How a chat with Jean-Michel Cousteau inspired me to learn to scuba dive

A boat trip in Dubai with the legendary oceanographer gave me the push I needed to get into the ocean

A Padi Open Water Diver certification offers a whole new world of underwater exploration. Unsplash 
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Today, Monday June 8, is World Oceans Day ...

"If a scuba tank is filled and contains 1.25 per cent of carbon dioxide at the surface, what effect will it have if a diver were to breathe it at 3 metres of sea water?" reads the pop-up question on my iPad.

Maths has never been my strong point and my brain instantly begins to panic. I review the four options – feeling grateful that it’s at least multiple choice – and hesitantly click the third option, 3.75 per cent. The appearance of a bright red exclamation box at the top of the screen lets me know that I’m wrong.

The Padi scuba-diving course is part-theory part-practical practice. Courtesy Padi

Stifling a sigh, I scroll back up through the screeds of text to re-read the intricate explanations about what happens to air under the water. It’s Friday afternoon, and the last thing I want to be doing is studying – so why am I spending my day off doing so?

To answer that question, I have to rewind to last April when I got the chance to spend the day on a boat in the Arabian Gulf with renowned oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Chatting with Jean-Michel Cousteau in Dubai last April - the conservationist and oceanographer was the inspiration I needed to take the plunge into the world of scuba diving

Cousteau’s passion for the ocean is infectious. At 82 years old, the son of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau has spent the vast majority of his life in the ocean, on the ocean and campaigning to protect the ocean. That's exactly what he was doing last year when I had the chance to meet him – he was in Dubai to talk to children about the connection between the ocean and all living things, ourselves included.

You're a travel writer, and you're missing half the Earth

As we cruised around the turquoise waters of Dubai's Palm Jumeirah, Cousteau regaled us with tales of ocean discoveries and stories about his favourite places in the world, all of them underwater.

“There are places on Earth where the water is very, very cold – you dive in ice water and nature there is not the same as the rest of the planet. Then there are places like the Mediterranean Sea or certain parts of the west coast or east coast of the US, where average temperatures mean different nature and species again. And then there are the tropical places, like here in Dubai, where the temperature is way up and the species that live here are again very different.”

A chat with legendary oceanographer Jean Michel Cousteau in Dubai last year planted the first seeds for getting my Padi certification. Courtesy The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai 

At one point, he turned to me and asked where my favourite place was to dive. Red-faced, I had to admit to a man who was one of the very first Padi-certified scuba divers in the world that I didn’t actually know how to dive.

“You’re a travel writer, and you’re missing half the Earth,” came his solemn response. “You really need to learn.”

And at this time, when travel is on hold, the thought of having a whole new world to discover when we can move freely again is wildly exciting

Since then, his words have been at the back of my mind.

So when travel restrictions began to be put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, I realised that now might be the perfect opportunity for me to do something about my lack of skills. I did some research then bit the bullet and signed up for an Open Water Padi course with Ocean Dive Centre in Abu Dhabi.

That was four weeks ago, and I've now realised that Cousteau let me off lightly. It's actually closer to 71 per cent of the Earth's surface that is ocean. Which means more than two-thirds of our planet is only accessible to those who can venture below the surface of the big blue.

As a travel journalist, I think it's important to be able to access as wide a range of destinations as possible, so I’m glad I signed up, but so far, I don’t feel much like a diver.

I've yet to set foot in a swimming pool never mind in the ocean. Instead, I'm spending my free time wading through the colossal amount of information that all Padi-certified divers need to wrap their heads around before being allowed anywhere near a scuba tank.

But as we celebrates World Oceans Day today, Tuesday June 8, I'm excited about what lies ahead. Commemorated every year since 1992, this United Nations occasion is marked with events around the world – this year, organisers are aiming for 3,000 across 150 countries, the majority of which will be digital for the first time because of the pandemic.

And at this time, when travel is on hold, the thought of having a whole new world to discover when we can move freely again is wildly exciting. Perhaps even more thrilling than that is my realisation that there is an underwater world right here on my doorstep in Abu Dhabi that's waiting to be explored.

So on this World Oceans Day, I’m hunkering back down to my scuba studies in preparation for what will hopefully be a lifetime of underwater exploration and education, as inspired by one of the ocean’s biggest ambassadors.