To dive or not to dive, that had been the question facing this seasoned traveler and avid water-sportsman. Yet after a dozen trips in as many years to a variety of Carribbean islands, I didn't know the answer.

I had Swum and Sunbathed and Sailed and Snorkeled, but diving -- Scuba diving, to be specific -- was more, I thought, than I could handle.

As a kid, I had watched Lloyd Bridges make diving look easy on television's "Sea Hunt." And as a teen, fascinated by diving, I even had donned mask and fin and tank for a chilly dip in the YMCA pool in order to learn the basics. And I'd watched scores of vacationers of all ages and shapes face the challenge in good order.

So what was my problem? I was scared!

But on a recent trip to the British Virgin Islands, I finally took the plunge. After swimming and snorkeling for 10 days in some of the most beautiful waters in the world, I had to go deeper -- I had to see more than the 15-inch snorkel would allow.

The solution seemed to be a three-hour "resort" course sanctioned by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). sAn hour of "topside" training included familiarization with the equipment (the tank contains dry, filtered air -- not oxygen) and a physics lesson (at a depth of 30 feet, external pressure is approximately doubled).

The next hour was "shallow water" practice. Wearing fins and mask and a single tank, I learned how to "sip" air through the "regulator" (please don't call it a mouthpiece) and how to empty a flooded diving mask without getting out of the water.

Next came the good part (and by then I was only slightly frightened). We traveled by boat to a secluded cove, and as my instructor beckoned for me to follow, I stepped off the diving platform and descended 30 feet into the Caribbean Sea for my first shallow reef dive.

It took only a moment to orient myself and adjust my perspectives. Then, suddenly, I was aware of the fish: angelfish and squirrelfish, spiney lobsters and translucent squid, blue tangs and trunkfish, all as interested in me as I was in them. And the coral.

Elkhorn coral grew its palmate branched like fingers that point in the direction of the currents that pass through the reef. Cathedral coral built spire-like pillars that reached toward the sky. The fanlike gorgonian corals waved gently in the wake of fish and divers. And the reef itself was an apparently endless underwater garden. At once simple and ornate, ti swayed and shimmered in the filtered tropical sunlight.

I was reluctant as a child being called home to dinner as I followed my instructor back to the boat. But for the fact that my tank was nearly empty, I could have stayed forever.

The next day, though, I was diving again, this time in deeper, open waters. Bigger, brighter fish and complex coral formations abounded. Beginning to develop some aquatic muscle coordination, I floated gracefully among them.

I wished I hadn't waited until the last days of my trip to finally face my fear of scuba diving; I was starting to get good at it and would have enjoyed a few more dives. But a slightly bloody nose caused by diving (not unusual and generally not dangerous) developed a day later into a middle-ear infection (a bit more unusual), so it was good to get home where my own doctor could care for me.

The doctor, as luck would have it, was a former military surgeon who had served in the South Pacific and had treated divers with infected ears before. His verdict: Minor diving accidents have to be expected; don't let it keep you from diving again.

It won't.