Sat on a dive boat off Puerto Galera, in the Philippines, I watch my 9-year-old son with increasing alarm. It’s his first time scuba-diving, and, with his just-slightly-too-big wetsuit, tiny flippers, minuscule BCD and half-size tank, he looks almost unbearably cute.
But something is wrong. He keeps breaking to the surface. He waves agitatedly at the instructor, yells something, then they submerge again.
I worry quietly. Why can’t he stay down? Does he have ear pain? Is he struggling to equalize? Should the instructor not terminate his dive?
Twenty worrying minutes later, he scrambles proudly onto the boat.
“That was amazing!” he says.
“Were you okay?” I ask. “You kept coming up to the surface…”
“Yes!” he says. “I just kept seeing all these amazing fish! A huge parrotfish! A clownfish in his nest, like Nemo…”
Diving is the sort of thing that hooks you good, darn good. Why? Well, neutral buoyancy is the closest most of us will ever get to zero gravity. You can move in whichever direction you choose, going up or down as easily as you turn right or left. Immersed in an apparently alien element, you can fix your body in whatever position you like and hold it like a gymnast. And then there is, of course, the magic of breathing underwater.
Safaris, schmafaris. You’ll get a closer, more intimate insight into the complex functioning of ecosystems on a coral reef than you ever will in the African savannah. My son and I have been slow-travelling the world for more than a year now, and some of the most amazing things he and I have seen are underwater: sea turtles grazing on sea grass, their expressions bovine and content; manta rays gliding on plankton-filled currents like animated opera cloaks; clams flashing like LED lights from the gun turret of a WWII wreck; a baby shark circling his rocky den; a lobster lurking beneath a rock; schooling trevally making a silver whirlpool that blocks out the sun. The crunch of parrotfish beak on coral, the click of a mantis shrimp’s pincers…
His personal favourite? The undersea volcano off Halmahera, Indonesia, where ferric corals flowered around an ancient crater and shimmering thermoclines issued from dark vents towards sea fans in surrealist hues.
Mine? Well, I loved the wreck of the USS Liberty at Tulamben in Bali, one of relatively few substantial wrecks that’s shallow and broken up enough to be dived with young divers.
But for sheer magic it has to be that first day, his first day underwater. And, most especially, a game of underwater Frisbee, the disc performing a leaden, low-gravity arc like a golfball on the moon, curiously both heavy and light.
And him, moving after it, in slow motion, in three dimensions, underwater, fluent as a native.
See also our Diving with Kids tips page.