THE FULL CIRCLE EXPERIENCE generates a lifetime of memories for the hardy souls who choose to come along, but I couldn't avoid a certain sinking feeling as I looked at our pile of luggage at Heathrow. Battling mighty currents, facing apex predators, penetrating shipwrecks - all of this pales into insignificance when trying to get mountains of luggage onto the average commercial flight.
This time we had surpassed ourselves, and as I stumbled through the departure lounge the team beamed at me collectively from beside an absurd mountain of bags, cases, rucksacks and boxes. We looked like a 1950s Everest attempt but, sadly, minus the armies of sherpas. An emotional 10 weeks lay ahead.
The reason for all the baggage was the addition to the normal team of a full film crew. I had always thought that divers were the last word in kit obsessives - I can't leave the house for a dive without at least six ridiculously overpriced scuba tools and enough clips to assault the north face of the Eiger.
Film crews take things to another level, and the pile of black plastic Explorer cases dwarfed even the director - and he stood six foot six in his socks. The gear was for filming a series following our progress around the world for Channel 5, which had been taken by the idea of our harum-scarum swashbuckling route plan and the toothy predators at which we would be waggling our fins in the 10 countries ahead.
Our plan was simple - go to where big animals could be seen, get as close as possible to them, climb out of the water leaving no limbs or body parts behind, then go somewhere else and do it again.
We would take in Belize, the Bahamas, Mexico, Florida, Galapagos, New Zealand, Palau, Mozambique, Natal, and South Africa's Cape. Great whites, dolphins, manatees, mantas, raggedtooth sharks, sting rays and hammerheads lay through the departure gate, and I couldn't wait to get cracking.
I am a large man with a small bank account, a poor combination for the modern air traveller. The first part of the trip set the scene. It should have been a relatively straightforward transatlantic flight to Belize, but turned into a festival of cramps, aches, strains and numbness.
My seat appeared to have been designed for a double amputee. I was in a ferociously bad mood when we arrived in Florida to catch our connecting flight.
Florida provided the next example of what would be involved in the weeks ahead. We queued pointlessly for hours, and were then eyed up and down by an overweight, surly buffoon with a facial tic and a uniform sporting a florid badge the size of a dinner plate.
Our baggage was ransacked, locks wrenched apart, lenses scratched and torches smashed by Customs. Sometimes we were present, sometimes this took place after our kit had already been searched, but no-one had mentioned it to the maniac behind the scenes wielding a pair of bolt-cutters the size of railway points levers.
We were even accorded "special status" as we transited through the USA several times in a short period. That didn't mean being taken aside for a nice cup of tea and a neck rub - it meant being herded into taped-off areas like veal calves, patted down repeatedly, and treated like wild-eyed fanatics by a man wearing rubber gloves.
Even bearing in mind recent tragic events, I can't help thinking that security efficiency has long been replaced in US airports by security hysteria, making air travel within the country a nightmare.
Several times members of the team accidentally took items through in their hand luggage - multi-tools, Leathermen, screwdrivers - but the guards were too busy dismantling an octogenarian spinster's crutches while she was in a stress position to notice.
Eventually leaving the USA behind, life improved for us, with a weird and wonderful array of planes, trains and automobiles carrying us from encounter to encounter. Running through it all was the kindness of strangers, the generosity not only of our hosts but of hundreds of people who took the time to help us out.
The "Swimming With Giants" expedition was the classic combination of laughter and tears, soaring highs followed by crushing lows. We puffed, rattled, flew, staggered, drank, danced and bickered our way through 10 countries and over countless reefs, eventually stumbling back through arrivals at Heathrow browner, thinner and poorer, but with enough memories to crash the hard drive of our pressure-addled brains.
The combination of a good team, generally benign conditions, co-operative animals, and Lady Luck mostly smiling on us meant that our trip was a great success. So what were the memories that will keep me smiling as my accountant tells me to get a real job?
MOST REMARKABLE ENCOUNTER
The Sea of Cortez is a very special body of water, and occupied divers very nicely for years until someone noticed a sprinkling of volcanic islands 200 miles from the south-west tip of the Baja Peninsula.
The Socorro Islands have only really been dived for a couple of years, with tales swiftly emerging of extraordinary encounters with manta rays.
We needed a special vessel, which duly appeared in the form of the Nautilus Explorer, a Canadian-registered liveaboard operating out of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. The vessel is well maintained, precise, and stout - which is also a pretty exact description of her skipper, Mike Lever.
Mike explained that our destination was a genuine adventure, a set of volcanic islands 250 miles into the Pacific Ocean. We were facing a long ocean passage, and some hairy diving in the great swells and currents that heave around these remote outcrops.
The vessel, which Mike said had been designed specifically for divers, squared her shapely shoulders at the wild waters ahead. After an emotional 24 hours, a dark smudge appeared off her bow.
The Socorros are the tops of volcanic peaks rising from deep in the ocean, moonscapes of rock and dust above the surface but teeming with life below.
And the diving was very good indeed - hammerheads, the occasional manta, and a single heartstopping glimpse of a large tiger shark.
At night we sipped cocktails after sumptuous dinners, watching dolphins hunting flying fish drawn into the floodlit waters around the boat.
Mantas were our target for this week, however, and after three days of (admittedly fabulous) diving, I became slightly perturbed. Where were the legendary manta-ray encounters? Mike simply smiled and looked enigmatic. Did he know something I didn't?
What Mike was keeping up his immaculately pressed sleeve was Roca Partida, a volcanic plug that peeks above the Pacific a few miles from the Socorros.
The volcano has long been pounded into dust and silt by the Pacific swells, but the hard core remains, like Mordor rising from the plains around it. Circling its precipitous walls are mantas galore, and the next morning saw Nautilus Explorer swaying in the dark blue waters in the shadow of craggy twin peaks.
The power of the swells was apparent, and we sank swiftly into the lee of a dark ridge, like mountaineers in a storm.
As I prepared to rise into the currents barrelling overhead, the cameraman beside me pointed solemnly upwards. Hovering above the dark waters off the ridge was a huge manta. It surveyed us regally, then moved off into the distance before inclining an elegant wingtip and turning back, stalling in the water a few metres from us.
Socorros mantas are unique in that they actively seek out human interactions. We had been told to make eye contact, and this I did, rising from the ridge and stopping with my face centimetres from a large dark eye that peered back at me with genuine interest.
With the slowest droop of both wings, the manta rose above me, then lowered like a barn door swinging shut - blotting out the sun as I hovered beneath it.
I am against touching wild animals, but here it is almost impossible to avoid. The mantas seek out divers for a good scratch - perhaps removing parasites, perhaps just because it feels good.
If you refuse to scratch a manta off Roca Partida, it will go to find a diver who will. I tentatively reached a hand upward, gently rubbed its vast belly, and saw its wings tremble with pleasure.
For another 40 minutes the manta and I circled each other, occasionally meeting face to face, an underwater ballet culminating in the occasional good belly-rub for him, and a sense of unreality for me.
When I ascended at the end of the dive he followed, and as I climbed into the tender, I glanced down to see him arc back towards the great stark volcanic ridge behind him, doubtless heading off to make another diver's dreams come true.
MOST SURPRISING ENCOUNTER
"Is this torch really a torch, sir?" asked the morbidly obese Customs inspector at Miami International. I sighed "Yes, would you like me to turn it on?"
He looked at me suspiciously, "Well sir, it would be better if I could remove the batteries."
"You can't, for two reasons. The first is that it's a dive torch, so the batteries are an intricate part of the torch body.
"The second is that you are plainly an imbecile, and removing the batteries would take you at least 20 minutes, and wouldn't you have to break halfway through to go and eat a Whopper?"
I didn't say the second part, but I was thinking it, and that's almost as good a way of relieving the tension. Much later, we stumbled through Customs in varying stages of apoplectic rage, and climbed aboard our vehicles for the two-hour drive to Homossasa - the tiny town perched on the banks of the Crystal River. This is the home of the manatee, an animal we had all heard a great deal about, but had never seen in the grey wrinkled flesh.
As one resident put it to me: "When Americans retire they move to Florida and wait to die. After they die, they move to Homossasa."
It was a tranquil place, full of manicured lawns sloping towards the river as it drifted past, timeless in its unhurried passage from swamp to sea. Its centre was a series of strip malls made up of junk-food outlets, which in turn provided a steady stream of business for the occasional medical centre and funeral parlour. American Pro Divers was a huge building at the edge of one such mall, and as I walked in, the sounds of hammering and drilling told me that it was expanding yet further.
As Ron, its jocular owner, explained to me, these are good times in the world of manatee encounters. More and more people have heard about these extra-ordinary mammals, and travel from around the world to meet them face to whiskered face in the shimmering network of rivers and tributaries across this part of Florida.
It was with a childish sense of anticipation that we crawled into bed that night, desperate for the dawn and a chance to see one of the world's most placid large animals.
Next morning, 11 wide-eyed divers peered intently into the gentle morning mist of the Crystal River, our dive platform easing through narrow canals lined with neat houses and weathered jetties. As the river widened into a huge pool, the edges dark with patches of river grass, our skipper Sean suddenly pointed towards the merest dimpling of the limpid water.
Cutting the engines, we drifted towards the bubbles and glanced down into the waters - surprisingly turbid in this large static pool.
Huge. Massive. An overstuffed sofa with eyes. Plump. Immense. How do you describe your first sighting of a manatee in the wild?
How anything can get that large on a steady diet of grass is beyond me, but the manatee seemed to enjoy the taste, ploughing a steady furrow through the grass beneath, like an airship with a Flymo bolted on the nose.
Swimming alongside was a small calf, small being a relative term. It was smaller than its mum, but would make for an emotional afternoon if you or I had to give birth to it.
Unlike other great herbivores, manatees don't seem to use their bulk as a weapon. Clamber into the water next to a hippo and your dive will probably be quite short, but tremendously exciting. Walk up to a rhino and scratch it behind the ear, and you will surprise yourself with your speed off the mark, attempting to stay ahead of a razor-sharp horn propelled by three tons of pistoning muscle and boggle-eyed outrage.
Manatees are tranquil, gentle animals, watching the world go by, returning again and again to their traditional feeding and breeding grounds, wanting nothing more than to be left alone with a patch of grass in a warm pool.
A forlorn hope, of course, as powerboats criss-cross the waters overhead, and snorkellers come to peer and wonder at these great beasts.
The urge to leave the manatee at peace is strong, but sadly the urge to swim alongside one is stronger. We gently finned alongside, the manatee turning her head for a moment before returning to plough her furrow.
Edging closer, I got a real impression of her bulk - 4m of grey hide seemingly stretched to bursting point, a ton of barrel-like body propelled through the water by a gently sculling circular tail almost 1m wide.
The encounter culminated in a miraculous moment as the manatee approached me and presented herself for a vigorous scratch - a service I provided, finally interrupted by the calf muscling in and presenting a plump belly for a good rub.
Florida surprised us all with the power of this encounter - a tremendously moving experience. The human/ manatee relationship is one-sided. Should we vanish from their lives, they would continue as they have since time immemorial. Should they vanish from our lives, however, we would be immeasurably the poorer.
WORST EXPERIENCE (OF MY LIFE)
Divers love extremes, and what we were about to experience as we arrived with child-like innocence in Bimini was edge-of-the-envelope stuff. Particularly if the envelope is brown, stuffed with ropey bank notes, and handed over in the dead of night.
We expected a wondrous meeting of man and animal in the crystal waters that cover the shallow white sand of the Bahamas Banks. This was, after all, the most expensive week of the trip, with the host operator boasting that his record of ensuring encounters with the spotted dolphins here was second to none.
The first whiff that things might not be as they should be was when our host met us on the jetty, and - having relieved me of in excess of $14,000 for the five days he would be showing us the dolphins - told me that accommodation constraints meant that two of the male team-members would be sharing a bed on his trimaran. Not a room - a bed.
After a brief argument, I paid extra for another room onshore. In the briefing that evening, crammed into the saloon of the trimaran, our genial host informed us that we would not be going out the next day as the weather was no good. OK, it did look a little rough.
The next day - much calmer - the same thing happened. The day after - very calm indeed - ditto. Our host then hired a speedboat and took us out in that - half of the team at a time, leaving the rest to kick their heels on the shore.
When asked what he had arranged for the afternoon, the response was a shrug. In our five days living on the trimaran, it never left the jetty, even when asked for a quick trip out to sea on the final day, when the water was as flat as a dam.
The dive team - to my massive relief - did have a dolphin encounter while on the speedboat, just reward for several hours spent in a cramped boat while boiling their heads in the Bahamas sunshine. The film-crew also had an encounter, though some peculiar power-play by our host meant that he refused to allow us in the water to film them, even though they played around the boat for more than an hour.
The final indignity was played out on the last evening, when we were told that our last meal would be taken in a local restaurant. Having already paid a small fortune for full-board accommodation, we trooped off and ate our fill, trying at least to eat our way to financial respectability.
It was therefore somewhat of a shock to find that our host had departed early and left us to pay the bill.
Our expedition had been ruthlessly fleeced and exploited by the most unscrupulous operator I have encountered in 20 years of diving, but there were two slight problems when it came to taking action.
One was that all the other operators on the island were booked out. The second, slightly more pressing, was that he was massive. Truly massive. We had toyed with the idea of turning up mob-handed and demanding our money back, but there were only 11 of us, which was about nine short of the required amount, in my opinion.
So, farewell to Bimini. We left wiser and poorer. Pick your host operator there with great care. Particularly when he's as big as Shrek.
MOST FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE
Full Circle Expeditions has visited the Galapagos Islands before, but this is fairly irrelevant as there is a lifetime's diving there, and no dive is the same as the next. Ironically for a set of islands that inspired The Origin of Species, the launch-pad for evolutionary theory, this is a place where nature seems to have lost the plot.
Peculiar designs and quirky behaviour abound - and that's just the people. The animals are in a class of their own, as giant reptiles stalk the mountains, dragons leap into the sea and graze on seaweed, tiny penguins look lost without an ice floe in sight, and wondrous sharks and rays swirl over twisted lava reefs.
Although the attractions for the diver are myriad, our main aim here was
to see the hammerhead sharks, the symbol of underwater Galapagos.
The site chosen for our encounter was Gordon Rocks, two Herculean pillars standing a mile off the island of Santa Cruz. The water seethes and writhes around the rocks, twisting through channels and smashing against the stark walls, all power and fury at the surface, and treacherous currents beneath.
Our hosts were Scuba Iguana, an operator with vast experience of diving these islands. They use ex-fishermen as guides and skippers - a canny tactic, as no-one knows the waters around an island like the men who make a living from it. What it does mean are some exhilarating trips out to the sites, as the boats roll and pitch in the ferocious chop and surge.
The ride out did not disappoint - a wildly heaving converted fishing boat that snorted and plunged through the waves, shaking itself like an animal after each breaker, water sluicing down brightly painted flanks. The skipper was a laconic figure, puffing idly on a poorly constructed roll-up, a trail of sparks streaming behind him theatrically at each powerful gust.
My rationale in such situations has always been to keep a close eye on the skipper and crew, figuring that as long as they look calm and unruffled, so can I.
This skipper seemed particularly laid-back, even for a Central American, with one hairy arm slung over the back of his rickety seat. This comforted me as the green water crashed over the bow.
At Gordon's Rocks, we swiftly kitted up before rolling into the heaving water. The best place to be at the start of these dives is either on the bottom or the walls of the channel, and we regrouped minutes later on the craggy shoulders of one of the stark ridges.
Our guide Macaron waved us out into mid-channel, then watched closely as we drifted through the water column. We in turn scanned the waters around us for the most distinctive silhouette in the diving world - the beautiful streamlined body with that ludicrous flattened head.
Visibility was not spectacular at about 15m, and it was at least 15 minutes into the dive before Macaron pointed ahead into the gloom, his eyes widening theatrically. Materialising wraith-like out of the gloom were eight hammerheads, turning sharply in the current as they saw the divers, and knifing into the dark water below us with one sweep of their sickle-shaped tails.
A dramatic encounter, but the excitement was just beginning. Near the end of the dive, I noticed what seemed to be a swirl of bubbles stretching from surface to seabed and pirouetting towards us. This was a warning sign we should have heeded, but a combination of curiosity and ignorance led us into its path. We had strayed into what amounted to an underwater tornado.
I immediately felt a terrific pressure grip my body, and accelerated through the water column at breakneck speed, twisting and turning in the vortex of the current. Bubbles swirled around my head and body, not going up, and not going down.
Ahead lay a stark lip at the end of the channel, leading to a deep drop-off - if the current stayed this strong as we hit that lip, we were all in deep trouble.
The heroic figure of Macaron appeared, gesturing that we should all move to the edge of the channel and grip the walls of the reef. Finning and flailing wildly, we moved towards the walls, now moving past us in a rocky blur.
Clamping on with both hands, my legs swung up at right angles to the current. Simon the cameraman - ever the professional - was filming throughout, and missed his grip on the wall.
As the current charged over the lip, he was flung down through 10m of water with such speed that his eardrum ruptured, and I saw him wince with pain behind his mask.
Suddenly, as fast as it had appeared, the current dissipated. We had been spat out into the open ocean. We surfaced as a scattered group, the dive vessel puttering between us like a mother hen collecting her brood, a wild-eyed group of divers sitting in contemplative silence on the way home.
The Galapagos had given us our magical hammerhead encounter, but at a price. After treatment on the island, Simon had to leave the expedition, a great loss for the project as he was professionalism personified.
Regardless of how many logbooks you fill in, how many badges you sport, and how space age your kit is, when you dive there is really only one boss, and that's the sea itself.
The Great Ocean Adventure
- Socorro Islands, Mexico: Nautilus Explorer, 001 604 6577614, www.nautilusexplorer.com
- Crystal River, Florida, USA: American Pro Dive, 001 352 5630041, www.americanprodive.com
- Galapagos Islands: Scuba Iguana, 00 5935 2526497, www.scubaiguana.com
- Bimini, Bahamas: You don't want to know.
A series of ten 45-minute programmes on Channel 5, starting 20 October at 7.15pm
The team with all their luggage at the airport
You should have seen Monty on one of the bad days!
Divers on the line in Mexico
Simon filming a manta
Monty and Richard get up close with one of the rays
The manatee cruise in Florida
The Big Easy - one of Florida's manatees
A manatee feeding with her calf
The film crew enjoy a light shower
A bottlenose dolphin in Bimini
The trimaran that never left the jetty
Looking out for dolphins
Simon prepares to dive the rock. He wouldn't be smiling for much longer
Ready to dive Gordon's Rock, not knowing what to expect
A seal swims playfully around the team. That's before things went wrong