conditions in the sea at Taba are extremely benign.

They went for a try-dive together on the shallow house reef. I followed at a discreet distance, watching more out of curiosity than anything else. She was never aware that I was there. Although all the equipment seemed much too big for her, she seemed to manage OK and returned full of enthusiasm for the underwater world. She seemed to be able to remember every creature she had seen. We had found her a wetsuit that was a perfect fit for her slim child’s build so she didn’t suffer getting chilled.

“That was fun. I saw an angelfish, an eel and lots of orange fish. I even saw a puffer fish,” she boasted.

Image

A couple of years later, we found ourselves on holiday in Grenada at the True Blue Bay resort where Aquanauts of Grenada has its headquarters. We booked Persia on to a PADI junior open-water diver course while we grown-ups went off diving. She sat through the PADI videos and studied the manual.

“I couldn’t understand it properly. It was all in American,” the eleven-year-old complained later, but she stuck it out in front of the video monitor in a rather tropically warm classroom, resolutely determined to do what was required of her.

One way or another she managed to scramble through the theory. It was the same with the pool work. I took some photographs of her learning and acted as an informed observer. She loved it.

“It was easy-peasy! I thought Reece was very clear. He didn’t rush me. He would ask me if I was comfortable doing each skill and if I wanted to, I had time to try again.”

Image

Persia is very at home in the water and I guess Reece had taught a lot of people with greater problems than she had. However, she had taken on board the fact that it was Reece who was teaching her and was determined to keep her parents at a distance.

When we set off in the boat for her first sea dive she would not let us near her, constantly telling us that she had to set up her gear all by herself without any help. This was admirable and by now she certainly knew how to do it. Neither did she exhibit any fear of jumping into the water from the boat while fully loaded with scuba kit. However, she did look a little serious if not nervous on the journey out to the dive site. My wife and I are not anxious types and let her get on with it.

The first dive was a shallow dive of around only 6m deep and I took photographs of her and Reece as they swam around. The water was warm and clear. She enjoyed an hour underwater and cleared her mask and regulator when she was asked to and seemed to be very competent.

While she was busy looking at things and exploring, she looked to be completely natural but as soon as she was required to do a task she became tense and focussed on the job in hand to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, but that is how it is when you first learn anything.

 Image

I photographed her climbing back on board the boat and her ready smile was evidence of her feeling of achievement. I thought she looked cold but triumphant that she had done a real dive.

Persia then went on several more dives. Nurse sharks can often be found lying hidden among the coral structures during daylight hours and Reece was concentrating on finding one for his latest trainee to see.

“We saw one under a rock. Reece tried to get me to touch its tail but I was too scared to,” she explained gleefully.

Image

One year later, Persia went with me to Camel Dive Club in Na’ama Bay, in Egypt’s Sinai. Camel is a Diver Magazine’s Dive Centre of the Year. After a relaxed first day in the superb scuba training pool at the Camel Hotel, brushing on her scuba skills, we went together day-boat diving under the watchful eye of a Camel instructor and added a further ten sea dives to her logbook.

During these dives at the reefs in the Tiran Straits and at Ras Mohammed, she had close encounters with numerous large hawksbill turtles, schooling batfish, Napolean wrasse, moray eels, triggerfish, blue-spotted rays, an electric ray, colourful nudibrachs, puffer fish, angel fish and there was no end to the number of anemone fish, but the masses of half-and-half chromis fish proved to be her favourites.

The water was a lot cooler than in the Caribbean and we had to persuade her to wear and extra layer of neoprene in the form of a shortie suit over her 3mm one-piece but everyone was patient and kindly so that the junior diver and her instructor formed an almost unbreakable bond.

I was pleased to see that Persia had a perfect understanding of buoyancy control, better than most adults, and she had really got the measure of her equipment. Not only that but she was given a diving computer, which she immediately demonstrated that she understood. She made incredibly slow and controlled ascents over the last few metres, never failing to observe a three-minute safety stop at 5m and never straying below 18m, the depth-limit for a Junior Open Water Diver.

Overall, she had a great time at Camel and forever spoke fondly of the experience for months afterwards. The twelve-year-old was now a proper scuba diver. It’s great to share an activity like this with your children.

Image

 

Happy Diving – John Bantin

 

Exclusive Guest Article From John Bantin: Palau

Standard

Palau, a land of reefs and relics from WW2.

With connections via the American island of Guam or Tapei in Taiwan, nowadays it’s not difficult to get to the islands of Palau even if they do seem very far from the UK. The biggest island, Babeldaob, sounds like it featured in Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but the main town is situated on Koror and linked by a famous new bridge. It’s famous because the first modern bridge that was built here not so very long ago fell down, giving international lawyers a field day deciding who was to blame.

Image

The islands have had a reputation for good diving almost since scuba was invented. That’s because this tropical archipelago in Micronesia lies at the confluence of the mighty Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea.

Nutrients brought in by the various currents feed a wide variety of marine life. There’s simply so much to see. During my initial visit many years ago, I found myself doing more than thirty dives from a liveaboard dive boat in my first week and worried that my second week shore-based might be a little boring. After all, I thought I’d seen everything Palau had to offer – but I hadn’t. What sets Palau apart is the sheer variety of its diving. There’s so much of it.

You may have heard of the famous wall dives like Blue Corner, the Ngemelis dropoff  (or Big Drop) and Peleliu Cut where blacktip and grey reef sharks endlessly patrol the margins and huge Napoleon wrasse haunt the back reef.

Image

The sharks enjoy the ocean currents because it means they don’t need to continuously swim to force water through their gills. We divers find it best to hook to the substrate of the reef and, securely attached by a line, inflate our BCs a little so that we fly above the reef effortlessly while we watch the show.

You may know of the channel dives such as German Channel or Ulong Channel with their manta cleaning stations. German Channel was cut through Palau’s barrier reef when it was under German administration at the beginning of the 20th Century. It gave ships access to the lagoon at Koror. More than a hundred years later it looks an entirely natural phenomenon cluttered with corals and giant clams.

Image

Once you’ve grown tired of looking at big fishes and burgeoning coral reefs, Palau still has more surprises to offer. The rock islands of Palau have that unusual head-of-broccoli look thanks to a marine organism that eats away at their bases in the tidal zone.

I’ve often climbed the steep sides of the island, Eil Malk. It features a seawater lake in its centre. Water may seep from the ocean through crevices in the rock but animals are trapped and a vast population of jellyfish has evolved without long tentacles or a sting because they no longer needed such a defence. During the night they lie in deep water but come sun-up they propel themselves into the shallows so that the symbiotic algae within them can receive enough sunlight for photosynthesis.

It’s great fun to snorkel in amongst these harmless creatures, each the size more or less of a tennis ball, and one could scuba if you could find someone to lug your scuba gear up the steep incline to the lake. That said, be aware that deeper there lies a bacterial layer of anoxic water laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide so, if you do use scuba, stay shallow or you may get sick.

Image

Near Blue corner is the Blue Hole. It’s a cathedral sized cavern formed by the reef with a four vertical chimneys providing apertures at the top that allow the tropical sun to stream down in dancing shafts of light. Equally spacious, Chandelier Cave is a true cave with stalactites and stalagmites. There is no natural light once you’re away from the entrance do it’s quite daunting to enter at first and you need a reliable underwater lamp, but there are lots of air spaces where divers can surface and hold conversations about the wonder of it all.

ChandelierCave419

During WW2, Palau provided the Japanese navy with an important forward operating base. You may recall that General MacArthur fought an ill-thought-out battle to take Peleliu island because it had an airstrip and cost the lives of an awful lot of young men in doing so. The main lagoon at Koror was used as a natural harbour and in 1944 nearly forty Japanese ships were destroyed during an American air strike called Operation Desecrate One. The Americans mined the channel so that all but a few of the ships were trapped and their remains still lie in the relatively shallow lagoon.

In 2004, sixty years after the event, I was privileged to dive with Tomimatsu Ishikawa, the Chief Engineer of the fleet-oiler, Iro. He escaped when his burning vessel went down, but as an old man in his late ’eighties, we took him diving on his old ship so you can say he survived its sinking twice. You can read about it in my book Amazing Diving Stories. Although the visibility in the lagoon is less good than out on the reefs, it makes for interesting diving on a wide variety of WW2 vessels that lie in this watery grave although not all are safe to dive or have even been properly identified.

Image

The question always arises whether it is better to dive Palau from a liveaboard dive boat or to be based on the shore and access the dive sites by fast skiff. The hotels in Koror are by no means luxurious unless you stay somewhere like the fabulous yet expensive Palau Pacific Resort. However, there are lots of dive operators with Fish ’n Fins probably the longest established and now efficiently run by Navot and Tova. Palau is tidal so it’s important to dive the sites when the conditions are right and they know when and where to send you diving.

If you prefer to be on a liveaboard, the beautifully clean Ocean Hunter III is owned and operated by the same couple, together with the much smaller Ocean Hunter that may be a little cramped but only carries a handful of divers at any one time. Tova is something of a gourmet chef (she’s written books on the subject) so it’s no surprise to discover that the food onboard both these vessels is nothing short of excellent. Having the owners living on the spot makes a huge difference to any liveaboard operation. Standards are maintained to the high level set by the owners yet they can take advantage of the skills of local skippers who understand the prevailing sea conditions.

Image

Be sure to take an underwater camera with you when you diving in Palau. You’ll be diving reefs and wrecks, lakes and lagoons, seawater caves and even the remains of a Jake seaplane, sunk at its moorings in 1944.

If you’re interested in WW2 relics, when you’ve done diving there’s plenty to see around Koror and Peleliu. Go to Peleliu and marvel at the way so many young American marines gave their lives in taking the well-established gun emplacements that still remain. Take a jeep and drive around the hinterland of Korar and stumble across battle tanks abandoned and left to rust. It’s a thought-provoking experience.

Image

Happy Diving – John Bantin

The Best Places to Learn to Dive – Part One: The Red Sea –

Standard

I began to write this entry intending for it to be only one post, but as I started I just kept on! So now, you have two posts to look forward to, as I share my thoughts and knowledge on the best places to Learn to Dive, and the other exciting activities in which you can take part.

We have picked out from our portfolio an eclectic mix of Learn to Dive destinations, and here is: Part One – The Red Sea.

We have been working in the Red Sea since the early 1960`s – over half a century!

Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and, in better times, the Yemen – the Red Sea is unique as it follows a fault and is part of the Great Rift Valley. Apart from its World Famous Coral Reef and outstanding marine life, it has a well-known and strong association with Biblical Times and travellers past.

Birdwatchers will have found their paradise here, as the Rift Valley/Red Sea Flyway is the second most important flyway for migratory birds in the world, such as: raptors, storks, pelicans and some ibis. From the Gulf of Aqaba to Sharm el Sheikh to Eilat, for two whole months, roughly around October and March, the skies are teeming with birds flying between their breeding grounds and winter feeding grounds.

There are especially two places that birdwatchers can get the best opportunities: Eilat, where there are salt pools and the famous rubbish tip – the first landfall after a long journey – or Sharm at the old sewage lake. Eilat has a town office through the Nature Reserve that can give advice, and there is an annual Bird Festival that in 2014 will fall from 23rd to 30th March.

Returning to the subject of diving, however, it is important to select Dive Centres that will deliver a high and safe standard of Scuba Training, which complements an interesting and affordable family holiday in the right destination. We have been organising holidays that include Scuba Training since the early 70’s. The sea in the Gulf is deep and warmed by undersea activity giving rise to its rich marine life and pleasant water temperatures.

Our daughter, Dafna and her family, own Aqua-Sport in Eilat, Israel – which was established in 1962 – and in Taba, on the Egyptian side. We know that safety is paramount to a successful introduction to safe and enjoyable Scuba Diving, which can be an absorbing pastime leading to a lifelong interest in the Natural Undersea World. Teenagers, especially, enjoy this safe adventure whilst discovering new and challenging horizons.

We can recommend Centres around the world, but the short list that follows could be a useful guide to where you might choose. The Red Sea is awash with Dive Centres, though some in particular are best suited to training experiences, so I hope these notes will help.

NB: For quotes: special offers and party rates apply at various times, so please do enquire.

—————————————-

Eilat, Israel

This is almost the perfect spot to be introduced to Scuba Diving – hence it often being dubbed: The Underwater Classroom of the World. Aqua-Sport – a Padi 5* Palm centre – is on coral beach with a gently sloping sandy shelf with Coral Knolls teeming with marine life, and an Eel Garden on the edge. Adjacent to the Centre is the Underwater Observatory and the Coral Reef Nature Reserve, where you can snorkel when not in class or diving. The instructors are engaging and reliable, with a passion for teaching Scuba and ensuring their students safety.

Accommodation can either be on-site at a beachside Divers Lodge, or at any of the other choices of Eilat Hotels – ranging from modest hostels to 5* deluxe. From Eilat, it is easy to arrange visits to the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Petra – in Jordan – which are among the many diversions you can choose from – provided you have the time!

Training, from the start, is in the sea and Aqua-Sport is 5-minutes from the centre of this bustling coastal resort, which can even be reached by regular bus! There is every distraction in Eilat Centre that you could possibly wish for – and it has its own airport, which makes for convenient travel.

Aqua-Sport is also an IAHD (International Association for Handicapped Divers) centre and has an excellent reputation for Disabled Diving Tuition. They have a boardwalk leading straight into the sea, which is good for paraplegics.

The minimum age to learn in Eilat is 12yrs, and Padi Open costs from £255.00pp. From the age of 8yrs, you can have a One Day introduction to the Scuba Experience.

—————————————-

Taba, Egypt

The Aqua-Sport Dive Centre here is also a Padi 5* Palm resort.

This is their second base, and is also on the beach within the Taba Hilton Hotel. What is wonderful about this hotel, apart from its good value, is not only does it have a sandy water-sports beach – it also has a lovely house reef/Coral Garden that is excellent for Scuba training and snorkellers alike, and is accessible directly from the beach!

The sea and landscapes are too marvellous for words and the marine life in the coral garden simply beggars belief!  The dive centre has been run by, Welshman, Huw Watson for the last fifteen years.

This centre delivers the highest standards of training in an enviable environment; training is in the sea and the hotel is in a quiet location. Aqua-Sport keeps a dive boat for offshore diving and snorkelling trips to sites down the coast. Excursions, when not in the water, can be to Petra or the Sinai Desert inland – after the Himalayas, the Sinai is the best trekking destination in the world!

As we write, the region of Taba has no direct flight, but can be reached through Sharm and a 3-hour transfer. Hopefully, direct flights will be resumed shortly (9th January), and then the transfer is less than 45-minutes.

Padi Open water cost £255.00pp with a minimum age here of 10yrs. One Day Discover Scuba can be done from the age of 8yrs.

—————————————-

Dahab, Egypt

Reef 2000 Dive Centre is our centre here; a Padi 5* establishment based right on the reef at the Bedouin Moon Hotel. This small hotel, owned by a Bedouin family, is now ranked 4th out of 30-odd hotels in Dahab – this is unique for 2*/3*! It’s charmingly simple with a Bedouin style, although featuring all modern comforts.

Again, there are wonderful seascapes and colourful mountain ranges, and the reef is opposite. There is a good entry for snorkellers between the coral about 200 yards down the coast. The reef is pristine and dolphins are often seen passing the Hotel.

Learn to dive is mainly started in the sea and qualifying dives can be on World Famous sites like: The Canyon and Blue Hole. With Reef 2000, one can have dive days by Camels at difficult-to-reach dive sites like Ras Abu Galum. This part of the Gulf is directly on the Great Rift Valley fault, so there is good bird life – as mentioned above – as well as the abundant marine life on the reef.

All in all, this is an excellent tranquil location to introduce young people to diving. The “town” of Dahab is not too far away, as it is about a 20-minute walk, and there are plenty of cafes, bars and small restaurants to give some variety. Also the Bedouins have settled down here, and there are many Bedouin traders selling a variety of artefacts and clothes at great prices. The town has come a long way since the early days, but it remains quirky and a lot of fun, and not overwhelmingly commercialised.

Dahab is 80km north of Sharm el Sheikh and can be reached easily from there in about 1hr by coach/taxi, and Sharm is served by almost 100 flights a week from as many as 10 UK departure points.

Learn to Dive (PADI) costs from £174.00pp, and the minimum age here is 10yrs.

—————————————-

Sharm el Sheikh

Here, we work with a few Dive Centres: Sharm el Sheikh is the very epicentre of the Red Sea, but has been developed over the years to such an extent that you could easily get lodged in the wrong place. On the whole this would not matter, as long as the resort suited your needs, but in the case of Learn to Dive it is important – especially if it is a family involved, as teenagers are known to get restless if they are cooped up in a resort hotel far away from the centre.

Naama is the original village, going back to the early development before the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and now is quite a bustling centre. There is a promenade spanning the wide Naama Bay, with the dive boat jetty at one end.

Our choice for Learning to Dive here would be the Red Sea Dive College, which nestles between the Ghazala Beach Hotel and the Hilton on the promenade. The classrooms are on-site and the beach opposite leads to the sea, which is used for the introductory dives. The qualifying dives are taken on the dive-boat, which means you may be diving on some of the world’s most famous dive sites such as: the Straits of Tiran or Ras Mohamed.

The standards are high and the centre is run by ex-pats – some of whom were first here in the times before the Egyptians took over sovereignty of the area. The Red Sea College is the Premiere Dive Centre in the resort, and has its own dive boats as well as the most luxurious Liveaboard: VIP One, which runs a week’s dive trips from Sharm. The boat has been used to do film work as well – you have probably seen their work on some of the BBC Television programmes and adverts featuring underwater shots.

Naama Bay is 15-minutes from the airport – there is a huge selection of hotels to choose from, but try to keep your choice to the Naama Bay area. Excursions in the desert are plentiful, and there is Horse Riding available too.

Padi Open Water costs from £200.00pp, with a minimum age of 10yrs.

The other Dive Centre we would recommend is the Camel Dive Centre, which has its own 3*+ hotel, and is located in the centre of the pedestrianised area. The Camel Dive Centre is world famous for its programme for disabled divers – this is an IAHD dive centre, and not only is the pool in the central courtyard designed for disabled access, so is the hotel as the rooms are done to also accommodate handicapped guests, and they take wheelchair-bound divers on-board as well!

It is widely known that Scuba is a perfect pastime for the handicapped, and that the effects of Water Buoyancy have great therapeutic benefit. The hotel is pretty with a terraced garden.

The rates for Padi Open Water are from £295.00pp, and the minimum age is 10yrs.

—————————————-

El Quseir

The town of El Quseir is found midway between Hurghada and Marsa Alam. The town itself was a port in bygone days, when used to bring supplies for Luxor and the Nile Delta, and goes back to Roman and Phoenician times. It is said to have even been visited, quite some time ago, by Queen Cleopatra!

Holidays here can easily be combined with visits to Luxor and the Nile.

Our excellent dive centre: Pharoah Dive Club, with its accommodation Roots Luxury Camp, is a real gem. It is a great dive lodge with chalets ranging from modest to luxury stone-built, and finished to a high standard – check TripAdvisor, where there are plenty of favourable reviews. Roots is right on the beach, with an amazing pristine house-reef and a Padi and BSAC Dive Centre under British management.

It is great for families, due to the reef being safe, and the Old Town of El Quseir is not too far away for some local interest. Qualifying dives are taken along the coast and, for a small supplement, can be from a boat.

Roots can be reached from Hurghada or Marsa Alam, and there are direct flights to both from the UK – though there are more regional departure choices to Hurghada.

Padi rates start from £200.00pp, and the minimum learning age is 10yrs.

We hope that this information has provided food for thought, and be sure to check back in two weeks for Part Two!

Red, White or Blue – What’s the Choice for You?

Standard

School break, in our experience, has always been quite difficult to plan. It’s a holiday, so naturally one wants to take the family away, but for a holiday it’s just not long enough. So, what does one do, and where does one look, when planning a break to de-stress from the New Year? Let us share with you some of our insights…

White is for Skiing!

A great bonding experience for active families, with endless outdoor thrilling adventures! However, it may be over budget as 80% of skiing families actually book 8-months or more in advance, and now it’s really tricky to get good value for money.

Checking on 1st January 2014, we found availability for 15th February 2014: Chalet Les Arcs on ‘chalet board’ from £1,108.00pp, so about £4,432.00 for a family of four. And that excludes ski packs and passes! (Allowing for £1k to £2k…)

———————————-

Blue is for the Caribbean!

medium_2850385433

Again holidays to the region are at the high end of the budget, but there are ‘value’ buys out there. For example, a deal for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Smugglers Cove, St Lucia Details: 7-nights All Inclusive, departing from Gatwick Price from…£8,031.00 total

You can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £320.00pp or a 5-Day Dive Package from £230.00pp. The weather makes it a popular choice with average water temperatures of 23°C, air temperatures at an average high of 27°C and an average of 1.9 inches of rainfall.

Unfortunately, charter flights to the more affordable Caribbean destinations are mainly midweek. So, if you have to travel at the weekend, some of the best and most affordable destinations are ruled out like the Dominican Republic and Cancun, which are half the price of St Lucia!

———————————-

Red is for the Red Sea!

Everything is ‘good’ here: price, Sun, the lack of rain…To give you an idea, take a look at the following example for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Sharm Resort Hotel, Sharm-el-Sheikh Details: 7-nights All Inclusive Price from…£2,100.00 total

As for the weather, in Sharm the average water temperature is 21°C, with an average air temperature of 25°C. For the sporty families, you can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £255.00pp, or dive packages for the more qualified from £135.00pp.

The biggest issue is country stability, however despite the upset over the last two years, all is back to normal. There are no travel ‘advices’ in operation.

So, what’s the problem?

The Red Sea has ‘fallen from grace’, as it were; the disturbances in Central Egypt and all the news about ‘The Middle East’ has caused prices to drop drastically. 4* and 5* hotels on prime dates are selling at ½ the price of Ski holidays (before adding ski packs), and a ¼ of the price of a comparable Caribbean holiday – and they are available.

There is ample choice here, with resorts to suit every need – we explored ‘like for like’ holidays, comparing the Red Sea against other destinations. So, if you want simpler; more rustic, or can travel midweek? We have some really good deals – just enquire!

Check back in two weeks for our next blog: Family Scuba Discovery Options – a review of the best and affordable destinations to take kids for Learn-to-Dive.

See you then!

The Holy Land

Standard

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea – places we hear about on a daily basis at this time of year. Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus Christ, and the travelling three kings.

Is it safe? You may ask. Of course I say it is, but I am biased since my family live in Eilat. My eldest daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren run dive centres in Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt.

Would I go there on holiday? Yes, and I do.

The last two years have seen terrible civil disruption over the region, but it is quiet now. Tourism, most importantly, has a big role to play in bringing normality back to the unsettled communities. Moreover, visitors from afar are very welcome at this time – there is nothing more encouraging and cheering than seeing friendly faces from foreign lands.

The UK Foreign Office has relaxed the advice on Egypt and Tunisia some time back, while Israel, Jordan and North Tunisia have always been open for travel.

After the unrest, Egypt’s incredible value-for-money Nile Cruises are back on the menu and are offered with ‘Upgrade from 4* to 5*’ at no extra cost, and for single travellers we have some good news in that there is no single supplement charged! Beach Holidays to the Red Sea are better value than ever, despite the heavy air travel tax. Adventure, fishing holidays on Lake Nasser, liveaboards (boats for dives in the Red Sea) and fly drives in Jordan and Israel – they’re all back to normal.

And it is hot – actually, at this time of year, the weather is especially good for touring since it is warm. The average outdoor high at this time of year is 23°C, with the sea being a wonderfully warm 21°C or over.

You can see a sample of the best prices we have on our Red Sea Late Offers, and there are special departure to Sharm on 19th December 2013, Luxor on 23rd December 2013 and Eilat on 26th December 2013. All of them have good prices for seasonal dates.