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

 

Exclusive Guest Article From John Bantin: Palau

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Happy Diving – John Bantin