A Guide by Warrick Howard
Scuba diving is as close as most of us will get to being in an alien environment. Swimming next to a sea turtle, 20 meters under the surface of the sea, breathing comfortably, can certainly be quite a bizarre experience! PADIs, SSIs and BSACs can seem like confusing professional babble to some, and taking that first step into the world of diving can be a daunting experience, particularly for those who aren't 100% comfortable in open water. With a bit of guidance however, all should be able to savour this unique experience.
For beginners, a good way to 'dip your toe' in the scuba lifestyle is to start with a Discover Scuba dive. These dives give you a taste of scuba equipment, usually in a pool, to enable you to get a feel for breathing underwater. Once you're familiar with your equipment, you'll be taken to a shallow cove, where you can get a feel for diving in the open ocean.
The great thing about 'Discover Scuba' dives is that they are significantly cheaper than signing up to a full Open Water course and, if you're not sure how you'll take to diving, it's a great way to make sure you don't lose a lot of money by paying up front for a course. Another nice feature is that most dive schools say that if you go on to do an Open Water course after you've done your Discover Scuba dives, then the cost can be offset against the price of your course.
Once you've got to grips with all the equipment, you need to sign up to do a 3 or 4 day Open Water Scuba Diver course.
Choosing where to do this is often a difficult decision, with people often trying to balance cost against country. For example, doing the course in Thailand will be considerably cheaper than doing it on the Barrier Reef.
For this reason, many backpackers choose to do their Open Water qualification on Koh Tao in Thailand. Shallow waters, a lack of currents and plenty of top quality dive schools, all offering Open Water qualifications at attractive prices, make Koh Tao particularly attractive to beginners. Of course, all these factors mean that you are often learning in large groups. Indeed, some people have described the courses as a 'conveyor belt of backpackers'.
Personally, I don't see any problem with learning like this - I think that having people to share the theory work with, and to socialise with after your dives, can only be a good thing. If you are the sort of person who would benefit from a much more intensive experience, then somewhere like the Barrier Reef might be for you. You'll pay more for the course, but you'll have more one-on-one time with your instructor and, generally, a smaller group.
Some other good places to learn to dive include (but are not limited to) Malaysian Borneo, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and even the good old UK! If you are thinking of learning here however, be prepared for a very different experience to diving in tropical waters; UK dive sites are generally very, very cold! Indeed, it's certainly worth starting out in a warm pool if you're set on learning at home. Companies like www.intotheblue.co.uk are good places to get a feel for diving in a UK swimming pool.
Once you've decided on a place to learn, you'll need to choose a dive school and society. PADI are the name that everyone knows, and they are certainly a well respected and recognised company across the globe. There are, however, at least 10 organisations (including SSI, BSAC and CMAS) all under the guidance of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC), all of which have a similar structuring, enabling you to advance your qualifications and experience through diving.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter which one you choose to learn with, as they all recognise each other's qualifications. Although PADI do have a reputation for making holders of different qualifications take a 'refresher' course before continuing their diving with PADI, which is a bit naughty.
The one thing that is worth remembering, however, is that if you're planning on working as an instructor in the USA and you have a SSI qualification, then you can only work at an SSI Dive School due to a unique insurance law in the USA.
Whichever society you decide on, you always need to do your research into the individual dive schools in the area you want to dive. Some are considerably better than others. One of the best ways to decide on the best school for you is to consult the message boards on Gapyear.com. This allows you to speak to real people who have had real experiences with dive centres in the area you're researching.
There are also a few things that you can do locally to ensure that you choose the best dive school for your needs. Firstly, consult local backpackers, as they will all have opinions. Secondly, you should talk to the dive schools; good ones will always be prepared to show you their equipment and talk through their schedules. Finally, physically inspect the equipment, as it's usually quite obvious if regulators are loose, or fins are cracked or ripped. Better to pay a little bit more and use a company who maintain their equipment well, rather than go with a cheaper school and have your equipment fail at 18 meters.
Once you're on your Open Water course, the fun begins. Your first day will, generally, be spent either in a pool or in a shallow cove. This will enable you to get a feel for your BCD (buoyancy control device), mask, regulator and fins. Once you're comfortable, you'll then head off to a shallow reef where you'll encounter your first signs of life; usually reef fish, corals, anemones and the occasional large fish.
Your second day will usually be spent dealing with the more 'unpleasant' aspect of the Open Water Course; being prepared if things go wrong. This involves, among other things, taking your mask off, filling it with water, putting it back on and then clearing it. Do not let this cause you undue alarm, as salt water only stings your eyes when it reacts with oxygen. Under the surface, it's just like opening your eyes in the bath! You'll also be required to remove your equipment (BCD, air tank, regulator), and then put it back on whilst you're under water.
The reason you have to do all of this is because you won't always be diving in environments as controlled and calm as the one you're learning in, and these are all things which you need to be prepared for when you're diving without the supervision of an instructor.
Your third and (possibly) final day will be spent doing deeper dives (up to 18 meters), and exploring a little further out of the shallows where you have been learning. Out here you'll see much more marine life, and some larger predators! You will also be more confident in the water by now, and you buoyancy control will already be much improved.
If you opted for a four day course, then the dives above will be spread over four days, and you'll generally have an extra dive or two for increasing confidence and, if you're learning in a warm country, then you may do a Skin Dive; diving without a wetsuit!
It is worth remembering that during the course you'll also have to do some diving theory. This involves working out your safe diving depths, surface intervals, how to use your dive computers and also how to be a conscientious diver.
PADI Dive Aware is an organisation which promotes responsible diving, and helps you become a more conscientious diver and, if you choose to do your qualification with a PADI dive centre, you will almost certainly across this name. Their policies range from marine conservation and clean ups, to recording shark sightings and educating divers about shark encounters; their main objective being to make every diver a more responsible one. The amount of coral broken by inexperienced divers' fins is shocking.
You can get more information on this at Project Aware.
A word of warning before you dive in. It's imperative that you check with your travel insurance company to what level you are covered when diving. It's no good having an advanced qualification and diving to 30 meters if your insurance only covers you to 20. In fact, if you're planning on doing a lot of diving whilst you're away, it's probably an idea to look into taking out some specific diving insurance. Many travel insurers only cover you for scuba diving if you are diving with an instructor, but you may well find that you want to go off diving with a buddy. Diving without adequate insurance is not an option; if you were on a remote dive site, in a country without top-level health care equipment, then airlifting you to a hospital and your subsequent treatment could easily cost more than £1M.
So you're insured, and you've got your qualification; what next?
Well, I'd recommend carrying on to get your Advanced Open Water qualification. This generally takes an extra couple of days, and you learn a little more about the ocean, sea life, and diving in general. You'll be required to do a night dive, a deep dive, and three more speciality dives from your log book. This qualification is a good idea as it qualifies you to dive deeper than 20 meters (which comes with your Open Water qualification), and some of the better dive sites are deep dives. It will also make you a more competent diver, and you'll find that you're offered better dive sites when enquiring about diving with other schools.
The Best Dive Sites Around the World
Everyone has different opinions here, but I'll try and give a variety of options which covers both backpacking and holiday destinations. I'm not saying that this is a definitive guide to the best dive spots, but it offers an insight into the diversity that diving can offer.
This is invariably rated as one of the best dive sites in the world. The abundance of marine life is simply breathtaking. There are some beautiful coral walls around Sipadan, and it's a great place to see schools of barracuda, reef sharks, sea turtles and parrotfish. It is a dive site for more experienced divers, however, as the currents can be quite strong.
Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Western Australia offers a completely different diving experience to the Barrier Reef. It's known as a place to encounter Whale Sharks as they migrate along the coast, and some companies use 'spotter planes' to locate the Whale Sharks, giving you a much greater chance of diving with them. You might also spot dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, turtles and even humpback whales.
Yongala Shipwreck, Great Barrier Reef
A dive for Advanced Divers. This 100 year old shipwreck sits 30 meters under the surface, 12 miles from Alva Beach, in Queensland. It sank in a cyclone in 1911, and all the crew were lost, giving it a bit of a 'spooky' feel.
The wreck has become an artificial reef for a huge variety of marine life, including turtles, huge Queensland groupers (which grow to the size of small cars), rays, sea snakes, whales, and even bull sharks.
You'll need to have at least 20 logged dives and a valid qualification to be able to go on this dive with any reputable company. The currents can be strong, and can change quickly. Deep diving experience is essential.
Poor Knights, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
There are numerous diving opportunities at Poor Knights Marine Reserve. These range from a pair of naval warships, wrecked at around 28 meters, right through to cave diving and bull kelp gardens.
Around the tunnels and caves, expect to see scorpion fish, kingfish, maomao, and large rays. In the shallower dive sites, the fish are generally quite tame, and you'll find yourself with hundreds of fish following you around.
It's worth mentioning that Poor Knights offers diving options for all levels of divers, but the wrecks are at depth, and are therefore only suitable for advanced divers.
Arraial Do Cabo, Brazil
Although there are plenty of dive sites along the coast of Brazil, Arraial Do Cabo is a personal favourite of mine. The cold, deep waters provide a different level of marine life than you would encounter in the warmer, tropical waters. You can expect to encounter sea horses, moray eels and large octopi on a regular basis. You might even be lucky enough to come across a school of spinner dolphins.
Ilha Grande is another great Brazilian dive location, with over 14 wrecks, including a helicopter.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The site with (probably) the most diverse marine life in the world. The Galapagos, though expensive to get to, provides a simply unforgettable experience for mid to advanced level divers.
Hammerhead sharks, killer whales, eagle rays, sea lions, whale sharks, reef fish, turtles, morays, iguanas and the occasional blue-footed booby diving for a morning snack can all be encountered on a Galapagos dive. With visibility often over 30 meters, the chances of you missing a sighting of something exciting are reduced significantly.
One of the top dive sites, if not the best dive site, in the world.
Most of the Caribbean offers amazing dive sites, but Grenada has arguably the best of the bunch. This is mainly due to the Guyana current which flows past the island, providing a steady stream of nutrients to encourage a variety of marine life. The Bianca C wreck is also considered one of the best shipwreck dives in the world.
The coral gardens and macro life is why many divers choose to visit Grenada. It's not the kind of place where you'll see a vast amount of huge marine life like manta rays or whale sharks, but anyone interested in nudibrachs, corals, and anemones should consider a dive in Grenada.
Cage Diving, South Africa
This is obviously not 'scuba diving' in the sense of being free to explore an underwater world. Cage diving involves being lowered into the water in a large cage, in order to view Great White Sharks feeding.
It's more of an adrenaline sport than anything, but should be considered by anyone wishing to get up close and personal with a Great White. Let's hope it's the only time you encounter one whilst you're diving!
The diving in Zanzibar is some of the best in the world.
Drop offs, vertical walls, caves and drifts combine to make Zanzibar one of the most diverse dive spots you'll encounter. Whale Sharks, wrasse, trigger fish, turtles, lion fish, hammerhead sharks and reef sharks can all be encountered on dives in Zanzibar.
The nearby island of Pemba is equally as impressive.
Thistlegorm Wreck, Red Sea, Egypt.
A dive for advanced divers, due to the depth (approaching 30 meters) and the currents. This wreck is widely accepted as one of the best modern wreck dives in the world. Sunk by German bombers during the Second World War, the Thistlegorm has a real sense of history and loss around it. It is also a 'penetration' wreck, which means that you can actually enter the ship, and explore the cargo decks, etc.
Marine life is limited to large fish, such as Jacks, Trevalli and Tuna. You might also come across the occasional turtle.
Be aware that the dive site gets incredibly crowded, and it is likely to be quite chaotic both above and below the water.
The barrier reef in Belize is the second largest in the world, and features shallow coral gardens, steep drop offs where large predators hunt, caves and chimneys, and the world-famous Blue Hole.
The Blue Hole was a cave system formed in the last Ice Age and, when the sea began to rise again, the caves flooded and the roof collapsed, creating a sink hole over 400ft deep. This creates crystal clear waters, and attracts a variety of sharks, including Nurse Sharks and Bull Sharks and the Caribbean Reef Shark.
So there you have it, a complete guide to starting your life as a diver. Just remember to always be aware of the life around you, be a courteous and careful diver and, most of all - have fun!
About the Author: Warrick Howard
Warrick Howard joined the site in 2005. Since then he's visited every continent with the exception of Antartica, and is planning on ticking that box very soon. His main area of expertise is South America, but can offer advice on travel pretty much anywhere; particularly making the most of short trips.
He's also your go-to-guy if you're in the market for a sarcastic comment or thinly veiled innuendo. Off-site Warrick works for an oil company.
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