Various diving opportunities are discussed which would suit any underwater enthusiast. Cold or warm water diving, independent or supervised group dives, night diving, wreck diving and underwater photography are some of the options. Tips on how to start the activity are discussed.
Water! It covers three-quarters of the planet’s surface and even a quick glance at these opening pages shows just how diverse and unusual the underwater world is. Imagine swimming side by side with a gentle turtle, visiting its world and having your curiosity matched as the turtle circles around to inspect you as well. Or, imagine watching the coral reefs change shape and color as you travel to all corners of the globe. Hover, weightless, blending in with the serene ambiance that marks the underwater world.
Don’t ignore the diving opportunities near your home either, because there’s diving just about anywhere there’s water! While the shy and retiring seahorse you see here (about the length of your hand) lives in the Caribbean, the brilliantly colored, red and white critter is only about as long as your little finger. It is called a nudibranch and is found off the coasts of New England. The lobster of “Maine” fame lives off New England as well and many a diver’s table has benefitted from a quick trip exploring the cold water lair of this very popular sea dweller.
Exotic travel may find you exploring the wrecks of Rabaul Harbor in Papua New Guinea, a World War II legacy of the American Air Force and the Japanese Navy, where more than 60 shipwrecks are testimony to the bravery and folly of men at war. Local waters off all coasts boast thousands of wrecks for weekend exploration and the sobriquet, wreck diver, is easy enough to come by. You can quickly learn underwater photography, lest your family and friends think your encounters with stingrays and other denizens of the deep are the products of “one too many” on your last diving vacation. All the islands of the world, from the well-known United States Virgins to little known Bonaire (off the coast of Venezuela), have a story waiting to be told. All you have to do to listen to these stories is learn to dive, opening up a lifetime of adventure and U/W exploration.
In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, diving was a daredevil, high risk activity that defined the word macho – before anyone who spoke only English knew what it meant. The ’70s brought profound change; great advances in safety and education opened diving up to the general population! Today, divers are just as likely to be in their 50s and 60s as they are in their 20s and the equipment has made so many advances that even folks of modest swimming ability can easily participate. Before we talk about how to become a diver, let’s look at the many opportunities available to enjoy yourself underwater.
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The first important step in learning about diving is that it’s done just about any place there’s water. There’s diving in the Mississippi River as well as lakes, streams and quarries all across the U.S. There’re thousands of miles of ocean coastline to explore and the obvious differences between fresh and saltwater. But, far more important than whether the water is salty or not is how cold it is! Some folks like cold water, others don’t. The point to be made is that you get to choose the water temperature before you ever jump in. Here’s a quick overview:
Warm water: This is an all-encompassing phrase used to describe water temperatures in the mid 70s (oF) to mid 80s (anything above 83 oF we call hot water and it’s pretty rare). This is very comfortable, relaxing water to swim in with just a bathing suit. Divers may elect to dive with just a swimsuit but most prefer to wear some very lightweight dive suits made expressly for these types of conditions. This temperature range is also the best for coral growth, so we include Florida and Hawaii and all the popular diving islands in this group. Diving in warm water is usually pretty easy and with good water clarity (divers refer to it as visibility – viz for short) it’s easy to explore, too.
Cold water: This refers to the mid 70s (oF) all the way down to just about freezing and includes an advanced type of diving called ice diving! Most cold water diving takes place where the water temperatures range from the high 50s to low 70s. Wearing a neoprene wetsuit will keep you nice and warm. There’s a little more gear to wear and the visibility is usually in the 10 to 50 foot range (as opposed to a 50 to 150 foot range in warm water). Cold water diving is more challenging, in general, than warm water, with attendant rewards. Shipwrecks, fish and game (lobsters, abalone, scallops, just to name a few) are all the province of cold water divers. For most of us in the United States, cold water describes our local diving.
In the past, almost all divers started diving in cold water and made their first warm water dives on vacation, after they became experienced. In the last ten years this process has reversed. Today, 60 percent of all diving is done in warm water. Today it’s common to find warm water only divers, as well as people whose very first dives were made in warm water, regardless of what part of the country they call home!
Once you learn to dive, which is always done with careful supervision and training, the choice of how you dive is up to you. While the buddy system is famous and “never dive alone” is still the diver’s creed, you and your buddy can elect to dive independently, exploring on your own, or you can go U/W with a group of people in a supervised dive. The person in charge, called a divemaster, is responsible for explaining the conditions and what you can expect to see during the dive. He/she is also there to help you with any little problems that may come up.
Some 85 percent of diving in warm water is supervised, while only about 40 percent in cold water is. In general, divers like the additional attention they get on supervised dives. Good advice for anyone learning to dive? Do all of your diving with supervision until you are fairly proficient. It’s no secret that experienced divers prefer to explore on their own, with their buddies, and that’s one of the rewards of experience.
The good news for the novice is that all dive stores and dive charter services offer some type of supervised diving, regardless of where the dive takes place, so you can always count on help when you’re learning to dive.
While the potential for good diving is as unlimited as the number of places to dive and sights to see, here’s a list of the most popular diving activities:
Reef exploration: This is a fancy term for sightseeing and ranks number one on the list of diving activities! Why not? What’s down there is the reason everyone learns to dive and the uniqueness of the underwater world makes just being there a guarantee of good stories to share with friends. We use the term reef in its broadest sense, to describe the bottom of whatever area we’re diving in. Reef could mean coral in warm water, granite rock formations in cold water or shipwrecks in either! The coral shapes and granite formations change from location to location and, obviously, ships are pretty unique, too. Discovering just how different each area is, is a favorite topic of discussion among divers and also provides an unlimited opportunity to continue to explore. Even after thousands of dives, the province of the professional diver, there are still surprises around every corner of the reef and a long wish list of dives still to be made. After all, there are thousands of different fish, mammals and species of marine flora and millions of invertebrates to be found underwater. Every time you dive in a different area the scenery changes!
Night diving: This is the second most popular activity, with 65 percent of all divers choosing to explore the underwater world at night. There are major changes in all reefs at night and one of the easiest ways to appreciate them is to get a powerful underwater light and explore. You will usually have a fair amount of experience when you make your first night dive and it’s pretty spectacular. Additional classes and training are available for anyone interested in this type of diving.
Wreck diving: Exploring shipwrecks is number three on the list of popular diving activities. Whether it was fire, disaster or simply old age that caused the wrecks, all only contribute to each unique story. Some wrecks are nearly intact while others are mostly wreckage, the victim of storms or explosions. In addition to size, history and condition, the wrecks also become fish havens almost from the moment they sink! They are, in fact, artificial reefs. You can expect to see more fish and marine life on wrecks than you would normally see on reefs, a fact not lost on those whose idea of a great dive is to bring home a good sized lobster or interesting photo.
Wall diving: Wherever you find a vertical plunge in the underwater world, you’ll usually find some divers talking about wall diving, our term for exploring those very steep drop-offs. You hover just off the wall and get to explore both the wall (tons of marine life there) and the blue water above and beyond it. For some divers, it ranks number one and lots of travel destinations are picked by divers for the quality of their wall.
Underwater photography: In warm or cold water, there’s lots to see and even more to photograph! Telling non-divers what it’s like to dive without something to illustrate your adventures is pretty difficult, so it’s no surprise that photography (and underwater video as well) is very popular. There are local and regional photo contests. Or, you can just take snapshots! Underwater camera gear is available for every skill level from snapshot to pro. This is one of the more challenging activities to get very good at. Almost every diver can get snapshots good enough to show nondiving friends but getting divers to “ooh” and “ah” over your photos may take a little more practice. Underwater photography also improves your knowledge of marine life and animal behavior, two favorite topics for all divers.
Collecting game: Some of the most popular diving activities are lobster catching (you use your hands to grab them), collecting abalone and, of course, spearfishing. All of these are easy to learn, slightly more difficult to master! Warm water destinations have strict regulations concerning game taking as do many of the states. Always follow the game laws, which are written with the idea that responsible fishing and consumption will ensure these activities will be available for future generations. Lobster diving is particularly popular in the Northeast, Florida and California.
Other popular diving activities include shell collecting, fish identification, treasure diving and artifact identification and collection. Each has a host of local and regional variations! Your local dive store is the center of information for regional diving opportunities and it’s a wise move to check with them before diving a new area.
The process of learning to scuba dive is referred to as getting certified and you are awarded a certification card when you complete the combination of classroom, pool and open water (or actual diving) requirements. While we will talk about the certification process in more detail a little later, there are a variety of options open that are worth mentioning. Now you know the differences between warm and cold water, between independent diving and diving under qualified supervision, and some of the popular diving activities. It is time to fill you in on all of the options for both trying diving and getting certified.
There are two basic options for getting started in diving: the Discover Scuba or resort course, which does not lead to certification, or a full certification course, which does. There are tremendous differences between the two, although both are a lot of fun. The Discover Scuba (also called a resort course or Intro Scuba course) is very short (usually less than two hours). It includes just the bare minimum of instruction and introduces you to the equipment as well as basic do’s and don’ts. Under the personal direction of an instructor (with very small instructor/student ratios) you get a chance to try diving for the first time.
These introductory courses are available in dive stores around the country for a very nominal fee and in many resort areas. While certainly no substitute for full training and no preparation for diving independently without supervision, these fun courses in pools and calm water are designed to let you know just how easy learning to dive is!
Despite the range of activities divers have to choose from, becoming proficient at diving is much easier than reaching an equivalent level in sports such as skiing or golf. The Discover Scuba course often gets that point across. It leaves you with a smile on your face and planning a full certification course in the near future.
Full certification courses combine three different elements – classroom, pool and open water training – to produce a fully certified, open water diver. Earning your C-card allows you to have your tanks filled with air and dive from boats and at resorts worldwide. Let’s take a quick look at each part of the training:
Classroom: This includes a textbook, worksheets and both personal and video instruction. It covers the theory of diving, physiology, the marine environment, safety and environmental issues.
Pool sessions: Here, the equipment and techniques (none that hard) introduced are tried out in the calm waters of a pool and practiced until the student feels comfortable.
Open water: After the pool and classroom sessions have been completed, it’s onto open water for the last part of the training. Open water includes actual dives (always supervised by an instructor), which may be made in local or overseas locations (the choice of cold or warm water is up to you). Open water training usually mirrors the local diving conditions and always includes a beach/shore dive and several boat dives
How Long Does It Take?
This used to be an easy question to answer. You figured about six classroom sessions, the same number of pool sessions and four open water sessions (usually a weekend). But all that’s changed as diving goes mainstream in the ’90s. Divers are an upscale, affluent group and time is their most precious commodity. While traditional classes such as the one outlined above continue to be popular with many, every dive store in the country now has special certification programs designed to fit into your time schedule.
Consider this range of options:
Personal instructors and training: This is just you, or two of you, and an instructor. It dramatically reduces the amount of time spent getting certified since the instructor’s attention is focused on you.
Certification vacations: Take a week off and learn to dive in warm water. Plenty of resorts offer this feature, as do dive stores with travel programs across the United States.
Referral programs: If you don’t want to spend your vacation getting certified, take the pool and classroom sessions at your local dive center, then head for warm water for the open water training. Florida, the Caribbean, Hawaii and a host of other islands can all help you return home a certified diver! So, once again, as a consumer in the ’90s, you are in the driver’s seat.
How Much Does It Cost?
Again, this is a difficult question to answer given the options outlined above. A full certification course should cost anywhere from $150 to $300. The difference in pricing reflects various policies concerning the open water dives and rental equipment. Some courses include all equipment for all dives, while others just offer equipment for the pool sessions. In any case, try to meet the instructor ahead of time so you’ll know if you’ll feel comfortable with him/her. Make sure you know exactly what is included in the price quoted.
Since Cousteau invented the Aqua-Lung, travel has been an integral part of diving. Whether it’s traveling up and down the coast within several hours of where you live or a trip to Florida, your car can get you to a lot of great diving. Warm water divers prefer to get to their sites via airplanes. There are more than 400 dive resorts around the world. These special destinations cater exclusively to divers, with boats, compressors and a dive shop right on the hotel’s premises.
If that’s not dedicated enough for you, you might try a live-aboard dive boat, one of many 100 foot plus cruisers designed to make diving an as easy as falling out of bed!
Diving is booming and the range of options for you and your family are at an all-time high. If you’ve always been fascinated by the sea, take the plunge this year. You’ll meet some great fish and fine friends and you just might discover there’s a whole diving world out there that you can enjoy for many years!