Learning to dive in Aqaba – new skills and old problems

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This post is part of the Digital Nomad project with National Geographic Traveller.

You could call it unfinished business. A day trip to the Great Barrier Reef on Christmas Eve 2000 has since been remembered for a rushed and quickly aborted ‘free introductory’ dive. Once we signalled that our ears didn’t feel quite right, we were brought to the surface from the metre or so we’d stepped down the ladder hanging from the back of the boat, and our lesson was declared over.
So when we were offered the chance to have a half-day beginners’ diving lesson in Aqaba, we were both eager to find out if we really were unsuited to a sub-aqua environment.

We were met at the Red Sea Dive Center by the owner Abdullah, who introduced us to his brother and fellow manager Omar, and Khaled, who along with Omar would take the two of us through our baby steps in the water.

The dive centre is somewhat incongruously up a desert track around 500 metres from the main road which runs from Aqaba to the Saudi border. There was an American couple setting off on a snorkelling trip, but otherwise the place was empty – like most tourism businesses in Aqaba, the dive centre has watched helplessly as visitors have been scared off from coming to Jordan in light of the constant round of bad news from its troubled neighbours. Businesses such as the dive centre would normally expect to be filling up at this time of the year, but instead staff sit idle as rooms and tours remain unbooked.

Once we’d been kitted out and given a short briefing, we headed the short distance to the shore, pulled on our wetsuits and were given our tanks and regulators. The water temperature in the Red Sea is around 21 degrees Celsius at this time of the year; probably a degree or two warmer than the mid-morning air temperature as we stepped into the sea. We were carefully taken through a series of exercises, from breathing properly while wearing a regulator to clearing water from our masks. All obvious stuff to old-hand divers, but to a pair of iffy snorkellers it was a big deal. Omar and Khaled were remarkably patient, and dealt with our general ineptitude with commendable ease and grace.

Soon enough we were away, led by the hand by our respective instructors through the Japanese Garden area of the Aqaba Marine Park. For around 30 minutes we meandered along the sea bottom, reaching what for me at least was the impressive depth of 5 metres. Seeing more water above than below did not feel comfortable, but the coral and fish kept my mind away from any thoughts of underwater panic. Omar pulled out his camera and took a few snaps, and with constant checks to see we were ok, our confidence gradually grew.

My feeble bladder has been a constant curse on our travels, and so it proved today. I may have been a slow learner at the basic skills of diving, but there was no questioning my ability to get out of a wet suit and make a sprint to the beach toilets. We had been due to finish the dive in any case, but I managed to make what should have been a dignified and celebratory exit from the water into an embarrassing scramble.

We were both very grateful for the patience of Omar and Khaled, and left knowing that we could dive after all, given enough of a helping hand.

The Red Sea Dive Center offers beginners’ half-day courses similar to the one we were given, for 40JD (£40), and also runs full PADI certification courses for around 300JD.

You can find my other posts from the Digital Nomad project on the National Geographic Traveller website.

(Photo of us by Red Sea Dive Center)

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Freelance travel writer

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