TOP 19 Tips when learning to SCUBA dive
1. Location, location, location
If you have little choice but to learn in a swimming pool, in a place far from the sea, then so be it. But if you have the opportunity to travel to learn, or perhaps have a place such as Thailand, Australia, or Honduras (the list goes on) in your travel plans, then look into how much your open water ticket will cost in such a place, and plan to spend 5 or 6 days dedicated to it (the course only takes 4).
Places such as Koh Tao, Thailand or Utila, Honduras are meccas for open water students for a reason. They are cheap, the diving is fairly interesting, and the conditions make learning easy. Keep in mind that they are diving meccas, so you can choose from many shops, and many instructors, but don’t expect to be alone in the water.
2. Pick a good leader
Know that much of your experience will be dictated by your instructor, and the dive shop that you choose. Spend a bit of time researching the options where you are so that you find a dive shop and an instructor that take time to make sure that you are comfortable and don’t push you into anything.
3. Know your options
Dive shops and instructors are trained to upsell you. They will push the open water course instead of a ‘Discover SCUBA dive’ (DSD). First of all, it must be said that they are correct in pushing the course because the DSD really doesn’t teach you anything. But if you are not completely comfortable with the course, of if you don’t have enough time to do the whole course (4 days typically) then keep in mind that you can get a taste of SCUBA diving by doing a DSD, which is essentially a very shallow dive, with the instructor keeping control of you instead of teaching you how to control yourself, and is designed to get you into the water.
4. Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter
It may be a little cliché to take a direct quote from Disney and a singing lobster in order to help calm your nerves… but it still fits. When you go to do your course, you will start with the theory in the classroom (unless you do the DSD). Sometimes the theory can make people a little edgy, stay calm, you don’t need to remember everything perfectly, just get into the water and you’ll be alright.
5. Understand your fear
It’s not natural for people to stay underwater. That’s why you’ll have a natural reaction to get out of the water to breathe. Trust your equipment. If you could breathe through your regulator above the water, then you can do so below (it’s easier in fact). Try to stay below and take a few breaths. You have to suck in slow and steady, it’s a different way of breathing, but you’ll get the hang of it. The other time student experience great fear is taking off their mask underwater. This is also a physiological response, it is because the water hits your nose, you’re brain has an immediate reaction to think that you cannot breathe. Relax, take a second, focus on breathing through your mouth, and you’ve got it. And don’t worry, you won’t accidentally breathe through your nose… it just won’t happen.
Now we get into the two major rules in SCUBA. This is the first, Breathe… that’s it. If you remember to keep breathing (exhaling counts as breathing), then you will be fine. Seriously, it’s basically that simple. Students run into problems in the water not with the equipment, not with the animals, and not with the water… but simply with their own fear. Take deep breaths, focus on making sure that you are always breathing and everything will work out just fine.
7. What goes down, must come up… slowly
The second thing to remember with SCUBA is to do everything slowly. All you really have to do here is fight the instinct to go to the surface immediately. If something unexpected comes along, take a second, breathe where in place, and breathe slowly. Your brain has a natural connection in between quick breathing and panic. If you focus on breathing slowly, you will naturally become more comfortable. If you must surface (this is rare), then make sure to breathe the whole way up… don’t hold your breath, don’t bolt for the surface, and you’ll have no issues.
8. Don’t fear what you don’t know
Okay, so you understand the physiological response of fear to the water… but what about the animals? Sharks attack, Whales swallow people whole, Barracuda like shiny things, jellyfish swarm, Eels electrocute… Not bloody likely!!! The fact of the matter is that people are very new in the water. As a result, nothing has actually evolved to see us as prey. Some animals are defensive at times, but they are smaller than you and only want you to get away from their nests. Shark attacks (which are rare in the first place) occur something like 99.92% of the time to swimmers on the surface that look either like a seal (person with a surfboard) or a wounded animal (people with no swimming style, at sunset, in brown water conditions, with the worst luck imaginable)… SCUBA divers are safe from animals… I repeat, SAFE!
9. Take time to smell the sea water
I don’t actually want you to inhale that little bit of saltwater that has worked its way into the bottom of your mask… I want you to descend slowly, move slowly, and know that you will most likely see more by examining everything in detail, instead of trying to speed through to get to more places… Another trick that you’ll learn SCUBA diving is how to look for things on a macro scale… Sometimes you look through the water to the reef, sometimes you examine the water itself because there’re many little creatures that your eyes automatically filter out. And remember… Turtles live in the water, hares do not.
10. Look, but don’t touch
Now that you know that you’re safe, why not go around petting everything and seeing what it feels like? While things may not attack you, many animals have defences that will do you harm if you go out of your way to touch them. If things don’t move, typically they’ve evolved a different way of defending themselves.
Don’t get too close. The fact of the matter is that until you are quite capable of controlling your buoyancy (a skill learned with experience), the water will push you around a bit, not much, but a bit. Respect that, and keep your distance from things.
A few years ago a student of mine attempted to touch a sea urchin to see how it felt. She moved a little too far and I ended up taking 7 Spines out of her hand/wrist on the surface. When I asked her if she heard me say don’t touch anything, she responded, “I thought that only meant things that move”… it doesn’t.
11. Be a good buddy
Depending where you are diving, you may have one instructor for up to 8 or even 10 students (Though I would encourage you to look for a shop that has no more than 4 students, preferably 2). Your new best friend in the water is your dive buddy. Get comfortable with him/her. Have a communication system in place and use it. He/she may need you or vice versa for understanding of something, for direction, for air (quite unlikely), or just simply to share an experience. If you are communicating with your buddy, and keeping close to him/her, than you have 4 eyes instead of two looking around for cool creatures, formations… and above all, you have someone to share your experience with.
12. Be a good student
Your instructor will ask you do to things at times that seem a little ridiculous. It’s not always his/her choice. Some boxes have to be ticked off in order to give you your license. If every student pays attention and does what they are supposed to, then the skills will executed quicker and more time will be available to just wander around and have a jolly good time.
13. Ask questions
Oh the beautiful art of asking questions underwater. If you are curious, try to ask. Even if your instructor doesn’t understand, you can refer to the question when you are back on the surface and he/she will have a memory of where you were, and what you may have seen. This rule also goes for the classroom while you are learning your theory. Ask more questions and you will be more comfortable in the water. It sucks to be in the water, with a question that you wished you had asked.
14. Follow through
This goes for completing the course as well as for continuing on. As I said, shops/instructors are trained to upsell you. Whatever course you are in, they will want you to take the next one. This is especially true with PADI. However, with that in mind, the advanced open water course is probably the coolest SCUBA course. It is just 5 fun dives, no theory, all water. On the practical side, you really hone your skills (especially your buoyancy) and you get licensed to go deeper on any future dives. I highly recommend taking the AOW course after your OW course.
15. Keep it up
Sometimes it can be difficult to find a place to dive. I myself have allowed my instructor license to lapse after breaking my foot and not being in the water for over a year. You should try to get diving at least once every 6 months just to keep your skills sharp. I know the excuses, I make them myself. Fork out the cash twice a year to get into the water… even if it is just in the diving club in your hometown.
16. Learn the rules perfectly, before you bend them
Learn the rules in your OW and AOW really well, especially the depths. They are there for a reason. Once you understand why they are there, then you know when they can/cannot be modified a little. Know what cannot be modified and why, before you begin to do any special modifications.
17. Dress for the weather
All diving is different. If you are looking at doing much diving in the future on holidays, or even continuing into the Rescue/DMT courses, then a dive computer is a valuable asset that you will never regret, just don’t get too dependent upon it. Many Divemasters get so dependent on their computers that the simple mathematics that it’s based upon. Know that all diving is different, whether it be the salinity of the water, or the temperature, or even the presence of a swell, you will need to tailor your wetsuit/weights accordingly. Don’t assume that learning on 2kgs (5lbs) in a short wetsuit in Koh Tao, Thailand means that you can dive in a 7mm wetsuit in the Galapagos Islands and yet still use only 2kgs.
18. Follow the leader
You’ve learned to dive, you’re licensed to go anywhere in the world and rent a couple of tanks and go on your own. Quite frankly, this is one of the most ridiculous things that will be told to you in your course. Yes, technically you can go on your own. But especially if you only have your OW license, you have next to no idea how to take care of yourself. Even if you have a more advanced license, you most likely will want to take the divemaster provided to you so that he/she can show you the sights at a foreign dive site. If you are going to go with the shop’s divemaster, then by all means follow him/her, or notify him/her when you are going in a different direction with your buddy. There is nothing worse for a divemaster than losing a diver underwater.
19. Have fun
Okay, so the most important feature of all when getting into that bulky gear, and heading out on the open seas is to remember that you’re to have a great time. You are embarking on an experience that you’ll never forget. You’re creating a story that you will tell and retell to family and friends down the road. Live in the moment. Mark every passing moment as memorable and truly live your story.
Can you think of any that I missed?