I had suggested that Lord Tebbit kept his hands firmly under his armpits but, contrary to that plan, Willy passed him some bait, which is when he got nipped. The teenage mutant ninja turtle began to refuse to take no for an answer
I had seen nothing like it. The man who had reputedly told striking coal miners to get on their bikes was being attacked by a marauding green turtle. As it moved in to take a second lump of flesh out of Norman Tebbits hand, I had to wonder if it had been sent on a mission by Arthur Scargill!
Turtles are usually placid creatures. They often ignore divers or take flight when they spot them approaching. But this one seemed to be putting my VIP novice diver on the endangered species list where turtles themselves are more usually found.
Baron Tebbit of Chingford, the Chingford-Skinhead, Margaret Thatchers Hard Man, is an ordinary, albeit very intelligent bloke from Ponders End who has done rather well for himself. His house, near Belgrave Square, has many framed newspaper cartoons on the walls, depicting this rather likeable man in the hard-man role perpetuated by his cadaverous puppet from the satirical television programme Spitting Image.
He was fond of the idea of the studded leather jacket and the length of lead-filled hose he was always shown deploying. I liked Spitting Image. You see, I always won in it. David Steel was probably the only one of us who disliked his portrayal [in the pocket of David Owen]. My public image often stood me in good stead - especially the time when I found myself in the company of a load of Millwall supporters.
He is a former fighter-pilot, flying Meteor jets and also Vampires in the RAF. Im surprised the newspapers never got hold of that one. Can you imagine it he laughed. Later he flew Britannias for BOAC. It was an early electric aeroplane. You needed a heavy flight-engineer to jump up and down on the floor to unjam any sticking relays.
Lord Tebbit obviously still has a great affection for his flying days and continually used his knowledge as a pilot as a reference point for BSAC Ocean Diver theory. For example, it took me about 30 seconds to explain underwater navigation using a compass. He in turn told me about piloting a Boeing 707, navigating with a star-fix while doing 800mph with a tail wind. You can travel quite a long way while youre working it out.
He easily passed any theory assessment for diving and picked up some embarrassing mistakes in the Ocean Diver teaching materials.

Flying techniques
I had mentioned in my introduction to the Ocean Diver course that if anything untoward happened to the BSAC (it was April) I would cross over to a PADI course. That would be a fine thing! he mused. I then made it clear I was saying PADI, not Paddy!
At the first pool session it was clear that the IRAs Brighton bomb, which had cruelly left his wife Margaret confined to a wheelchair, had done Lord Tebbit no favours either. I dont bend as well as I used to, he confirmed.
Injuries to his back and hip have left him less flexible than most, but, like Lady Tebbit, he worked within the parameters of his impairment.
At first he had great difficulty balancing the tank on his back and seemed to get turned turtle every time he left the surface. Initially I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the end he suggested I leave him to bugger about and eventually he was able to twist himself right way up from where he tumbled.
He had an immediate understanding of buoyancy control. It was just a question of trim. Finally, he used a pilots solution by extending his arms and using his hands like wing-flaps as he moved through the water.
His problems in the pool, which seemed linked only to a difficulty with manoeuvrability, were balanced by a complete absence of nerves. He stayed cool in all those initial and typical moments of crisis for new divers. That was not to say he did not encounter the usual difficulties, but eventually he was successful in such things as removing the mouthpiece and recovering the hose from over his shoulder.

Stage 1 complete
It is very rewarding when someone suddenly gets the knack of an underwater skill. I was genuinely excited when Lord Tebbit demonstrated that he could breathe from a free-flowing regulator as well as snort through his nose to clear his mask. If we were to believe recent newspaper reports, it would have put him ahead of John Prescott!
Within a few pool sessions he was finning around as well as any other new student I had taught.
Lord Tebbit was now a member, if not yet fully fledged, of the small but select Diver branch of the BSAC.
We kitted him out as far as possible with British diving equipment. He used an Apeks TX100 regulator, a Buddy Pioneer BC and a Hydrotech Explorer II suit in shades of blue. His fins and mask were Italian, from Mares, and in the absence of a home-grown example we got him a Suunto computer.
Its my experience that new divers forget every single thing they have learned in the pool once they see the ocean, I told him after the final session. Then it was off to Barbados to find out if I was right.

Into the ocean blue
Why Barbados It was the only easy-to-reach diving destination served by a first-class, wheelchair-friendly flight.
The food at our hotel, Cobblers Cove, part of the Relais et Chateau chain, was exceptional. It should be - this place costs US$7000 a week in high season. Bearing that in mind, the accommodation was disappointing. Only the bedrooms were air-conditioned and some were not very roomy.
The shower was in the bath, which I am told proved exceptionally difficult for Lady Tebbit, and its temperature alternated between scaldingly hot and stimulatingly cold.
Nevertheless, ensconced in the privacy of the hotel we were able to plan the next moves in Lord Tebbits diving development.
Like any new diver, there was the usual struggle getting into the suit. Things got better with practice but there was a crucial moment when he was stuck with one leg in an ankle seal and the other down the arm, stuck in the wrist seal. Seeing his difficulty, I offered to exchange suits. Studying mine, he noticed my slight advantage when it came to dressing. You bugger! Youve got zips on yours!
We made a shallow shore-dive to revise what he had learned in the pool. I made sure that neither of us was over-weighted, an option often used to get novice divers under the water. This prompted Willy Hewitt of Hightide Watersports to joke: I see youre sticking to BSAC traditions by not making it too easy.
There was a fairly long swim over a sandy bottom and I was relieved to see some signs of life when we were enveloped by a shoal of fair-sized silvery fish. Lord Tebbit managed to stay below the surface without drama and saw his first feather stars, tube worms and reef fish, including a little snake eel. He also became acquainted with the hazards of both fire coral and spiny sea urchins. There seemed to be millions of the blighters, he observed of the latter.
Our second shore-dive was from the beach outside the Lone Star Restaurant. The water was only a few metres deep but we wanted to see if we could find the two green turtles which we were told frequented the joint. More fools us, as it turned out!

The turtle attacks
Hawksbill turtles are relatively common on the Caribbean reefs of Barbados but these green turtles had been captured by fishermen on the Atlantic side. They had been brought back with a view to fattening them up ready for the pot - an act thats now illegal. However, the fishermens children took to treating the turtles like pets and eventually persuaded their fathers to let them go.
By then the turtles had learned that people were a source of food and hung around the area waiting for more.
Before wed had a chance to take a proper look at a peacock flounder and a flying gurnard, with its iridescent cape hovering around our feet, the turtles hove into view. It is amazing what regular meals can do; these whoppers didnt look like young specimens to me. Our dive guide Willy began to feed them.
They behaved like teenage ninja turtles, swimming up and around our heads and hungrily snapping up all the food that was offered. One had obviously been damaged by what looked like a boat-strike when it was tiny, resulting in a strangely misshapen concave top to its shell. This was the teenage mutant ninja turtle and it proved the biggest and least cautious of the two, snapping up the offered morsels competitively.
I thought it would be a good photo opportunity and was suitably armed with my camera. I had suggested that Lord Tebbit keep his hands firmly under his armpits but, contrary to that plan, Willy passed him some bait. Thats why he got nipped, and then nipped again, which is when the blood started to flow.
The teenage mutant ninja turtle began to refuse to take no for an answer.
I got rid of my camera but not before a claw on one of the animals forward flippers had taken a lump out of its dome port. We tried to continue the dive, but it was soon obvious that an aggressive green turtle of around 40 or 50kg could be quite a hazard. So I grabbed hold of it and held it firmly but fairly in mid-water for a few minutes until it had calmed down. Once I let it go it decided to set off in search of someone else to terrorise.
Out of the water, with first-aid applied, we planned the first boat-dive for the next day.

Are you famous
Most of the holiday-makers in Barbados come from Britain, and so recognised someone who had been a leading figure in the government of the 80s. Being British, most simply stared and whispered discreetly to one another. Lord Tebbit, for his part, was very approachable: We politicians are always on the look-out for votes!
An American couple onboard the dive-boat Flyin High were less British in their approach: We get the feeling youre someone important.
Lord Tebbit explained: Not so long ago the newspapers used to like to call me Margaret Thatchers rottweiler.
It was obvious that this passed straight over their heads. He neither appeared to be German nor was he a dog. I explained. The lady conceded that they had heard of Margaret Thatcher but I knew she was bluffing. San Diegos a long way from the hub of world affairs!
It proved no problem to get my student to step off the back of the boat to dive the wreck of the Berwyn, a French tug sunk in 1919 in Carlisle Bay. His mask didnt leak, nor did he suffer sudden changes of buoyancy, which often send new divers inexplicably to the surface. Neither did his weightbelt fall off!
I remembered what Id learnt as a trainee fighter-pilot and simply did what my instructor told me, he offered as an explanation.
Of his first wreck Its like a rusting high-rise apartment block for fish, he commented.
After a couple of circuits of the Berwyn, looking at the blue-striped snapper, French angels and cornetfish, I decided to steer him away from the hazards of rusty metal and its sharp edges. We followed a pair of dragonets over on to the sand where I would have safely settled him down had it not been for the massive stonefish concealed there.
Lord Tebbit later said: I knew that fish was extremely dangerous because it looked so ugly.

So much to see
By now he was ready for his first dive in depths of double figures and we headed north to the wreck of the Pamir, an ancient vessel recently sunk courtesy of the drug-busting Barbados authorities.
This old freighter sat on an even keel in 17m, well encrusted with sponges. Gorgonia grew at the stern, where there was a little current. We looked at the propeller and visited the bridge but I noticed it was the sand eels inhabiting the seabed some way away from the wreck that really captured my students attention. Marvellous. They were like so many lamp posts - ducking down just as you got up to them.
Next we switched our patronage to West Side Scuba at Baku Beach, run by jolly giant Peter Grannum.
We were told our hotel manager was a little bothered when a boat from a rival dive-centre picked us up the next day. As my student diver acidly observed: If that sort of thing upsets him, hes going to spend a lot of his life upset!
Lord Tebbit was now beginning to get bitten not only by turtles but by the diving bug too. It was he who spotted a huge barracuda hiding among the soft corals, a free-swimming moray and the hawksbill turtle (Barbados Sea Turtle Project, No 7) which dodged unseen past the dozen or so other divers who were finning away ahead of us, like beaters on a shoot.
Nowhere on land is there so much life to see; great clouds of fish, corals and seaweeds full of light and colour all around us, he wrote for his regular column in the Mail on Sunday.
Bright Ledge, probably the most pristine reef in Barbados, crowded with corals and sponges of all types, was the site I selected for the all-important underwater photo-shoot. Alas, my trainee had trouble clearing his ears and we lost a lot of his valuable breathing air in the process, which can happen to anyone, novice or expert. Stuart Malling of West Side Scuba Centre kindly helped out by framing up the shots and pressing the shutter release for me as we endeavoured to strike convincing poses.

Back at Cobblers Cove, the enthusiasm for this new-found adventure was plain to see. Its amazing. Youd never guess by looking at the surface how busy it is down there.
Lord Tebbit no longer posed the question, What activity should I try after scuba-diving Now he was asking: Which part of the world shall we go diving in next
I suggested that we planned a trip to go shark-feeding. I can think of a few people Id like to take with us - as bait, he enthused.
We made our last dive as a quick drift on Dottins Reef, this time back with Willy Hewitt and Hightide Watersports. We went in at the south buoy and came out at the north buoy. The current made things easy. Perhaps this is where Lord Tebbit got the idea that diving is not really like swimming - its more like flying.
  • The party stayed at the Cobblers Cove Hotel (00 1 246 422 2291) and did their diving with Hightide Watersports (tel/fax 00 1 246 432 0931) and also with West Side Scuba Centre (tel/fax 00 1 246 432 2558).

    A joint activity of the Bellairs Institute and the Fisheries Division of the Barbados Government, and partly funded by the British High Commission, the Sea Turtle Project was started in 1987 to promote the conservation of turtles in Barbados.
    Activities include: a 24-hour response to public reports of hawksbill and leatherback turtle nesting and hatching; nightly surveillance of potential nesting beaches; monitoring of diseases in green turtles; and satellite-tracking of locally hatched hawksbill turtles in their foraging grounds elsewhere in the region. The project also engages in identifying and tagging turtles caught at sea. Males never come ashore.
    Those caught are measured and weighed, numbered and named, dated and tagged, and a sample of tissue is taken for DNA testing. Turtles hatched in different places have differing DNA and this allows the scientists involved to determine if a turtle is hatched locally or just browsing the reef during a sea ramble. Once registered, the meanderings of any specimen can be followed by divers reporting sightings of the very visible numbers, and growth rates can be measured if it is recaptured.
    I went out to capture and tag more animals with a group of Bellairs students; Willy Hewitt from Hightide Watersports, which supplies diving facilities for the project; Barry Krueger, field manager; and Lotus Arrieta Vermeer, the Canadian project co-ordinator.
    It involved a lot of hard swimming but they caught two almost identical creatures, not yet mature, which were duly processed, numbered and released, having been renamed Margaret and Norman in honour of the noble visitors to Barbados.
    A third example, a huge male hawksbill turtle, too large for the weighing scales and endowed with a remarkable feature of masculinity, was seen to be missing a rear flipper - probably due to a shark attack early in its life.
    Its resistance to staying in the boat proved quite hazardous to those others of us who were merely observers but it was duly measured, tagged, and tissue-sampled, and marked with its number.
    Lotus caught me off my guard when she asked me to name it just before it was released. What name could I possibly give such a magnificent turtle, other than Bernard It was last seen swimming contentedly off Dottins Reef.

    The turtles are caught by divers and brought onto the research boat (1). They are then weighed and measured (2) and given a number which is engraved and painted onto their shells (3 &4). All the details are recorded (5) so that the turtles behaviour can be monitored and logged once it has been released (6).

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