If your experience with water sports doesn’t involve much more than those aqua aerobics classes you once took at your local leisure centre, you’ll be in for a treat when you take your gap year. In this section you’ll find tips and advice on all kinds of awesome activities around the world, such as scuba diving in pristine tropical waters, kite surfing on awesome swells and sailing along beautiful coastlines.
We’ve put together a dedicated page on scuba diving, one of the most popular choices, and another page detailing other kinds of water sports you can do on your gap year.
Just one thing: no bombing! Nah, we’re kidding – do what you want.
Scuba diving on your gap year
If you try just one water sport on your gap year, make sure it’s scuba diving. It is simply marvellous. It is comparable to visiting an alien plant: colours take on an ethereal vibrancy, the marine life looks like something from a sci-fi film and the laws of physics are turned on their head ; in what other situation could you take lungfuls of clean air deep beneath the surface of the sea? Oh, and then there’s the small matter of being completely weightless. It’s awesome, trust us.
Where do I start?
As soon as you begin looking into scuba diving you’ll see the acronym ‘PADI’ start cropping up everywhere. This stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors, an internationally recognised organisation which is present in pretty much any country you care to mention. There are other similar organisations, such as SSI, BSAC and CMAS, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick with PADI for now as that’s the one everyone knows.
Unlike snorkelling, you have to be trained in scuba equipment before being allowed to dive in open water – this is very much for your own benefit!
PADI offers a variety of courses and subsequent qualifications which cater to all levels, from beginner to expert. These range from the Discover Scuba Dive, which will take place under highly controlled conditions in a swimming pool and allow you to get to grips with the equipment, all the way to Master Scuba Dive, which will take you to the kinds of depths James Bond would balk at.
Somewhere in the middle of those lies the PADI Open Water Course, by far the world’s most popular scuba course and the one which most gappers go for. This qualification combines pool dives with ocean dives; for each you will be supervised at all times by a professional diver, descending to a maximum of 12 metres. Once you have this certificate you will be qualified to dive anywhere in the world, including for recreational purposes and for marine conservation projects (though keep in mind the latter often include PADI training as part of the package).
For more information check out our guide to scuba diving.
Top five countries to scuba dive
Okay, we couldn’t write about scuba diving without mentioning Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef, but it is really is something quite special: 1,600 miles, 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. For somewhere equally impressive but a bit more off the beaten track, try out Ningaloo Reef on the western coast of Australia; you’re likely to see dolphins, manta rays, turtles and, if you’re really lucky, migrating whale sharks.
Southern Thailand (that’s the bit that looks like a tail coming off the mainland) is a mishmash of one paradise island after another. Fortunately the beauty extends beneath the surface, with dazzling marine life and more coral reefs than you could shake a snorkel at. Some of the best places include the island of Koh Tao, Krabi and Koh Chang.
The Central American country of Belize has some of the best dive sites in the world. It is fringed with an enormous barrier reef – second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – and has an abundance of marine life, with some of the highlights being manatees, turtles and sharks. The best place to dive is the world-famous Great Blue Hole, an enormous sinkhole which was created when an underwater cave collapsed in the last Ice Age.
Zanzibar, a small archipelago of paradise islands sprinkled off the east coast of Africa, offers some of the best diving in the world due to the diversity of the underwater topography – think sink holes, vertical drop-offs and caves – and the amazing sea life. You can expect to swim alongside whale sharks, hammerhead sharks and lion fish.
The highly remote Galapagos Islands (they’re officially part of Ecuador but sit almost 600 miles from its coast in the heart of the Pacific) are famed for their extraordinary biodiversity, most of which is found nowhere else on the planet. This, coupled with the crystal clear waters which offer visibility of up to 30 metres, makes the Galapagos Islands one of the best places in the world to dive.
We have heaps of awesome sailing adventures, from one day whale-watching excursions on tall ships to nine-week training courses, by the end of which you’ll be a qualified yacht skipper. Sailing is a fantastic way to see the world, whether you’re cruising the stunning coastline of Croatia or exploring the beautiful Whitsundays in Australia. All you need are some strong sea legs and a sense of adventure!
Surfing is addictive. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall off and get whipped around like laundry in a washing machine, you’ll just keep paddling back out to have another crack. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but when you catch that first wave and maintain some balance – even if only for a few seconds – you’ll suddenly understand why it’s one of the most popular sports in the world.
Canoeing & kayaking
Whether you’re in the open ocean, a lake or a rapid-fuelled river, canoeing and kayaking is guaranteed to get your heart racing. If you’re on a marine safari you’ll have a fantastic vantage point for various things poking their heads (and fins…) out the water, and if you’re tackling a white water river there is simply no better way to do it.
Windsurfing & kitesurfing
Windsurfing and kitesurfing require less agility than normal surfing but definitely more physically demanding. You’ll probably forget the aches, though, when you find yourself skimming and leaping over ocean crests at a million miles an hour.
Jet skiing is awesome and, unlike surfing or sailing, extremely easy to master. It’s basically just loads of fun; open up the throttle and crash along the ocean to your heart’s content. An alternative to the more traditional form of jet skiing on the sea is doing a jet ski safari, which will take you off the beaten track into small creeks and rivers where you can look out for wildlife.
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!
With a bit of guidance however, all should be able to savour this unique experience. That's why we recomment reading Warrick Howard's Guide to Scuba Diving. It covers everything you need to know and tells you where some of the best dive spots are in the world.