Under the sea

Under the sea

Stuart Forster shares the joy of scuba diving, an adventure he partook in Portugal, where he discovered the hidden treasures of the open waters of the North Atlantic.

dive in Underwater in the North Atlantic. photo by author

Fans of James Bond movies are undoubtedly looking forward to 1 November, the Indian release date of Skyfall, the latest installment in the successful 007 series.

Bond is a fictional character, yet for many people, the qualities shown by the debonair secret agent are also inspirational.

The 007 movies are, I have to admit, a factor that inspired me to take up skiing at first, and more recently, scuba diving.

Trust me, the excitement of watching Bond in an underwater action scene on the silver screen does not come close to the exhilarating feeling of being there, underwater, within touching distance of coral reefs and shimmying shoals of brightly coloured fish.

Moving in slow motion under the ocean waves, seeing the light of the sun penetrating into the deep blue of the ocean, is calming on one level, yet intensely fulfilling on another; if you haven’t yet tried scuba diving, I thoroughly recommend you give it a go.

Why, I now ask myself, did it take me so long to book myself onto a professional diving instructors’ open water course in order to qualify as a scuba diver?

In retrospect, I can see that the reason is simple; I was too tied up in a stressful lifestyle and just didn’t make enough time available for leisurely pursuits. So to get away from my day-to-day routine, I booked a diving holiday in Portugal.

Prior to undertaking a internet-based research, I had the impression that learning to dive would be complex and any course would last several weeks. That, however, was incorrect.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a number of diving schools offer intensive open water diving courses that last just four days; so by the end of my holiday, I was a certified diver and already had my first ocean dives recorded in my diver’s log book.

I chose to learn at the Haliotis diving centre in Peniche, 89 km from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Haliotis is, in fact, named after the beautiful silvery inlaid seashell that can be found in the cool waters of the North Atlantic.

Any 007 fan can be forgiven for thinking that scuba diving is a dangerous activity, after all it’s common for someone to be harpooned or dispatched in an equally painful manner whenever Bond meets baddies underwater.

In real life, safety concerns are paramount when scuba diving and Haliotis impressed me because its safety record is top notch and the staff there dealt with my pre-course queries promptly and professionally, giving me a very positive impression. Also, the course price includes hire of all necessary equipment, meaning I didn’t need to buy a wetsuit, mask, flippers and the rest of the kit.

The coastal town of Peniche is less than a 90-minute drive from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, which is served by a number of international airlines. It is located just 10 km from the Berlengas Islands, which are classified as a nature biosphere and offer some of mainland Portugal’s best diving.

Dedicated instructors and an easy-to-follow open water diver manual, which records the theoretical elements that all divers need to understand before going out into the sea, made learning easy and I passed the chapter reviews and multiple choice theory test at first attempt. For the first couple of days, all practical instruction was in a swimming pool at the Hotel Praia Norte in Peniche, and then we were taken out to dive in the open sea.

Unforgettable experience

For the first couple of moments out in the open water of the North Atlantic, I felt nervous and began to wonder, as I bobbed on the surface of the ocean, looking up at the cliffs of Berlenga Grande, whether diving was really for me. James Bond would never have shown such nervousness.

Those doubts were sunk, in every sense, as I descended below the surface and reassuringly heard the “hoosh” of compressed air coming into my respirator, and saw the first silver bubbles of exhaled air bobbing up the surface.

Seeing the first fish stare back at me, from just a couple of metres away, made me feel like I was in my own personal National Geographic show; what I would have given to have had a camera with me at that moment.

The waters off mainland Portugal offer diving opportunities around the year, with temperatures varying from 13°C to 24°C. The dive off the Algarve coast, which includes reefs and wrecks, was nominated as Europe’s Leading Dive Destination at the 2007 World Travel Awards and dive centres are located at places such as Lagos, Paraia da Luz, Praia da Rocha, Sagres and Tavira.

There are even diving destinations around the remains of an American B-24 Liberator aeroplane, a bomber that crashed close to Faro in 1943. Another World War Two wreck can be visited off Porto, north of Portugal. A German submarine, U1277, was scuttled in 1945 and lies under 31 m of water.

As with any coastline, numerous wrecks can be found in Portuguese waters. And, of course, marine life adds colour and character to dropped anchors, rusting chains and sunken vessels. Diving provides a wonderful opportunity to get down and see it at first hand.

Now that I scuba dive, perhaps I’ll go on to emulate James Bond further. A fast car would be nice but, frankly, I’m currently happy spending the money that might go towards an Aston-Martin, on diving expeditions.

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