Ireland? Dive right in. . .
When an island-hopping holiday is mentioned, InisBofin, Inis Turk and Clare Island are probably the last places most people would think of - but an underwater "weekend safari" is the break with a difference currently being offered by a diving company in Connemara. Diving has become an increasingly popular sport in Ireland over the past few years, with many tourists travelling here specifically to dive and Bord Failte promoting our underwater attractions.
Asa Eldisaksson, from Sweden, came for the diving - and has stayed for the past three months. She is now working as an instructor for the Connemara diving company Scubadive West, and has done the "dive safari" twice.
"The safari is terrific," she says. "The weather was really windy when I did it, but it didn't make any difference. The trip out to the islands is easy, the accommodation is great and the people are lovely. From the islands it is only 10 or 15 minutes to the dive sites. When I went diving in other countries it took up a lot of the day just getting to the sites.
"I worked in Egypt for a year and when I came here it was the first time I had dived in really cold water, but it was brilliant. The visibility is great and there is a lot of variety in the sea life you get to see. You can do cave diving, wall diving or drift diving."
For those who have no experience of diving, Scubadive West offers a Try-A-Dive course which takes about three hours and costs £30. For anyone who thinks they may enjoy it, this reporter highly recommends it; you get professional tuition and are then taken out on a 30-minute supervised dive. It is all surprisingly easy.
It takes only a short time to get used to the equipment; it feels quite heavy at first, but once you go underwater you almost forget about it. Breathing with the equipment is simple, and the sense of freedom you get swimming underwater looking at the sea life is like none other. If you are looking for a fast-moving sport, however, this is not for you. It is all very slow-moving and peaceful and really is a chance to see another world.
Scubadive West is run by Shane and Olli Gray and their four sons Cillian, Tiernan, Breffni and Ronan. The Grays owned and ran a scuba-dive centre in Dalkey, Co Dublin, before they moved to Renvyle. Shane learned to dive in the Army. "I decided the set-up in the clubs wasn't adequate to cater for the interest there was in diving," he says. "So I started a school, offered the courses on a fee-paying basis, and provided the equipment."
Why did the Grays move their successful business from Dalkey to a remote part of Connemara? "Unfortunately it was pollution. We had a lovely set-up in Dalkey at Colliemore Harbour. From the mid to early 1980s the water quality visibly deteriorated from year to year. By the late 1980s it was just pea soup and we decided we didn't have a product to sell any more. There was no joy in diving there.
"Diving in Ireland is growing hugely. The product is superb. We have the most westerly coastline in Europe and are sitting right in the path of the gulf stream. We get the full benefit of this, which means that the waters are milder and this provides for better marine life and colour. We have a magical natural ingredient here. The indented nature of the coastline on the west means there is lots of shelter and variety. The islands provide even more variety.
"What was missing for many years was facilities. Bord Failte set up a marketing group with those involved in diving around the country and part-funded a five-year marketing plan. The group is called Discover Underwater Ireland and we have seven or eight dive centres along the west coast."
John Brown of Bord Failte says that although diving is inceasingly popular in Ireland, there are still no exact figures for visitors. "It is a niche market, and a very good one at that as we have excellent waters for it. People travel from all over Europe to dive here," he says.
Ronnie Fitzgibbon, the chairman of Discover Underwater Ireland, says substantial numbers of visitors have been attracted by the seven Bord Failte-approved dive centres. "I would estimate that most of them bring in an excess of 1,000 each year," he says. "These are tourists who come specifically for diving activities. In relative terms the centres spend a lot on marketing each year, and our growth is fairly substantial."
Fitzgibbon, who runs Waterworld in Tralee, says the good thing about the dive centres is that they all offer different packages. "While Shane offers the diving safari weekend we offer a complete package - accommodation, meals, etc - and a lot of people find this very attractive.
"There has been quite a lot of investment in the sport in recent years. Each of the seven centres has received approximately a quarter of a million pounds in investment from the Government and the EU in the past five years - every £1 invested was matched by the centres themselves, so we had to be conservative in our estimates of how much growth we expected."
So where did the inspiration for Scubadive West's dive safari come from? "The safari was my idea," says Shane Gray. "You have to be innovative as you are competing with other dive centres in Ireland as well as internationally. You are competing with warm-water destinations and therefore you have to make your product as interesting as possible. There has been so much interest that we have had to put on extra safaris.
"The novelty of visiting three very beautiful islands attracts people, apart altogether from the very high quality of the diving available off these islands. Warm-water destinations offer `live-aboard diving holidays' where you stay on the boat. So the dive safari offers the next best thing."
The dive safari lasts three nights, travels to the three islands and takes in six dives. The price of £159 covers B&B, dinners and all the equipment. Contact Scubadive West on (095) 43922 or email Scuba@anu.ie
Discover Underwater Ireland can be contacted at (066) 39292