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Travel: Taking the plunge; Don't fancy learning to dive in chilly British waters? Nor did these two M reporters, so they packed their snorkels for a scuba course in tropical seas.

Byline: Flavia Bertolini

In at the deep end: first-timer Flavia Bertolini in St Thomas

I've never dived before, so if I can do it, anyone can. And St Thomas in the quiet US Virgin Islands is the perfect place to learn. Sea turtles swim gently past the coral, the sea is warm, and the water startlingly clear. Better still, some of the best coral beds are in shallow water no more than ten metres deep - an ideal depth for new divers.

The instructors at Blue Island Divers teach everyone from nervous beginners to experienced divers wanting to take their qualifications to a higher level. And they inspire confidence in anyone - even me. They are BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) trained and help develop your skills until you're able to dive safely (and feel safe) in the open water.

Training starts as soon as we touch down in the US Virgin Islands after an eight-hour flight from the UK. After an orientation session to explain the course, it's time to get some kip before the lessons begin in earnest the following morning.

The beginning of the week is crammed with theory, practical lessons and assessments (just to make sure we know our stuff). We move from the classroom in the morning to the pool in the afternoon. The first time I step into the pool and realise I can breathe underwater is amazing - and that's before I've even stepped foot in the ocean.

We swot up about the science and effects of diving (don't worry, it's not as complicated or dull as it sounds), as well as safety measures and skills such as clearing your mask or using a compass underwater. Once we have these down pat, we move to the sea on day three to practise diving with a `buddy', an underwater partner who sticks to you like a limpet to a rock. Visibility is incredible even at ten metres. The multicoloured angel and butterfly fish whiz round us and I come face to face with a swooping ray.

After five days I am a registered Ocean Diver (the first BSAC level) with a qualification allowing me to dive anywhere in the world. It's only taken a few days to become completely hooked and I can't wait for the next time I can snap on my wetsuit and get finning.

Dive talkin' Seven nights at the Emerald Beach Resort, including flights from Gatwick, in June or early July costs pounds 895 with Hayes & Jarvis, call 0870-903 7737. BSAC Ocean Diver courses through Blue Island Divers cost pounds 345; see www.blueislanddivers.com.

The Big Blue: Gill Williams discovers the Great Barrier Reef

Wave to a friendly whale shark when you join the 30,000 or so water babies who learn to dive along Australia's Great Barrier Reef every year. The reef is a 1,900km coral garden with 70 or so tropical islands running along the eastern coast of Queensland. It's the largest reef in the world and, after Sydney, the most visited holiday destination in Australia. Learning to dive here is like jumping into an aquarium. The variety of marine life is astonishing, from the 15,000 or so types of tropical fish to the 10,000 species of sponge (just in case you forget your face flannel).

Most dive trips and schools operate from Cairns, the main resort in the north of Queensland. And some of the best dive sites along this huge reef are just 20 to 35km away.

Dive schools for PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and BSAC run three- to five-day courses starting in classrooms and progressing to pools and the reef. Some beginner lessons are held on the beach in shallow waters.

The best times to go are between August and October, when humpback whales travel along the coast on their annual migration south. They're curious animals and swim around dive boats to check out the strange two-legged mammals. Or if you go during October and November, millions of coral polyps spawn during the full moon in a kaleidoscope explosion of bright pink, red, blue and green eggs.

Once you have your dive ticket, you can join day trips costing about pounds 65 for two dives along the reef plus your lunch and drinks. No two dives are the same. Some take you to sunken wrecks, others work along the edge of the reef walls with edges that plummet to fascinating dark depths.

There are hotels for all budgets. Stay in budget backpackers' hostels or tented campsites along the coast if you're on a tight budget. Alternatively, cruise along the reef on a live-aboard dive boat (this is only suitable when you've already got your dive certificate).

Dive talkin' A ten-night Queensland holiday until the end of June with a five-day dive course starts at pounds 1,226 per person including flights, five nights at the Coral Tree Inn, Cairns, and five nights at the Portsea Hotel in Port Douglas, as well as a one-day cruise to the outer reef. All meals on dive boats are included. Bookings through Travelbag; call 0870-890 1458.

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Clockwise from top: the Great Barrier Reef; Flavia in action; beautiful St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 4, 2002
Words:869
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