This being the west of Scotland, standing under drizzly, aluminium skies in the shallow waters of a quiet, yet bitingly cold bay near Oban, and not some tropical idyll off the Gulf coast, things are little more rustic.
“It’s not the most ladylike thing you’ll ever do,” says my instructor, James, “but if you could just spit into your mask, please.”
Saliva, apparently, is better for achieving good visibility than any synthetic gloop, and I duly obey by smearing it over the pane. My mental image of scuba diving – azure seas, swimsuits, fish more vibrant than a child’s paint set and seas warmer than a Jacuzzi – is fading faster than my nerve. The cold, rain, early rise and hearty Scottish breakfast are all making their presence felt. That is until I find out the woman dipping her flippered tootsies in the water after my ‘Try A Dive’ lesson, who seems most concerned about hungry sharks, can’t swim. If she is game, then what do I have to worry about?
The Puffin Dive Centre, assisting newcomers, novices and expert divers in the sheltered waters of the Sound of Kerrera under the helm of owner Mike Morgan since 1992, is situated in Port Gallanach, around three miles south of Oban town centre. The 90-minute taster begins by completing a health questionnaire, watching a safety video and passing a quick Q&A.
Three things are hammered home. Firstly, the importance of “equalising”. Nothing to do with Edward Woodward, but instead the method of easing pressure on your ear canals as you dive deeper by pinching your nose through the rubber mask and blowing gently.Secondly, there’s the hand signals: OK, distress, go forward, ascend, descend. And the third instruction to remember, which proved hardest to follow, is to breathe normally throughout. Held breath, it seems, spells diving disaster.
Before I could test my water wings, the rigmarole of the drysuit commenced. T-shirt tucked into leggings, socks up around mid-calves, forearms slavered in a foamy lubricating gunk to prevent chaffing (ah, the glamour), I step into its clumsy feet, pull it up to my knees, work the bulk over my middle and finally squeeze my arms and head into their respective gaps before it’s zipped up at the back.
A weight belt to counteract natural buoyancy is laid behind my feet, which I’m told to swing up on to my hips. Two tries, and the belt hasn’t budged. It’s just too heavy. It’s finally clipped into place with much assistance before the compressed airtank, too, is strapped to my back. Such is their combined weight, the only way I can walk is by leaning forwards to balance this new, unnatural centre of gravity. I pull the dry hood over my big head and tuck my hair away, as each strand could mean a potential leak. I gingerly walk to the slipway, perform the aforementioned saliva seal and edge waist deep into the water where my flippers are added, while I hold on to James.
Baby steps are required here: my face is immersed in the water with eyes open and breath held; face in the water while blowing bubbles from my mouth; then I do the same with the scuba mask on. With the mouthpiece clasped lightly between my teeth, I take my first breaths underwater using the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus that gives the activity its acronym. It’s far more tranquil than expected: the hollow breathing sound of my lungs filling and releasing air feels gently reassuring. To release excess air from my suit, I fall to one side with mask and mouthpiece in place, lying submerged and horizontal for 30 seconds as thousands of tiny bubbles make their bid for freedom.
Training over, the expanse of the Sound awaited. Even swimming just below the surface, the clarity and visibility were amazing: dull, dingy waters viewed from the shoreline became bathed in a startling crystal blue light; the sand is a honeyish landscape home to straggly seaweed, scuttling crabs and scores of tiny fish. It’s not Finding Nemo, and I’m too encumbered to feel even remotely like Ariel, but it’s so much brighter and blooming with life than I’d imagined.
The downward-pointed thumb of my instructor signalled that it was time to venture deeper. Dropping a few more metres, the pain in my ears cut like a knife. I tried equalising, but to no avail: it seared worse and I began to panic, forgot to breathe, panicked more, signalled – a mix of distress and ascend – and I found relief gasping for air at the surface.
It was a common reaction, I was told. “Try wiggling your jaw from side to side next time,” advised James. Back under the water, plunging deeper, a quick wiggle on my jaw worked wonders and my ears squeaked their equalised approval. This time we ventured further and deeper around the bay. I must have lost concentration momentarily, because I suffered one more panic – this time after trying to breathe through my nose and getting a shock when I inhaled rubber, rather than air – which again was solved with a few goldfish-like gulps of air on the surface.
In all honesty, I probably would have admitted defeat right then had this article not loomed larger than the fear, yet it was third time lucky as I immersed myself again into the depths of the bay. I remembered to breathe slowly and deeply, kicked from the hip with my legs for greater propulsion, and actually began to relax, enjoying the feeling of freely exploring the waters. Scuba diving proved surprisingly demanding physically: the effort of pulling my burdened weight through the water was pretty strenuous.
One small lap around the bay completed, I emerged with a scallop shell memento and a Certificate of Participation to recognise my first dive.
A change of clothes would most definitely have helped for the drive back to the Kings Knoll Hotel. The water may be clear but it stinks to the high heavens and more than a few drops managed to penetrate my drysuit. After a steaming hot shower warmed the cockles we headed out on a second water-borne adventure in Oban.
“My ears bled the first time I tried scuba,” admitted Struan Smith, our skipper for a hop around the islands on board a RIB – a rigid inflatable boat. Struan, who founded the Coastal Connections boat tour company with his twin brother, Cameron, gave us a whistle-stop taster of the company’s Castles and Wildlife tour. His actual task that afternoon was to marshal a sea kayak race around Kerrera, but he let us hop along for the 14-mile ride, viewing languid seals, nosy shags, herons and oyster catchers, and he pointed out Duart Castle, the Shepherd’s Hat and Bach islands. Such is the financial climate, and the soaring price of diesel, he and his twin now operate as many private charters as short tours for the public.
The RIB makes light work of the choppy waters as we power north-west out of Oban Harbour to make an anti-clockwise tour around the island, notoriously utilised by Howard Marks as a landing site for drugs sourced from across the Atlantic. After an hour out at sea, watching the 52 participants in the third annual Oban Sea Kayak Race effortlessly whiz past, we passed the Puffin Dive Centre and I couldn’t resist a squeal on seeing trussed-up divers preparing for their dip.
As if by some ethereal magic trick, our return to the main harbour was greeted with parting clouds, bright sunshine, and the sight of hundreds of spectators cheering home the hardy kayakers.
We arrived in Oban on a rain-soaked Friday afternoon following a five-hour drive from Glasgow – the A85 was closed on approach to the town due to a fatal accident – and our moods were lifted on discovering the Waterfront restaurant’s pre-theatre menu; spirits further ameliorated by the uncorking of a tasty bottle of sparkling white and perhaps one of the best starters – a delicious smoked salmon cheesecake – I have ever had the pleasure of tasting.
• Maureen Ellis travelled courtesy of the Oban and Lorne Tourism Association (www.oban.org.uk) and stayed at the Kings Knoll Hotel (01631 562536, www.kingsknolloban.co.uk), dining at Waterfront Seafood Restaurant (01631 563110).
• A ‘Try a Dive’ lesson costs £69 at Puffin Dive Centre, Port Gallanach, Oban (01631 566088, www.puffin.org.uk).
• Coastal Connections boat trips cost from £30 pp (01631 565833, www.coastal-connection.co.uk).