The next best thing to diving
From retail therapy to dolphin therapy, Dive 98 at Birmingham's NEC in October ensured that all the angles were covered
At the entrance to Dive 98 on the final afternoon of the show, a youth sat propped against the wall wearing a beatific smile and staring at a shiny 15 litre air cylinder, which he would stroke yes, stroke from time to time. Either his pleasure was chemically assisted or this was retail therapy at its purest.
Certainly a multitude of diving goodies were changing hands at the NEC, and a great many plans were being hatched for diving holidays, training courses, unusual expeditions.
But never mind the year ahead, you needed to plan your day Saturday lunchtime, for example, you could choose between attending seminars on technical diving equipment, photography, the Britannic or sharks, watch The Deep, get wet in the pool, drive a boat on the lake, shop around or just have a drink with old friends.
There were more stands than ever before at Diver's own show at the NEC 217 to be exact. Providing a new and, to judge by the crowds, popular flavour for 1998 was the PADI Village, reflecting the reality that many dive centres base their activities around that organisation. With PADI as well as the BSAC and SAA all represented there was, as one visitor put it, "a feeling that the show is now simply for divers, regardless of who trained them."
The show is all about the fun of diving and you don't have to be under water to enjoy the sport it's all in the head. That is certainly true of free-diving, which is 90 per cent mind and only 10 per physiology, according to Howard Jones, leader of the British Free-diving Team and a speaker at Dive 98. Forget it being a macho pursuit you can free-dive no matter what your level of fitness, lung capacity, gender or age, he says.
Growing interest in the practice was reflected by the enthusiastic audiences that turned up to hear Howard recount the team's experiences at the recent Apnea World Cup in Sardinia, illustrated by Dan Burton's slides and video sequences.
If Howard's aim was to dispel some of the myths and hype surrounding free-diving, there could be no better way than to listen to his story of how early free-diving champion Jacques Mayol, a god to today's practitioners, had turned up at the World Cup to a rapturous ovation.
As Mayol approached the microphone, the crowd fell silent to savour his words of wisdom, perhaps advice on how to become as one with the sea itself. "Where's my hat?" Mayol asked those assembled. "Has anybody seen my hat?"
Mayol, or rather an actor playing Mayol, was a leading attraction in the free-diving classic movie The Big Blue, showing in the gallery. The Dive 98 Film Festival provided a refuge for exhausted show visitors, who could dip at will into the top six underwater films as voted for by Diver readers.
There was a good dose of '70s fever with Jaws and The Deep, and Sean Connery's underwater exploits in the early Bond blockbuster Thunderball. The '80s were represented by The Abyss, then we shot up to date with Sharon Stone and Dustin Hoffman in Sphere. But it was The Big Blue that was packing them in.
Free-divers seemed to be everywhere. Howard Jones and others would from time to time demonstrate their static apnea skills in the Dive Tank, and though it has great curiosity value, watching a man holding his breath for four minutes is not the sort of sport likely to get the TV companies fighting for the rights.
It did, however, add to the interest generated by the tank, which was crowded with people doing everything but open-circuit scuba diving as we know it. As usual the Historical Diving Society staged regular demonstrations of standard-dress diving, visitors flocking to be photographed in the 1880s "brass helmet" diving suit, weighing an incredible 80kg.
But where once only hardhat divers plodded around the tank, now rebreather and full-face-mask demonstrators shared the water with free-divers. The Royal Engineers even set up a noughts-and-crosses game on the glass wall so that children could interact with divers in the tank.
The Royal Engineers Diving Training Wing of the Defence Diving School was sharing a nearby stand with the HDS in celebration of 160 years of army diving. The longest-established diving organisation in the world, you couldn't miss its display, despite the battle camouflage. Its heavy and clearly well-used diving equipment generated significant interest among visitors, and might even have produced a few recruits.
Fired by the sight of others getting wet, visitors of all ages headed for the Try Dive Pool, run by the BSAC to introduce newcomers to the sport. Underwater pictures of them were relayed to a nearby screen to keep their friends entertained.
Even the Diver airship, which spent the weekend gliding gently round the hall, seemed keen to hit the water at one point it swooped so low over the pool that the toy sharks were seen to duck.
Readers voted for it so we showed it at the Film Festival, but the movie Jaws has a lot to answer for sharks have had such bad press as indiscriminate and mindless predators that many species are now under threat, and people still refer automatically to "shark-infested" waters.
"My aim is to change people's negative opinions of this magnificent animal so that it gets the respect it deserves," said Craig Ferreira of the South African White Shark Institute. He presented an extended series of illustrated talks on the behaviour and biology of sharks, highlighting his research into their complex behaviour patterns.
Sharks were one of the hottest topics at Dive 98, and visitors flocked to the many presentations, though disappointingly few made it to the Bahamas Shark Symposium was it the word "symposium" that put them off, with its suggestion of note-taking, active participation and perhaps an examination at the end of the session?
As Gary Adkison of Walker's Cay dive centre in the Bahamas pointed out, we still know comparatively little about sharks. He is carrying out an extensive tagging programme, recording the behaviour patterns of the local sharks to nail such issues as how big they grow and where they give birth.
The Shark Trust, meanwhile, was drumming up support for its campaign to halt the worldwide slaughter of sharks. The Environmental Investigation Agency was doing a similar job on behalf of whales and dolphins, while in a nearby seminar room cetacean expert Horace Dobbs explained with infectious enthusiasm how Aborigine dolphin music could change your life
Two of the presentations that caused the most excitement at Dive 98 did so because word had got around about them after the London International Dive Show. It was standing room only to hear Kevin Gurr describe his year-old expedition to dive the Britannic.
By next year's show, the latest Britannic expedition, led by Nick Hope, could be generating equal interest.
Meanwhile, Les Kemp was running out of the special glasses needed to view his spectacular 3D show Watermark. "You almost feel you can reach out and touch them," commented one visitor afterwards. "The fish, eels, corals and wrecks are larger than life and jump out of the screen with such clarity that all the tiny details are clearly visible."
Two-dimensional photography might seem a little staid following Watermark, but if your friends and family fall asleep when you show them slides from your latest dive trip, you should have been at Linda Dunk's presentation on how to improve the quality of your shots.
Another photographer and writer presenting slides of his diving trips around the world was Jack Jackson. Times were changing, said Jack, and many of the marine-life species and spectacular reefs he had captured on film over the years were being destroyed. Destinations such as Sipadan were being exploited so heavily that the marine life that made them famous was under threat.
Fortunately there are still many destinations that remain well cared for, and often it is income from tourists that provides the incentive to keep them that way. Many visitors come to the Dive Show to weigh up holiday ideas, and they can hardly have been disappointed by the range of options.
Now it's time to put all that holiday planning and new equipment to good use after all, diving isn't all in the mind!
A win-win situation
In the two big Diver draws, Mike Jeffries from Warwick won a £5000 holiday from the Cayman Islands Tourist Board. The ten-day all-inclusive holiday for two is based at the Indies Suites on Grand Cayman, diving with Indies Divers, then moving on to Cayman Brac's Brac Reef Resort, diving with Reef Divers II.
And Michael Nicholas from Camberley, the Club Secretary of the Gibraltar UK Club, won a diving holiday to the Red Sea, courtesy of Regal Holidays, for himself and nine of his friends. They'll be staying at the Rosetta Sports Rooms in Na'ama Bay.
Appeared in DIVER - December 1998