The liveliest letters from the DIVER mailbag...
As we slipped into the warm waters of the Red Sea, the sun had barely risen. We were the first boat on Jackson Reef, and anybody who has dived in Sharm in October will know the benefit of an early start if you want to catch any pelagic activity.
We dropped to 20m and began our dive out into the blue. Good buoyancy control was paramount, as all I could see were the other 12 divers finning along. With nothing else visible but an 800m drop into the abyss, I began to question the early start.
No sooner had the thought entered my head than we were in the middle of 40-plus schooling hammerheads.
The adrenalin was pumping, but to be so close to these beautiful creatures and feel no real fear was awesome. For 20 minutes they allowed us to be in their company.
When they suddenly departed and we returned to our boat, you can imagine the electricity on board. Even the crew were buzzing. Several people related the experience to seeing their first child born. Within no time the jungle drums around Sharm were beating, and every dive school had heard of our adventure.
Within days liveaboards were creating havoc around Jackson Reef and we had started to feel like celebrities around town. Mark and Pete, our two instructors from Red Sea College with more than 4000 dives between them, had never experienced anything like it.
So what about Mat? Well, Mat went to see an ancient monastery that day instead of diving. Bad choice, Mat, bad choice. Brian Roberts, Welwyn, Herts
I am in my 45th year of diving and a dedicated underwater photographer of the UK. I submitted several prints and slides to Diver's Image 2003 Photography & Film Festival.
At the presentations at the NEC there was complete shock at the judges' decision for one category to include awards only to gold and bronze winners. What about the silver position?
Even more baffling was the decision to make no awards in the British Isles slide categories.
Discussing this with like-minded photographers, we agreed that this was an insult to those who strive to show the UK at its very best. This was not sour grapes, however, and congratulations must go to all the other award-winners.
I request that the judges be sent to some remote paradise where once again they can forget the British Isles and bore us with their reports of how good it is there. This should be a one-way ticket. Or they could organise a festival of only British photographs taken by themselves. We could be the judges and perhaps not make any awards.
This festival was an insult to those underwater photographers who have supported all that is good in our British Isles and continue to do so.
Dave Peake, Yelverton, Devon
Comment: In line with all Diver photo festivals over the past 30 years, the awarding of gold, silver and bronze medals at Image 2003 was designed to reflect the exceptional quality of entries in most categories. As previously, however, this occasionally meant withholding medals where standards were less high, and allowing ourselves the scope to give additional medals (for example, two Bronze in the Grand Master Portfolio and two Silver in a Non-Grand Master Slides category) where appropriate.
As we have pointed out in past Image events, there are opportunities for photographers taking pictures in UK waters to capitalise on the generally lower standard of submissions.
The work of photographers such as Alan James in this event's British Waters Prints category shows what can be achieved.
Your fin tests are a courageous and important effort in the ultimate interest of your readers. Years ago, all manufacturers simply stated that their fin was "the best", even if it was a terrible performer. Unfortunately, this led many consumers down the wrong path and caused them grief and stress while trying to dive with them.
While many manufacturers still attempt this strategy, they are losing credibility thanks to real-world test data being published by you.
Fortunately, now that speedometers are available, it is becoming more difficult for manufacturers to succeed in making unrealistic marketing claims while trying to push poor-performance fins on their customers.
Every diver deserves to make the most of their underwater experiences. If manufacturers would simply put their customers' enjoyment and efficiency first, profits would take care of themselves. I believe your fin tests will prevent your readers being deceived by over-the-top marketing not backed up by real-world performance.
Moulds for new fins can cost $150,000 or more. Rather than investing this into an under-researched and poorly developed product (and repeating this mistake year after year to seek a marketing edge), the companies should devote some of this money to R&D, so that they can deliver the product their customers deserve.
Pete McCarthy, Nature's Wing, Newport Beach, California
Comment: Your comments are much appreciated, and as it happens there is another fins mini-comparison test in this issue. One of this month's news stories about fin-testing may also be of some interest…
I had already booked a summer holiday in La Manga and was delighted to see from your article on diving in Spain (Costa Wrecka, April 2003) that it had very good diving. I spent a week having some excellent diving with my 14-year-old daughter, seeing huge groupers and coral pinnacles infested with small moray eels.
Then I turned up on 1 September to be told that I could not dive. My daughter was welcome to dive, as was the other person in our group, a woman who had qualified the week before and had only ever done 10 dives, but not me.
The reason? The authorities had decided that only "advanced divers" were allowed on boat dives from September onwards.
I'm no expert, but I have done more than 80 dives all over the world. What I had not bothered to do was a PADI Advanced course. My daughter and the other diver had both taken this immediately after doing their Open Water, which made them "advanced" divers.
Most dive schools encourage people to do their Advanced course, as it's quite a money-spinner. The trouble comes when external agencies mistake "advanced" for "experienced". Not only is this a confusing situation, it is a potentially dangerous one.
I'm not against the PADI Advanced course, but let's call it something that reflects what it means, perhaps PADI Extra, and have dive schools ("only advanced divers to the Thistlegorm"), liveaboards ("only advanced divers need apply") and government agencies rely on experience rather than plastic cards of dubious merit when deciding who can dive.
Michael Mahony, London
I would like to comment on Barry Aldridge's letter about the Mystery Diver's visit to the Tony Backhurst Scuba Centre (Ten Years Out of Diving? Start Again, November).
I learned to dive in 1985 and qualified as a BSAC two-star diver. I dived for four years and had to stop for health reasons. After 12 years out I went for another health check, and after getting the all-clear decided to take up diving again.
My local dive centre advised me to take a PADI refresher course, and after completing this in its 10m dive tower, told me I was competent enough to dive again.
On holiday in Corfu, my wife decided to take up diving too. We went to the Seven Islands Dive Centre, where the instructor asked if I would like to tag along and improve my skills while my wife was doing her PADI Open Water.
I must admit that a lot had changed over the years, and I am really glad I took her advice. She even allowed me to sit in and take the exam with my wife (at no extra charge).
I would advise anyone who has not dived for 10 years or more to take more than just a refresher course. It is in your own interests and safety to be a responsible and up-to-date diver.
Eddie May, Enschede, Holland
It saddens me to see the old peer-pressure, black-cat routine. You've all come across it on holiday, when you meet your appointed dive buddy for the first time. No one ever seems to be just learning the sport, or to be slightly apprehensive about the forthcoming dive. All are so "vastly experienced" that you are left wondering if you're the novice - until the dive starts!
It happens to me all the time when I'm overseas, and it doesn't matter whether I am diving with PADI, BSAC or ACUC. I don't have an axe to grind about organisations (sometimes I just wish they would all use the same qualification criteria) and am happy to dive with anybody. However, I wish that divers (males in particular) would state their true experience so that a dive profile for their relevant experience can be arranged.
I have lost count of the number of buddies who have basic problems with their buoyancy. They're either on the surface or on the bottom. This spoils the dive and could lead to serious trouble.
On my last dive in Spain this year, I asked my new buddy about his experience and was told that he frequently went to 31m at Stoney Cove.
I thought I was OK that day until we entered the water, which is when I saw why he always ended up at the bottom.
So please, inform the dive centre of your true experience and you will be rewarded with a dive that is safe and pleasurable.
I am a Scottish SAC Master Diver and dive about three times a week all year round.
Iain Campbell, Dumbarton
What is it with people's negative attitude to the Med as a dive location? (Med Is Dead, What Dies Next?, Off-Gassing, December). My first warm- water diving "expedition" was to Ibiza. We booked four days' diving with Jeff Richardson of Sea Horse Sub-Aqua Centre in Port des Torrent, and what a four days we had! We were offered a multitude of dive sites, all spectacular and teeming with life.
We saw groupers of varying sizes, some of them absolute monsters with names that must have been thought up to scare novice divers (the Beast was one), as well as morays, barracuda, cuttlefish, octopus, scorpionfish, dentex, wrasse of so many types I wouldn't even try to name them, snappers, gurnards and the vast shoals of sea bream and damsonfish patrolled by barracuda.
Our night dive was like being on an alien world, with bio-luminescent creatures scurrying out of the torchlight, and no matter where you looked there would always be a pair of eyes staring back at you.
It may have been my first warmwater diving holiday, but after diving other locations since, including Tenerife, I still hold Ibiza up there with the best. Perhaps Jeff knows something about the Med that others don't? All I know is that we'll be going back in 2004 with even more divers in tow, and I can't wait to get wet in the Med again!
Justin Owen, Chester SAC
I partly agree with the statement in Chris Lawrence's letter NAUI Deja Vu? (August). I was one of many left stranded about seven years ago by Celtic Diving, the UK NAUI Service Centre at that time.
I decided to train with NAUI after considering all the organisations available. What I didn't do was look into the establishment and the instructor who would give me my diving education. Over seven years I have continued my diving education with NAUI by seeking out good-quality instructors both in and outside this country.
Now a NAUI instructor myself, and having also trained to instructor level with other diving organisations, I believe that people need to look more closely into the background and quality of the instructor and centre. Most of the problems divers encounter are with the instructor, not the organisation.
Steven Edwards, Devon
Having just read Martyn Doherty's letter World's Most Expensive Diving? (November), I think I can beat him.
My daughter was flying out to Florida with my 20-month-old grandson, to meet her husband who was working there over Christmas.
I volunteered to fly out with her, to help her look after my grandson on the long flight - as any dad would!
My wife and daughter thought this a very generous thing to do (lots of brownie points for me). Then my son-in-law had to make the fateful comment: "Bet he brings his dive gear". Hero to zero in 3.5 seconds.
Still, it was a great way to improve my log book. Imagine: "Flew to Florida, had one dive and came home". Flight £550, hotel £60, gear and dive with Anchor Scuba about £110, total £720 for one dive… a snip!
Paul Watson, Hedon, East Yorkshire
Congratulations on a great magazine! I am a PADI diving instructor from South Africa and want to vent a little. In your news item Coroner's Verdict Questions PADI Training and St Abbs Safety (October 2003), the spotlight is on PADI as far as safety is concerned. In my PADI training I was taught that safety comes first, and that each diver is responsible for his or her own dive.
We teach new divers that they must understand their own limits, and recommend that they dive with a professional if diving for the first time in areas different to those where they trained. It's not PADI's training in question here, but the diver's own judgment.
I was acting as a tour guide on a scenic trip (no diving) up the coast of the island where I live and work. A group of guys were out to get as drunk as possible, and towards the end of the trip one fell off the bow and went under the engines.
I jumped off the stern and managed to get him to the surface before he sank too deep. Sadly there was nothing I could do - the propeller had done its job. I was unable to save his life, but had he been only unconscious I would have done.
I did everything right, thanks to my PADI Rescue Diver training. Next time (heaven forbid) I will know what I am capable of and that the training I provide for my students is enough and can save lives, even if it didn't this time.
I am still in the process of dealing with the trauma of the experience. It is hard to describe, and hard to forget.
Fiona Stuart, St Vincent & the Grenadines
I read with mild amusement the recent Deep Breath by Graham Sands regarding cheap dive watches (Time to Save Your Money, November) but, with the subsequent letter (Rated to Kitchen-Sink Level, Off-Gassing, December), now with some concern. I hope that using cheap watches is not becoming standard practice.
Putting aside all the necessary equipment needed to explore the wonders under water, paramount to any safe diving must be the tables and a timepiece to monitor them. How anybody can contemplate scrimping on basic equipment defies belief. I wanted to say: "Get a life", but shouldn't that read: "Save your life"?
For any leisure discipline, buy the goods within that sport from the experts and use some common sense. I buy my climbing ropes from Rock & Ice, not Homebase.
Mike Kelly, Richmond, Surrey
How does Graham Sands stop water entering his mask via his moustache? The only thing I have found that works is Vaseline. Apart from being messy, I am now doing a lot of underwater photography and keep finding smears on my lens - no matter how often I wipe my finger! I hope you can help. Rod Baverstock
Graham Sands replies: It's simpler than you might think. I just spend a lot of time clearing the mask. The moustache has been off and on at various stages, but the water comes in much the same. The only thing that seals the mask is to breathe in sharply through my nose and descend below 6m, where it becomes clamped, at the cost of a flayed complexion. Do try!
Despite suffering from chronic dyslexia I have, after 700 dives over eight years, finally become a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor.
At school they didn't pick up on my dyslexia (my girlfriend is writing this letter) and I left with no qualifications. I was eager to learn but could not put pen to paper, nor had my family heard of dyslexia until I got my first job in catering.
I became a Divemaster four years ago but never thought I could be an Instructor because of all the studying, reading and writing. I knew a lot about the subject but could only talk about it. Then my girlfriend contacted PADI and found out that people with learning disabilities could get extra time for exams.
I chose a course with Maltaqua, where the course director Chris Heitkemper was very tough, fair and excellent. I did all my knowledge courses three months before going out to Malta. It took me forever to do what most people could do very fast and was the hardest thing I have ever done. I have now moved to Lanzarote to be involved in the diving business.
I am writing in the hope of encouraging and inspiring other divers with this "vile encumbrance". There are new ways around these things, and if it's something you want badly enough, and are prepared for all the hard work, do all your prep well in advance and go for it!
Jason McNamara, Lanzarote, Canary Islands