YOU ARE WOKEN BY A DISCREET TAPPING on the wooden blinds that separate you from your small section of private beach.
Your senses awake as you do, and the first sensation is the subtle whiff of recycled local woods that make up your chalet, nestled into the rocks and forest on the fringe of the remote island that is your holiday home for the next week.
The second sensation is hearing the reassuring whisper of wavelets breaking on the beach, and then the gentle hiss as they are dragged inexorably back to the sea. The morning sun is streaming through the shutters, and it looks like the start of a good day.
Yawning after eight hours of what can only be described as blissful slumber, you step out of bed and slip on your complimentary cotton dressing gown - made locally, like most items in the resort. Padding across the wooden floor, you pull open the shutters to find a smiling staff-member, resplendent in local costume, staggering under a tray creaking with an immense breakfast. After wishing him a cordial good morning, you stand aside and he moves into the chalet, tray balanced precariously on one shoulder, greeting you as he enters.
Setting the tray down, he tells you how welcome you are to the new resort. Open only a few months, Utopia Island has been set up as a model of environmental excellence, a glorious fusion of modern techniques in conservation and time-honoured local traditions and crafts. The decision-making process for establishing the resort was carried out by a joint panel of company executives and local headmen, all of whom had complete equality in the voting system.
As he pours your tea, you settle into your chair and ask your waiter how he feels about the resort.
"Very excited," is the answer, for today is the day he sits his Instructor exams. He has been trained up by the dive staff as part of an ongoing education programme that will ultimately see the diving run entirely by locals.
"It's amazing," he says, "that a local boy like me, the son of a dynamite fisherman, will now be teaching tourists all about the reefs that have been my home for so long." The money he earns, even as a waiter, exceeds anything he could earn through fishing, and he expects this to increase even more when he starts working at the dive centre.
His English is excellent, and is improving all the time, thanks to the school set up by the resort-owners in the local village as part of the deal to open the resort on its present site.
You survey the breakfast in front of you, and note that it is, of course, a well-balanced mix of local fruits and carbohydrates for a slow energy release throughout your day's diving.
Locally grown bananas nestle next to a huge glass of coconut milk, while sugar-free muesli sits alongside pitta bread ready to be filled with a range of dried fruits and yoghurt.
A large bottle of fresh water, produced from the spring that bubbles up through the limestone of the island, sits alongside the tray. This is yours for the day to keep you well hydrated under the beaming tropical sun. It is not plastic; it is glass, to be washed and reused by the next client.
Well-fed, well-rested and well-hydrated, you leave the chalet an hour later and walk the short distance to the dive centre.
This will be your first dive at this new resort and, though you have heard great things, how often have reputations proved groundless? You brace yourself for possible disappointment.
You are upon the dive centre before you know it, once again set discreetly into the forest fringing the beach.
Sitting at the apex of a great crescent of white sand, the centre looks out directly onto a shallow lagoon, the edge of which is marked by the white water of the reef crest in the middle distance.
A blue gap in the white line of the surf indicates the tidal channel that leads to the open sea. Three brightly coloured local boats swing gently at buoys marking fixed anchor points.
You enter the dive centre, and walk into the large foyer, leading to an impressive reception desk. The staff-member behind the desk looks up and smiles, extends a hand, introduces himself, and welcomes you to the centre as he walks around the desk. Waving you over to one of the chairs in the reception area, he begins to talk.
"One of the most important things for us here is that you get the most out of your week, so what I'm going to do now is have a look at your qualifications, chat to you about your experience levels, and find out what sort of things you'd like to see over the next few days," he says.
The start of the conversation is thus a review of your qualifications and logbook, and some subtle probing into your experience levels. Next, the staffer asks what you'd really like to see, and makes careful notes of your answers.
You're warming to the whole process, and can feel the first tremblings of anticipation created by his expertise and enthusiasm for the week ahead.
Introduction over, your exchange is interrupted by the arrival of your dive buddy for the day, tall and attractive and gliding into the dive centre to be met equally enthusiastically by the guide.
He invites your new buddy to sit with you, and suggests a cup of tea for you both before the main briefing starts. As he darts off to make the tea, you introduce yourself and find that your new buddy has very similar dive experiences to yourself, has recently arrived, is staying for a week, and lives close to you in the UK.
You immediately hit it off, and on talking more find that, although your new buddy worked for a few years as a model, recent inheritance of a large amount of money means that work will never again be an issue. For your new buddy, it seems it was always a struggle to settle into a relationship, due to a deep-rooted love of diving and lack of a partner prepared to travel the world to experience the best the sport can offer.
You nod thoughtfully, find yourself leaning forward slightly, and it dawns on you that your mouth is hanging open. You hastily close it.
The guide returns, and the briefing begins in earnest. Directing your attention to a plasma-screen TV, set into the wall of the reception area, he flicks on a remote control, and you sit back to enjoy the show.
As he speaks, images and video of the island flash across the screen: "Utopia Island has been a dive resort for only a few months, although the preparation and planning took more than six years. During this time, a reserve has been established around the island in consultation with the local community, who have also been trained to police and patrolÉ"
The dive centre backs onto a small research station, funded from the fees paid by visiting divers, and the resident marine biologist is monitoring the recovery of the reef. He continues to liaise with the head of the artisanal fishing fleets to advise on the richest areas to fish, and which key areas must be avoided as spawning areas.
The head fisherman in turn has seen his catches rise slowly over the years, and enthusiastically endorses the zoning system that was put in place by the marine biologist. He imposes his own penalties on illegal fishermen through the age-old channels of village meetings and councils.
As the images on the screen move from land to sea, the guide begins to describe the general marine highlights on the reefs fringing the island. Because of the presence of a deepwater trench near the island, the water temperature remains reasonably constant, saving the island from the ravages of global phenomena such as the El Ni–o event that destroyed other reefs in the region.
This same deepwater trench provides the source of rich upwellings along the reefs, bringing nutrient-rich water barrelling over the reef-tops.
Cruising the edge of this great continental drop-off are the big pelagics, opportunistic hunters patrolling the killing grounds of the open water. On the reef top, healthy hard corals shield a bewildering array of smaller reef residents. The tidal channel leading to the drop-off is dotted with cleaning stations, where divers are guaranteed encounters with vast manta rays and cruising reef sharks.
Impressed by the guide's level of knowledge, as well as his flagrant enthusiasm for the dives around his island, you ask him which dive he would recommend.
He pauses for a moment, then suggests as for openers a gentle cruise over the reef crest, where the chance exists to drift over the drop-off as the dive progresses, yet where the sanctuary and safety of the shallow reef is only a fin-kick away for the nervous diver.
For the afternoon dive, he suggests a trip to the luxuriant sea-grass beds on the far side of the lagoon, where seahorses sway gently in the current, and the resident dugongs have recently begun to graze, guaranteeing a close encounter to finish the day.
Having checked your buddy's qualifications, he takes you to the kit store. Here he hands you over to a divemaster, who personally equips you from head to toe. You notice that the equipment has been well-serviced, with the divemaster's certificates and qualifications hanging above the neat tool-room at the back of the store, next to the clean-air certificate issued recently for the compressor.
This is housed in an immaculate soundproofed shed a short distance from the main centre, its air intake high in a tree in the face of the clean wind whispering over the open sea.
The centre demands that all divers use a completely redundant air supply, and you are issued with a pony bottle complete with DIN-fit long-hosed regulator. The equipment has been well set up, with counter weights neatly balancing the pony, and an uncluttered BC using a standardised system of clips and attachments.
Each BC has a small reel and delayed SMB, even though the dive guide will be using his own SMB throughout.
The divemaster issuing the kit suggests that the BC is tested for fit, and makes appropriate adjustments to ensure that all of your equipment is secure. The gear is a subtle collection of discreetly tucked-away hoses, gauges and perfectly placed clips. Someone has clearly taken some time to put this gear together. Your weighting for the dive is calculated precisely, and soon your gear is ready to go.
Your equipment is placed in a crate, and you are told that it will be taken onto the boat for you. Moving out of the store behind your buddy, you stroll out onto the beach to see the larger of the boats just nosing into shore. Your buddy jumps lightly aboard - definitely some sort of work-out routine going on to have that sort of body, you reckon.
You are met by the skipper, a local man who knows these reefs at a near genetic level. He too used to be a fisherman, but now his boat is chartered by the resort. It is his responsibility to maintain it to exacting standards, but he receives a larger proportion of diver charter fees than skippers at other resorts, who are paid only standard rate.
Glancing around the boat, you see that such investment in his own skills has paid off. You, your buddy and the guide sit down respectfully as he begins his boat briefing.
The skipper welcomes you on board, and introduces you to his son, who is also deckhand, learning the family business. A sweep of the hand takes in the large covered deck area, with neat rows of cylinders along each gunwale. Under each bench is a locker for equipment. Close to the wide stern, complete with platform and sturdy ladder, is a small, sealable tank of fresh water which is used for the transport and rinsing of underwater cameras.
He moves into the wheelhouse and reveals the two state-of-the-art radios, one hand-held, one fixed base-station, performing a quick radio check on each before moving to towards the bow.
Three waterproof boxes are secured under the wheelhouse. The first holds a selection of tools, batteries, flares and spares, the second a comprehensive first-aid kit and the third a very large, positive-flow oxygen kit, use of which is briefly explained by the skipper.
Just forward of the wheelhouse is a large container holding a modern life-raft, and the skipper once again briefly explains how it operates. Within the wheelhouse is a large, very tidy seating area, complete with fish-ID guides. Immediately outside the wheelhouse is a large, non-slip camera table.
Finally, the skipper quietly runs through the routine on disembarking the boat at the start of a dive and when boarding the boat afterwards.
All is serenity and calm. Was it your imagination, or did your buddy's thigh just touch yours on sitting beside you on the bench? Interesting.
And so to the dive itself. After notifying the dive centre that it is departing, the boat noses out of the beach and carves through the crystal waters of the lagoon. The skipper keeps his speed down to avoid collisions with the dugongs and turtles that frequent the lagoon, although even at this sedate pace you are soon passing through the tidal channel.
As you steam through the channel, the reef crest crackling and foaming on either side, there is a great shout from the deckhand, and following his pointing finger you see the huge dark shape of a manta gliding alongside the boat.
Slowly it moves ahead, and as you break out into the open ocean it wheels away triumphantly into the deep blue water. The boat moves a short distance along the crest before turning into a natural hollow, where the skipper puts the engine into neutral and the vessel rocks gently in the oily swell.
Glancing overboard, you can see the kaleidoscopic jumble of the reef crest plunging away into the sapphire-blue of the drop-off. Fingers trembling with excitement, you start assembling your kit.
Once your gear is ready to go, the guide sits you and your buddy down and begins an onsite briefing about the dive.
He produces a detailed diagram of the site, with distinct phases of the dive clearly indicated. This area is well-known for certain spectacular species, and he briefly describes each one, indicating where they might be found.
He hands out a small fish ID card to clipped to your BC, and completes the briefing with a clear indication of the limits of the dive - depth, time and air. He also illustrates the diver-recall device, and points out where an emergency cylinder will hang beneath the boat for the final stages of the dive. Asking if there are any questions, he suggests that you kit up and begin the dive.
Assisted by the deckhand, you don your gear, before helping your buddy do the same. The gear looks good on your buddy, you notice.
Before entering the water, you both carry out an extensive series of checks. The guide also takes a moment to talk you through his gear.
Checks completed, you move to the stern, where the deckhand does a brief final visual check before handing you a tag to clip onto your BC. This will be handed back to him and placed back on his clipboard on your return. He notes your name, your air, the time, and with that, gives you the OK to step off the stern platform.
The guide is already in the water, and you step off into the tepid tropical shallows above the reef crest. Turning immediately to indicate to the deckhand that all is well, you move away from the stern to let your buddy enter the water.
When the group is together, the guide checks that all is well, you exchange signals and begin your descent. At about 2m you find the guide waiting in midwater, and the three of you perform a brief bubble check to ensure that your kit is in good working order with no leaks, before pushing on with the dive.
What follows is a dive to remember forever, a dreamy recollection as the rain spatters against the windscreen on the M25, a half-smile on the District Line, a glassy stare at a dull dinner party.
Dropping down to 20m to hover above the reef crest, you immediately see a ghost pipefish gliding above an exquisite branch of hard coral. Just beyond it hovers a huge cuttlefish, seemingly trying to decide if the creature before it is edible, its confusion showing in a dazzling array of colour changes.
A discreet clank from the guide, and you glance up to see an eagle ray soar overhead, perfectly silhouetted against the sun through the crystal visibility.
Moving towards the reef crest, you see a great pirouetting shape in mid water - a manta feeding on the plankton attracted by the rich upwellings on the fringe of the reef.
You pause, slack-jawed with wonder, and as you do so the sun dims. Glancing up, you see the immense form of a whale shark pass overhead, drawn by this feeding bonanza. Smaller baitfish are working the periphery of the plankton mass, drawing in jacks that knife into their midst. This in turn proves irresistible to the reef sharks, and you are soon surrounded by exhilarating dog-fights and acrobatics.
You have now edged off the reef crest and are drifting down the drop-off, your depth still a sedate 25m. This is the limit set by the guide for this first dive, and you briefly run parallel to the reef wall, the action taking place overhead. You glance to one side just in time to see a huge green moray dart from its lair to take a passing snack. "Well, fancy that!" you think.
It's all over too soon, even though you have pushed close to your no-deco limit. The guide begins to drift back up the wall, putting in three brief deepwater stops to allow a gradual decompression gradient by the time the safety-stop depth is reached.
Here you pause for three minutes, long enough to hear, then see, a pod of dolphins charge past, briefly turning to inspect you with that enigmatic smile, before heading towards the reef crest.
On surfacing, the boat is close by, and you hear the engine go into neutral. Beckoned towards the boat by the deckhand, you climb the wide ladder above the propeller secure in its cage, handing your tag to the deckhand, speechless at what you have just seen.
After shrugging out of your gear, the deckhand passes you a warm towel as big as a snow drift, and a glass of water to begin the rehydration process.
One final check that everyone is on board, and the skipper heads for home.
That evening, you settle on the bar stool as the barman sets a cold beer in front of you, a single dewdrop sliding down the frosted side of the glass.
Across the bar, you catch the eye of your diving companion, who raises a glass and beckons you. Strolling across, you note that a large group of Australian divers are settling in for a good evening, the beers already flowing.
As you sit beside your buddy, you realise how extraordinarily attractive a person this is. The barman flicks on the widescreen TV located just beyond your table, to reveal a huge scarred man in white, lifting a cup triumphantly over his head. "And England are the rugby world champions," mumbles a deeply depressed Antipodean commentator.
Thanks to all those readers who took part in the survey on which this article was based
The Moheli Marine Park in the Comores Islands was set up in April 2001 with strong local involvement - 10 of the 16 board members are local villagers. Thirty new jobs have been created in a park policed entirely by local people
In our recent DIVER survey, more than 80% of respondents said that their biggest pet hate on dive trips was arrogance and indifference on the part of dive-centre staff.
Recovery rates of marine environments in suitable conditions have proved to be more rapid than initially thought. In 1994 three large areas totalling 17,000sq km in the Gulf of Maine were closed to all fishing methods. Within five years, populations of certain target species rebounded to 9-14 times their density in fished areas.
Overcrowding and lack of space on boats was a big issue with DIVER readers in our survey - 40% of you said this was a consistent problem in many resorts
It's not always as clear as the briefing shown above - high on your list of dislikes in diving, with more than 60% of respondents citing it as a key issue, was a lack of clear explanation at every level of the diving experience
A combined study by DAN and PADI in 1997 found the probability of decompression sickness by air diving to be about 0.004%. This includes even the most minor stages, which recover without treatment. Over 500 dives there is only a 1.98% risk of any form of DCS - and certain operators in Chuuk Lagoon report that deepwater stops have eliminated all signs of DCS in their diving clients.
|Eco-tourism is emerging as one of the major sectors of international tourism. In the Asia-Pacific region, eco-tour operators report a consistent growth of 10-25% over the past five years. Local economies and people should benefit - in Madagascar, park authorities give 50% of park entrance fees direct to local communities. Kenya's wildlife and dive tourism industry alone employs 55,000 local people
Dr Trevor Kenchington notes that understanding the local fishery is one of the most critical factors in establishing effective Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)."If an MPA is to benefit a fishery," he notes, "it is essential that the boundaries are drawn in consultation with that fishery." In the Moheli Marine Park, establishing an effectively policed MPA has seen a 35% increase in healthy coral cover within the park over the past six years|
|Dr Steve Palumbi of Harvard University notes: "You want to design reserves so that they have a spillover effect in helping replenish the ocean beyond the protected area." Marine reserves differ from parks on land because most marine species disperse through water as larvae, moved by tides or currents. Dispersal distances of as much as 10 to 30 miles are not uncommon.|
|Another key issue in our DIVER survey was not diving the plan that had been briefed, with more than 50% of you saying that this had happened to you on more than one occasion|