The following are my experiences & thoughts of SCUBA Diving, with the disclaimer that I am not an instructor, but I do have an Advanced Open Water Certificate from PADI.
I was introduced to the idea of going SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving while working at Fordham University in the early 1990’s — can’t remember who it was.
The Master Instructor was Greg Kincheloe — who I think is still doing this, including being a flight instructor in New York.
It’s fun to do this with someone so I took classes (5 evenings of classroom and pool work, followed by a weekend of 4 open-water dives) with two co-workers (Mike and Mark). We also went on a couple of SCUBA trips together which was a blast.
One could purely look at SCUBA diving as just having fun swimming around underwater playing with fish. I, of course, have expounded other virtues of diving — addressing fears of claustrophobia; learning basic principles of anatomical physiology; teamwork; awareness of self and others; time & task management; humility of being a guest in a foreign world with different rules, etc.
My wish is that you too experience the thrill and responsibility required of SCUBA diving.
Acquiring basic equipment
When you first sign up for SCUBA lessons, you will typically (after the first class) be sent to a SCUBA store to purchase some equipment. Mask, Fins, Snorkel, books.
Spend an adequate amount of time in the SCUBA shop and don’t feel pressured to rush any purchases. Mark was with me at the same time driving me nuts because he was taking forever. Of course, I ended up buying a mask that was too small and fins that where too big!! Basic SCUBA equipment can be inexpensive, but this is not really a cheap sport.
Trick to finding a mask that fits works by placing it on your face and breathe in through your nose to see if it sticks well on your face. The snorkel should fit comfortably in the mouth – they have a ton of different mouth bites to choose from. Snorkels can be either very basic or with several purge valves – I went basic. The fins must fit well on your foot (width and length) – try on a pair of booties before putting the fins on. It’s important that they have the right amount of flex. Mine were a bit too big, wide and floppy, but I was able to adapt my stride underwater so it was OK – with practice I was literally flying through the water, which was fun.
Compass, slate boards, grease pencils, dive tables, knives, lights, SCUBA bags all need to be purchased. Go with whatever the instructor recommends.
Do I do all the training at a Resort or in a swimming pool?
My opinion is that vacations should be about having fun, not about learning new stuff. Therefore, I would advise doing all the formal training at home with an official SCUBA school that offers pool training. I seem to remember that it was at least 5 or 6 formal classes (lecture style with quizzes and written exams) followed by pool training. SCUBA is reasonably basic to learn and understand, but you need the right environment to ask questions, learn and practice what you learned in the pool. The pool has built in safety mechanisms you can fall back on and it’s a familiar environment.
The culmination of the training is open-water dives – in my case it was a two day trip with two dives per day. A strong recommendation is to time all of this so that (soon after training) you do the open water dives in a really nice, warm place with awesome visibility and colorful fish – maybe a RESORT!!! Check with the dive school because PADI is an International organization and if you get the correct signoffs then the “finishing instructor” shouldn’t have a problem doing this. Some dive schools even organize trips where you all do the pool training together and then go abroad to a foreign country to do the open water dives – Turks and Caicos, Cayman Islands, Greece, and so on.
What I don’t recommend is going to a resort to learn SCUBA diving from scratch – I had a bad experience with this. I was already certified and was introducing SCUBA diving to my mother while on vacation. The “training” was too basic – “Don’t stop breathing and try to relax”. We went down to about 35-40 feet and my mother started hyperventilating. In hindsight I should have known better because during the pool sessions I too had to overcome the initial panic of breathing underwater, but I could easily stand up. SCUBA is basic, but not THAT basic.
The pool is a great training ground because the visibility is awesome and you know you have an easy out if you get spooked. It definitely is a weird experience being able to breath underwater. I remember when we started going from the shallow to the deep-end I got just a tad scared, but I decided to go beyond my fear and it all worked out.
You will learn how to do all kinds of cool things like take the mask off/on, take the tank off/on, share the regulator (breathing component) back and forth with your dive buddy and a myriad of other skills including trying to maintain buoyancy. Freshwater is tough to maintain buoyancy, but you’ll be in salt water soon at some point anyway where it’s much easier.
Freezing my ass in Dutch Springs, Allentown, PA
In my case, I did the pool training and then (for some stupid moronic reason) agreed to do the open water training in the Fall in Dutch Springs – some freshwater quarry near Allentown, PA. Here I am in a full body ¼” wetsuit in freshwater (which is harder to maintain buoyancy) with no visibility, no point of reference, no fish, and best of all – FREEZING MY ASS OFF with cold!!!
Of course, I was a slow learner because after getting the first certificate I went back to the same place a couple weeks later to do the Advanced Open Water Course – this meant doing a deep dive down to 100 feet to practice tying knots, raising a heavy weight to the surface by inflating a bag, and practicing getting to the surface from 100 feet by exhaling ONE breath of air – quite trippy! Oh – you’ll learn about thermoclines. At 100 feet, I was at the 3rd or 4th thermocline – this roughly translates into it being about 3 to 4 times as cold as it was at 33 feet. Yes… You guessed it….. FMAO!!! Never again!
SCUBA Diving is dangerous at really deep levels.
Actually, SCUBA diving is technically more dangerous between sea level and 33ft because the lungs expand relatively more at shallower depths than at deeper levels. Listen to the instructors carefully because understanding the principles of human physiology is important.
At deeper levels, if you’re down for too long you could get Nitrogen Narcosis (Narced) which is not good for the bloodstream and you start doing stupid stuff like giving your regulator to fish and losing track of time and tasks. You’ll also end up in a decompression chamber with your friends on the outside cursing you through a small window because you messed up their vacation.
Reasonably easy stuff to learn and remember and the instructors usually have tons of well photocopied materials to hand out. Read one chapter a week and you’ll be OK.
Checking your ears (ear wax buildup)
Because you have to use the Valsalva Technique to equalize the pressure between the inner ear and the ear-drum (holding your nose and gently blowing – which pops your ears), I would STRONGLY recommend cleaning your ears out several weeks before doing the open water dives – use Debrox or whatever. See a doctor if you have excessive wax build up.
If you ignore this step then it will negatively affect your dives and enjoyment because you’ll get too much of a pinch and won’t be able to dive down very far.
After a while, you’ll get the hang of the technique and can clear your ears just by swallowing.
Check your health
It’s important to not go diving if you are congested or blocked up with a head cold. It’s all about equalizing pressure – there will always be other times to go diving.
In between dives it’s important to stay warm and get out of wet clothing quickly. I saw a pattern where people got sick on the second day of diving because they weren’t taking care of themselves.
SCUBA is one of these sports that is relatively dangerous so it requires having someone with you as backup. None of this has happened, but you could run out of air, get caught up in seaweed or whatever. I’ve had one awesome buddy, mostly good buddies and a couple of terrible buddies.
In my opinion a good buddy system is where two people dive together for each other. That means that the moment we start descending together until surfacing my entire focus and attention is on the welfare of my buddy. This relationship works well when it’s reciprocal. It doesn’t work to go down and focus on doing your own thing. If something happens it will happen quickly and I want my buddy to be there for me in a second.
SCUBA equipment is extremely reliable because the concept of the breathing regulator is quite basic and the equipment is not difficult to understand. If somehow you have a breathing malfunction, then your buddy can scoot over and give you his/her backup breathing regulator. During training you also learn how to pass the same regulator back and forth to each other.
If you’re diving in tall weeds and someone gets tangled then your huge bowie knife is to cut loose your buddy free, not yourself. Note: On the surface, coat your knife with Petroleum Jelly – it prevents rust, but be careful because they are really sharp.
I’ve had a “buddy” that did the OK sign and then dove straight to the bottom without waiting for me – I just waited for his butt to get back to the surface. If someone wants to be dumb then don’t add to it.
Professionalism of instructors
One of the Divemasters/Rescue Divers I had with me during initial training was (for lack of a better description) a complete BONEHEAD on land and on the surface of the water) — someone you wouldn’t want to trust with your life. BUT, the second we were 1 inch below water he transformed into a complete professional and was awesome to dive and work with. If you have instructors that you can’t work with underwater then find someone else – quick.
On a trip to Key Largo with Mike and Mark, we took a regular underwater camera and also rented a video camera.
When you take pictures you typically just hold the camera out front at arms length and just shoot – you don’t look through the viewfinder. Everything is magnified underwater anyway.
We had the freakin’ lens cap on the regular camera, so were happily taking 36 pictures of the inside of a lens cap. Lessons learned – take the lens cap off before leaving the boat.
The videocamera is a regular videocamera encased in a heavy plastic box with a built in arm that pushes against the record button. Of course, we get down to depths and want to start recording – the darn internal arm was about ¼” away from the record button and we couldn’t record anything. Lessons learned – make sure you can turn the camera on and off before leaving the boat.
When taking pictures, slow down and capture everything reasonably close up before zooming off to find something else. After a while you’ll be able to have perfect buoyancy and be able to navigate up and down through the coral just by using relative, but steady breathing.
Time, Task, & Breath Management
This will get better over time, but it’s really important to always keep breathing and get out of the habit of breathholding. Breathholding is only for skin diving without a breathing apparatus.
If you go on a charter, then the Skipper may cop an attitude if you come up with less than 500 PSI and require you to sit out the next dive as a punishment/lesson. Couple reasons – one is that you can damage the tank by bringing it up empty because now water can get in because there’s no air pressure left. Second, and more importantly, is that you’re a liability because you were not managing your air and could have needed a rescue mission. Just keeping checking the dials every so often and ensure your buddy does this as well.
Task management basically means that you have an agreed plan of what you are going to do – planning out the dive, etc. The basic rule is that whoever has the least air left decides the final phase of the dive. Learning to communicate with sign language is fun and there’s always slates and grease pencils for backup.
Open water dives in ocean
Much more fun that in freshwater because it’s typically: warmer, better visibility, more colorful fish, better buoyancy (saltwater is easier to maintain buoyancy than freshwater).
Learning your equipment on land before water
I remember buying a new compass and just slapping the thing on my wrist and going down for a dive. At depth I looked at the compass and realized that its mechanism was reverse of what I was used to. Because it was new I started panicking and ruined the dive. Lessons learned – play with compasses in the parking lot until you are thoroughly comfortable with the equipment.
This also goes for dive tables. When I was diving, someone invented the whiz wheel which allows for different levels of diving within the same dive. Bottomline is that the device is more complex than a basic dive table and I never really mastered it on land. Good thing I also had brought the regular dive table. Note: Most dive operators plan the dives so that they can compensate for the average diver – listen to their instructions for safety.
Of course, if you buy a dive computer, they’re a lot of fun, but make sure you understand it thoroughly on land first.
Purchasing more advanced equipment
SCUBA can get expensive quickly because pretty soon you’ll want your own wetsuit, instead of renting. Then you’ll want your own Buoyancy Compensator (BC) and Regulator and then computer and so on. Just make informed buying decisions. It’s a fun sport to get addicted to.
Visibility and warmth in Florida Keys
That trip to the Florida Keys was awesome. We saw giant eels, whole schools of Parrot Fish and Barracudas and tons of other stuff.
God’s underwater Garden
SCUBA diving is the great equalizer for me, because there is a very obvious realization that you’re a visitor and this is foreign ground for humans. The rules are different and you must respect that. Barracudas are somewhat blind and have very sharp teeth and powerful jaws – if they get close then: slowly put your fingers into a fist, wrap your arms around yourself, don’t make any sudden movement and don’t torment them. Human physiology is not designed naturally to be underwater for extended lengths of time, so follow the rules.
Coral basically dies if you touch it – so, don’t touch it and maintain skills of buoyancy.
Don’t leave trash behind.
Really enjoy the spectacular beauty of the whole experience – it’s quite humbling.
Dog biscuits are a good way of attracting fish to you so you get a good camera shot. Problem is that it’s not really that great for them. Find something that works, but is more suitable.
SCUBA diving is cool and snorkeling is for wimps
That was my initial attitude until I went to the US Virgin Islands
SCUBA diving was fun, but we spent 90% of the time doing just snorkeling. It’s free, no time limits and you can basically see all the same stuff anyway. We saw all kinds of fish and turtles. Recommendation is to practice in the swimming pool with your mask and snorkel. It may be difficult to use the fins in the pool unless you’re practicing skin diving underwater, then it’s OK. On the surface there is too much of a slapping sensation.
SNUBA Diving (contraction of Snorkeling and Scuba Diving)
I’ve never done this, but my understanding is that you drag around a buoy with a machine that provides the air to a regulator attached to a hose with a fixed length. Because you can’t go that deep you don’t have to worry much about nitrogen levels in your blood. Just have several lengths of the cord wrapped around your arm so you can let it out loose if need be.
Don’t forget to apply this to exposed skin before diving. The sun’s rays are magnified when they hit the water and you can get a serious sunburn UNDER the water.
Breathing dry air gives you a MAD case of the munchies. Always have healthy snacks with you and bring lots of water.
I’ve tried to outline my full experience with SCUBA diving. Like anything, follow the program and it’ll all work out. When you find the perfect buddy, hold on to him/her for as long as you can.