My decision to Snuba is a real act of courage. I once got seasick just watching a documentary about the ocean, my mediocre freestyle keeps me partial to the shallow end of any pool and I last owned a swimsuit in 2005. You might think that my borrowed swimsuit and I would be unlikely candidates for a Snuba session, but no. In fact, the truth is if I survive this I’m bound to be considered a walking advertisement. There might be six million people abroad who could testify to the safety of Snuba, but the Sunday Times has just been invited to be among the very first to do so in Sri Lanka.
It’s why I’m here at the Chaaya Tranz in Hikkaduwa where I am to be introduced to it. The tamer cousin of scuba and a distant relative of snorkelling, Snuba is a portmanteau of the two.
In fact, it combines something of the best of each – the ease of snorkelling and the depth and comfort of scuba. Plus, it’s much safer than either because it’s so carefully supervised. The last is Kyle Mayfield’s area of expertise. As the Director of Water, Operations and Safety at Snuba International, he has the unenviable task of keeping me safe.
A session normally starts in the ocean, close to shore. But it’s nearing Poya and Kyle says the sea is rough and murky – so I’m secretly relieved that we’re going to start our little expedition in the pool. We’re issued masks, a regulator and a harness. For someone experiencing so much trepidation, I’m surprisingly buoyant. They literally have to weigh me down - a belt around my waist, filled with heavy little bricks, keeps me from bobbing ignobly on the surface. Our regulators are connected to the oxygen tank by long hoses and the tank itself is cradled on a sturdy little raft. With handholds on the side, the raft is designed to withstand desperate clinging, and if I really panic, they can hoist me on to it and tow me to the edge of the pool. It’s all very reassuring.
Kyle has already walked us through a little briefing - I know what hand sign tells him I’m ok, how to expel water from my mouth and what to do if my ears hurt. In the pool, I’m trying to remember his tips but the frantic swirl of bubbles escaping my regulator reveals I’m not breathing as calmly and steadily as advised. It takes me awhile to stop trying to inhale through my nose. But then, as I adapt, the whole thing gets much easier. I’ve never spent so much time fascinated by the bottom of a pool. Kyle and his trainee divers keep checking on their protégés. Soon enough, we’re deemed ready for the ocean.
They’re right, it’s incredibly murky down there, but it’s more uncomfortable on the surface, where taking out my regulator meant getting an over-salted gulp of sea water. Down under, I’m bumping into people before I can see them and if there are any fish nearby, they’re uninterested in making my acquaintance. The only one at the party is a spotted sea-slug and he appears as blasé to see me as I am excited to meet him. One of the divers assures me that if only the sea had been calmer, we’d have seen plenty of marine life. I believe him, especially since I have just made the acquaintance of Rosie - a large, grand old sea turtle with limpid black eyes. 15 minutes later though, we have to call it quits and we head back to shore.
How comfortable I felt in the water has given me ideas above my station – perhaps I should learn how to scuba dive! It’s the reaction that Kyle expects and enjoys. He’s been into Snuba since he was just three years old. His father, who founded the company with his two childhood friends, would put Kyle into the bathtub and use him as a guinea pig. “I’ve been around it my whole life,” he says.
Snuba is not a new concept – it’s based on hookah diving – but the family-run company has fool-proofed the process, making it safe for even those of us who don’t swim very well. “We take a lot of the work out of scuba diving. Essentially the responsibility is taken from the guest and put on the guide,” says Kyle. “What you don’t see is the effort that has gone into training the guide to handle a guest through a range of scenarios and they’re constantly vigilant.” He says its safe even for children over eight years of age and it’s reportedly a wonderful activity for families. “It’s about bringing what’s underneath the surface of the ocean to the masses,” he adds.
Its potential to do this is what drew Nishan Silva to the sport. Nishan is the Managing Director of Alco Leisure, a subsidiary of Alco Bronze Pvt. Ltd. Alco Leisure are the sole agents for Snuba in Sri Lanka and Nishan is a bit of an adventure sport addict himself. He says he was looking for a way to encourage beginners to dive right in to the ocean, and Snuba fit the bill perfectly. By the end of the year, Snuba will be available island-wide through the company’s exclusive alliance with John Keells hotels and resorts. It is part of a more ambitious plan: “we will be introducing land and air based adventure sports later this year, completely run by Alco Leisure,” says Nishan, explaining that many of the water sports in particular are already available at venues like the Bentota Beach Hotel.
Currently, the company is in the process of setting up a group of trained Snuba guides. Kyle will train four while he’s here, one of whom will be an instructor qualified to initiate others. Nishan says he’s keeping his standard high – his minimum requirement for would- be guides is that they are dive masters. “Snuba is a fun simple activity, but you will be led by a dive master. Most of my staff have at least 15 years of experience as divers and at least 400-500 dives under their belts, many in far more dangerous conditions. In Snuba you go down to around six metres, they have experience diving up to 90 metres.” At $30 for a half an hour session, it’s also relatively affordable, says Nishan.
By teaming up with Snuba, who’ve been in this business for 25 years and working closely with Sri Lanka’s Professional institute of Diving Instructors, Nishan says they hope to uplift the standards of the whole industry on the island. He’s confident they’ll keep the competition scrabbling to catch up. Heading back, I know I’d like to Snuba again. In my bag is proof that I was brave enough to do it once – the snappy little blue certificate congratulating me on my ‘underwater achievement’ will have a place of honour in my drawer.