OSCAR IS EIGHT YEARS OLD, and he lives on a planet far, far away. He probably has a closer relationship with Itchy and Scratchy than he does with his real-life brothers and sisters.
For the brief interludes when Oscar inhabits the same planet as the rest of mankind, he lives with us, ostensibly because he is my son.
During one such Earthly visit (at some stage in our annual family holiday) he realised that his elder sister had just gone off diving and, to my surprise, he was gutted to be missing out.
It is rare for Oscar to show any emotion, so I grasped this tenuous link between our two worlds and enrolled him on a PADI Bubblemaker course, due to take place that afternoon.
As my eldest daughter Harriet and her friend James had discovered in last month's when they took part in a PADI Discover Scuba class, the tiny coral heads festooned with life just a few metres off the Coral Hilton beach in Nuweiba are the perfect location for any beginner keen to take his or her first breath under water.
As a rule, those trying a Bubblemaker experience don't get to witness this, because it usually happens in the swimming pool, but as competition with aqua-aerobics was high and the class would consist of only three children, our instructor agreed to teach it off the gently sloping beach.
Unlike the Discover Scuba class, Bubblemaker is intended to be an experience rather than an education, so there is no formal classroom session.
The participants simply received a short talk from the instructor before getting down to the practical side of things, which is ideal for this age group. Their attention spans will not stretch to two paragraphs for any single subject.
This brief talk, delivered on the hoof in the equipment store, was primarily about breathing through a regulator. It was delivered by German-born Andy Diez, the manager of the Nuweiba branch of Emperor Divers who earlier that day had taught the Discover Scuba class.
He has been diving for more than 10 years and professionally for six. With his partner Steffi, he has worked at dive centres in Sicily, Kenya and Egypt and has delivered hundreds of Bubblemaker experiences.
Joining Oscar in the near-40° heat of the beach were Chloe and Jessica, both aged 9 and the children of friends. The two girls were slightly larger than Oscar and were both fitted out with 10 litre aluminium cylinders, which were ample for the 2m depth range to which the course is restricted.
Oscar, on the other hand, is more like a stick drawing with strength to match. Luckily, due to the depth limit and his small lungs, Andy was able to fit him out with an aluminium 5 litre bottle, ample for his needs and altogether more manageable for someone of his stature. In fact, this scaling-down made him look more like an Action Man than a real person.
Having six kids, I know that, when task-loaded, children act somewhat differently to adults; they are incredibly easily distracted. So when our little group kitted up in the shallow water,the newness of the bulky equipment caused all three of them almost completely to ignore Andy.
They simply disappeared into their own little worlds, making it unbelievably difficult to impart the simple bits of information they needed to know (such as how to clear their ears or purge the regulator).
"So I just breathe through this?" said Chloe, as she disappeared under the water. "Yes," said her dad to the top of her submerging head.
After 20 minutes of what can only be described as faffing, we eventually got to the point of kneeling on the sand. As there was a lot of it being stirred up, it was certainly lucky that here it was of the coarse variety; one of the downsides of not being in a pool, I guess.
The children's attention continued to be sporadic until Andy produced an underwater Frisbee, which seemed to have a similar effect to that of a hypnotist's watch.
Incredibly, they all suddenly forgot their little distractions and focused on throwing the Frisbee between them. This marvellous little toy held their attention for a good 15 minutes (equivalent to a lifetime for this age group) and constituted the bulk of the session.
Oscar was very keen to move the few feet over towards the pier to check out the prolific life both growing and swimming around the pilings. With such an obviously interesting natural resource just 20m off the beach, and in the prescribed depth range, I found it a little disappointing that Andy didn't take advantage of this, and preferred to keep the threesome on the featureless sand, playing with a clever but artificial toy.
I can understand the tremendous responsibility of looking after young children in an alien environment but it just seemed such a waste to use pool toys (and pools for that matter) when surrounded by the perfect underwater environment.
Happily, Oscar did manage to sidle over and check out the fish life before the end of the 40-minute session, but I felt that the two girls perhaps didn't get the most out of their first experience.
"Is that it?" exclaimed Jessica. "When can we do it again?" asked Chloe, as soon as the regulators were out of their mouths. The threesome were then herded back to the beach, clearly enthused, if a little bewildered, by the whole experience.
I asked Craig, who on this occasion was Jessica's uncle as well as our photographer, what he thought of the session. "It was great as far as it went. I think it would have been really good if it had been part of a series of underwater activities; perhaps one a day on holiday. It just seems that we've given them a great experience, they want to do it again - and then there is nothing."
I agree and, to be fair, PADI has tried to do just that with the introduction of its Seal Team program. Unfortunately, this doesn't really seem to have taken off; I guess because of all the specialised equipment involved, the responsibilities surrounding the looking after of children, and the reality that these factors are likely to combine to make the experience cost more than most parents would want to pay on a daily basis.
PADI's Bubblemaker class has been around since 1999 and was introduced to allow children as young as eight to experience the thrill of breathing under water before they are old enough to undertake training (age 10).
At the time of its introduction, it was a controversial decision to allow children of this age to don scuba gear. Some more cynical observers considered the justification for such a course to be purely commercial, with the "catch them young" marketing philosophy being the driving force.
Others believed that children were far more capable of learning than we give them credit for, and consequently could begin to enjoy this aquatic sport at a much younger age than was previously considered. Whatever your school of thought (I'm somewhere in the middle), in the five years that Bubblemakers has been around, accidents seem to have been almost non-existent.
I thought the experience was both safe and rewarding for Oscar (it stopped him watching television) and I guess it did exactly what PADI wanted it to do; made him want to do it again. Perhaps therein lies the problem.
PADI is a training agency which does not generally have a club structure, so continuous delivery of such experiences to this pre-training age group requires either a dive school to run it as a loss-leader, or volunteers to deliver it. Neither happens to any significant degree.
I have been trying to review the Seal Team programme for nearly two years but I couldn't find anywhere closer than Stoke (90 miles from where I live) where it was being delivered on a weekly basis.
What's the answer? I don't know, but it does seem a bit of a double-edged sword to give kids an experience they are likely to love, then tell them they can't do it again for two years - unless, that is, you have a lot of dosh and like driving.
The PADI Bubblemaker class described took place at the Nuweiba Hilton branch of Emperor Divers. The 40-minute in-water course costs 20 euros (including equipment hire). Emperor Divers also advertises Seal Team activities on its website but this could depend on numbers and hotel pool availability, so check before travelling (www.emperordivers.com).
Briefing in the equipment store, mainly about breathing through a regulator.
Any last-minute questions? No, let's go
Oscar takes on an Action Man appearance.
Equalising? Nothing to it