Not everyone can afford the £3000-plus it tends to cost to take part in reef survey expeditions in exotic locations - so the type of people who volunteer tend to be self-selecting, says Monty Halls
MIND THAT CORAL, YAH?
I LOOKED AROUND AT MY DIVE COMPANIONS and felt distinctly old and shabby. I was surrounded by gloriously clean-limbed Corinthians with gleaming kit and designer Lycra body suits. When I stood beside one of them, it looked like a before and after ad for a health club.
The crystal waters lapped at sugar- white sand at our feet. Palm trees rustled gently in humid tropical breezes as garishly coloured traditional fishing boats puttered past, crewed by tanned barefoot fishermen. It was the perfect vision of diving Utopia, the place where hairy bummed divers should go after shuffling off this mortal coil, having earned their spurs on many a nil-viz, freezing fumble off crumbling British piers.
One of my exquisite young companions was called Heather. She was glowing with excitement at the prospect of her first real dive surveying a tropical reef. Her slate was clutched in one shapely manicured hand, her low-volume silica mask perched on an unlined forehead, her gear a subtle symphony of colour co-ordination and understated wealth.
The problems started to occur when we submerged and swam towards the reef. As bright eyed and bushy-tailed as she was, brimming with eco-friendly ardour and muesli-fuelled energy, she was, unfortunately, crap.
I watched her bicycle her way along the reef, her progress punctuated by a gentle avalanche of reef, fastidiously noting the coral species in front of her just before obliterating it with a combination of poor buoyancy and pumping thighs.
I looked into her eyes as I signalled that she should perhaps try to use her BC every now and then, and saw only a desperate desire to please and an undimmed sense of environmental purpose. As I gazed into that immaculate, fine-boned, undoubtedly aristocratic face, I had a brief moment of revelation.
Can there be a coral reef left anywhere on Earth where, on entering the water, one doesn't encounter four earnest young middle-England types swimming along it in a tight group. Noble brows furrowed, ruddy cheeks glowing, they scribble furiously on slates, juggle with thermometers, peer into the middle distance in the hope of identifying a rapidly departing fish, bug-eyed with terror at the sight of the approaching ball of neon dive kit and flailing limbs.
Today it's all about eco-tourism. Gone are the days of the finishing school, where girls with flawless skin walked serenely around oak-panelled studies balancing books on their heads. Gone are the days of the Guards regiments, where trembling young men were thrashed to within an inch of their charmed lives by moustached drill sergeants.
Today, Tarquin, Peregrine and Lavinia, in fact the whole of the Bristlethorpe-Gout family, go on expeditions. Not just any old expeditions. They go to coral reefs and jolly well protect them. Today's finishing schools are fringed in white sand and involve swilling out compost toilets and building bashas. Was it my imagination or did I see the future king of England doing a penguin impression to a group of bewildered South American children on TV? I rest my case.
Why is it the preserve of the middle and upper class to charge about doing this sort of thing? Well it isn't. Anyone can do it - if they have a cool couple of grand rattling about in their offshore accounts. But the accents on most of these projects are somewhat plummy. I know certain people get on through sponsorship and rehabilitation schemes, and good luck to them, but the majority are well-educated, well-nourished, well-dressed, and well-off.
So what do they do? What do they actually... well... do? The answer is that they survey reefs with a view to establishing marine reserves. While surveying them, with all the good will in the world, they also damage them.
Does their work and data make up for the numerous impacts of many a well-turned ankle clad in contoured Dior bootees? Who knows? Certainly not me, and I'm pleased to say that my argument doesn't rest on such objective science. My argument is delightfully simple.
The legacy of these expedition organisations lies in the rich seam of coral reef awareness they create in British society. Not now, but in 10, 20, 30 years.
They are taking the flower of England as they peek out of the bud for the first time, and showing them a coral reef. Most, I suggest, will never forget it.
The bankers of tomorrow, the pin-striped, cigar-puffing captains of industry, the tweed-clad headmistresses, all will have treasured memories of teeming reefs, and all will have considered themselves to have bought into the whole conservation movement.
The major conservation groups are programming and training the hitmen of the future who, with bulging wallets, will wield the old school tie like a slingshot at the environmental hooligans of the 21st century. Seems worth a few traumatised fish to me.