Balancing experience and classroom learning.
Training is a good thing, but it isn't the only thing that will make you into a good diver. Experience counts. The only way to get experience is to dive. Dive early, dive late, but get in the water and dive.
La Jolla Cove, or La Jolla Shores are good places to gain experience. The Cove offers a lot of other stuff to see, but a slightly tricky entry and exit. La Jolla Shores is very easy to dive. Not a lot to see off Vallecitos Street, but if you go down to Marine Room, there are more reefs.
Your first goal is to carry out the things you learned in the OW certification, but on your own. You may be surprised at how difficult these first few dives will seem. You're in the process of converting passive knowledge you acquired in the class, into active knowledge you can use. It's a very important step. The sooner you can make this transition, the better.
You'll also have to manage most of the logistics on your own. Making a packing list and a predive check list will make gearing up more organized, and less stressful. Once you get more comfortable gathering your gear, organizing, and making the dive, you can concentrate on enjoying the dive, and less on the preparation and mechanics. Don't be surprised if this takes several dives to accomplish.
By this time, you should be concentrating more on diving than preparation. As you learn things, record them in your dive log. That notes and remarks section is there for a good reason. If something worked well, record it, if something annoying happened, record that too. On days when it's too rough to dive, I go back through my early dives and relive the adventure for a few minutes.
Dave's Dive Program
Open Water; take the 4-week course.
5-10 Dives within a few months. Plan on doing at least a few Stupid Diver Tricks and don't feel like an idiot. Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. Just make sure you get out of the water with most of your gear.
Take the Advanced Open Water(AOW) class; add some useful diving skills to your repertoire. Make sure you do the night dive. PADI just made it optional. Search and recovery is a particularly useful dive, and fun too. You'll probably take this class over a weekend. Doing multiple dives over a few days is probably the best method to gain real diving profiency.
Dives; just go enjoy yourself. Every dive is a learning experience for the first few thousand dives. Liveaboard trips are a great place to gain experience. You do nothing but dive, eat, sleep and enjoy your surface intervals. Liveaboards on the California coast are inexpensive, and an excellent value.
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A dive club can also be an excellent resource for your initial learning. If you aren't lucky enough to dive with the OES, there are other clubs around. Find one where you feel comfortable with the people. If you feel pressured to make dives you don't feel qualified to make, then you need to find a new club.
Dive magazines are another good source of learning. I especially recommend Rodale's Scuba Diving. I've had good results from their gear reviews, and the rest of their advice seems to be well grounded in reality. Do be cautious of magazines where the travel articles are indistinguishable from the ads.
Your AOW certification will enable you to try most anything within the recreational diving realm. With the exception of the rescue class, I recommend taking specialties as need, opportunity, or desire arises. You can also use a specialty course like night or deep diving to help you with areas which you find difficult.
I've taken the following classes myself. If you've taken some good specialty classes, I'd like to hear about your experience.
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