SCUBA Diving

"Go places, meet people, do things ... under water." -- PADI Motto                Back to Home Page

When I met my wife (pictured at left) over 40 years ago, she told me she had recently completed her SCUBA diving certification and invited me to join her. "You've gotta be kidding!" I said. With 20/400 vision and feet that cramped instantly in cold water, I wasn't just uninterested but actually determined never to approach this sport. I simply wasn't comfortable in cold, open water. So we settled on things like skiing (my sport), paddling (her sport) and bicycling (our sport) for outdoor kicks for the next 25 years.  Then two things happened - we got into snorkeling in the warm waters of Hawaii and I got my eyes fixed by LASIK surgery. So there I was one day, suspended over a huge turtle 25 feet below me in (almost) bathtub warm water and here comes a pair of divers checking out this magnificent creature at its own level. I contracted an instantaneous case of experience-envy and just knew I had to join them down below. 

Back home in Northern California, where the air can be warm but the water is always cold, I researched this previously intimidating sport and found out a few comforting things. First, you can learn to dive in a swimming pool and postpone certification until a trip takes you to tropical waters (although I now discourage this approach - more on that later). Second, it's easy. And third, lots of my friends were doing it and having a great time. With their encouragement, my wife and I checked out a local dive shop and signed up for a course, as did my older son and his future wife. A few weeks later we were certified and off on a previously-planned cruise to the Caribbean where diving became our favorite "shore excursion!" A whole new world opened up for us. We began planning dive trips, our younger son got certified so he could join us and our whole family became quite committed to the under water world.

Diver Certification 

Here's the drill: Unlike their approach to flying or driving, governments seem to have no interest in issuing "diver's licenses." Although some do regulate things like tourist density and dive operator behavior, they leave certification up to private agencies. There are quite a few of these, all independent of one another while offering rather similar training programs. They issue pretty, plastic certification cards indicating your level of training. Dive shops, tour operators and boat captains require this "C-card" in order to fill your air tank or take you diving. Although many of them affiliate with a particular certification agency, they all recognize the C-cards from the other agencies. I trained with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the largest dive cert agency in the world. Others include the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) (#2) and Scuba Schools International (SSI). Each has its own claims to fame and I won't pretend to recommend one over the other. Most of them call their basic certification something like "Open Water Diver" and they all offer more advanced courses. When you decide to learn to dive, just find a reputable dive shop and take the course they offer.

When my wife got her first certification 40+ years ago, it was really hard. "They tried to kill you," she says. "Those who survived got C-cards." This has changed a lot, much to the chagrin of the old salts, rugged individuals and macho athletes out there who long for the good old days.  The current swimming requirement is easy, the training is brief, the math is trivial and the equipment is much better than it used to be. The certification agencies are in business to create new divers and then to keep them diving (and training). They make sure that if you fail, you really shouldn't be in the water. The requirements are, if anything, too lax. If you are reasonably healthy, can swim modestly and equalize your sinuses in a jet airliner, you can probably become a diver. If you have good judgment, you can probably do it safely. If you scorn formal training, rules and caution ... please don't become a diver. You could get hurt.

Diving is somewhat like flying - your initial certification is but a "license to learn," and you can pursue the sport for decades without ever knowing it all. But the learning comes with the doing and it's the most fun you can have outdoors with your swimsuit on! 

Basic Training

Here is how my training went; yours may be slightly different. We had to buy student kits published by PADI which included our choice of a book or DVD, a nifty submersible card with tables of underwater time limits and some other fru-fru. The dive tables are one of the ways the agencies simplified diving - my wife had to use simple algebraic formulas back in the 1970s. Now days that's too much to expect of the graduates of our public schools! And, even without showing attitude, I must admit that the tables are handier. (Better yet are dive computers which obviate the need for formulas or tables by automating time limit calculations in real-time, under water. Once you are certified, you will switch to a computer. Some boats and resorts actually require them.) We also had to buy our own dive mask, snorkel, fins and, because we would be diving in cold water, neoprene dive gloves and booties. The shop rented us thick wetsuits, hoods, tanks, weights, gauges and the magical device known as a buoyancy compensator.  (I keep saying "we" because my wife decided it would not be prudent to rely on her old certifications, however valid they might be. She started over and was glad she did.)

We chose the "fast path" schedule - two pretty full weekends in a row. Our dive shop also offered an alternative of two evenings a week for three weeks followed by one full weekend. The tradeoff for choosing the fast path was having to read the entire book (or view the DVD) prior to the first class. There are only a few key concepts to learn and PADI exposes you to each one at least seven times (literally!).  For each concept, you read about it, get lectured on it, answer three rounds of quiz questions on it, do it in the pool and do it in open water (a lake or ocean). The first weekend (or the three weeks of evenings) included alternating classroom and swimming pool sessions beginning Friday evening and continuing Saturday and Sunday until mid-afternoon. In the two pool sessions we practiced skills we had been taught on land. The first time you experience breathing under water is a revelation! The concluding weekend was a trip to Monterey, CA, an outstanding cold water dive venue. There, we met at the beach both Saturday and Sunday mornings for our open water checkout - dive, refill tanks at a local shop, dive again. On the first three dives we repeated the same skills we had already demonstrated in a 12 foot pool but this time we were under 30 feet of salt water. That first real descent was another awesome experience! Our class made good progress, so the instructor led us on some under-water sightseeing at the end of our third and most of our fourth dives. We were doing it! 

After the fourth cert dive, our instructor gave us temporary C-cards. He promised that PADI would send us our nifty plastic cards Real Soon Now but advised us to observe a primary under-water maxim - "Don't hold your breath!" We took him out to lunch. It had been a fun mini-vacation and we were certified divers! The plastic cards arrived pretty soon, too.

Cold Water

About that cold water: My original plan was to do the classroom/pool weekend and give the cold water a try. If I cramped up as in the past, I was prepared to bail out and switch to the "Referral" program. In that scenario, your initial instructor gives you a certificate of completion of everything except the open water dives. You take that to a warm water venue and do your ocean dives there, completing the process. Fortunately, the thick neoprene booties, heavy fins and double seven mm wetsuit was more than enough to prevent cramping. In fact, it was quite warm on the beach and by the time we got into the 52 degree (Fahrenheit) water we were delighted to feel it seeping into our wetsuits! 

There seem to be two downsides to cold water: Your exposure protection suit (generally a wetsuit for beginners although more advanced divers often resort to the warmer drysuit) has a lot of buoyancy. To counter that, you wear a lot of lead weights. Although under water you become neutrally buoyant (aka weightless), on land this stuff is heavy. A full diving rig for cold water can weigh upwards of 70 or 80 pounds. And once the thrill of cooling your over-heated beach body is over, it does get cold. Each person reacts differently and some people claim to be quite comfortable. Most of them are wearing drysuits. Personally, I'm OK for a couple of 30 to 40 minute dives in my wetsuit and then I'm very happy to get dry and warm. 

So why bother with cold water? There are many good reasons; here are a few: Because it is more difficult, you hone your diving skills and become a better diver, even in warm water. Unless you live in the tropics, you have to travel a long way to reach warm water. Many warm water wusses only get to dive once or twice a year on expensive vacation trips. But many of us live on the coasts or near lakes that offer excellent diving within a day's round-trip. Regular practice in local waters keeps you sharp and makes your vacation trips that much more enjoyable. The wildlife and terrain in these waters are quite different from those in the tropics and one of the big reasons to dive is to experience the incredible variety of the under water world. I never thought I would say this, but I really enjoy cold water diving! (And yes, I finally bit the financial bullet and bought a drysuit. It took a while to learn to use it, but the difference is amazing. After a "dry" dive, I look forward to completing my surface interval and getting back in the water.)

Risk Management

Another similarity to flying (one of my other passions) is that diving includes risk. Much diver training is oriented toward managing those risks by establishing a personal safety envelope. The more you learn, the larger your envelope can be. Stay within your envelope and the risks are manageable. Outside your envelope, conditions exceed your abilities and you can get into a lot of trouble, fast.  For example, running out of air at 200' (67m) is a lot like a mid-air collision - "it can ruin your whole day." So the envelope for newly certified divers extends only down to 60' (20m) from which a controlled, emergency ascent can take you to the surface on one lungful of air. It's one of the techniques you learn in training. It's neither perfectly safe nor routine but it beats drowning. Go much deeper, however, and decompression illness caused by a too rapid ascent can kill you. Even for more experienced recreational divers, the limit is 120-130' (40-43m). More experience, more training, more equipment and more techniques can expand your envelope.

More Training

PADI offers a second course, ingenuously called "Advanced Open Water Diver." The name is a terrible misnomer because you can achieve this second certification with only a few more dives beyond the basic open water training, at which point you have not even begun to approach the amount of experience that should be associated with the word "advanced." But that does not reduce the value of the additional training. It is worthwhile and every diver should take it. After that there is a broad array of specialty courses covering such topics as under water navigation, photography, diver rescue, drysuit diving, cave diving, wreck diving, enriched air (Nitrox) diving, dive instruction at various levels and on and on. The cert agencies sell courses - lots of them - so you won't run out of "merit badges" to pursue.

Then What?

There are lots of specialties in SCUBA diving, some listed just above. Some people enjoy the challenge of continually expanding their experience and skill envelope or collecting certifications. Others just like the sensation of breathing, moving and sightseeing under water. Some become diving professionals, teaching, leading and assisting other divers or doing commercial diving. Very few make much money but, hey, they're being paid to do something they love! Some divers enjoy international travel, using diving as an excuse to discover new places both under and above water. My wife and I enjoy dive vacations on tropical islands. Our favorite is Little Cayman Island where we have returned several times. Other places we have dived include Monterey, the Southern CA Channel Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Saba/St. Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire, Maui, Palm Beach FL, Galapagos, Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas. On our To Do List are Belize, Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef, Phuket, Kona, Ft. Lauderdale, the Florida Keys, Honduras, the Red Sea and more. We have no fear of running out of exciting vacation destinations now that we have become active SCUBA divers. You can do this, too!