SCUBA DIVING 101:
A PRIMER ON A SPORT FOR EVERYONE
Just call me Jacques, as in Cousteau. I'm now one with the water. I'm now an underwater god. I'm now a certified scuba diver. I now want to tell anyone who will listen (or read this) that they could and should do the same.
If I can dive, anyone can dive. It's a simple sport to learn, it's good for you, and it's something that can be pursued for life. Just dive right in.
Business and pleasure have often taken me to many lands and seas. But, until recently, I've only enjoyed the land and very little of the sea. Thus, the desire to dive.
This desire culminated in recently earning my "C-card," the certification card for open water divers. The two largest certifying organizations are the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). A piece of plastic from one of them means you can rent or buy scuba equipment, obtain air for tanks, and participate in other exciting diving activities throughout the world. I'll never leave home without it.
The certification process is interesting and easy. It is divided into three parts, stretched over the mandatory thirty hours: classroom (using a book and visual aids), pool (confined water), and open water instruction. The classroom and pool sessions generally take place at the same time, while the open water dives (at least four of them) serve as the final test. The entire process can be completed over many weeks or packed into a few days at a sunny vacation scuba school.
The basics of scuba diving are surprisingly simple. Divers use specialized modern equipment that adapts to the aquatic environment. Scuba equipment provides a portable air supply that allows divers to spend an extended time underwater (from a few minutes to several hours, depending on factors like depth and breathing efficiency).
The tank is a high-pressure cylinder that stores plain old compressed air--never oxygen--that is released with a valve. This passes through a regulator to deliver a controlled amount of air when you inhale. A gauge lets you monitor the air supply.
The tank and regulator are typically held in place by a buoyancy control device (BCD), an expandable bladder that can be inflated or deflated to control a diver's buoyancy. The mask is the window to the underwater world, creating an air space which allows divers to see. A snorkel is attached to the mask and allows divers to breathe at the surface without having to lift their heads. Fins allow you to move through the water with far less effort and far greater efficiency. A weight belt is also worn to allow you to sink.
The classroom time demystifies much of the stuff that tends to scare people about diving. You learn that diving is far less risky than skiing and that sunburn, and not a shark, is usually the greatest danger facing divers.
By the end of our first class, everyone was ready to hit the pool. The pool time was filled with a bunch of awkward underwater virgins banging into each other. That first time underwater (even at three feet) can be an awkward and claustrophobic feeling.
By our second time in the pool, however, we looked like the Cousteau family exploring the pool for underwater treasure. During the pool sessions, we practiced breathing efficiently, removing and replacing our masks, buddy breathing (using another diver's breathing apparatus), removing and replacing our tanks, and much more.
The only thing you need to jump right in is good health, desire, and a reasonable comfort level with water. The pool sessions even turn out to be fun, as you learn new skills and develop confidence in your ability to have fun while getting all wet.
The open water dives are usually completed at a popular local dive site, where all scuba skills are reviewed and tested. Another option is to pursue the open water dives (or the entire course) at some warm water tropical resort. It's a great way to combine a vacation and learning a new sport. After passing a final written exam, you, too, can become an underwater god.
JUST DO IT
There are three general ways of getting certified. Everything can be completed locally. Another method is to complete the classroom and pool sessions locally and then finish the open water part on a warm-weather vacation. Or you can do everything at a vacation scuba school at some exotic destination. Some of the most popular dive destinations include: Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Bahamas, Bonaire, the Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Fiji, the Florida Keys, Hawaii, the Red Sea and live-aboard dive boats.
I must admit to some sticker shock when I purchased the bare necessities for learning to dive. Most instructors recommend that you buy these for the course: booties ($25 to $60); fins ($40 to $125); mask ($40 to $90); snorkel ($15 to $45); and weight belt ($10 to $60). Renting tanks of air usually runs from $5 to $20. The cost of getting certified can range from $150 to $400. Diving equipment is now considered quite fashionable, whether you're in the water or on the street.
But, for me, getting certified was far from fashionable. It was a way to enjoy a part of this world that few get to experience. I got my C-card and so should you.
The top two certifying bodies are PADI and NAUI. Contact PADI at 1251 East Dyer Rd., #100, Santa Ana, CA 92705, 714/540-7234. Contact NAUI at P.O. Box 17067, Long Beach, CA 91763, 714/621-5801. There are dive shops in almost every area of the country, offering full-certification courses or contacts at exotic dive resorts throughout the world.
W. Lynn Seldon Jr. is a full-time freelance travel writer and photographer. He specializes in adventure travel and the Caribbean. His work has appeared in many national magazines.