becoming an open water diver and learning to scuba dive

Becoming an Open Water Diver

My father is a diving instructor and lifelong fan of scuba. I never had a choice, I was always going to be forced underwater whether I liked it or not. Luckily for me I absolutely adore it. It’s the closest you will ever get to flying and that feeling of complete weightlessness, for me it’s almost like meditation.

I did my Open Water Diver (OWD) 13 years ago as soon as I turned 12 (the minimum age to certify at that time) and then spent the next 10 years diving in the cold murky conditions of New Zealand’s wild East coast. At the age of 22 I’d had enough and I packed my bags to head for the sunny climes of Thailand. I spent 6 months training as a Divemaster, the first rung of the professional diving ladder before you become an Instructor.

I learnt invaluable lessons as I watched 100’s of people begin their scuba adventure and emerge from the first dive with what I call ‘The Crazy Eyes’. You could see that they were mask over fins in love with it from the outset. If scuba is something you have thought about, considered or toyed with the idea of, then read on and hopefully I can answer some of the questions you might have and tell you how to make the most of the experience.

Where Should I Learn?

My OW learning experience is probably fairly unique, the majority of people will learn while travelling or on holiday and this is a great way to do it because it’s easy, fairly relaxed and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. The course is condensed, usually into 3 days, and you will be diving in good conditions on popular sites with dedicated instructors. In a world with Tripadvisor and the like, we are inundated with recommendations and it can be hard to pick just one school to entrust with your experience. All I would say is, look for somewhere that is beachside and has groups of no more than 6 students. There will be a million gushing reviews for each school because truthfully, no matter where you are you will probably have an awesome time.

You might also decide depending on the organisation you want to certify with. Most people have heard of PADI but there are others such as BSAC, SSI (popular in SEA) and SDI, they don’t vary hugely at a beginner level so unless you have a strong preference you could choose any as they’re all reputable and established. A 5* rated school will have an instructor able to teach from any of them so it’s totally up to you. They also recognise each other’s qualifications, so if you want to progress you won’t be restricted to just one organisation.

It’s also a good idea to think about the kind of diver you are likely to be when you leave. Will you be a warm weather, ‘while I’m on holiday’ one or will you be a drysuit, under the ice kind of one? Which ever it is, it’s best to learn in the conditions you are most likely to experience in future so that you feel comfortable and confident. I learnt in pretty miserable conditions so in comparison everything else is fabulous.

The Course Itself.

The course will be a mixture of book based learning and practical skills. First of all there will be a theory session that will involve an exam and you will spend time in a pool (usually) or the shallows of a bay getting used to the gear. Following this you will be taken out into ‘open water’ (the ocean) to practice the skills you have learnt and experience everything the ocean has to offer (which is a lot, 70% of the world is covered in it). This condensed way of learning can feel like a bit of a whirlwind, I cannot encourage you enough to ask questions. Your instructor does this job because they love diving and want to share that with others. They will be happy to talk til the cows come home about their experiences.

If you have any concerns about your dive then always raise them and remember that everyone will have a certain number of butterflies in their belly before they jump in the water that first time. It will all feel a bit strange and you will sound like Darth Vader when you breathe. It’s important to keep your breathing even and regular as you descend, equalizing all the way (your instructor will explain that).

Sometimes panic can grab a person and send them bolting for the surface. I had one student who this happened to, we talked about it on the surface and she agreed to try again. By breathing evenly, maintaining eye contact and holding hands we were able to descend the second time, afterwards she told me the dive was the best thing she had ever done. All is not lost if you are feeling anxious or you can’t do it first try, never feel silly or burdensome, your Instructors are trained to help and want to see you succeed.

A common thought process seems to be ‘air is up there, I can breathe air, I’ll be safe up there’, land still feels like ‘home’ and underwater will feel foreign. It’s important to remember that almost any problem can be fixed underwater, this is why we have buddies and professionals on hand to fix anything that might go wrong.

Is Diving Dangerous?

In a word, no. You’re more likely to die sky diving than you are scuba diving, on the whole it’s an incredibly safe adventure sport. The stuff that is more likely to make you un-well is sun-stroke, dehydration, scrapes and things you can control for by taking care of yourself in and out of the water. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids (not beer), stay out of the sun and don’t touch the coral.

You will be with an expert who will make sure you stay safe underwater and will teach you how to check your gear and take care of your ears. Always see a doctor and get his permission to dive if you have any kind of respiratory problems or chronic conditions. This doesn’t preclude you from taking part but the dive school will want to know about it and see a certificate from your doctor. If you don’t have one they will ask you to get one, which can be difficult if you’re in a remote location without access to proper health services.

After The Course.

Once you have completed your course there is a good chance you will have caught the bug, I’ve had people ask me how to do Divemaster training after their very first dive. The worst thing is when people have only booked 3 days at that location and can’t stay any longer to do any more diving. I have seen people cancel the rest of their holiday plans in order to stay on and dive. It’s best to give yourself more time than necessary in case this happens to you.

Most dive staff will be on a commission for selling you courses and gear, personally I hate this ‘sales’ approach in just about any other industry. Diving is an exception for me because it really is in your best interests to take your training further. An Advanced Open Water qualification will allow you to go to deeper dive sites (where cool things live) and gear that fits well can be the difference between a good dive and a bad one. I’m not saying that you should become a Course Director and buy a full kit…but AOW and your own mask are good things to have in your arsenal. Your instructor will be able to help you choose a mask that fits your face best, plus it can be used for snorkelling when you’re on other beautiful beaches during your travels.

I will leave you with some quick Do’s and Don’ts to think about during your course and if there is anything else you want to know then please ask me in the comments!

Don’t:

  • Touch things underwater. The eco-system is very delicate and won’t appreciate being battered by your fins.
  • Call them flippers (that’s a dolphin), they are called fins.
  • Put your mask on top of your head. This is a signal of a diver in distress, instead pull it down around your neck when not in use.
  • Apply sunscreen just before going in the water. Most of your standard brands aren’t coral friendly and will damage the reef.
  • Take a GoPro. I cannot tell you how aggravating it is watching a student being distracted by their camera instead of learning to be a good diver first. What you capture is likely to be terrible, it takes a lot of practice to become a great videographer.

Do:

  • Ask a tonne of questions and not just to the Instructor, talk to any assistants on your course or even other people in the bar or on the boat. This is a great way to learn.
  • Make sure you really nail the physics behind diving. This will help you understand buoyancy, and as soon as you master that that it becomes even more enjoyable.
  • Listen to the instructor and keep them in your sight when you’re underwater. Losing someone means the whole group will have to surface in order to find you.
  • Stay calm when you have to remove your mask in the skills section. We’ve all been swimming without one before so don’t let this freak you out, it’s actually not that scary.
  • Remember to enjoy yourself! You’re in a place with lots of other like-minded adventurous people. Get to know your new dive friends and relish the opportunity to learn a new skill that opens up the other 70% of the world to you.

Featured Image by: Sushipingdanist

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