January 22, 2022

SCUBA For BeginnersSCUBA divers (Photo: Francisco Jesús Navarro Hernández)

SCUBA diving is one of those sports that totally grips some people.

They go diving in Cancun once and now they’re practically Ariel from the Little Mermaid, singing about the wonders of the sea and the one time they saw a big grouper. Six months later, they’ve quit their mainland life, are working in a dive shop in Bali and are on speaking terms with several dolphins.

It’s easy to see why this happens.

A good SCUBA trip is a transcendental experience. You weightlessly explore an alien world of incredible color, variety and strangeness.

After an hour underwater, surrounded by such surreal joys, part of you begins to wonder if you haven’t simply returned home.

Of course, a bad SCUBA trip is nauseating, dangerous and miserable. It involves a very stoned dive master forgetting about you, a half-dozen morons kicking up mud and silt and poking coral, and you losing control of your buoyancy, rocketing to the surface with a lovely nitrogen headache.

So how to make the right call? Read on for some tips!

WHAT IS SCUBA?

SCUBA is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. People have always been obsessed with the ocean, but when SCUBA arrived in the mid 20th-century, it was a revolution over clunky diving bells and suits. While there have been newer innovations, SCUBA remains a cost-effective, reliable and safe way to explore the ocean.

“Explore” is the key word here. It’s not really about adrenaline, exercise or competition unless you’re spearfishing.

In fact, when you’re doing SCUBA right, you’re moving very slowly. Unless something goes wrong, you should never be out of breath, worried or panicked. Your goal is simply to look at cool stuff.

CAN I SCUBA?

You need to know how to swim, for reasons that are hopefully obvious. But other than that, you might want to check with a doctor if you have any doubts about your circulatory or respiratory systems, or if you’ve had any serious medical procedures done. Even old dental fillings can cause problems.

SCUBA is generally safe for most people, but the unavoidable truth is that we don’t have gills. It is potentially dangerous… and not for the reasons you might think. It has nothing to do with sharks. Soon enough, you’ll be desperate to see sharks. Most beginners’ problems come from panicking.

SCUBA is similar to driving a car. Like driving, if you know what you’re doing, things almost never go wrong.

It’s rarely exciting. But when you panic, mundane actions become very dangerous. So be sure to equip yourself with all the information you need before taking the plunge.

CERTIFICATIONS
& CLASSES

If you’ve never dived, you’re on vacation or you just want to see if you like SCUBA diving, consider what’s called a “Discover Dive.” This is a guided first dive with typically a day or two of instruction in a swimming pool beforehand. These Discover Dives are often offered in hotels and resorts. On this dive, you will be following the exact instructions of your Dive Master. You don’t have to worry about much of anything other than following their instructions.

To this end, it’s very important to work with a good dive shop. There is a huge range of quality in Dive Masters. Some are there to indulge in cannabinoids, flirt with tourists and poke moray eels. You’re going to want a reputable shop with patient instructors. This is because whether you took a Discover Dive or not, the first real step is to get certified.

PADI is the most popular diving organization around the world and a PADI Open Water Diving Certification will let you dive in the vast majority of great sites.

This certification is fairly easy to get, lasts a lifetime and looks cool in your wallet. Most of these courses cost about $500 depending on your location.

Finally, if you live in a place with cold water, consider learning on vacation in the tropics. Diving is a lot more fun when you’re not cold and when visibility is good.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

The reason it’s worth taking a class is because diving is simple, but has a lot of moving parts. You have a regulator, air tank, BCD, mask, snorkel, fins, depth gauge and so on. In many ways, diving is less like swimming than it is transforming yourself into a submarine.

For example, one of your key controls while diving is your BCD (your Buoyancy Compensator Device). This is an inflatable lifejacket that controls your buoyancy. There are two buttons, so it’s simple to operate, but as you dive, the pressure from water above compresses the air in your BCD and your lungs. This means that your buoyancy will change underwater compared to how it was at the surface.

What this all comes around to is that diving is simple, but there’s lots of little techniques towards achieving your goal: comfort and control underwater. Being warm, being able to see and being in total control all make it a lot more fun.

This is what a SCUBA class teaches you, along with how to manage your air, hand signals and how your gear works. It will also teach you about decompression sickness, or “the Bends.” You’ve probably heard of this, but this happens when divers who’ve deep underwater for a long time surface too quickly. Because they’ve been breathing air underwater, the nitrogen in their body expands when they head to the surface. These expanding bubbles can cause headaches, fatigue or worse.

That said, it’s extremely easy to avoid. For one, these risks increase exponentially the deeper you go. Most divers stay in shallow water, where in an emergency they can surface and not expect much injury. As a beginner diver, the only thing you may need to do is something called a “safety stop.” Near the end of your dive you hover in place in shallower water for a short time, then slowly ascend. This ensures the nitrogen leaves your body harmlessly.

WHAT TO BUY

Most dive shops let you rent everything, which helps if you’re traveling light. But some places make you bring your own mask, snorkel and fins.

As diving gear is expensive, we’d recommend starting there. Buying your own will also let you ensure that they all fit comfortably. The fastest way to have a bad dive is to have an ill-fitting mask or fins that hurt your feet.

Everything else, like a BCD, regulator and air tank, is not worth the money until you really fall in love with the sport. As a beginner you don’t want to worry about servicing your gear, valves, regulators, oxygen mixtures and so on. Once you get some experience you’ll find that getting into the nitty-gritty and maintenance of your toys is fun. In any case, please support your local dive shops!

Finally, if you’re doing more and more dives we’d strongly recommend getting a dive computer. This handy device helps keep track of your air, plans your safety stops and alerts you every step of the way. It’s much more effective than an air gauge at keeping you on track.

BEGINNER TIPS

While we already mentioned buoyancy control, that’s something you need to learn by practice. Just remember to stay in control, go slow and don’t panic.

Controlling your breathing will dramatically conserve your air and let you and your buddies stay underwater longer.

Nobody likes having to cut their dive short because their friend gulped air.

Additionally, don’t mess with the wildlife. Don’t chase fish around and don’t touch animals or coral. Everything down there is delicate and afraid of you. So be calm and still and let the wildlife feel comfortable while you visit their home.

Finally, kick slowly or frog kick. Kicking like crazy near the sea floor will push up silt, sand and dirt. It might not seem like much, but over time, this will impact everybody’s visibility and seeing things is the whole point!

THAT’S IT!

You’ll review all these tips and more in your SCUBA course. Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the SCUBA book. While there are a lot of considerations around, say, calculating the air you’re consuming at certain pressures, if you’re going with a good dive shop you’ll be following an expert dive master. Just follow their instructions, be safe and see things you never dreamed of before. Plus, because of SCUBA’s mandatory buddy system, you’ll always have a friend nearby. Good luck and have fun!