Introducing newcomers to the world of diving is one of our main missions at Scubaverse. We interrupted a torpid Englishman’s holiday in Lanzarote by sending him on a try dive. The results are refreshing, engaging and highly amusing. If you have never dived, this article will make you want to. If you have, then you will be fondly reminded of your first trip beneath the sea.
I had plans of a holiday without much action. Perhaps a spot of fishing, a few walks maybe, but I like a break untempered by too much adventure. My buddies at Scubaverse had a different idea when they learned I was going to Lanzarote. “Why not take a trial dive and write about the experience?” they asked, which I found mildly amusing.
Scuba diving is something I would never do of my own design. There is something elementally sporty and intimidating about it. I’ve read Clive Cussler books and seen enough cinema to know that diving is for the outdoors elite: men named Brad or Dirk and women called Summer or Erin, all ferociously suntanned and ropey with toned muscle. Then you have the sharks, jellyfish and moray eels – only slightly less scary than the underwater threat of fish hooks.
In case you haven’t noticed, I am an adventure wuss. Between my fear of humiliation, general lack of fitness, extreme holiday sloth and phobia-nearing distrust of what’s under the surface of the ocean, I would never say one day, while drinking coffee and planning my down time, ‘I’d like to give diving a go.’ More fool me.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I messaged back to Scubaverse, demanding a ballistic knife, speargun and underwater jet vehicle. These simple requests were immediately denied, along with an explanation that I would be in very safe hands with a reputable dive company. I was put in touch with Wendy Hicks at Safari Diving Lanzarote in Puerto Del Carmen. Wendy is a friendly and enthusiastic expat who, along with her husband, Steve, developed the diving bug while on honeymoon in the Maldives.
“Steve became the instructor at Croxley Divers and for many years we organised trips to Lanzarote for pleasure dives and to finish off qualifying our students,” explained Wendy, who was the UK agent for Safari Diving for five years. “We both had good managerial jobs in the UK but decided to buy Safari Diving in 2005.”
Steve and Wendy never looked back, moving the business ahead despite a global recession, erupting volcanoes and the collapse of Excel Airlines. And to great avail by all accounts: Safari Diving has received the prestigious Q award from the government – the only dive centre in Lanzarote to do so. They also have a clean air certificate from Bauer, setting them apart from every other outfit in the Canaries.
The dive centre is a small structure on Playa Chica Beach. ‘Beach’ is redundant in the previous sentence, as playa is Spanish for beach. I know this because I struggled with the wretched hire-car sat-nav. In the end I parked up and got on the phone. A young Englishman named Mark answered and helpfully walked over, showing me the way back. So much for this intrepid adventurer.
Mark is irritatingly tall, thin, handsome, muscular and suntanned. While underscoring my pre-conceived notions of the physical pulchritude required to scuba dive, he allays my fears by being a really nice guy. He sits me and another student down and goes over the fundamentals of diving, showing us around the equipment and explaining a couple of crucial skills. Mark will be ‘taking us down’.
He explains the use of hand signals, chiefly the thumb-and-forefinger circle universally known as ‘okay’ and its more sinister cousin, the slashing of fingertips across the throat. The latter means something akin to ‘no air, get me out of here, help at once!’ But panicking is discouraged – the cardinal rule of diving is to breathe normally and do everything slowly. Mark says when we are down he will have us go through a few basic skills: clearing the regulator, equalising the ears and purging the mask of any water that seeps in.
If you’ve never been diving, Playa Chica provides a perfect first-time venue. Its small bay is encircled by black rocks, giving it the impression of an outdoor pool. Its natural boundaries act as a buffer against the current and the greater ocean. Out past the rocks is deeper water, reserved for people more advanced than me. From the beach, a scant 20 yards from the centre, divers launch their forays into the surrounding sea.
Lanzarote is known as a good diving site for its generally favourable conditions and excellent diversity of underwater critters. There are lava-formed reefs and caves, along with a plentiful selection of wrecks to dive on… or is it dive in? Safari Diving claims that the beach at Playa Chica offers the best spot on Lanzarote to dive from the shore. But they provide a boat to reach other good areas too – all a short trip from Playa Chica.
The dive was a doddle compared to putting on the wetsuit, which is the hardest thing I have ever done. Imagine trying to squeeze a hippo through a tube of half-inch-thick cellophane. It grips your skin with rubbery stubbornness. Mark watches as I sweat with effort; a couple taking off their wetsuits cheerfully encourage my contorted palsy. It is a skill learned with experience, I am assured. With just the barest trace of a smirk, Mark disappears in the back for a fatty-sized replacement. Twice.
I’m out of breath and shaky from the effort of getting zipped in. Mark hands us a mask and snorkel to have a bit of a go in the sea. The mask needs adjusting for fit, he tells us. Evidently, my beard is going to cause a little more leakage than normal. I put the snorkel in my mouth, plonk my head in and immediately splutter – it’s a claustrophobic sensation, like I can’t get enough clean air. I realise I’m still breathing heavily from the wetsuit pantomime. I try again, forcing a bit more calm. The wetsuit is weird – you can feel it filling up with water.
Mark appears at the shore dressed in his wetsuit, which I am sure he’s donned with the celerity and grace of a leaping puma. We go back and get strapped into our gear: the buoyancy vest/air tank combo, replete with two regulators – one to use, the other for emergencies. Mark tells me to put the regulator in my mouth and breathe normally for a bit. After a quick, final toke on my vaping device, I pop in the mouthpiece. It makes farting noises when you use it out of the water. I stifle a giggle while we put on lead weights to help keep us neutrally buoyant against all the kit.
The nearness to the beach is a good thing because the equipment weighs a tonne. It also seems to be strapped on fiercely tight. I worry about getting enough air to breathe on the short walk to the sea; ignominious visions of a passed-out fat man in full scuba gear just metres from the ocean flitter by. The gear gets a lot more comfortable once you are underwater, essentially becoming weightless. We breathe for a while through our regulators, faces beneath the surface. It feels like there is more air than from the snorkel. It’s actually quite comfortable, provided you remain calm and monitor your breaths.
Mark takes us down one by one, adjusting our buoyancy vests until we are hovering horizontally a few inches from the sea floor. It’s quiet, like being under a thick blanket: all you can hear are your breaths gurgling through the mouthpiece. Mark shows us how to use our fingertips to crawl along the sand, no need for fins, which are more unwieldy than helpful. I keep reminding myself to breathe slowly and steadily as I idly wonder if anyone has cornered the market on e-cigarette juice in the air tank.
Once I am situated and the initial ‘wow, I’m breathing underwater’ sensation passes, I look about and a surreal sense of calm replaces everything. It sure is beautiful. The sea floor looks like a miniature desert of wavering dunes. The water is a shade of blue/green that you will never see unless you are below it. The gentle gusts of current rock you from side to side ever so slightly, the odd strand of seaweed floating along on its eddy. And there are fish, so many fish. Hovering there completely weightless, I’m kind of awestruck. It is fantastic.
Mark wants to get the skills out of the way, so he lines us up and indicates that we are to do them one at a time. Eyeing the rising level of liquid in my mask suspiciously, I understand the point about the beard. I’m pondering alternative styles of facial hair when Mark indicates that it’s my turn. Equalising your ears and getting water out of your mask are pretty straightforward. Job done.
Clearing the regulator is a bit more intimidating. I am to remove it from my mouth (which essentially lets it flood a tiny bit) and then reinsert it, giving a sharp blow to purge the water. I am five metres deep at this point, and removing the precious umbilicus seems desperately counterintuitive. It goes well, but I get a small mouthful of seawater which I taste for the rest of the dive. Skills complete. Mark shakes my hand in congratulations. I am giving the ‘okay’ thumb and forefinger like a proud puppy that’s gone the whole day without crapping on the carpet.
Skirting the bay, time seems to stand still. I have no concept of how long we have been down. Mark shows us how to attract fish with our hands. We are surrounded by various species of differing shapes and sizes. The multicoloured shimmers are amazing; I reach out a hand to one – a foot-long stripy bugger swimming at arm’s-length. It’s got its thumb on its nose, waggling its fingers. I will never go fishing again and claim that the ocean is empty. I’m simply not smart enough to snag them.
I see a pair of tiny eyes in the sand and swim over for a better look. A weird little fish erupts from its hiding and flees. This is an absolute blast – I follow a baby sole about like a kid after a toad. There is so much to see that I don’t want to miss anything, and all the while the darker, deeper waters beyond the rocks beckon with the odd flash of bigger fish and greater scenery.
Mark leads us to a rocky outcropping and sticks his hand in, pointing. ‘Are you insane, man?’ I question inwardly, expecting an attack by an almighty eel or lobster. Instead, perched delicately on a rock is a giant red spider. Electric-blue pincers on the tips of two spindly legs confirm my idiocy. It is an arrow crab – named so for the unusual shape of its head.
Eventually it was time to surface. I guessed we were down for 20 minutes but in reality it was closer to 40. I trudged back up the beach into the real world of gravity, noise and discomfort. Getting the wetsuit off was much easier than getting it on. I felt a little bummed that it was over but also elated to have seen so much cool stuff. We went to about six metres in depth.
My first ever dive was eye opening in a few ways. Hackneyed as it may sound, the ocean, even in the bare few metres that I explored, is as alien as the surface of the moon. When you go swimming or out on a boat, you have impressions of what’s below the surface but you never get a sense of the sheer ecology or scale. You are just a visitor in a world that is beyond home by a colossal margin – the constant bubble of your regulator stoically reminding you all the while. It really is a frontier; one we can explore, yes, but which we can never really conquer.
On my own little dive, fear of humiliation and wondering whether the wetsuit made my bum look big simply weren’t considerations at all. Demystified of its processes and stripped of my preconceptions, diving seemed remarkably approachable. Why not augment holidays with a trip to the floor of the world? I pondered these things the next day when I was out on a boat, fishing, with other idiot tourists. We didn’t catch a lot, but when I found myself lamenting the lack of fish, I smiled a little bit inside.