Facing the dark side of underwater delights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am

Suddenly I am choked with fear. Disoriented, underwater and alone in the murky gloom, I struggle to swallow back the panic rising thick as bile in my throat.

My heart is hammering in my ears. I am sucking air, lots of it. I cannot see. I do not know which way is up.

I gulp and gulp and gulp - but the roar of the regulator only adds to the rising crescendo of my panic.

This is it, I thought. This is how people die when scuba diving.

My mission had been a simple one: experience what it is like to go underwater in Hong Kong.

And so on Saturday I joined the stream of the adventurous and willing for three dives, including one night-dive on the coral reef off Chek Chau.

Tough job for some: but the diving community of Hong Kong has been under the spotlight since tragedy struck nine days ago.

Chan Young Wai-man, 33, became the latest victim of a scuba-diving-related accident when she drowned during an underwater expedition with friends off High Island reservoir at Sai Kung.

Hong Kong's Underwater Association, dive shop owners and instructors said the sport had been hard-hit by the latest tragedy.

'It is not good for business. And it is definitely not good for the image of diving in Hong Kong,' one dive school owner said.

My experience on Saturday with the staff and crew of Hong Kong's Pro-Dive, who insisted on the highest safety standards, briefings, buddy checks and assessments, offered insight into the professionalism and pleasure of recreational diving.

After nearly 15 years of advanced diving in the waters off Australia, South Africa, Indonesia and Turkey, the chance to dive on a shallow site with the lights of China glowing on the near horizon was a rewarding one.

Soft and hard corals, metre-long cuttlefish, a couple of clown fish and an endless array of scuttling crabs offered gentle amusement.

Tangled fishing nets, old tractor tyres, discarded rubbish and a visibility reduced to just two metres because of heavy sedimentation was a downside.

But as most divers will agree: the simple joy of getting wet and blowing bubbles is half the fun.

My disorientation came when, bored of scouring the ocean floor for objects of interest, I threw myself into a series of forward and backward spins in the weightlessness of the underwater realm.

The panic lasted only a moment. Then the training kicked in.

'When you are disoriented, the simplest thing to do is look for your bubbles,' Pro-Dive instructor Craig Allery said.

'Then you know which way is up. You then maintain line-of-sight contact with your buddy for reassurance. And if you are still not feeling good, finish it, head to the surface.'