Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to become a scuba diver: 7 steps to enjoying the ocean

From the dive deck of the MV Febrina in Papua New Guinea
My wife and I like to go scuba diving on vacation. In the right places, being underwater is like spending an hour in heaven. It's so peaceful, and colorful, and you can have experiences like the time I danced with a dolphin, one of the greatest moments of my life.

Often I talk to people who are interested in scuba diving but haven't taken the plunge. Or worse, they tried a single "experience dive" at a resort and didn't like it.

Fun facts about scuba diving:

* You don't have to be a good swimmer (I'm not). You don't need to be an athlete either, but you do need to be in reasonable health.

* You don't have to own any equipment

* Diving can be expensive, but I've had great dives in some countries for $25 each -- not bad for an hour underwater

"Get me away from these divers!" Courtesy Leisure Pro
* Sharks are afraid of you and the noise you make breathing underwater. After you've been diving a while, you'll find yourself chasing sharks, not the other way around. And last year we enjoyed swimming right in the middle of big schools of barracuda.

* In fact, the most dangerous things underwater are passive -- mostly stuff with pointy spines. Don't touch the wildlife, listen to your dive guide, and you'll be fine.

Media coverage of scuba diving is significantly weaker than coverage of wine. Magazines are subsidized by ads from equipment makers and resorts, and their articles reflect that. Most intro-to-scuba articles are overly technical, and none that I've seen are candid about where the best diving is, either because they're written by novices ("I just got certified and it's great!") or they don't want to offend advertisers.

So here are my 7 simple steps for not just becoming a scuba diver, but loving life underwater.

1) Sign up for a 5-day certification class in a beautiful, warm vacation spot

Great Barrier Reef. Courtesy Australian Conservation Foundation
You can learn the basics of diving in a local swimming pool, but that isn't fun. We have a friend who was certified in phosphate pits in Texas and hasn't gone diving since; she never learned to love it.

Getting a license only takes 5 days, generally 2 days in a classroom and pool (or shallow water), and 3 days doing your learning dives. Take a week, fly somewhere nice, and that will be the greatest, most exciting vacation of your life.

I am deadset against doing an "experience dive" without training. Many non-fatal but unpleasant things can go wrong even with an instructor beside you. A friend had a "mask squeeze," which gave him a headache and bloodshot eyes. All he needed to do was breathe out through his nose, which you learn in class, but the instructor couldn't explain that underwater. He hasn't been diving since.

2) Warm water is always better than cold water

Seek out a place with warm water. You don't have to wear as thick a wetsuit, which means you don't have to carry as much weight, so you feel more free. You don't feel cold. And there's generally both more fish and more colorful fish.

Warm weather on the surface is also always better, because you're going to spend a fair amount of time in a wet swimsuit.

My wife and I love diving and nearby Monterey has some interesting critters -- seals and cormorants swim up to see what you're doing  -- but it's unpleasantly cold off the coast of California. We rarely go and definitely don't recommend it for beginners.

3) The best place in the world to get certified for an English speaker is Cairns, Australia

If you're not yet certified, you should be looking for:
* Warm weather
* Warm water
* Not much current (hence inside a reef or bay, rather than open ocean)
* Great visibility (a technical term for how far you can see underwater)
* Good rental equipment and instructors

Cairns has all of that going for it. The scuba industry is big there, so competition keeps prices down. Plus you do all your certification dives at the Great Barrier Reef, which is not particularly deep and doesn't have much current, so it's very safe, and it's the bloody Great Barrier Reef, so it's world-class beautiful.

4) The best place to get certified in the U.S. is the Florida Keys

The Keys have most of the advantages of Cairns. I can't emphasize enough how much nicer diving is in warm water. I recommend the Keys over Hawaii mostly for this reason.

That said, the Keys are mostly about beginner diving, and there is a cattle-call feel. Diving is more varied and interesting in some parts of the Caribbean and that tends to get more press. Just consider my list above and remember that the best advanced dive sites are not the best beginner dive sites.

5) Buy little to no equipment ahead of time

Dive magazines and some unscrupulous dive shops convince people to buy a lot of equipment that is really better rented, especially before you learn if you like diving.

I owned no equipment before getting my Open Water license. The day I got it, I bought the one piece of equipment every diver should own: a mask. Masks with prescription lenses cost little more than a regular mask ($100, more or less) and should be available at any well-appointed dive shop. They're a lot cheaper on Amazon, but the fit of a mask is very personal, because faces don't have the same shapes, and this is something I'd pay more to try on. If you have contact lenses, you can wear those and dive with a non-prescription mask. If you have perfect vision, bugger you, showoff.

You don't need a snorkel to dive, but they're cheap and it's nice to have one on your certification trip. That said, I packed my snorkel on my last two dive vacations and didn't use it once.

I have a dive computer* I like, and I recommend owning one, but not before you get your license. You have to learn how to dive without one to get certified, and besides, you won't know what you want in a computer until you've been underwater. Mine doesn't have a lot of functions I don't need and that's one reason I like it.

* A dive computer is not a regular computer. It has a pressure sensor and keeps track of how long you've been underwater and at what depths, and tells you how much longer you can stay down before crinkling up like a potato chip with the bends.

You might want to buy your own wetsuit if you're squeamish about wearing rental gear. Make sure you buy the appropriate thickness for the place you're going (thicker = warmer, but then you have to carry more weight in order to descend). I'm not squeamish and have used rental wetsuits for years, in part because you need different wetsuits for different countries. You might consider buying a skin: a lycra full-length bodysuit that protects your skin but doesn't keep you warm. They're not expensive and you can wear a wetsuit over one.

Maybe this is obvious, but you will want at least two swimsuits so you can change to a dry one between dives. My wife says she's going to start bringing three. Thin, comfortable and quick drying are more important than fashion, as it will mostly be under a wetsuit.

Dive certification organizations will never tell you this, but bring some Sudafed and ibuprofen. It's dangerous to dive with a headcold for reasons they'll explain. But diving irritates some people's sinuses, especially after multiple dives, and taking a Sudafed immediately before a dive helps a lot. You see a lot of people taking it on dive boats. Be warned that you never want it to wear off underwater (for reasons they'll explain), so if you have two dives within four hours, take one before each dive. Ibuprofen also helps with sinus swelling as well as general aches and pains from lugging around metal tanks. If you don't need either, you're golden. If I dive three times a day, I usually need Sudafed after about day 3.

I don't see the need for a beginner to own anything else. When you learn what you like in dive equipment, then you can start thinking about buying it.

6) Underwater photography is harder than it looks

Currently I don't own a dive camera because my wife announced that she enjoys diving with me more when I'm not hanging around an anenome for 5 minutes, waiting for the perfect shot of that clownfish.

About half of the experienced divers we meet on dive boats are serious amateur underwater photographers. I'm not going to tell you that you won't enjoy it. Moreover, I regret not having underwater photos from our recent trip to Papua New Guinea.

But beginners should worry about diving first. You can't be a good underwater photographer until you're a good diver, able to effortlessly hover in the same spot. Unless you're a prodigy, you won't be quite that good just after you get your license. Buoyancy control took me about 25 dives to master, and you only do a dozen or so while getting certified.

Leave the expensive waterproof camera housing home and just take pictures of yourself on the surface.

7) Diving is better with a buddy

You must dive with a buddy for safety reasons. Divers need to look out for each other underwater. But I mean this in a different sense. You see cool stuff underwater -- majestic manta rays, impressive moray eels, enormous napoleon fish -- and it's better to have someone to chatter about it with when you surface. If you join a dive group or school without a buddy, they'll assign one. But it's so much better for the buddy to be a friend. So convince somebody you know who's interested to book a flight to Miami -- or Belize, or Cairns -- and take the plunge together.

Manta rays are my favorite: so elegant
8) Bonus: the best places we've been scuba diving

The Caribbean is tremendously overrated by U.S. media because it's close to the East Coast, where magazines are written. I'm not saying it's bad, just that you frequently read it's the best in the world, and it's not. You don't see the beautiful soft corals of the Pacific Ocean, and while there are plenty of interesting critters, you also rarely see the big schools of tropical fish.

Here's our personal list of the best places we've been. This is a tough scale; we've been to and enjoyed a lot of 2-star places.

5 stars:
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Fakarava and Rangiroa, French Polynesia
Chuuk, Micronesia (Very advanced)
Pelileu, Palau (Very advanced)
Bolifushi, Maldives (Beginner friendly)

4 stars:
Yap, Micronesia (Beginner friendly)
Great Barrier Reef, Australia (5 stars for beginners)
Mirihi, Ari Atoll, Maldives

3 stars
Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea (Beginner friendly)
Roatan, Honduras (Beginner friendly)
Little Cayman, Cayman Islands (Beginner friendly)

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  1. Step 9 (you apparently forgot) After your dive(s), sit on the beach with your "buddy" and enjoy a lovely glass of wine (or umbrella drink), or two, and reminisce about all the cool things you saw.
    FYI, the Antilla shipwreck off Aruba is a great dive.

  2. Yeah, I regret in reading this post that I didn't spend a little more time writing about how glorious diving is.