Learning to dive is easy, but it helps to know what to expect in advance, so here's a brief overview of what you'll be doing
There are three components to any entry level training program – theory, practice and application – and there is usually some leeway in terms of how those three sections are arranged to take into account local logistics and student availability. Ideally, the course components can be mixed up so that there is a bit of theory, a bit of practice in the pool or shallow water before heading back into the classroom and then deeper water.
It’s worth mentioning that although a typical holiday training program takes between three and five days, those days do not need to be sequential and if you were taking a course closer to home it might be carried out over several weekends. Here we’ll just look at what’s involved in each section as a whole.
knowledge development - dive Theory
Broadly speaking, dive theory covers physics, physiology, equipment, skills, the environment and decompression theory.
Do not be deterred, however! You do not need to hold a PhD in any of those subjects and they focus on the practical application rather than in-depth study.
For example – you do not have to understand the mathematics behind the gas laws to know that air spaces contract under pressure and expand as the pressure is released, you just need to know that it happens, how to deal with it ('popping' your ears, adding or removing air from the equipment, never stop breathing).
In the same way you don’t need to understand the workings of the internal combustion engine in order to drive a car, you don’t need to know in detail how a set of regulators (the bit you breathe from) works, only how to use them and how to properly care for them.
Decompression theory is a massively complex topic, but for diving you just need to understand that there are limits to your depth and time spent underwater based on how our bodies deal with nitrogen – the inert component of the air that we breathe at all times – when it is subject to increased pressure underwater.
Remember that these courses are designed for ages ten and over – and they are designed so that anybody, regardless of their level of education – can participate. It is, however, important that this theory is not neglected. Some people see it as a sort of necessary evil before the fun part happens – and nobody wants to go on holiday to go back to school.
How the theory is presented might vary, but it is often the case that it will intermingle with the in-water activities, and it's likely that you may be assigned 'homework' in the evenings, but it's very worthwhile devoting some time to self-study and a review of the day's accomplishments before cracking open your first beer. If you've met a group of other people it's a great way to socialise and learn together.
Digital or Paper?
There is an increasing move towards e-learining, either online or via a digital download but the good old fashioned paper version is still widely used. The arguments for online learning are good – it allows you to study in your own time before you’ve even booked your flights, if necessary, and frees up more time for practical skills once you’re at your destination. Whether or not you are required to purchase your own copy of the material or use a loan from the dive centre is something of a bone of contention in the dive business. PADI, for example, requires that each student diver purchases their own copy of the training manual (digital or paper), even if you’re taking the course as a family. SSI, on the other hand, do not.
This makes PADI courses, on the whole, more expensive than SSI programs, but I do feel that all divers should own a copy of some form of entry-level manual, even if you purchase a second-hand copy from the internet. There is a lot of useful information contained in these books beyond what is necessary to pass the course and I think they are an excellent future reference, especially if some time elapses between your diving holidays.
SKILL TRAINING - confined water
The skill training section is often referred to as ‘confined water’ or ‘pool’ training in that it happens in shallow, calm water. This is where your instructor will brief you on the skills you will learn in that session, demonstrate them in the water and have you practice and repeat the skill until you are able to do so comfortably and without assistance.
You will learn safety drills such as what do if you or your buddy should run out of air; practical skills such as clearing the mask of water if it leaks; buoyancy skills such as learning how to control your position through your breathing alone, and the universal sign language used by divers. Some of the skills are quite easy, but some of them – such as having to remove and replace your mask underwater – can often take hours to comfortably repeat.
The first and most basic skills are usually introduced in water which is shallow enough to stand up in with your upper body completely out of the water. It’s an excellent and easy introduction to the diving environment.
If you are at any point not comfortable then you can just stand up and take a moment to recover. It often takes some time to get the hang of even the simplest of tasks and you should never let this get the better of you. Relax, rest, repeat.
Even if you get something right first time, make sure you don’t stop at just once, and never be afraid to ask your instructor for more time or for extra help. There can sometimes be a certain amount of peer-pressure, but no matter how much you may feel you have to give into it, just don’t.
Always be honest with your problems and always ask for assistance or extra explanation if you need it. The skills progress from easy to more challenging, and you’ll be expected to demonstrate your ability to perform those skills in much deeper water during the practical application training dives.
The great kneeling on the floor debate.
In recent years there has been a greater emphasis on learning to do skills 'in the water column', which is to say, not kneeling or sitting on the bottom of the pool or seabed. This is a good thing, because when you are diving there may not be a seabed to sit on while you adjust your mask, so all skills should be able to be repeated whilst hovering or swimming mid-water.
There are some people, however, who think that any training conducted in a stationary, seated or kneeling position is invalid. I disagree very strongly with this. The ultimate aim is, of course, to be able to perform skills mid-water, but remaining in contact with the bottom during early training is easy, safe, and often necessary. It’s the same as learning to drive in a car park rather than on the local high street. The aim is to drive on the high street, but it helps to know that you can work the pedals first.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION – OPEN WATER DIVES
The ‘Open Water’ or ‘Checkout’ dives are where you finally get to experience a proper diving environment and demonstrate your ability to control your buoyancy, movement through the water, communication and air-checking skills, deal with simple equipment problems and respond to simulated emergency situations.
Depending on agency and location, there will be between four to six deep water dives. All the skills learned in the shallow water sessions will be assessed in a deeper water environment where you also become familiar with the new world you're entering. The utility of those skills will become very apparent as you feel the effects of the increased pressure, and the theory and training will remind you what you need to do to compensate.
Many divers have an occasional wobble, but remember that you may be as deep as 18m/60ft during these dives, and so standing up at the surface is no longer an option. There will be an instructor to look after you, of course, but it’s important that you really do get control of your skills before you finish the shallow-water training.
I draw particular reference to the ability to comfortably remove and replace your mask underwater. It’s the number one cause of training problems, so if you at all feel uncertain, about anything, make sure you talk to the instructor.
Regardless of agency, there are standards and sequences which must be followed by the instructor, but as with the other components of the course, the Open Water dives may be conducted at different times during the program, depending on which other sessions have been completed.
In some cases that means you'll conduct a dive in deeper water before you've completed the entire pool training program, but it will depend on the instructor, the students' progress and local logistics. It may well be the case that you'll head out to these dive sites on a boat, so you may well wish to have a discussion about motion sickness before you do.
It may be a little nerve-wracking jumping into deep water for the first time, and it's very certainly distracting with all the underwater fish action, but pay attention to your instructors and buddies, remember your training and keep your mind on what you're doing.
I don’t have the training manuals for each agency to hand and there is also some variation due to local regulations, but the general swimming requirements for the big two – SSI and PADI – are that you must either swim 200m unaided or 300m with a mask, fins and snorkel, and that you must be able to remain at the surface for ten minutes by floating or treading water.
As I always say: you do not have to be an Olympic athlete, nor do you have to be a particularly good swimmer, you just have to be able to fulfill those requirements comfortably and without undue physical or mental stress.
For training purposes, I like the snorkel option, but if you feel that the requirements are beyond your current level of fitness and swimming ability, then some pool time prior to your holiday is recommended.
Every entry-level training program is designed to provide you with the knowledge and practice that you will need to be competent beginner-level diver. Regardless of which agency's course you have subscribed to, your instructor will have been trained to provide that instruction according to a strict set of rules and standards. There is flexibility to the course outline, but certain requirements must be met before certain progress is possible.
This is not to say that every course will be perfect and it's - fair to say - neither is every instructor. In the next article, we'll have a look at some of the various trading agencies and steps you can take to go about reassuring yourself that the dive centre and the instructor who will be teaching you are right for the job.