TV presenter Esther McVey, pictured on her first open-water dive at Stoney Cove quarry, has been practising for years: she always puts her head under in the bath. Suzy Greaves was there to record her verdict: "It beats watching the EastEnders omnibus!"
Pictures by John Langford
On a wet and foggy Sunday morning in the middle of our wonderful British summer, Esther McVey, Channel 5's answer to Gaby Roslin, rings her instructor to find out if her first open-water dive will be called off.
"I thought it would be like the football," she says. "Cancelled because of bad weather. But water on the pitch isn't really a problem in this sport, is it?" Her trademark Liverpool accent is unmistakable.
Co-presenter of the BBC's How Do They Do That? with Eamonn Holmes, and main presenter of the weekday magazine programme Five's Company on Channel 5, Esther says that whether it be football or scuba-diving she has a passion for outdoor pursuits: "I'm not one of these people who go to the gym ten times a week to keep fit. That's far too boring. I like a bit of fresh air and excitement in my life."
In her search for excitement, Esther has tried everything from white-water rafting to ballooning. "But scuba-diving was the one thing I'd always wanted to do but never tried. I've just got this enormous affinity with the water," she says, as she is helped into her drysuit by her instructor.
"I've always lived by the water, whichever city I've lived in. I'm quite a hyperactive person and never seem to stop, so I find the water very calming."
This might be her first open-water dive but if Esther is nervous she doesn't show it. She has been learning to dive for two months.
She passed her BSAC Novice I in a swimming pool in Hammersmith, London, helped by her instructor Andy Papacosta. He runs Scuba Dive Instruction, also in London. In the pool Esther learnt the basics of buoyancy control, clearing her mask and buddy-breathing.
"I loved it right from the start," she beams. "When I got to the bottom of that pool, I didn't want to come back up. It's exactly how I imagine a flotation tank would be. Everything was slow motion. I could have gone to sleep at the bottom of the pool, it was so relaxing."
Relaxing? Most beginners suffer slight pangs of panic the first time they submerge, but Esther confesses that she has been doing just that in the bath for years: "When I was little, every time I had a bath I would always put my head under the water and sing so that I could hear what I sounded like.
"I'd lie there completely submerged, eyes open, blowing bubbles, singing to myself. I loved it. Or should I say, love it. I still do it to this very day!"
By now she is fully kitted up and ready to go. As she makes steps past the other divers practising drills on the bank, heads turn. She looks good in her drysuit, even when weighed down by a cylinder.
Stoney Cove, a disused quarry near Leicester, seems incredibly busy this Sunday morning. But that is not unusual. This inland diving centre is one of the busiest in the world, with more than 50,000 visitors a year. And it feels like all 50,000 of them are here this Sunday as Esther makes her way through the crowds of divers on the shores.
"I must admit, I didn't expect it to look like this," says Esther. "It's really quite pretty, and much bigger than I'd imagined. When they said it was a quarry, I thought it would be a 250-foot-deep puddle." She carries out her final checks with Andy and they walk into the shallows before disappearing from sight with a cheery wave.
They reappear 40 minutes later, and Esther's smile lights up several men's faces as she staggers out of the water. "It's just amazing," she says. "It's like discovering a different planet. I saw fish and swam round the cockpit of an aeroplane."
|Esther is an exceptional student: smart and practical. And she has no fear on her first open-water dive.|
No, Andy hasn't taken Esther too deep and she hasn't suffered from nitrogen narcosis. She has indeed seen an aeroplane. In the 5 hectares of water at Stoney Cove, there are three terraced depths of 6, 20 and 35 metres, and on the various levels divers can swim around aircraft and helicopters, Land Rovers and coaches, all placed there for the enjoyment of the divers.
Esther is thrilled: "Everyone had told me that I wouldn't be able to see anything at all because the visibility would be poor. But I could see about 2 metres in front of me. It was totally amazing. It's just as if you've entered another world."
Andy reports that Esther performed all the skills and drills needed for Novice II and that he is very pleased with her progress: "She is an exceptional student - both smart and practical. This is unusual. Normally I have to cope with the boffins who get top marks in their theory but can't put their equipment together, or the slow learners who don't understand the theory but swim like fishes. Esther was both.
"She also has no fear. Most people are apprehensive when they take their first open-water dive. Esther was very confident."
Smart, practical and confident? Why is Andy surprised? Esther has to be all of these in her chosen profession. Graduating in law seven years ago, she went on to a postgraduate course in radio journalism but soon after found herself presenting live and unscripted programmes on the BBC.
"Live TV can be a lot more nerve-wracking than scuba-diving," she says. "You have to be quick-thinking and ready for anything. Scuba-diving seems very relaxing in comparison."
Esther's only complaint is her weightbelt, necessary to overcome the buoyancy of a suit. She has a tiny frame but still has to wear a hefty set of weights around her waist. "My hips are covered in bruises," she says.
Despite the bruising, the drizzle and the cold summer weather, Andy and Esther prepare for their second dive. Kitted up again, Esther is raring to go. "I feel I've got the hang of the buoyancy control now. I can move up and down in the water just by breathing. I'm not waving my arms around anymore when I want to ascend," she says, as she puts on her mask. "Let's go and have some fun!"
This time, instead of entering the water from the shore, Esther and Andy decide to enter from the diving platform that stands 2m out of the water. Esther forward-rolls in. "I'm not showing off, that's how I prefer to get in," she says. "I'm not scared of the water at all but I'm always a bit nervous that if I just jump in, the cylinder might bang me in the back."
Once again Esther and Andy disappear into the murky water. Thirty minutes later they return. More smiles all round. "Scuba-diving is the best sport ever!" shouts Esther from the shallows.
This time they have gone down to 10m. "I can't think of a better way to spend a Sunday. It's like visiting the moon and getting a work-out at the same time. It beats watching the East- Enders omnibus!"If you want to be taught to dive by Andy "just call me Tony" Papacosta, call Scuba Dive Instruction, a premier BSAC school, on 0181 8407772. Until the end of September he is offering Novice I and II tuition for £175.
For Diver Training at Stoney Cove call 01455 272768.
Considering scuba-diving for the first time? Take a two-day BSAC Novice I course in a swimming pool close to your home. Call 0500 947 202 to arrange a session at your nearest BSAC branch or school.
Andy looks delighted and announces she has passed her Novice Diver II, adding that she is one of the best students he has ever had. "Oh, isn't he wonderful!" she laughs. From our day at Stoney Cove, it is obvious that they get on well together.
"Don't you think Andy looks like Tony Curtis?" she teases. "But seriously, getting on with your instructor is very important. You have to trust them with your life. Getting one with movie-star looks is just a bonus."
Andy spits into his mask and looks suitably flattered. Strange thing is, she's right. Andy does look like Tony Curtis. If you squint.
Appeared in DIVER September 1997