Scuba Diving is one of the most fascinating, thrilling, adventurous and exploratory sports that anyone can do. You get to kit up like an aquanaut with high tech gear, generally in gorgeous and sunny locations and explore a brave and wondrous three dimensional new world that is so many times larger than our two dimensional home. Ian Fleming fell in love with free diving and Scuba Diving in Jamaica and some of the greatest scenes he wrote took place in the sea, under the sea or even simply walking out of the sea. It is the nearest our generation will get to flying under its own power, free from gravity, as with simple flippers you can glide over the seabed with marvellous ease. Add the right scooter and it is somewhat akin to being Iron Man and soaring, jet propelled, over fabulous strange new terrain, populated with unusual and amazing creatures of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Diving enables you to enter a vast new realm, still relatively untouched by visitors and populated by endless fascinating flora and fauna. The sea is the last unspoilt nature reserve where fish, mammals and many other species can be found and observed in a truly natural habitat. Imagine following a giant turtle as it grazes the sea bed or floating with a vast Manta Ray with its wings swaying magnificently as it undulates through the water. You can swim with a shark as it waves from side to side, flowing through the ether. Soar over Sea Cucumbers that look like giant caterpillars, bigger than your arm. Marvel at a whale shark, four times your size, its mouth a vast open abyss, gathering and sifting the plankton as it moves inexorably forward, drifting past you like a floating dirigible.
The Maldives has always been one of the top destinations for Scuba Diving so International eXcellence Magazine went there to dive with Prodivers, to see if it lived up to the hype. Much of my youth was spent Scuba Diving in the Mediterranean, and the Maldives was always one of the top dive sites the keenest divers would talk about. Prodivers are one of the leading dive schools in the Maldives and have four centres on four different islands, Kuredu. Komandoo, Lily beach and Vakarufalhi so I got in touch with them and booked a two week diving experience. Kuredu where we were staying is the home of the Prodivers development centre and is a five star PADI operation, they even have their own Hyperbaric chamber! For those who have not yet tried this divine sport, a hyperbaric chamber is a pressure chamber that can be used to pressurise a diver who has suffered decompression problems. Typically if a diver has not observed their depressurisation times they might need to be put back "down" to a higher pressure so that they can slowly be bought back to normal pressure or one atmosphere.
Diving in the Maldives is restricted to 30 metres so it's not something that is much needed but it is great to dive with a centre that has that capability. Few dive centres can boast the same, but Prodivers equip their teams with the very best of everything. The Kuredu manager Ray Van Eeden is an absolute stickler for buying the latest and most expensive gear, from the scooters to the rebreathers which is reassuring for both novices and expert divers alike. In fact Prodivers are so well regarded that they have a special license from PADI to teach children as young as eleven to Scuba Dive in the bay at Kuredu and this makes them a great family centre too. Imagine taking your whole family out to see teeming shoals of multi coloured fish and huge turtles that happily play by your side, diving down every so often to nibble the sea grass. An incredible experience and a memory to keep and treasure.
The dive centre on Kuredu is a large open wooden bungalow with a long reception counter where you can wander in and book your dives or excursions. They also have booking forms on the outside wall so you can sign up whenever you like. My first excursion was a refresher, as I hadn't dived in a while, and they like to check you out and see exactly what level of diver you are before venturing further into deeper and more exciting waters. I was introduced to a French instructor, Kamil Duvert, an enthusiastic and friendly professional who has been diving pretty constantly since he was 12, and he delighted in showing me around. We then picked out the gear I would be using for the duration of the dives and I was allocated my own storage point where I could hang the BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and my weights, flippers and mask. The dive room was lined with wooden spokes set at different heights for storing the gear encircling two giant water baths used to clean the salt off the equipment after a dive. At the end of this room was a desk where you could pick up any other gear you might need and rent any extras you might want to try out.
Outside the centre was a lovely old Dhow and benches that were used to gear up if you were going diving in the bay or a trolley used to transport the equipment out to the pier nearby, which is lined with boats and the fabulous seaplanes we had arrived on. Kamil and I picked out our tanks, regulator and BCD’s and pulled the whole lot on over our shorts; it is so warm in the Maldives that even diving to 30 metres you don't need a wetsuit. We waddled towards the pier, did a buddy check on each other and then jumped from the side stairs into the crystal clear water. We were going to dive on the Kuredu House Reef which even has its own wreck about 100 metres out from the beach. We submerged and flippered leisurely along the seabed until we reached the point where the floor drops sharply and then followed the reef parallel along the beach for around 10 minutes.
Already we were surrounded by huge and varied shoals of fish in all sizes and colours. The clarity of the water was very good, though I was told that it gets even better in May, and I was already in seventh heaven to be diving in such a great location. However it got better as we approached the wreck, lying perpendicular to the beach and standing almost vertically from prow to bow, from 4 metres down to 15 metres in depth. The visibility was superb and the metal body of the ship was used by every possible type of sea creature as a home. The pilot’s cabin was so thick with fish you could barely see through the flying, swirling, flashing colours as they spun round, darting from one direction to the next. There were creatures of all shapes, sizes, spots, stripes and luminescent silvers and blues, you could have spent hours spotting the different species just here alone. As you approached they would swerve around you, just inches away, moving and reacting at much faster speeds than us. I swiped a hand through a mass of Angel fish, glimmering in front of the deep blue backdrop, and they coiled around it, with the plankton sparkling and undulating with the current.
My favourite fish had to be the Unicorn fish, flat and around two feet long, grey with darker fins running along both its top and bottom edge with a horn that sticks straight out from its eye line for about ten centimetres above a pursed mouth that pouts in a semi serious comedic way. You find them everywhere, even in the shallow water by the beach and they travel both alone and in large shoals. They are endlessly curious and will flutter around you as you swim. Quite the most perfect sea companions and completely harmless, with wonderful facial expressions.
We also spotted Napoleon fish, Leaf fish and Bat fish and halfway along the house reef Kamil pointed at a rock that on closer inspection turned out to be a Lion fish. They are the most extra ordinary species, slightly larger than your hand, striped in different hues of orange and white, with large transparent fins and bedecked with banded spines; though I was just as intoxicated by the giant sea cucumbers, the size of your leg, inching along the sea floor, camouflaged in sand colours, with darker bars around the head and tail. This is like going back in time and seeing the plains of North America, before the vast herds of animals were hunted down and wiped out, you are surrounded by so many different species in such numbers! We may be depleting the oceans of Cod from over fishing but the habitat is still relatively unspoilt as we have not yet moved in, so most and species are still plentiful.
I could have stayed for hours, but I was fast using up the air in my tank with excitement so we circled the wreck and gently made our way back over the rocks and waving fronds to the pier. The first dive had been a great success and Kamil explained that there were many other sites that were even more exciting. He also recommended I do the Nitrox course so I could dive for longer at depth and do more dives in a day.
Enriched Air or Nitrox is now a must for all serious divers, you can spend more time diving and less worrying about decompression times, not to mention that you get less tired over the same number of dives than with normal air. Diving with Nitrox extends your limits and simply makes the dives easier and more fun, with shorter intervals between dives. Enriched Air refers to the mix in the tank which has more oxygen and less nitrogen so you get less exposure to the nitrogen over the same time period. The course can be taken by people as young as twelve so it is fairly straight forward and simple.
You are provided with a manual on Enriched Air diving which explains all the information and techniques. Enriched Air is any air mix that is greater than 21% in the tanks. At Prodivers they used a mix of 32% oxygen to 68% nitrogen. One important point is to always check your tank mixture with an air metre yourself just before your dive so you know exactly what you are working with and can plan your dive accordingly. You can buy this air metre yourself or any good dive school will provide you with one so you can perform this test easily. After a couple of hours instruction with instructor Sylvain Veron, I was tested and passed. “Voila” I was a certified Nitrox diver! Prodivers even supply the Nitrox fills free to their divers and were one of the first in the world to do so!
Scuba Diving gives you access to world that is beyond imagination, you will find animals there that defy logic: transparent, star shaped, exploding with spikes, sticky to the touch, in hues that are not found above water and all hidden just a few metres below the surface of the sea. The sea is a magnificent wonderland that would have had Alice even more bemused and infinitely curious. If the legendary explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton were alive today he would be a Scuba Diver and would be seeking out the home of the giant squid or something equally dangerous and inspiring. The great thing is anyone can dive, it really is a sport open to all, as long as you are careful and respect the rules. The technology in diving has advanced so much over the last decade that it is very safe and if you stick to a limit of 30 metres in depth, which is where you get the best light anyway, you can explore this wondrous new world to your hearts content.