"You can't discover a new land without first losing sight of the shore." Unknown
I once met an Australian marine biologist with black hair and blue eyes who described diving as the most amazing experience in the world. I promptly fell in love with him and a few weeks later, with diving.
My first dives were in Hawaii with 100 foot visibility, 82°F/28°C waters, wrecks, countless tropical fish and a tantalisingly close but unseen shark. I was hooked. I’ve since dived all over the world and each time it’s like a long forgotten addiction; the familiarity of the sound of bubbles rushing over my ears, my air getting thicker as I descend and the promise of a whole sea of wonders for me to discover.
Learning to dive
Diving is a whole new world; new equipment, the physical effect on your body at depth and mathematics to calculate the depth/time ratio. You learn all about this on a training course, or you can bypass the detail with a quickie ‘resort course’ (of which more later). I just knew I’d be a lifelong diver so I dived straight into the full PADI Open Water course which would give me a ticket to dive anywhere, anytime.
PADI Open Water Diver
Step 1 covered the academics. This involved two days of classroom work reading, watching videos and sitting exams.
Step 2 was confined water training. This is usually completed in a swimming pool or in the shallows of a beach. This is the first time you go underwater in your scuba gear to practice some basic skills, usually no deeper than 10 feet.
I sailed through basic skills such as fin pivots to perfect neutral buoyancy, using the spare regulator in case of a kit malfunction and finally mask clearing. The latter I struggled with. Mask clearing involves filling your mask with water, then gently lifting the bottom of your mask and breathing out through your nose to clear the water from your mask. It’s common for students to struggle with this, as our minds tell us we can’t breathe when our face is covered by water, but it’s an important skill to have in the unlikely event your mask gets knocked off underwater. Eventually I mastered it, and still practice it from time to time with a mask and snorkel on the beach just to keep my skills up.
Step 3 was the final part of the course, and the best part – it consists of four dives over two days. The first day we dived from shore, swimming out to 30 foot of water and then descending. While still getting familiar with the equipment, I was now surrounded by incredibly beauty the likes of which I’d never seen before, so I alternated between screaming with joy and checking I was doing everything right, which I wasn’t.
I was all over the place, upright, fins kicking like crazy, arms everywhere, but I loved it. I loved the sound of bubbles as they escaped from my regulator, tickling my ears as they made their way to the surface, loved the feeling of being weightless. And everywhere around me corals of pink, yellow, purple, fish of every colour going about their day, moving in formation with the ebb and flow of the current and glittering in the sunlight.
Diving is like an out of world experience, in fact you’re entering an entirely different world, one which we are so fortunate to be able to immerse ourselves in, it’s a privilege never to be taken for granted.
Often we look back at moments in our lives through rose tinted glasses, it’s easy to let special moments pass us by so I make a point of stopping to appreciate a special moment, however big or small, as it is happening. But there was just too much to take in all at once, I knew I’d have to look back and daydream to fully appreciate this experience, but what a daydream to have!
I had reservations about sharks, I knew there were Tiger sharks in Hawaii that liked taking bites out of surfers from time to time, so I’d asked my instructor about them. He said “if there’s a shark in the water, everyone will go straight after it”. This seemed like crazy talk, why would you chase a shark?! On my final dive my instructor gave me the hand signal for a shark, and swam off after it at top speed.
Buoyed by the confidence of those around me, I wanted to see it too so I shot after the instructor as fast as my fins would carry me. We didn’t see the shark that day but I understood they aren’t scary, Jaws is fiction, sharks come in so many forms and the vast majority are perfectly friendly so long as we don’t bother them in their home environment.
Diving for life
Since my certification I’ve dived the Great Barrier Reef, Caribbean, Maldives, Pacific, Thailand, Egypt and Florida. I’ve seen whales, sharks, eels, turtles, rays, clams, octopus, wrecks, lobster and more cool fish than I can name. Each dive has been fantastic in its own way, but my favourite remains French Cay in the Turks and Caicos Islands. A remote spit of land surrounded by reefs starting at around 90 feet deep, the fish and corals there are twice as many, twice as big, twice as colourful. Just mind blowing. But each new location brings a unique experience so although I don’t dive as often as I used to, I know I will always be drawn back to it.
“Take only memories, leave only footprints” is a good mantra for diving. Do not touch or disturb anything in the water. The majority of attacks on humans by marine animals is defensive behaviour on their part so it’s in our interests to leave them be. If you show the ocean respect, it will give you the most wonderful experiences.
How to get started
There are many training bodies that operate worldwide, the best known is PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), this is who I learned with. Perhaps more important than the organisation you learn with is the course you choose to start with.
Discover Scuba (aka Resort Course)
These are very popular with holidaymakers as they only take a day and include a dive. After a brief academic introduction to diving, there’s a session in the pool to learn basic skills followed by a dive. The dive is up to 40 feet deep with an instructor and a limited number of other divers.
A Discover Scuba qualification can be used repetitively for a limited period of time, always to a maximum 40 foot depth with an instructor present.
This course is a great introduction to diving for those who are confident in the water and eager to get diving. However, for those who are nervous and/or want a clear understanding of what the scuba equipment does before going into the water, this course may be a bit too much too soon. The majority of people who do resort courses love their dive experience but a few nervous people have been put off by the fast pace of the course. In these cases, the Open Water Diver course might be better.
Open Water Diver
This course achieves a certification that allows diving any time in the future, to a depth of your choice (taking into account recommended recreational diving limits) and without needing an instructor present. The course takes four days, but this can be split between home and holiday:
- Step 1: Academics – these can be done at home by purchasing the course materials online. You then sit the exam and get signed off by an instructor to move on to step 2
- Step 2: Confined water training – after passing your academics you complete your confined water training and get signed off by an instructor and can move on to step 3
- Step 3: Four certification dives over two days. The majority of student divers I saw when I worked abroad had done step 1 & 2 at home, had this signed off and arrived with their paperwork ready to jump into the water for step 3. I’d highly recommend this way, you avoid any classroom time on holiday and can get right down to diving.
Look online for more information or talk to your local dive centre to find the right option for you.
During my time in the dive industry I spoke to several customers who clearly didn’t want to dive, but felt they should because their spouse/friends did. Diving can be expensive so it’s really not worth spending a lot of money to have a bad time. If you’re not into it, try snorkelling instead, in some places the snorkelling is better than the diving! Ask around at your holiday destination and you’ll get plenty of great snorkelling site recommendations. If you’re not into that either, there are usually plenty of other activities to choose from. It’s your holiday, your experience, make it special for you!