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Kathleen Russell wouldn't mind if could acquire gills. As a child, she took to water like a fish - first as a champion swimmer, then later as a lifeguard. As a master diver today, her mission is to educate others about the wonders of the underwater world.

Image Credit:Ravindranath/Gulf News
"There is some really nice wreck diving in the UAE on the west and east coasts," says Kathleen Russell.
Friday

Kathleen Russell wouldn't mind if could acquire gills. As a child, she took to water like a fish - first as a champion swimmer, then later as a lifeguard. As a master diver today, her mission is to educate others about the wonders of the underwater world.

When The Beatles sang Octopus's Garden, they praised the peace and tranquillity of a world that makes up 70 per cent of our planet, a world that is seldom seen by humans. An underwater world.

Sure, lots of people love the sea, the beach and even a spot of snorkelling. But then there are those like Kathleen Russell, divers and marine enthusiasts, who almost seem more at home in the 'big blue' than on dry land.

A Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) qualified master diver, Russell has revelled in the beauty of the underwater world for more than a decade.

Her work and passion have provided her with an intimate familiarity with the marine world: with both its beauty and the problems it faces.

Today, the Abu Dhabi coordinator for Emirates Diving Association (EDA), Russell's mission is to make people more aware of the world's fragile marine ecosystems.

Russell, 37, calls herself and other divers Ambassadors of the Sea. She hopes to help people appreciate the beauty, diversity and complexity of the ocean.

"Our oceans need representation and divers are the best people to build bridges of understanding between the two worlds. Most divers are compassionate beings and make great Ambassadors of the Sea.

"When you experience being surrounded by creatures as big as sharks and manta rays, you develop a pretty good perspective of how minuscule we humans are in the overall scheme of nature," she says.

So what prompted this lifelong passion for the ocean? Russell, it seems, was a water baby.

First splash
Although Russell was born in Hong Kong, she and her parents moved to Vancouver, Canada, a year after she was born. It was there she was introduced to the ocean and swimming and by the age of 8, she was a serious contender in competitive swimming.

From 8 to 14, she won national swimming titles in butterfly events. To this day, her powerful shoulder muscles bear testimony to her athletic prowess.

At 16, she put her swimming skills to good use by becoming a lifeguard. By 18 she was competing in lifeguard competitions at regional, national and international levels.

Later, she was chosen to represent Canada in the World Championships in Japan in 1992.

"My years as a lifeguard involved a level of community participation that had a tremendous impact on my personality. We did a lot of volunteering," she says.

"We were called upon to provide the safety net at children's festivals, large community events, fireworks displays and conducted safety awareness campaigns for the general public.

"When you have spent hours safeguarding the lives of your community members, it does something to you. It helps build leadership skills. It played a telling role in shaping my character."

What's more, working as a lifeguard helped pay for her university education. She graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1992.

With a B.Sc in agriculture specialising in food science and food supply, she then worked as health and safety manager overseeing quality assurance for an inflight catering company.

She also did a brief stint as business manager with Pepsico before she decided to pack her bags and leave Canada. Her destination? Hong Kong.

A tryst with destiny
Towards the end of 1994, as she was preparing to leave, Hong Kong was in a state of flux. Its residents were anxious about the city's return to Chinese administration in 1997 and the possible changes this might bring.

Once there amid this speculation, Russell discovered the joy of diving.

"It was a matter of natural progression to expand my aquatic experience by learning diving," she says.

"It immerses you in new sensations and experiences and transforms your perceptions of life forever. Without the force of gravity weighing you down, the freedom you feel underwater is tremendous.

"Then there is the adrenaline rush of plunging into the unknown and discovering new dimensions - both within yourself and in your surroundings.

"The ocean has a sound of its own. Especially if you are using a re-breather as your scuba apparatus (this recirculates air and doesn't produce bubbles) rather than an open circuit, you can hear the ocean all around you.

"It is the most amazing experience. Sharing your deep sea experiences with others in the diving community adds an extra element to it."

Into the big blue
Once China took over Hong Kong in 1997, Russell recalls that day-to-day life remained pretty much the same. The year before, she had become a qualified PADI instructor. Armed with this, she joined the diving industry as manager of Pro-Dive (HK-USA).

"Retail, education and travel divisions were under me. It provided me with great diving opportunities as I took teams of divers for scuba-diving trips around the world," she says.

Diving at various sites across the globe - including the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Micronesia, Mexico, Oman and the UAE - she's gained plenty of memorable experiences: from swimming with manta rays in Indonesia to searching for pygmy seahorses in Papua New Guinea.

A pygmy what is it?
It turns out a pygmy seahorse is only 16-24 mm in length and is so well-camouflaged among the corals it inhabits that the untrained eye has little chance of spotting it.

"We were looking for this microscopic species at a depth of 20-25 metres in such a huge ocean. When you actually find one, it is thrilling," she says, adding that the male of this species actually becomes pregnant and gives birth to babies.

And manta rays? With a 'wingspan' of up to 8 metres and weighing up to 1,400 kg, they are marine heavyweights. So, imagine what an awe-inspiring experience it must have been for Russell and her diving buddies to swim so close to them.

"For one to one-and-a-half hours, we had a dozen manta rays swimming and feeding around us. Flawless graceful movements and so very gentle!" she marvels.

Although their great size is quite daunting, she says manta rays feed on quite minute matter such as plankton, fish larvae and small organisms.

Wreck diving
During the Second World War, many planes and ships were sunk in the Pacific Ocean, including the waters surrounding Micronesia.

The Federated States of Micronesia consist of 607 islands in the Western Pacific.

One of these is Palau, a Japanese naval base during the war and the site of many battles. Today it's a favourite destination for divers who seek to travel back in time.

"You must have heard of the Blue Corner and Blue Holes," says Russell.

I hadn't.

"Well, they are also in Palau and are rated among the top 10 diving locations in the world. The Blue Holes are part of a vast interconnected underwater cavern system that connects with the Blue Corner.

The holes are on the top of a very large cavern. Each hole appears as if it is painted light blue and the largest opening is a deep dark blue.

"The Blue Corner is a large flat triangular shape, similar to the top of a modern high-rise building. Its edges are dramatic vertical drops to extreme depths.

"Typically, divers will use a line with a hook to secure themselves to the reef and then drift along the outer edges, careful to avoid drifting away into deep waters unexpectedly. You have to be an experienced diver to hold your own against the unpredictable currents."

The flip side
Diving also has its dangers and Russell has experienced three risky diving-related situations at close quarters.

The first of these centred on a missing diver. "We had to do a search and rescue operation under conditions of very poor visibility. Although we eventually found him, he did not survive," she says.

"One of the most important safety aspects of diving is that you never dive alone. You dive with a companion - a 'diving buddy' - and stay together at all times.

"In the case of this diver, post-facto investigations showed that he did not have adequate training in safety. He got separated from his buddy and panicked. Panic presumably prevented him from exercising rational judgment. He spat out his regulator in his panic and drowned as a result."

The second instance was when she and her diving buddies were caught in a typhoon.

"We were out diving in Hong Kong once when a Grade Three typhoon warning was issued. As soon as we heard it, we prepared to head back to shore, but before we could make it back, the severity of the typhoon had risen to Grade Eight.

"We then dumped some of our equipment overboard to make the boat lighter then tied ourselves to the boat. As daylight faded, poor visibility complicated matters further.

"Well aware that there were rocks just below the surface, we placed our faith in the crew to navigate us to safety. What a great sense of relief it was to see the city lights winking at us!"

Another alarming experience was when she was caught unawares in the vicinity of someone engaged in illegal dynamite fishing. "I was in the water at the time and could actually feel the 'boom' as it travelled across the water," she says.

Moving to Abu Dhabi
In 2000, she met Alistair Russell, her-soon-to-be-husband when he signed up for a diving trip in Hong Kong. They got married that year and moved to Abu Dhabi in 2001 to start a new life.

Russell started off in Abu Dhabi as a freelance scuba-diving instructor while studying for higher qualifications as a dive instruction. She qualified as a PADI master instructor in 2001 and became involved with the EDA.

She says what's interesting about the diving scene here is that many people have ties with the sea.

"There is a big interest among Emiratis in diving and water-related activities in general. They get involved and volunteer when we organise beach and underwater clean-up activities.

"Their past as a seafaring nation links them to the ocean and gives them an abiding interest in the marine environment. Ask most dive centres in the UAE and they will have trained lots of Emaratis, including women. Many Emaratis can trace a family link to an ocean-based lifestyle."

Diving in the UAE
"There is some really nice wreck diving in the UAE on the west and east coasts. Over time, wrecks become a sort of 'living reef' - you will see a lot of schooling fish around a wreck and sting rays at the bottom of a wreck. There is a lot of scope for exploration.

"Divers in the UAE love snorkelling with black-tipped reef sharks. Dibba Rock (an offshore marine reserve on the east coast) is a popular place for this. It is such a sad thing that all sharks are viewed as dangerous. It is a huge myth.

Whale sharks, for instance, just cruise around you.
The average whale shark is more than 14 metres long and weighs upwards of 20 tonnes. They are the largest of the fish species but, like manta rays, feed only on small marine organisms and do not pose any significant danger to humans. They are actually quite gentle and get playful with divers.

"Divers and snorkellers can swim near these giant fish without any risk, apart from unintentionally being hit by the shark's large tail fin."

Equipped with a Sony 3-CCD and accessories, Russell has also taken up underwater videography. She hopes to use it as an educational tool to inform others of marine animal behaviour.

As Abu Dhabi coordinator for the EDA, Russell contributes to the organisation's clean-up campaigns, encouraging the public to remove garbage from beaches and waterways. It's one duty (among many others) every Ambassador of the Sea takes very seriously.

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