Time to take the plunge

The spectacular underwater sights at Dibba rock have, in recent months, included whale sharks, which can grow up to 18 metres long.
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Where does one go to escape the heat at this time of year? By this point of the summer, we're bored of our apartments, tired of sitting in the car with the air-conditioning on full blast and trawling the malls seems a bit old hat too. Most options elicit a weary sigh, but all is not lost. What about heading underwater for a spot of scuba diving? "Just think, the world is two thirds water," says Sam Joffe, an instructor and manager at Al Boom dive centre on Al Wasl Road in Dubai.

The sweltering UAE summer means big business for the dive centre and it is currently peak season for them in all three of their UAE centres ? one in Dubai, one in Al Aqah and one that opened earlier this month in Jebel Ali. Every Friday, Joffe says, they have about 120 divers in the water at various locations, so despite the recession and cost of diving (the four day learner's course, for example, costs Dh2,350) it seems that business for Al Boom is, well, booming.

"At the moment there are quite a few advanced courses going on, lots of residents advancing their skills, but then tourists discover scuba here too" says Joffe. "Then there's also our residents' course every third week of the month for those who want to learn and finish work early in the afternoon." All of Al Boom's courses are designed by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), the world's largest diving training organisation, which has handed out more than 17 million diving certificates since it was founded in 1966. Nowadays, it has a vast global reach and trains more than 50 per cent of all those who learn to dive worldwide ? stiff competition for its smaller rivals such as BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) and the American NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors).

Al Boom is recognised by PADI as the UAE's number one diving centre and it is carefully manned by Francis Uy, the course director and operations manager who has been a diving instructor for 11 years and has worked at Al Boom for six of them. PADI, however, has had various criticisms levelled at it in recent years - detractors say the acronym stands for "Pay And Dive In." One of the most common complaints is that its learner courses are too short, designed simply to churn as many divers through as possible for the cash. The result, the critics say, is that seas are increasingly full of divers who don't know what they're doing. They put themselves and fellow divers at risk, while also crashing about into coral and causing damage to the sea's delicate ecosystems.

In 2006, following three diving deaths off the British coast in Cornwall and Devon, a diving expert slammed various training courses and singled out PADI in particular for their advanced open water course, which allow a novice to take just nine dives before qualifying as advanced. "That is madness, end of conversation," said Dr Philip Bryson, the head of the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth.

PADI replied that their system is tried and tested. "We have a lot of data about the efficacy of our system and the vast majority are out there diving quite happily," said Mark Caney, the organisation's vice-president. Others say that PADI's courses are dangerous because they never demand any kind of refresher class. You can take the course while on holiday, have a break of many years before hopping in again, having forgotten all about buoyancy, how to gauge your oxygen levels, how deep to go and a whole host of other technicalities.

I know something of this because the last time I went diving was on the day the 2004 tsunami struck. I happened to be on holiday just off the coast of Kenya, on an island called Lamu. It was Boxing Day and my family set out in the morning for one dive, to be followed by lunch on the boat and another dive afterwards. "The water is being very strange today," said the wizened Kenyan boatman as we clambered aboard that morning - one of those throwaway statements that seemed so prophetic afterwards.

I hadn't been diving for three years, since I first qualified in Thailand, and the disorientating currents pushing us in all manner of directions scared me. Sulky teenagers, my brothers and I refused to go back down again after lunch, so my parents left us sunbathing on deck and went without us. Radio announcements soon alerted the captain to the disaster unfolding along Asian coastlines. My parents were hurriedly brought up and the boat raced ashore, for no one knew then how the African coast would be affected. In the end, compared with the devastation elsewhere, it was barely touched.

Despite my having taken PADI's advanced course, I haven't been diving since and realise how little I can recall of my original training. Though it is not compulsory according to PADI, Uy points out that Al Boom offers and recommends a refresher course to those who have not dived for six months. It is, he says, something that many PADI centres do. The onus, he adds, is for divers to be sensible and gauge what their capabilities are.

As for the claim that the courses have become too short, Joffe says that is a misconception. "It's a marketing campaign because people say: 'I don't have time to learn.' You can then say to them it only takes four days, but it's only ever taken four days." Then there's the debate about diving in general, with increasing numbers flocking to areas such as the Red Sea, the Great Barrier Reef and islands off Thailand, leaving pollution and damage in their wake. The subject was raised last month in The Times in a piece written by Cavan Pawson, a diver with 10 years experience who said that he had decided to hang up his dive mask after becoming "sickened" by diving practices he has witnessed in recent years. These include woefully inexperienced instructors, overcrowded dive sites and divers who care little for the environment.

Actually, says Joffe, divers tend to be very eco-aware. "You get exceptions to the rule of course, but usually the divers watch one another or the instructor does. They become ambassadors for the ocean." "Around here it's definitely not at the point where it's damaging the environment," says Uy, who talks proudly of the sites that the UAE has to offer. The country's coastlines are not listed among the world's very best sites, but in some ways that's an advantage because there aren't the vast number of dive boats here one finds at popular destinations such as Sharm el Sheikh.

The best site? Both Joffe and Uy say it depends. On the east coast, there is Al Aqah in Fujairah, with good visibility and marine life such as rays, grouper and various small species of fish. More exciting still, the pair say there have been sightings of whale sharks off nearby Dibba Rock in recent months. Whale sharks, the largest of the species, can grow up to 18 metres long and have mouths that can stretch to 1.5 metres (happily they mostly only eat plankton and fish).

"The Gulf's become a breeding ground for them," says Joffe, adding that turtles are a common sight too. Then there is the lesser-visited northern tip of Omani Musandam, which is occasionally afflicted by strong currents but where the water and stunning coral reefs remain "pristine", says Uy. "It's one of the best there is and I've been diving for some time," he adds, before reeling off Egypt, Djibouti and Malaysia's Sipidan as his top diving spots, while loyally insisting that his homeland, the Philippines, remains his favourite. "But I'm very open minded at every dive site," he says. "I never compare things.

"For instance, if you dive here right now there have been sightings of sea horses. Imagine, people travel the world to see sea horses and they're right there off Jumeirah Beach." Instructors at Al Boom's new centre in Jebel Ali lead people out on wreck dives. The most interesting and preserved wreck, according to Uy, is the Zainab lying almost 30 kilometres off the Dubai coast. Originally a cargo ship, she had been modified to illegally carry oil from Iraq to other countries. It was scuttled by her crew in 2001 to avoid an inspection from the coastguard. The Zainab was carrying 1,300 tonnes of oil and its sinking threatened to lead to an environmental disaster. But authorities contained the slick and now she lies 30 metres deep, often surrounded by barracuda.

"I was there yesterday," says Uy. "She's beautiful, perfect." "We are also very proud because we have what I call the new area of diving in Dubai Mall, the aquarium," he says. There, onlookers can don a suit and tank and jump in with the tiger and leopard sharks. It has been hugely popular since being launched earlier this year. "It's the new kind of dive centre, in a shopping mall with Starbucks next door," says Joffe.

"A very Dubai type of diving?" I joke. "Yes," they both say, laughing. What on earth would Jacques Cousteau think about that? For more information visit www.alboomdiving.com.