Exclusive Guest Article from John Bantin: Persia Learns To Dive

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Happy Diving – John Bantin

 

The Best Places to Learn to Dive – Part Two: The Mediterranean –

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It looks like Part One of the ‘Best Places to Learn to Dive’ series was very popular! Thank you to all who have and will read it; I hope it was of help. A special ‘thank you’ to Sykose Extreme Sports News for re-blogging the post.

While I did say that there would be two posts, I must confess that in the process of preparing Part Two, I found that I have yet even more to say on this topic. So, the series has now been increased to three! While that bit of news sinks in, let me continue with Part Two – The Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean is an obvious choice for many young families to get introduced to the world of Scuba Diving. Unlike the Red Sea, there are no coral drop-offs or exotic fish – in fact Britain could be a better option, but the sea is cold and, quite often, it rains…

So, over time, we have explored locations that still have abundant and interesting marine life, which are suitable to family holidays in the Sun with activities to hold the interest of all in the family. We are always looking for reliable dive centres offering safe diving with excellent instructors, in an environment that will make for a successful family holiday where there is much to interest those not engaged in Learn to Dive including culture, wildlife and history.

Remember: the better the marine life, the cleaner the sea!

 

Kas, Turkey

Kas – Jeff Hogue / Bouganville Travel

Based on the Turquoise Coast, it is the perfect choice for a truly Mediterranean experience, as well as Learn to Dive.

Once the ancient capital of the Lyceum Empire, today Kaş has a rare charm as an attractive historical maritime town perched at the sea edge. Lively and interesting – there is a submerged city near Kekova Island, which you can kayak/canoe over.

For diving here, we use PADI 5* Bougainville Travel – an English-owned, leading Adventure Company based on the Turquoise Coast. They also provide a number of other activities including kayaking, cycling, trekking, canyoning, para-gliding and excursions.

Kaş has many advantages: warm water temperature, superb visibility and a wide range of dive sites including wrecks and ancient artefacts. Roman amphorae lie on the sea bed and the oldest shipwreck in the world, a 1400BC Phoenician trade boat, was discovered here.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £255.00pp / Diving: £194.00pp / Accommodation: £107.00pp

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Ustica, Sicily

This small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea is Italy’s ‘Diving Capital’.

The island lies to the North of Palermo, Sicily. It has grottos, beaches, volcanoes and some extraordinary agriculture including their world-famous capers, lentils and vineyards. The tiny volcanic island of Ustica is an oasis of peace and tranquillity, yet is unspoilt by tourism, and the sea surrounding the island is a protected natural marine reserve, where there is an abundance of marine life in its clear waters. The island has a small, pretty town perched above the harbour and, along with small restaurants and cafés, it houses an underwater archaeological museum. One can find the presence of several ancient Mediterranean peoples, like Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. For a long time Ustica was the base for Saracen pirates.

Profondo Blu – the premier dive centre here – is run by Paulo and Ann. They are PADI 5* and have a base in the port, as well as the best Dive Boat in the harbour. Being a small island, there is hardly a day they cannot dive ‘due to weather’, as they can change venues to other parts of the island. Nepaulozzo is their small, a purpose-built resort providing communal areas and quality guest accommodation.

Ann teaches diving, with the sea as her classroom – with instruction from the shore or the boat. Paulo and Ann are superb hosts, and are also passionate about the regional food and wine.

Ustica and Learn to Dive can be perfectly combined with a week’s stay in a villa, beach hotel or a self-drive in Sicily.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £364.00pp / Diving: £300.00pp / Accommodation: £220.00 per week, self-catering

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San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily

A richly Italian resort located on mainland Sicily, and known for its seemingly endless stretch of glorious, white sandy beach against a backdrop of rough, jagged mountains. The town is refreshingly ‘low-rise’, with much of its streets being pedestrianised and lined with tempting cafés, bars, shops, and good restaurants and trattorias serving local specialties. Food is a passion here, with good quality at reasonable prices – the town holds the International Cous Cous Festival, which is currently in its 17th year from 23rd to 28th September 2014!

The town has its origins as an ancient Roman port – signs of this heritage can still be seen near the town’s old tuna fishery. The Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve is adjacent to the town; a visit to the reserve offers over 7km of stunning cliff-top walks through a staggering 700 varieties of fragrant Mediterranean trees, flowers and shrubs. For the bird watcher, there are a number of migrant and indigenous birds including eagles and peregrine falcons.

Diving here is done with PADI 5* Under Hundred – the dive centre and resort is very close to the Lo Zingaro National Park, and is run by husband-and-wife-team, Roberto and Marina and their experienced and professional staff. The base has a wonderful location facing the enticing sandy beach, and is shaded by pine trees that keep it cool even on the hottest days. Many of the dive sites can be reached quickly and conveniently from the jetty near the centre; the area can be considered a ‘Divers’ Paradise’ as it features walls; shoals; caves, and wrecks at different depths – for all levels of experience.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £245.00pp / Diving: £255.00pp / Accommodation: £210.00 per week, bed and breakfast

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Malta, Maltese Archipelago

Malta, the main island, is less than a 3-hour flight from anywhere in Europe and has many regional UK departure points. It is a perfect destination for a week’s holiday or even a long weekend.

This small country has a long history, with early settlements estimated to have been from 5200 BC. You will find mysterious remains and megalithic temples of prehistoric ages beside military buildings and forts built by the Knights of the Order of Saint John – all beside beautiful examples of pure Maltese style found in the vast majority of houses.

PADI 5* dive centre, Maltaqua in St Paul’s Bay, has over 40-years’ experience in training divers, and is one of the leading schools in Europe. Over time, they too have built their own 2* accommodation: Sands, which is a complex of purpose-built, air-conditioned apartments and is a short walk from the dive centre and shop. As one of Europe’s premier dive centres, it trains divers from Junior Novice to the most advanced tech levels.

The neighbouring towns are steeped with history, bustling markets, bars and cafés to suit all.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £180.00pp / Diving: £296.00pp / Accommodation: £444.00 per week, self-catering apartment for four

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Gozo, Maltese Archipelago


A regular helicopter and ferry service operates between Malta and Gozo, which is a small and enchanting island. Its 5000 years of history, and the pristine clear blue waters that wash its ancient shores, lure holiday-makers and divers from all over the world. The Blue Hole, Azure window, Inland sea, Cathedral cave and Reqqa reef are some of the brilliant and unforgettable dives on this tiny Mediterranean island, where time seems to stand still.

This charming island has something for everyone – idyllic scenery, imposing cliffs, open markets, fine restaurants, historical places, buzzing night clubs and, above all, friendly locals!

Blue Waters Dive Cove, the dive centre here, is in Qala Point – a village close to the ferry terminal and facing Comino Island and the Blue Hole. This PADI 5* centre is run by brothers Franco and Mario Bugeja, and their expert team of dive instructors. They use the bay – a short walk from the village – as their ‘pool’ for training.

A typical family could rent a ‘farmhouse with pool’ – a long established tradition in Gozo, located in the village. You can cater for yourself, or eat in the village, and or a week’s visit you don’t need a car. However, for extended stays of two weeks or more, it is recommended as this is a beautiful island and driving around it rich in local tradition, and there is excellent sea kayaking to be experienced.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £250.00pp / Diving: £178.00pp / Accommodation: £800.00 per week, villa with pool – sleeps four

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Palau, Sardinia

Situated on the northern tip of Sardinia, Palau is a port town with a very different atmosphere and feel to the rest of the island. Here, you will get an authentic feel of Sardinian life – there are shops, cafés, restaurants and bars just a few steps away.

Palau is in a strategic position and is the gateway to the Maddalena Archipelago in the Straits of Bonifacio. From here, Corsica – the birthplace of Emperor of the French and King of Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte I – is a boat ride away, with access to the Lavezzi Marine Reserve. The water here is breathtakingly clear – offering up to 30m visibility – and very clean, which allows for an abundance of marine life to thrive. There are nearly 40 dive sites to choose from that, together, make for an unforgettable diving experience.

PADI 5* Gold Palm and BSAC Dive Resort: Nautilus Dive Centre is run by British and Swiss couple, Vincenzo and Stephanie. Having many years of experience teaching around the world, they will show you the best of this idyllic part of the Mediterranean and offer the full range of PADI courses available as well as speciality courses. At the dive centre, they also have facilities for Nitrox dive and Underwater Digital Photography.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £288.00pp / Diving: £160.00pp – some dives have distance tax / Accommodation: £23.00pp – bed and breakfast per night

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Our next part in the series will look at exotic sites, such as Zanzibar, Kenya, Mauritius, Bonaire, the Far East and more! Well…not too much more…

See you in two weeks!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!