About five of us, all Kenyans, are standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool at the Nomad hotel in Diani.
Scuba-diving lessons start in a pool and this is our first class with Julien Thomas, the manager at Crab Dive Centre.
For an hour, Mr Thomas teaches us how use the scuba-tank, usually strapped on the back; We also learn basic skills such as hand signals to communicate underwater, how to get water out of the eye mask and how to equalise pressure by popping your ears, a major challenge experienced by deep-sea swimmers.
For years, foreign scuba enthusiasts have been coming to Coast to explore Kenya's rich and diverse underwater world. But now the love for nature and adventure is luring more Kenyan tourists than before to dive into the coral-reef and fish-filled Indian Ocean.
“We’ve been getting many Kenyans coming from Nairobi, especially this year,” says Tamelyn O’Mahony, also a manager at Crab Diving School.
“We take them on discovery dives which is a great way for beginners to find out if diving is really for them. They do the pool training sessions then go out with an instructor for up to 12 metres in the sea. A lot of our guests have ended up loving it and have gone on to take the full course,” he says.
Mr O’Mahony, who has dived in Diani, Zanzibar, Pemba, around Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and Caribbean, says that since the earth is 70 per cent water, if you do not scuba-dive you are actually missing out on a sizable part of the planet.
“It’s a whole other world underneath, you can’t really explain to someone until they see it for themselves. That’s why I do it as my job,” he says.
Going on a discovery dive does not require one to get a diving licence.
One needs to train for about five days to get the PADI open water certification. Brian Siambi, a Kenyan photographer got his licence at Diani Marine. It cost him Sh60,000.
“After you get a licence, the average cost of subsequent dives is Sh7,000 for two dives of up to 18 metres and lasting an hour each,” he says.
“My training took five days. You get a DVD and guide book to teach you about PADI diving, then you do two days of swimming pool sessions for the practical knowledge and dive for the next two days,” he explains.
To Mr Siambi, scuba-diving is a very unique experience.
‘‘It’s like being a visitor on another planet because you see numerous fish and coral reefs. It also humbles you when you see how significant ocean life is. It pushes you to want to protect it, because what happens in the sea ultimately affects our climate,” says the photographer.
The best place he has gone diving is Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park in Diani.
He says the diving spot has about 15 different sites rich in magnificent coral reef. Companies such as Pilli Pipa, which organises snorkelling and diving safaris are also regrowing the coral reefs.
‘‘Kisite Mpunguti also has seasonal marine life like whale sharks and humpback whales,” says Mr Siambi, adding that Kenya is one of the best places to dive because of the whale shark migration which happens around September.
For Mr Siambi, beyond enjoying dhow trips and snorkelling, more Kenyans should take up sea diving to understand how to take better care of the environment, minimise pollution and appreciate the country’s natural resources.
Kelvin Wakwabubi, a publisher who has done his Advanced Open Water PADI course says that he got into deep-sea diving while in Diani with his wife.
“We had actually gone to sky dive and while waiting at an office in Diani, I struck a conversation with instructors from Diani Marine. I have always been a water enthusiast, and following that conversation, I went for the training the very next day. The dive was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had because while underwater, we encountered a big turtle called George.”
“When I went the first time, my partner didn’t understand the madness I was doing. I showed her some videos and she saw that the experience looked fun. I convinced her to join me in Zanzibar and she loves it now,’’ he says.
So far Mr Wakwabubi has done about 32 dives, from Watamu to Zanzibar.
However, he says the hobby is not cheap.
‘‘For people like me who live so far away from the ocean, it can be an expensive hobby when you factor in costs of flying, hotel and the dive itself. Getting an advanced certification also requires further training which is very rigorous because you have to do wreck dives, deep dives and understand navigation systems. I had to take one week off from work, with 21 days of pool-training leading up to the one week of diving. It’s an extravagance because the more you advance, the more you pay, but the more you also get to learn,” he says.
Mr Wakwabubi now needs to do 40 dives in a year before he can advance. This year, he has already done 10 and when the rains stop, he will do more.
“Most whale species are on the polar seas, which is where you get the best diving experiences. To get to that level, I need to put in a lot of work. That’s my goal, to dive with blue whales,’’ he says.
The diving instructor Mr O’Mahony is quick to bust the misconception that being a good swimmer is a pre-requisite.
“I’ve taught paraplegic people who normally can’t swim. You simply shouldn’t have a fear of the water, although we can help you overcome that. Scuba-diving should be about floating in space, which is how you generally feel underwater,” he says.