Ocean Explorers Society

Getting Started with SCUBA

SCUBA diving is a fun, healthy activity for adults and adolescents. But before you can don your gear and dive without supervision, you have to be certified. Certification means that you have demonstrated a minimum proficiency level and are reasonably qualified to dive. The exact meaning of certified is important and we'll get to that a bit later.

Proper training is the key to having a sport for a lifetime. You can choose from among several different training agencies. PADI, NAUI, YMCA, and SSI are widely recognized in the United States. In the UK, BSAC is the primary agency, though you will find PADI and others.

Almost everyone will tell you that the instructor is far more important than the agency. It's true. Every US based agency and most foreign agencies base their beginning courses on a US standard which defines the basic SCUBA curriculum.

Picking a course

There are typically several courses to choose from; 2 weekend, 1 week, 2 week, and 4 week. You can also choose to take your ocean dives in a different location; frequently some tropical vacation spot.

All else being equal, the 4 week course is the best buy. It costs less and you have a better opportunity to assimilate the information from one section before going on to the next. You also have more opportunity for remedial work if you're having difficulty with a skill.

I haven't tried a referral for the open water dives. We were all certified in our home waters. I do think that unless you're having some major difficulties with the local dive sites, you should get certified where you live. Being trained to local conditions means you can practice in local conditions, and you have all your vacation dives as fun dives.

Selecting an instructor

Finding the right instructor is key. First step is to talk to your friends and get recommendations. Check out our article on selecting an instructor for kids. The same process will work for you too. The most important element is trust. You litterally have your life in this person's hands, and they're going to be the ones to get you to the surface if something goes horribly wrong.


Is SCUBA diving is dangerous? Well, it has its risks, but in terms of injury rates, it ranks somewhere between skydiving, and bowling. Bowling has the highest injury rate, and skydiving, the lowest.

Why is this true? Safe divers manage hazards and risks so injuries don't have the chance to happen. SCUBA training is so comprehensive that you are safer diving than you are inside your car. The initial course teaches you a few essential diving skills, and a lot of problem management. You are trained to handle problems when they occur. You know how to recover from most common mishaps Realistically, problems happen occasionally. Proper training ensures that they don't become emergencies.

Somebody had to ask about sharks. Was it you over there? Turn off the Jaws movie. That thing is a demented piece of tripe, and I don't mean tripe. Peter Benchly, the author, wishes he'd never written the book. Sorry, didn't mean to rant. Truth is, we hardly ever see the ones with pointy teeth. When we do, they always seem to be departing our area quickly. Truthfully, sharks don't even make my top 10 list of dive worries. As far as the sharks are concerned, seals and fish taste better than divers.

Your biggest risk as a novice diver is panic. It can happen to anyone under the right circumstances. When it does, bad things can happen. The big trick is to deal with it while it's still a small factor. Almost all panic episodes begin with minor anxiety that proceeds to spiral out of control into a full blown panic attack. 

Some anxiety is normal, especially during your open water training. There always seems to be that one skill that seems especially difficult. It's also normal to feel somewhat anxious when you push your personal envelope. You'll be pushing that envelope during all of your open water class. The first step in dealing with anxiety is to admit that it's there. Sometimes admitting you're anxious is enough to make it dissipate and you can have a good dive. Other times, you need to figure out what's making you anxious. I find that planning contingencies helps dispells the worry and I can go on with the dive, alert, if not confident.

As a novice diver, you need to accept that some degree of nervousness is normal. It's not like your fellow students aren't a little anxious too. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have passed the open water course. You can too.

Gearing Up

You need to provide your own basic gear to take the class:

This is one place where a good dive store clerk can help you. You don't necessarily need top of the line gear, but it has to fit you  and work well. If you have a knowledgeable diving friend, now is a great time to bring them along, and treat them to lunch. After the class, you can use this equipment for snorkeling. It will last for a long time if properly stored and maintained.

Nothing will ruin an otherwise great dive faster than a leaky mask. You can ensure that a mask fits by placing the mask against your face (without the strap), then slightly inhaling. The mask should stay put then you remove your hand. If it doesn't, move on to so different mask. 

Fins are also another important item. You need to match the blade stiffness to your leg strength. Be sure to try the fins and bring them back if they don't feel comfortable. You should feel some resistance, but not so much that you get seriously tired. I've heard great things about the split fin blades, but their price is still so high that you probably want to wait to see if you really like diving before getting them.

Your snorkel needn't be elaborate. I highly recommend a flex snorkel for diving. Some sort of water deflector and purge valve are nice, but there is no point in getting one of the absolutely dry in a hurricane snorkels. If the waves are that big, you need to be on the shore drinking a beer instead.

Personally, I prefer booties with zippers. But whatever fits will work. Be sure to try them with your fins.

3mm neoprene gloves are good for most conditions; from tropical to temperate waters. Do not get 5 or 6mm gloves unless you absolutely need them. Your dexterity will suffer to the point where everything is difficult. Not a good way to start your class.

Thry your gear in the pool before class starts. Don't be afraid to take things back if they don't work out. I had to try three masks before I found one I liked. Fins need to match your leg strength, and you can't really tell whether they're going to work well by waving them around on your feet in the store.

As for the rest of your gear, rent for a while. Try several shops to get a feel for different BC's and regulators. Experience will refine your tastes and save you from costly mistakes.

You should receive a medical questionnaire as part of your course paperwork. Be sure you get that with your book pack, then go over it that evening. If you have any of the listed conditions, you will need to see your doctor and have them sign off that it's OK for you to take the class. You don't want to discover that it will take 3 weeks to see your doctor on the first night of a 4 week class. If you need a full blown dive physical, UCSD Medical Center offers one for a reasoable price.

You should be ready to start. Read chapter 1 a couple of times before the first class, and be prepared for some fun learning.

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