Scuba diving can be a wonderful experience for people who wants to see the underwater world. Some of the most enjoyable diving activities are underwater photography and videography, exploration of shipwrecks and coral reef watching.
Imagine yourself weightless, suspended in crystal clear, warm, blue water. A Giant Manta Ray, ten feet across and as gentle as a grandmother, slides slowly by. Reach out and touch a dolphin and admire its power and style. Explore shipwrecks sunk centuries ago, or swim beside the mammoth warships of WW I and II, their engines of war strangely quiet as they rest in their watery graves. Enjoy the antics of an octopus or learn to identify hundreds of different species of fish. Learn that the little things beneath the sea, those only apparent to the keenest observer, are often the most beautiful and mysterious in their ways.
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The World Of Scuba
Welcome to the world of scuba diving, where you and your family can experience the serenity and excitement of the underwater world. SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, first tested and then popularized by the intrepid Captain Jacques Cousteau! The early days of diving attracted a pretty macho crowd, mainly interested in spearfishing and other daredevil activities beneath the sea. But, what changes have occurred in diving in just the last 10 or 15 years! The manly sport of daredevils is now almost equally split among men and women and diving families have risen tenfold in the last decade. Often misunderstood as a dangerous activity, diving’s current safety record parallels other activities such as skiing and bicycling. Today’s most popular diving activities? Taking pictures of fish and other divers, exploring the wrecks that abound around the world, learning more about coral reefs and learning how to be ecologically “correct” as we explore the ocean. It’s a sport of passion among people who love to travel and explore new areas, for some of diving’s most popular destinations are pretty unusual travel experiences. As diving has become a mainstream activity, specialized resorts have opened and flourished by catering to every whim of the traveling diver.
This Vacation Guide
Turning Your Next Vacation Into an Underwater Adventure is a complete guide to learning how to dive in warm, clear water! There are many options on learning to dive and various levels of proficiency you may aspire to! You don’t have to be particularly athletic or strong and certainly not an Olympic class swimmer to learn to dive. On the other hand, there are several different types of classes available to learn to dive and by picking the one that suits your own work/leisure schedule and vacation style will ensure a positive introduction to the underwater world. We’ll introduce you to these different types of classes, talk a little bit about their pros and cons, explain the equipment that’s used and also introduce you to travel areas that are hotspots for divers. After all, you might as well pick a spot that’s already popular with divers for your first warm water dive vacation.
Why Warm Water?
Let’s start at the beginning. Diving experiences for new, novice and experienced divers come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Just about anywhere you find water, you’ll find a diver who can tell you what’s down there! But, most diving done in the United States on a local level (within 100 miles of where you live) is done in cooler, temperate latitudes and water temperatures. Along with the ocean on the eastern, western and southern coasts, this also includes various local lakes and quarries. Diving in these areas means wearing a neoprene wetsuit and water temperatures from about 45 to 75 oF (colder during the winter or early spring). Water visibility is generally limited and ranges from a low of about 10 feet to 50 feet. This type of local diving can provide exceptional experiences – from lobster and game collecting to wreck diving – but it’s also most popular among people who can get away on weekends and dive plenty of times during the appropriate season. Any type of diving that relies on a heavy wetsuit is appropriately called “cold water” diving, since even diving in water temperatures in the low 70s (oF) can become a chilling experience when you are underwater for up to an hour at a time!
Warm water diving, on the other hand, is done in primarily clear water (40 to 150 feet of visibility) in southern latitudes with water temperatures of 76 to 84 oF. While you don’t necessarily need a wetsuit in these waters, you’ll find most people will wear some sort of special garment even when they dive in warm water. (The current rage is ultralight, space age fabrics designed specifically for warm water.) Coral grows rapidly within these water temperatures and the attraction of a beautiful coral reef and the multi-colored tropical fish that call these reefs home is one of the chief attractions of warm water diving! Warm water diving is also, on the average, a little easier to learn and enjoy, which accounts for its popularity as an active way to enjoy a vacation.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to local diving in the U.S., chiefly Florida and Hawaii, which feature both warm and clear water. This guide is intended to tell you about warm water diving only! Your local dive store is by far the best place to get information about local diving opportunities and you may find the staff a good source of warm water travel advice as well!
Who Can Dive?
Any adult in good health can dive. While there are occasional maladies (asthma, chronic ear problems or pulmonary disease) that may preclude diving, a quick check with your doctor can easily screen out any potential problems. The cardinal rule in diving and dive training today is safety, so it’s a plus to be able to think like an adult, at least when you’re diving! For kids, certification is available from the age of 12 with a parent’s approval, resulting in a junior certification that allows kids to dive with their parents or another adult. Parents, better than anyone, are best qualified to decide at what age their children should start diving. As long as the kids act sensibly and are reasonably mature (on demand) and you feel comfortable with them diving, it becomes a family activity for even 12 and 13 year olds.
In the diving world, successfully completing the training necessary to dive without direct supervision is called getting certified. There are seven national and international certification agencies responsible for the guidelines and procedures for safe diving training. There are also standards for training that are universally agreed on and the successful completion of the course bestows on you a certification card, universally referred to as a C-card, that identifies you as a trained diver. The most common form of certification is called an open water and is usually the first type of certification acquired. This C-card is presented at dive stores, dive resorts and dive training facilities to prove you have successfully completed the training. Again, the emphasis is on safety throughout the course!
Once you’re certified, the fun begins (although I’ve never met a diver yet who didn’t have fun in his/her basic training) as you actually go diving. The coral reef is there, waiting to be explored. The fish are inquisitive and there are activities galore! But, when you’re considering learning how to dive and get certified, don’t for a minute think that once you are certified you are all on your own to pursue diving. Besides the buddy system (never dive alone is still the diver’s creed) resorts in warm water locations specialize in providing guided, supervised tours for both new, novice, and experienced divers. A trained instructor or divemaster supervises each and every dive. He or she tells you what conditions to expect and accompanies the divers underwater. The experienced instructors and divemasters are there to help you. Experienced divers don’t need much help at all, other than advice on where to go and what to see! New and novice divers, on the other hand, do need plenty of advice and helpful hints both in and out of the water! One of the most compelling reasons to consider a warm water diving vacation is the high level of help you can expect from these dive professionals. Although you may have been certified just recently or are in the process of being certified, you have a built-in buddy when diving activities are supervised. Best advice here: Dive with a very experienced buddy or under supervision for at least the first 15 to 20 dives you make after you are certified. You’ll enjoy diving twice as much if you do. That’s why a long weekend or weeklong vacation at a warm water dive resort makes so much sense for a newly certified diver! You get to practice the skills you’ve learned under competent supervision and the experience is both safe and fun.
Learning To Dive
The process of becoming certified involves three basic elements:
THE CLASSROOM SESSIONS: Expect to attend five to six informal lectures conducted by the instructor, usually with professional video enhancement. You will also be expected to read a textbook (not too challenging) and take a couple of quizzes. This is not medical school but merely explains why diving is such a unique activity and helps you learn more about the underwater world you will soon be exploring. Topics such as understanding the marine environment, introduction to dive equipment, buoyancy control techniques and diving physics and physiology are all discussed!
POOL SESSIONS: These are usually held right after the lectures but there’s a great deal of flexibility, depending upon the student and the instructor. These are fun and this is where you are gradually introduced to the equipment and skills you need to learn to enjoy safe diving! During pool sessions, you actually don the equipment and begin diving! All basic diving skills are practiced until you are proficient in them and the buddy system and diving safety skills are always included. These sessions are the practical applications of the classroom discussions.
DIVING: After the classroom and pool sessions, and still under the watchful eye of your instructor, you make a series of dives and practice your pool and classroom training under actual conditions. Expect to make at least four to six dives during this final phase of training, which is called open water training.
Once you successfully complete all three parts of the training, congratulations, you’re a certified diver and ready to begin exploring this unbelievable underwater world.
Back To Your Vacation
Now you’ve had a glimpse of the training required to become a certified diver, how can it fit in with a possible vacation? And, since it’s your hard earned dollars that will pay for your vacation, how do you make the most of it? Let’s say you have always wanted to try diving but never got around to it or are a little tired of the beach/sun/sand/casino scene and would like your vacation to have a little bit more zest. There are three possible options for someone thinking of a vacation with a diving experience attached to it. These are:
RESORT COURSE: This is a very short (just a couple of hours) course that is also called Introduction to Scuba or Discover Scuba. This is not a scuba certification course but merely an opportunity to try diving in a highly supervised manner. The cost is usually anywhere from $50 to $100, depending on whether a boat dive in shallow water is included.
FULL VACATION CERTIFICATION: Off you go for a week’s vacation and you return home a certified diver! You take all classroom, pool and open water sessions at the resort you choose. This is an increasingly popular method of learning to dive, since you continue to dive right after finishing the certification course. It is an investment in time, however, and some folks chafe a little bit at using their vacation time for reading a textbook, watching videos, etc. The cost ranges from $250 to $400, all gear included!
DIVE STORE REFERRAL PROGRAM: There are more than 1,400 dive stores in the United States that specialize in providing training for scuba and also sell diving equipment. It is possible to divide dive training into its component parts and do the pool and classroom work locally, either on weekday nights or weekends and then travel to warm water to complete the open water training. This popular option maximizes your actual diving time when you’re on vacation. The cost ranges anywhere from a low of $75 to $400, depending on equipment options and whether you take the open water classes locally or in warm water. In any case, expect to purchase a mask, fins and a snorkel to complete this course.
On the next page, we compare the relative pros and cons of each of these options but it will usually come down to time management. If you have a job that frees you up during nights and weekends on a regular basis, the referral program might be right for you. If your workload is heavy or contains frequent travel, you may just want to take the plunge through the week-long certification program!
Diving equipment comes in all shapes and sizes, as well as colors! The basic equipment needed to dive (besides mask, fins and snorkel) are:
TANK, REGULATOR AND PRESSURE GAUGE: The regulator is, of course, the primary piece of equipment and allows you to breathe underwater. Connected to the tank, it gives you a steady, reliable source of air. The pressure gauge tells you how much air is in the tank at any time. How long does a tank of air last? This is a popular question with no easy answer, owing to differences in size and breathing rates among divers. For the average diver descending to 30 feet, a standard tank will usually provide about an hour’s worth of time. Your training goes into this in much more detail!
BUOYANCY COMPENSATOR: Often referred to by its initials, the BC slips on like a vest. It provides surface flotation for safety and you can inflate or deflate it to help trim your buoyancy U/W.
Equipment for warm water diving is available at resorts that specialize in training divers. It is always included in resort courses (the noncertification, short intro classes) and included in both warm water vacation certification and domestic dive store courses. During or after the certification course, you can decide when to purchase your own equipment or you can continue to rent it. Your own personal gear (as in any sport) will fit you better and you will feel more comfortable as you continue to dive with the same equipment.
The same organizations that provide certification training also train instructors and have a rigorous system for maintaining quality standards at the instructional level. You should expect to see any potential instructor’s teaching credentials and proof of experience. Instructors are usually affiliated with retail dive stores close to home or with resorts in warm water vacation areas.
A scuba resort course is a short (one to four hours) introduction to scuba skills. Often referred to as Intro to Scuba, Discover Scuba or Try Scuba mini-classes, these include a brief lecture and familiarization with equipment and conclude with a pool dive or very shallow dive in calm water.
PRO: This is a good way to decide if you actually want to learn to dive, since it provides an actual diving experience. Many people who take a resort course report they didn’t expect diving to be so easy! It is, of course, and the resort course is a good introduction to the sport.
PRO: This course is inexpensive and doesn’t require a big time commitment.
PRO: These courses are offered almost universally, from hotels and resorts in warm water areas to local retail dive stores.
CON: This is not a certification course and is not intended as a replacement for it. It teaches limited skills and should never be considered in lieu of formal certification.
CON: There are very few options after you complete the course. You can usually make another dive or two with the same instructor but the dives will be in shallow water and you may miss the best sites the destination offers.
CONCLUSION: The resort course is a great way to try diving but don’t bet your vacation on it! If you happen to be somewhere and it’s offered, go for it. But don’t plan an entire vacation around the resort course.
Full Vacation Certification
These courses certify their participants in about a week’s time. Actually, the full course can be learned in three to four days and includes all aspects of training: classroom, pool and open water. Expect to spend five to six hours per day in the classroom and pool and perhaps an hour at night, reading the textbook.
PRO: This is an all-inclusive, compact way to get certified. It allows you to focus all your attention on learning to dive. Scuba courses are almost always offered in areas that provide superb diving experiences.
PRO: Vacation settings avoid local diving conditions, where low visibility and cold water are potential turn-offs for some prospective divers. Tropical resort settings allow you to practice your new skills in warm, clear water.
PRO: Once you finish the certification course, you immediately get to continue diving right at the resort, along with other divers, under the supervision of an instructor or divemaster.
PRO: Vacation certification courses are perfect for people with demanding work schedules, and perfect for kids as well. Full vacation certifications are a perfect way to keep a teen or young adult occupied during a vacation.
CON: This course requires a time commitment during your vacation. Classroom, video viewing and textbook reading during a vacation are not everybody’s idea of a good time!
CONCLUSION: Vacation certification is an excellent option to consider when thinking about learning to dive.
Dive Store Referral Programs
These programs are offered by local dive stores. The instructor/dive store provides the classroom and pool training, then gives you a letter of introduction and referral that you take to a warm water dive resort. You finish the open water portion of your training in tropical waters and get certified there!
PRO: This is a good introduction to your local dive store, a good source of information and knowledge on all areas of diving and dive equipment.
PRO: The referral program allows you to avoid local diving conditions, which may not feature warm or clear water.
PRO: This program allows you to spend the majority of your vacation time diving and relaxing, not attending classes or reading a textbook. The open water portion of your training can usually be completed in two days, leaving the rest of the vacation open to diving.
CON: People with demanding work or travel schedules may not be able to fit the classroom and pool sessions into their lives. However, private lessons are also available and most dive stores offer flexible training schedules.
CONCLUSION: The Dive Store Referral Program offers a good combination of services when considering options on learning to dive. Along with the full certification vacation, this is another excellent option for learning to dive. Your personal schedule and preference will be the keys in deciding between these two excellent options.