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Murky Pleasures

By Todd W John

For anybody whose scuba diving experience has been confined to the lush and idyllic tropical waters off Thailand, the gelid currents off Hong Kong - the water plumbed by the the South China Diving Club - are a change of pace indeed.

The club has been braving the seas around the SAR most weekends, weather notwithstanding, since 1979. It also organizes family-friendly dive trips that include the chance to spend time on the beach, a grand idea when the weather warms but a bit daunting in the present temperatures.

This is an adventure that starts at the Aberdeen Boat Club. It's 8am and a chilly 7 degrees Celsius when we leave on the club's boat, The Corsair, and head into harbor traffic that includes some of the biggest cargo ships in the world.

We stop just short of the shipping lane.

The thought of stepping off the relative safety of The Corsair into the cold, unknown depths below is unsettling. Glancing one last time at my tropically inclined significant other, standing at the aft end of the boat, wrapped in a warm woolen blanket, I waved. She responded with a goggle-eyed look of disbelief.

A stride off the side of the boat, a split second rush of air past the ears, and you splash down into the dark water. As a scuba diver you are immediately struck by a sense of familiarity and with it comfort. Sound melts away and a feeling of weightlessness overtakes you as you descend to the ocean floor. At 17C the water is cold, but in contrast to the air above it is surprisingly welcoming.

At a depth of 12 meters another couple and I swim about exploring and admiring vibrant coral, occasionally happening upon a few exotic fish that have managed to survive in Hong Kong's well-traveled waters. We are lucky to spot a striped knifefish, a rare sighting hereabouts.

Under water, the other-worldly tranquility of the environment takes over and for those who have dived and know its pleasure, the cold soon wears off. While not as lively as Thailand's tropical reefs, Hong Kong's underwater terrain is no less fascinating. It is better than expected, and club members tell of sighting rays and schools of barracuda recently.

The sea floor is extremely rocky but softened by pink-and-white sea anemones and corals. Pinks, oranges and yellows predominate. Sea apples are amazing creatures to watch and come in a variety of colors, usually but not always with yellow feet. They find a place to hang out in the current, extending their tentacles to gather up anything that floats by.

Oplegnathus fasciatus or rock porgy - as striped as an underwater zebra - flit through the depths. Filefish, a member of the monacanthidae family, are small and colorful.

There was one other unusual sighting among the fauna of the deep - a porcelain toilet someone had apparently thrown into the channel.

The water is a little murky, with visibility at four to six meters, but that is not unexpected. After all, the environment above is a little murky too.

Wetsuits protect divers by letting water in and trapping it, to be warmed by body heat. But in 17C water, the cold eventually does seep through. Compressed air tanks allow divers to stay under for 40-55 minutes, but after about 35 minutes it's cold enough to make one long for the surface.

Once up, that thin film of water continues to protect you. But drying off and changing in the 9C weather is a bitterly cold ordeal. I really start to miss Thailand.

The only trouble surfaces on the way home when The Corsair's first mate attempts to raise the anchor. A yank and a tug, but nothing.

The captain and first mate work to free it from the sea floor with both finesse and brute strength. It doesn't appear.

Every story has a hero, and this is where he shows up. ``Any volunteers to go down and free the anchor?'' the captain asks the now purposefully inattentive passengers. We are now relatively warm. The idea of getting back into a damp wetsuit and jumping back into that freezing water is more than most of us can face.

Minutes later, however, noble Keith is beneath the waves working on the anchor.

The weather turns choppy and my Thai girlfriend's muttering begins to sound like either curses or entreaties to Buddha as she envisions disaster and prepares for a cold entrance to the afterlife. But the liberated anchor is finally hauled aboard, along with the triumphant diver.

Diving in Hong Kong isn't diving in Thailand, but it is satisfying enough. It will be more rewarding when the weather gets better.

In the meantime, the club meets Thursday nights in the second-floor bar of the Aberdeen Boat Club. No wetsuits needed there, and no anchors to bring you down.