Magazine article The Spectator

DIVING - into the Blue

Magazine article The Spectator

DIVING - into the Blue

Article excerpt

Freddy Gray takes the plunge into scuba off the Maldives

I am 15 metres deep, trying to make Darth Vader noises through my underwater breathing apparatus, when I see the manta ray. My word, it's big: at least four metres wide and just as long. It looks like a spaceship, unburdened by gravity or time. It flaps its giant wings in slow motion and glides along. Two more large mantas appear from nowhere and they all swoop towards us. They approach and slowly turn around, unimpressed, before vanishing into the blue.

Afterwards, on the boat, the other divers and I talk excitedly about what we've seen. 'The mantas were huge, ' says David, an engineer. 'I've never seen anything like it.' Bill, an old Canadian and the most experienced diver on board, smiles kindly at our enthusiasm. 'You're lucky, ' he says, looking meaningfully across the water. 'Some divers go years without seeing a manta. But in these parts, I suppose, it's almost guaranteed.'

I'm in the Maldives to do something called a PADI Open Water Diver course. This is the entry-level qualification for scuba diving, and it is a lot more fun than it sounds.

On day one at the Soleni Dive Centre, I'm introduced to my instructor, an attractive Russian called Katya.

She is good at explaining things simply, and patient in introducing me to the equipment. 'Try to relax, ' she tells me regularly, which is nice of her.

We have an awkward moment early on trying to find the right wetsuit. The first one Katya gives me is obviously way too small. I don't want to appear fussy, however, so I try to squeeze into it. After two minutes spent attempting to force the foamy neoprene material over my shoulders, I realise that I can't get the suit on - or off. I ask Katya to help. 'I think we need a larger one, yes?' she says, with a touch of Slavic irony, after an embarrassing struggle.

To complete the course, which takes a few days, I have to pass a few tests, some underwater. A particularly nerve-wracking one involved me cutting off Katya's air supply and then offering her the 'alternate air source' attached to my tank. When Katya did this to me, it was fine - after all, she knew what she was doing. …

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