Learning to dive - the 15 things you need to know
In the last 20 years, scuba diving has changed from a niche activity into a very popular recreational holiday pastime.
Once the preserve of serious men with serious beards, and the occasional woman, recreational scuba diving has become something that is available to almost anybody that can afford to participate – from the age of 8 until 80 and beyond.
It’s an awesome experience; there’s no documentary in the world that can capture the majesty of actually coming face to face with something you’d previously only heard Sir David Attenborough describe.
But there are pitfalls and problems associated with learning to dive, and in my nearly 10 years as a full-time instructor, I’ve had to answer pretty much any question that could be thrown in my direction from interested – but uncertain – people looking to expand their horizons, to experienced 'experts' who assume that dangling as much expensive gear as is possible from their D-rings somehow turns them into the pinnacle of underwater enthusiasts.
I have had many discussions on internet forums – that lasted for weeks, in some cases – about the 'right way' to learn how to dive and in our series of articles on learning to dive, I will explore some of the ins-and-outs of the experience; what you need to know in advance, what you can expect from your training, and what you need to do with that after you receive your first certification.
In the spirit of fair disclosure, I have to say that I am a PADI Master Instructor and although I have trained divers of all experience levels, from beginners to other instructors, I am not a babbling advert for any training organisation.
I am not as well versed in other agencies’ training programs and so I will refer to PADI standards more often than others, but I am also a diver first and an instructor second, and during my years as a full-time dive professional I have seen good divers and bad from all of the major training bodies, often with the same fundamental mistakes, some of which I hope to address in this series of articles.
First here’s a rundown of some of the most Frequently Asked Questions I received as an instructor
1 IS IT SAFE?
Yes, yes it is. I always say that it’s as safe as crossing the road – you follow some basic rules, keep your wits about you and don’t take unnecessary risks and everything will be fine: if you look both ways; judge traffic flow and direction correctly, and keep your eyes open, you will get to the other side just fine. On the other hand, if you shuffle across the motorway blindfolded, then – with the possible exception of the M25 at rush hour – you’re going to come to a sticky end.
The most basic safety principles for diving are taught at the very beginning of every agency’s training program: Never hold your breath, never exceed the limits of your training, never tickle the stonefish.
While the number of divers has increased exponentially in the last 20 years, the number of diving fatalities as a percentage has decreased dramatically.
2 How much does it cost?
Let’s be honest about this – scuba diving does not come cheaply, but it has become relatively inexpensive. Back in Egypt, a pre-booked, 4-day PADI Open Water course at the dive centre I worked for would set you back €365, all-inclusive, with no hidden extras.
As an industry insider, I can tell you that’s a really good price for Egypt at the time. People often assume that the profit margin is huge, but for a single-person Open Water course the margins are often very small, even negative in some cases. Remember that there is a huge cost to the dive centre itself – specialist equipment, classroom facilities, boat fees, pool charges, site rental, transport, local taxes and so on, not to mention the instructors, of course, and the people who fill the tanks, drive the buses, captain the boats, prepare the meals, service the equipment – I could go on, and on. And on!
The price is going to vary all over the world from location to location. Learning to dive in America, or Australia, for example, is going to be more expensive than learning to dive in Egypt or Thailand, because the cost of running a business in such countries is much less than in others.
The key is to look at local averages and determine what’s best for your budget. The dive industry is very competitive but you’ll find that most local operators charge approximately the same for any given program. If a dive centre significantly deviates from the local average, you need to ask why. If it’s significantly more expensive then perhaps that dive centre has a more luxurious boat, and provides champagne when you finish. On the other hand, if the course price at a particular outfit is significantly cheaper then you need to ask some serious questions: If all the other centres charge €350 or thereabouts, why is this one charging only €250?
There may be legitimate reasons such as they are in a location with easier access to the water and don’t use a boat, but it’s always worth asking. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer then you can be assured that corners are being cut, and you need to avoid these people like the plague. When in doubt, use the old adage “if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is."
3 Is it for me?
Many people are interested, but not sure if they want to make the investment in terms of time and money; many are also uncertain about how they will react in an unknown environment. For these reasons, most dive centres will offer some sort of 'intro dive' – which a lot of 'experts' have an unnecessary problem with.
Yes, it’s a money-spinner for dive centres because a lot of people just want to have a go and then move on to the next activity. I have conducted a lot of these 'intro dives' for people who wanted to see the underwater world in the morning, ride a camel in the afternoon, get drunk in the evening, and then visit the pyramids the next day.
It’s just a tick in the box for something to do on holiday. If you work in the dive business, it’s quite often a pain in the backside, but a very lucrative one. On the other hand, it’s both an excellent marketing and training tool.
PADI’s Discover Scuba Diving program, for example, is designed for exactly that purpose. Yes, it’s a money-spinner, but it’s also a great idea to bring people on board who aren’t entirely certain.
It’s effectively the first few sessions of your entry-level course, but you don’t have to commit to paying the full course price. If you like it, and wish to continue, that’s great, but if you decide it’s not for you, then you pay €60 and have a nice time and then go off and book a camel tour.
Whether it’s a matter of uncertainty, or you simply can’t afford the whole course at the time, it’s a good way to find out if you’re going to like it or not for the future.
Be wary, however, because plenty of dive centres offer a cheap 'intro' which has no basis in training or standards. If you’re serious about learning to dive, make sure you enrol on an agency-approved introductory training session.
4 Which agency?
PADI, SSI, BSAC, CMAS, NAUI, SEI, SDI, STI, NASE, PDA… it’s like Alphabetti spaghetti when it comes to training agencies.
When it comes to choosing the right one, it’s mostly going to boil down to wherever you are at the time. The chances are that if you’re on holiday in the typical tropical diving destination where the industry flourishes, then you will be looking at either SSI or PADI, the two biggest names in resort-based tropical diving.
In America you will find NAUI has a large presence, in Europe, it will be CMAS, in the UK BSAC are amongst the market leaders.
There is a lot of agency in-fighting; they all claim to be the best; no other agency meets the standards of their own. The simple truth is that all agencies that teach recreational scuba diving, broadly speaking, teach the same basic stuff, they just do it slightly differently, and some add more than the basics to their basic training.
Regional variations for water temperature, visibility, current and local regulations may also be taken into account. Some internet 'experts' compare the likes of SSI and PADI to fast food: 'cheap, quick and unhealthy' is what one commentator called them, but in my considered opinion, no one agency is better than another for basic training.
I’ve dived with people fresh out of their agency training course who are more competent in the water than experienced others who claim their training was better. I’ve met people celebrating their 500th dive and my first thought was 'how did you survive the other 499?'
The training standards and methods are all good – but it is also true to say that they are not all equally applied by all dive centres and all instructors. That’s another discussion – but in terms of alphabet agencies, for the entry level diver, it really doesn’t matter – as long as you’re receiving training appropriate to the conditions in which you will be diving.
5 What’s involved in the training?
All dive training involves three components: theory, practice and application. Typically these will take the form of classroom or online learning programs – studying books or the electronic equivalent, followed by a series of questions and examinations; confined water skills training and practice, where 'confined water' is a swimming pool or natural underwater location with easy conditions, followed by the final 'checkout' dives somewhere in the open ocean, sea or lake as appropriate.
These can get mixed up together, so there’s a bit of learning, followed by a bit of training, followed by a bit of open water, then some more learning, then some more open water, then some more training and so on… it depends to some extent on logistics and the proximity of the training environment.
In Thailand, for example, the dive centre I worked for had no pool, so we did all the theory on the first day, did most of the practice on the second day in somebody else’s pool, and then the final two days of the course were out on the boat.
In the Caribbean I had the sea right next to me so I could teach some stuff, walk into the water, practice stuff in the small harbour and then swim around the corner onto the reef.
In Egypt it was a mixture of both. In Bali we had to arrange the course around the tides – the point is, it varies.
I prefer mixing everything up, so you can do some theory then experience it for real, and then see how it’s applied to the real world before going back to the classroom.
It’s different in different locations – any reputable dive centre will choose what works best for both you and them.
Dive Theory Not everybody goes on holiday just so they can sit in a classroom and do homework, and the knowledge development component is often treated as a necessary evil so let’s get it out of the way as quickly as possible and go diving! It should not, however, be neglected. You don’t need to know everything that’s in the training material to pass the course, but it is extremely useful.
When I was teaching Divemaster programs in Thailand, one very common question was: 'Crowley, where do I find all this information?' and I would hold up a copy of the entry-level manual and suggest people try reading it properly.
Thanks to the Internet, some agencies now offer the theory section as 'e-learning', so you can do it online in the comfort of your own home and in your own time before you go on vacation. I like this, as do most of the instructors I know, as it means you can concentrate on practical application and review the theory where it’s needed. The only real downside is that you have to pay for it, which is an extra expense if it turns out that diving is not for you.
However you do it, online or in a classroom with an actual book, do not shirk the responsibility of learning about what you’re going to be doing.
Dive Skills learning and practice – confined water Confined water is defined as a swimming pool or any body of water that has swimming-pool-like conditions, and this is where your instructor will show you how to do the skills you need to dive safely, and have you repeat them until you’re comfortable doing those skills.
There is a huge amount of discussion about how instructors conduct these skills – specifically whether you are sitting on the bottom of the pool or sea bed, or whether you are performing them 'in the water column' – that is hovering mid-water and doing stuff.
There is a movement towards learning to do these skills without sitting or kneeling down underwater which is fine – but there are plenty of people who will say that 'if you learned your skills kneeling down then your instructor is incompetent.' I disagree. The aim in diving should, of course, be the ability to perform all activities while swimming around mid-water, but starting the process stationary is sometimes essential to make sure everybody’s comfortable.
Dive skills – open water Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to do them out in the open ocean (or sea, or lake, whatever), where you get to actually really go diving and hopefully show your instructor that you’ve learned well enough to be certified as a diver.
As an instructor, I vastly prefer the confined water training to happen in a similar sort of environment, but it’s not always logistically possible, so the transition from pool to ocean can be challenging. For that reason, I also like to mix the dives around where it’s allowed – but again, it’s not always possible, so knowing the difference and knowing what to expect is essential.
6 Do I need to be able to swim?
Yes and No. Yes – in that to use the PADI standards as an example – you must be able to either swim 200m unaided, or 300m with a mask, fins and snorkel, and you must be able to comfortably maintain yourself in water too deep to stand up in for ten minutes by either floating or treading water.
And no – in that you do not have to be an Olympic athlete or even a particularly good swimmer to do this – you can float on your back and flutter your hands back and forth for an hour if that’s what it takes to 'swim' your 200m. The point is not that you can swim like a champion, it’s that you’re comfortable existing at the surface in deep water.
I’ve heard of instructors insisting that you must front crawl or breaststroke, or that you must do it in a certain time, and one friend I had justified the swimming challenge by suggesting that as a diver, you’re going to be on a boat, therefore you must be able to swim to survive an emergency; the logical extension of which is that if you get on board a random ferry somewhere, the captain should throw you overboard to see if you can swim for shore just in case he or she should capsize the boat.
It’s NOT about the ability to swim; it’s about the ability to move comfortably through the water without panicking and/or drowning.
Nevertheless, it takes a little bit of effort, and so if you’ve never been in the water before, you may need to consider this before beginning your training
7 I WANT TO DIVE TO BE WITH MY PARTNER
I've often heard: 'My partner’s a diver; I would like to learn so we can dive together.' I used to joke (a lot) that there are not so many words in the English language that begin with d-i-v. One of them is Diving, another is Divorce.
The ONLY reason to learn to dive is because YOU want to learn to dive, not because you want to please another party.
I’ve encountered this many times during my career and in some cases, yes, it works, but in others, no, it doesn’t.
Although the advertising may say that diving is for everybody, it’s not. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it, and if it’s a problem for your partner then you need to have a really serious conversation about the subject. Not paying attention underwater because you don’t want to be there can be fatal.
8 Can my kids learn to dive?
The earliest age for kids’ introductory scuba classes (shallow pool only) is 8 years old. The minimum age for any entry-level certification is 10.
Many argue that this is too young, but my experience tells me otherwise. Although I haven’t taught a lot of children, some of my friends and colleagues almost specialised in doing so. Diving does require a certain amount of physical and emotional maturity on behalf of the child, but 10-12-year-olds display a broad spectrum on both counts, so it’s up to the parents to decide if the child is ready to take on the responsibility.
In most cases, they are, and are enthusiastic students – indeed, the youngest student I ever taught, an 11-year-old girl, spent half the course learning to dive, and the other half re-teaching it to her mother!
If you’re visiting an unfamiliar location, ask potential dive centres if they have a specialist instructor for children – not all instructors feel comfortable taking on the responsibility.
9 I’m already a diver, can I join my partner or my kids on their course?
No! Okay, that deserves some clarification. Yes, of course, you can, but I know of no instructor who would actively recommend it.
It puts undue pressure on the student partner and also – to some extent – the instructor.
The certified diver almost always tries to interfere and lend 'friendly' advice, which is almost always really, very seriously, annoying – and often wrong.
Let the instructor get on with their job, and go and do something else.
10 I’m nervous - IS THAT A PROBLEM?
Don’t worry – nerves are normal and natural and it is often the case that people who start the course brimming with confidence struggle as soon as they get in the water.
On the other hand, people who start flapping every time they see a fish are also not going to get very far.
Students who take a more cautious approach, displaying respect for the ocean and its associated dangers are more focused, more eager to learn, and make better students and divers. As an instructor – and especially as a guide – I really appreciate it when people are upfront about their fears. I’ve always said that I would rather dive with somebody who owned up to their nervousness rather than somebody who pretended to be unflappable. The former are – by a country mile – superior divers to the latter.
I have encountered a goodly number of student divers who have never been in the sea before and in a couple of cases I’ve stopped the course and ordered them to go snorkelling for a day and see if they really are comfortable being there.
It’s a good trick if you’re really interested but uncertain – take a day to snorkel and decide if diving is likely to be your thing based on that experience.
11 I have a medical condition. can i dive?
In most cases, yes, but it depends. There are a few conditions that can be very dangerous underwater, but are fairly common. High blood pressure, for example, can cause severe problems at depth, and although it’s easily treatable at the surface, not all medication is compatible with scuba diving.
There are some that are suitable, however, and a physician trained in hyperbaric medicine will be able to advise.
Other commonly encountered conditions are asthma and diabetes which used to be an outright 'no' for diving. However, medical research has proven that properly managed, some of these conditions do not completely rule out diving. Diet-controlled type 2 diabetes, for example, is fine – unfortunately, insulin-dependent type I diabetes remains an outright 'no'.
Asthma triggered by allergies is fine (there are not a lot of cats down there), but asthma induced by cold or moderate exercise remains a serious risk to life.
If in doubt, consult a hyperbaric physician. Note that your average GP (family doctor) probably isn’t, but a specialist sports physician probably is. Make sure you ask; there will probably be a charge but the result is worth it – if they say 'yes' then great, if they say 'no' then that’s of course, disappointing, but consider that the doctor has probably just saved your life.
12 I have a disability, can I dive?
Yes, you can, but your path to certification will vary depending on the type and severity of the disability. To gain a standard agency entry-level certification, you are required to meet all the standards of the course; a person unable to do so, for any reason, cannot be certified.
To use an example – a good friend of mine is paraplegic but as he still has the use of his arms he is able to complete all the required components of the course.
A person who does not have the use of their arms may not be able to meet the requirements simply because they cannot operate the equipment without assistance, or – for example – recover a dropped regulator and replace it in their mouths.
When it comes to mental difficulties that might be associated with the likes of Down’s syndrome or autism, for example, again, it depends on the severity of the condition.
A person with Down’s often learns more slowly than a person without, but once they have learned something, it stays learned, and you can rely on such a person to be one of the best and most conscientious divers you will ever meet.
If you are not able to meet the certification requirements of a PADI or SSI or NAUI course then do not worry. Organisations such as DDI (Disabled Divers International) are there to help.
It’s a supremely rewarding experience to see people who find movement at the surface challenging go on to thrive underwater where they weigh nothing at all.
13 DO I HAVE TO BUY MY OWN EQUIPMENT?
No. Not before starting the course, at any rate. I’m not aware of any training agency that will insist that you purchase equipment before beginning your basic training. There are plenty of dive outfits that will very strongly recommend that you buy stuff during the course, and much of the sales pitch is well intentioned, but it can be very pushy and sometimes quite intimidating.
I do, however, very strongly believe that divers once qualified should at least invest in their own masks, snorkels and fins (see previous equipment articles) based on their budgets and how regularly – and where – they dive.
Equipment sales bring in much better margins than training and it’s perfectly reasonable that dive centres should promote this. For more advanced training, especially at professional level (Divemaster or equivalent) the situation is different and possession of your own personal equipment prior to starting is often mandatory and rightly so, but not for entry-level courses.
14 I’m afraid of being eaten by sharks
Don’t be! Most sharks that you are likely encounter are fairly timid and disappear at the slightest disturbance. Most species you’re likely to encounter on a tropical reef don’t get much bigger than 1.5 – 2m long and are supremely wary of divers; underwater in full fins you are 2m of metal and plastic and bubbles and noise, and predatory sharks are wary hunters.
The biggest sharks – whale sharks and basking sharks – are filter feeders and pose no threat to humans unless you get too close and they decide you need a tail-slap to the head, in which case you’re in trouble because a fully grown whale shark is about the same size as a single-decker bus. The likes of great whites and tiger sharks, whose toothy maws are plastered across the tabloids in the wake of a shark attack are certainly fish that you need to be wary of, but attacks on humans are very, very rare, and even more so for divers.
15 Is it Fun?
Yes. Yes it is!
Not every dive will be the perfect underwater adventure but once you’re hooked, it’s difficult to let go. Learning to dive can be a life-changing experience and it can be as enjoyable out of the water as it is beneath the waves. Like many hobbies, you have instant camaraderie among your peers and the post-dive 'deco beer' is a wonderful place to share experiences, talk about equipment and learn new things.
There are not so many easily accessible and affordable hobbies that have quite the same profound impact as sharing a space in a world that – despite our best efforts – we know less about than the surface of the moon. Meet people, go places, do things – that’s a motto from PADI which makes me sound like a good little agency robot but... well, it’s true