Many people are interested in learning to dive but aren't really certain if it's right for them, so let's take a look at how you can start that decision making process
Scuba diving has become such a popular holiday activity that any destination with nearby dive spots will have at least one underwater outfit advertising its services, and indeed in some tourist resorts, it’s difficult to see the beach for the dive centres. 'Learn to dive today!' say the signs, followed by a bold logo and a large acronym and a price list, (usually in smaller type). There will probably be some jolly people in tight-fitting suits with complicated equipment, and tubby, sunburned chaps wearing embarrassingly small swimming trunks. There will be clanging and hissing and – depending on what time of day you pass by – much clinking of beer bottles (anytime after lunch, generally speaking). It can be a little daunting, all these people with their strange mechanical devices and their can-do attitude.
So – take a deep breath and ignore the lot of them – in a couple of days’ time, that might be you.
For some people, the decision to take up diving does not require a lot of thought and back in the day, that was me. I knew I wanted to do it, I had no idea what was involved apart from that it happened underwater, but in the bleak UK winter of 2000, I signed up for a holiday in the sun which included my Open Water course, paid for in advance, walked into the Red Sea and from that day on, I never really left.
Looking back on that time, I would probably encourage younger Crowley to do a little more research before taking the plunge, and it’s certainly something I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging other people to do in the years since I became an instructor.
The first step to checking if diving is right for you is therefore to ask lots of questions, and expect lots of answers. Whether you are corresponding with a dive centre prior to your holiday, or you’ve simply walked in off the beach, any respectable establishment will be happy to address your concerns and discuss what’s right for you. As we always say: 'There are no stupid questions in diving', apart from: 'Crowley, can I buy you a beer?' which is a little silly, because there is only one answer!
Nervousness is nothing to be ashamed about. Everybody had to be a newbie at some point, and even the most experienced divers have the occasional wobble. A little bit of tension is a good thing, it helps to focus the mind while maintaining a healthy respect for the fact that we are visiting an environment in which we do not naturally belong. As an instructor, I want people to be open and honest about their concerns, because we can address them before they turn into problems. I’ve said many times that I would prefer to dive with somebody who owned up to their fears rather than somebody who thought there was nothing to be nervous about.
In terms of your physical condition, you do not have to be an athlete to participate, nor do you have to be a rocket scientist. We will discuss particular medical conditions and disabilities in a forthcoming article, but generally speaking, you need to be in reasonably good shape – the medical questionnaire asks if you can walk a mile/1.6km within 12 minutes – and free from illness. Smoking may not be good for your overall health but it does not preclude you from diving, neither does regular consumption of alcohol (but not before a dive, clearly). Being overweight is not a major issue unless it impinges on your overall health and ability to perform moderate exercise at the surface.
One natural concern of many prospective divers is their ability to swim. You do not have to be a great swimmer to go diving, but you do need to be comfortable moving and supporting yourself at the surface in water that is too deep to stand up in. Requirements might vary, but both PADI and SSI require student divers to tread water (or float) for 10 minutes and either swim 200m unaided or 300m with a mask, fins and snorkel.
For people who have never been in the sea before, snorkelling is a great way to find out if you’re going to enjoy being there – it is a safe and easy activity with several benefits.
Firstly there is the obvious introduction to the marine environment: this is what it looks like down there, this is how it feels, this is what you can see. Secondly, it familiarizes people with dive equipment – getting used to the sensation of wearing a mask and having it leak water; the extra propulsion generated by fins and a certain idea of how to use them; breathing through the mouthpiece clamped between your teeth and learning the basics of airway control to keep the sea water out. All of these things are relevant to scuba diving, and while none of these things will suddenly turn a land-lubber into a diver, they are all very useful experiences. Most resorts that have dive centres will also have snorkelling programs, often with a guide. It’s a great way to overcome some of those basic concerns.
A natural progression from snorkelling are introductory dive sessions – but I make the caveat that this must be done under the auspices of an approved diving agency. As always, I make the disclaimer that I am not promoting one agency over the other, but I am a PADI instructor and therefore most familiar with their programs and standards, and their version of the 'intro dive' is the Discover Scuba Diving program. Equivalent programs from other agencies include SSI’s Try Scuba, SDI’s Scuba Discovery, BSAC, CMAS, NAUI and other diver training agencies all have similarly named introductory experiences from which you can progress to a formal certification if you like it.
The 'intro dive' is an excellent marketing strategy in that its primary purpose is to get people into the water without them having to commit to the full course price, in the hope that they will enjoy it and sign up for a course afterwards. Yes, it’s a money spinner for dive centres in that many people participate in a 'try dive' just to tick a box of things to do on holiday, but it’s a great tool to help potential, but uncertain, students decide if diving is right for them.
There are several reasons for insisting that you choose an agency-approved program. Firstly, the person conducting the experience is guaranteed to be a dive professional with training in how to safely conduct the program and manage any problems that might arise. There are training and safety standards which must be adhered to and instructors are required to have professional liability insurance.
Secondly, most agency-approved intro dives can be conducted as part of the entry-level course but without having to commit to the full course price and duration. If you like it then you can pay the rest of the fees and continue towards certification as an entry-level diver, if you don’t like it or are otherwise unable to continue then you pay for the intro dive and away you go.
How this works varies between dive centres and agencies but talk to the staff to find out exactly what’s on offer before you commit to anything. Either way, participating in an 'intro dive' will give you some insight as to whether or not you wish to become a certified diver.
The short version of this article is that no matter how nervous or uncertain you might be, there are ways to help you address your concerns, and steps you can take to gain confidence before taking the plunge (pun absolutely intended!) In the next article, we’ll have a look at exactly what’s involved in diver training once you’ve signed up for an entry level program.