Ocean Explorers Society

Getting From Freshly Certified to Journeyman Diver

Many people who take the basic open water class never dive again. I'm sure the reasons are varied, but the one I hear the most is, "It's too much work". Alas, it's partly true. You have important preparations and need several skills to successfully complete a day of diving. It's more difficult in the beginning. You also have to consolidate your training, hone your skills, and master dive logistics. It's a lot like learning to drive a car, but without the promise of hot dates, an enhanced social life, and mobility.

But, if you're willing to work your way though the challenges of your diving apprenticeship, you'll treat yourself to experiences too wonderful for words.

Things You'll Never Hear from the PADI Marketing Department -
They'll tell you that diving is easy. It is easy - once you're in the water. But tromping into the water wearing a full complement of cold-water gear is not easy, especially for us sedentary, middle-aged types. Gathering all that dive gear from the darkest recesses of your closet, finding a container, putting it in the car, then getting the beach with everything you need isn't exactly what they sold you in the dive store.

Then there's the aprés dive ritual. Taking your gear back home, then occupying every towel bar in your bathroom wasn't in the brochure either. And you didn't find any hint of your roommate/SO/spouses wrath when they found their bathroom turned into a used equipment festival (though you may have encountered this during the class).

I'll bet the salesperson never mentioned the major learning curve for your first dozen dives or so. They never seem to make it clear enough in your open water class either. So, when you get to the shore and everything is heavy, awkward, and stressful, you start thinking there's something wrong with you.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Let's do a little reality check here.

First off, your open water class spent most of its time teaching you how to handle problems, and not nearly enough on fundamentals like bouyancy control. Then you get to the water on your first dive and start floating up and down like a yo yo at a Duncan contest. 

If you're diving in San Diego, you're diving in temperate waters. It's more demanding than tropical diving. You have more neoprene, more weight, and less agility. On the other hand, we have world class diving here, and the sight of a kelp forest on a clear day is breathtaking. If your instructor only took you to La Jolla Shores and the Coronado Islands, you've missed the best of our local waters.

You'll spend a good chunk of your first dozen dives assembling the learning from your open water class into knowledge you can use when you go diving. During this initial phase, you have to master your basic diving techniques and pull your gear together into some configuration that meets both your preferences and your needs. It can be a real challenge; especially when effective guidance and help is hard to come by.

I'm especially glad you're here. We'll help you get started.

Keeping Warm
I can't think of anything worse than getting cold on a dive. There's no reason for you to be cold either. Most people around here dive a two-piece, 6mm wetsuit. The one-piece suits are also a good alternative. They're fine by themselves for summer, and you can add a hooded vest for when the water temperature drops into the low 60's. 

Make sure your wetsuit is the right size. It should be snug without being tight. If your suit is too loose, you're going to get a lot of water flowing through and get cold. Your hood should also fit well. If the shop hoods are constricting, buy your own hood and a big can. Put the neck over the can until it isn't tight any more. Check it every day; it may take a week.

Find Some Friends
I can't think of anything more important than friends who dive. Even if you have a regular dive buddy, you'll have that much more experience on tap when you run into difficulties or come across a question. On the days when you feel discouraged, they're the ones inspiring you with stories from great dive trips.

There's a lot to be said about a good dive club. While I like to think that the Ocean Explorers Society is the best club on the planet, we have lots of good dive clubs in the San Diego area. You can find comprehensive listings on Divebums, and in California Diving News. Go to meetings for a couple of months and get to know the people. It helps to have patience here. It can take a few meetings to really register on the regular member's radar. You should also go diving with them. Be aware that diving with a new group of people is a little like a blind date; sometimes they're good, sometimes they're horrid. But, unless you're a complete sociopath, you will find a good dive club.

Most importantly, you need some good dive buddies. This is where a good dive club really helps. You need to find people compatible with your temperament. If you can communicate well above water, chances are you'll do reasonably well under water too. A compatible sense of humor goes a long way towards putting the occasional bad day behind you. If your spouse or SO dives, this might be a good time to take a little break from them and dive with someone else. This way, you can have some space to make mistakes, and not have to take them home afterwards.

Get the Essential Dive Gear
There are three pieces of gear I consider absolutely essential for California diving.

If you're still renting your gear, plan to carry the compass in a wrist mount. This will be very convenient to use, and you won't forget to remove it from a rental console. You can carry your knife strapped to your calf, but the light will have to go into a BC pocket. Just remember to get it out when you turn in the BC!

Taming the Dive Gear
SCUBA is one of the more equipment intensive sports around. Rock climbing might be worse, but not by much. Most divers understand the importance of getting organized to the point where you don't have to think about going diving. I'm not quite there yet, but I don't stress over it nearly as much as I used to. Here's the low-cost implementation of my system.

Get yourself down to Target, Wal-Mart, or some similar store. Pick up a Rubbermaid bin (see below), some plastic coat hangers, and if you're washing your gear in the bathtub or shower, a rod for a shower curtain. While you're out, stop by the dive shop and get one of those UK Accessory Hangers. They're handier than you might think..

First off, no matter how much (or little) you own, you need someplace to corral your dive gear. Dive bags are great, especially if they have wheels. But these tend to be expensive and you might not be ready for that monetary commitment just yet. The next best dive gear container has Rubbermaid™ on the lid and you'll want one anyway.

The Rubbermaid bin(s) are going to serve several purposes. First, they'll store your dive gear safely away from things that will rot the rubber. Secondly, they'll keep all the salt water from seeping into your trunk or back seat. And lastly, you can use them as rinse buckets if you don't use the bathtub. The best size depends on your vehicle. I drive an evil, tree-killing SUV so I have a single large container. If you're driving a Miata, you'll probably find two smaller bins more to your liking. Just be sure that you can fit a BC into one of them and your wetsuit in the other.

When you get back home, put your dive gear into the bin, and toss it in the closet. Now you should be mostly packed for your next dive. The shower curtain rod should go right over the middle of your bathtub. Now, when you hang your gear, the water drips into the tub instead of the bathroom floor. Use this simple system. I'll be a genius, and you'll be vastly more popular with those who share the bathroom with you.

To go diving, grab your bin(s) and toss them in the car. Grab a swimsuit, towel, and something to drink. Rent your gear, dive, rinse your rental gear, take it back, and go home. Now that you're home, you can take your shower, then rinse your own gear and hang it up. A little follow up work, like your dive log, and you're done. A day or two later, when it's dry, put it back into the bins, throw the bins in the closet, and you're ready to go again. When you get your own wetsuit, be sure to hang it in the closet so it stays nice.

If you don't have a bathtub or other place to rinse your gear, you can use the bins as rinse tanks. Now that I have a proper dive bag, I still use my bin as a rinse tank. I still follow the same procedure, except I return all my routine gear to my dive bag instead of the bin.

Enjoying Your Dives
OK, if you've tried going diving once, thought it was too much work for too little return, please raise your hands. We're here to change that.

Generally speaking, you have two choices for diving venues; off a boat and from the shore. Boat diving has the advantage of being less work, and less sensitive to local inshore conditions. However, it requires more planning and expense. You also have to gear up and dive in accordance with the boat's schedule, not yours. Shore diving is cheaper and you can go on the spur of the moment, or after work. You can also take your time getting geared up. It is more physically demanding than a boat. Shore dive aficionados will tell you this is good exercise, and they're right.

Shore Diving
To dive, or not to dive, it depends on conditions. If you're renting your dive gear, there are few things more frustrating that renting your gear, heading to the water, and finding a whole bunch of surfers going, "Dude, this surf is epic."
At certain times of the year, notably summer and early fall, you have a much better chance for decent diving. The best conditions report in the county is an email list called divebums. Alternatively, you can call to dive and surf conditions, but beware, their vis estimates are sometimes wildly inaccurate.

For the rest of the year when storms make life interesting, you're going to be much better off if you check before you rent. The first step in checking the conditions is to call the dive and surf condition hotline, 619-221-8824. If they're calling for 3 to 4 foot surf with good form, forget the dive gear and grab the surfboards. 1 to 3 feet means that the surf is navigable, but you'll need to watch the waves for a while and time it correctly. The lifeguard's visibility numbers are a very rough guide. I don't rely on them. The wave height seems to be a better indicator of inshore visibility.

The second stage is to go down and look for yourself. Watch the waves for a while. If the waves are pretty tall, and they curl over before breaking, work on your tan instead of your dive log. Talk to any divers coming out of the water. If divers are losing gear in the surf zone, it's a good day for some other beach activity.

Once you decide you can get through the surf without getting undressed in the process, go rent your dive gear. If you're at La Jolla Shores, or La Jolla Cove, there are Ocean Express locations close by. Or, you can run back to your favorite inland location and return, but I found this to be a lot more hassle.

There are going to be days when you miscall the conditions and get yourself a major workout in the surf zone. This is where you have to chock it up to experience, and either relocate to a calmer location, or call it a day. If you decide to relocate, be aware of the swell direction. If the swell is coming in from the northwest, the diving will be better from south facing locations. If the swell is from the southwest, then north facing locations, like La Jolla Cove, will be good. Whatever you decide, don't stay any longer than necessary in the zone where the waves are breaking.

Sometimes you need a plan Z. So long as the waves are less than 50 feet, Mission Bay will be diveable. There are some caveats though. Don't dive Mission Bay after a heavy rain. It's also best at slack tide. However, if the current isn't too heavy, you can get in at one end, drift down the seawall, and get out at the other end. We found that entering the water inside the bay, then following the rocks around the point is a nice 20 or 25 minute dive. You have to stay close to the rocks at all times due to the boat traffic. The rocks have all the life anyway. Be sure to look for octopus dens.

Make your shore diving better by bringing something to drink afterwards. I prefer Gatorade because it rehydrates you quickly, and I've gotten used to the taste. It's best to avoid carbonated beverages between dives. They have a habit of outgassing at the most inopportune moments. Water works too but will rehydrate you more slowly. If you're not diving at someplace with a shower, a jug of water for rinsing off will make you more comfortable.

Boat Diving
There's a lot to be said in favor of boat diving. You don't normally walk more than 15 feet in full dive gear before getting into the water. Drinks and snacks are provided. The boats usually provide tanks and weights so you have much less to carry. You can also dive locations that are inaccessible from shore. Unless you own your own boat, you won't enjoy the spontaneity of the "I've really had a bad day" dive. Fortunately, we have a lot of boats to choose from, and most of them are reasonably priced. Expect to pay $25 to $30 per dive.

The first step in diving a local boat is to pick the boat, date, and destination. You'll want to carefully consider more advanced locations like the Yukon or the Ruby E. The NOSC Tower, kelp beds, and the Corronados are all good beginner's locations. If you're in doubt, talk to the boat captain.

Be aware, that although all the boats have divemasters aboard, they aren't in the water running tours like they do in tropical locations.  It's almost always best to dive with someone you know and trust. But, if you didn't bring a buddy with you, the DM will help you get paired up with a buddy. This is always my least favored option. Unknown buddies, even if good divers don't communicate nearly as well as someone who knows you. You also don't know their strengths and limitations. In the end, it's not nearly as enjoyable as going with a good diver you know.

I always recommend getting to the boat early. You get first pick on your spot, and you can leisurely get your gear assembled. I always put my BC and regulator on my tank before the boat leaves the dock. First, this reserves my spot, and secondly, I don't get seasick trying to assemble the thing with the boat under way. I also get into my wetsuit bottoms, or halfway into my drysuit before the boat leaves. This way, I can enjoy the trip to the dive site, and my final preparations for the dive(s) are both relaxed and fun.

You need to package your gear properly for a boat trip. Hard-sided things like the bins I recommended aren't going to be too popular with the boat crew. It's best to either take the bins back to your car, or have something collapsible like a duffle bag. In any case, you should put your towel and clothes into a separate bag that will stay nice and dry in the cabin until you're ready to use it.

Seasickness is an all too common problem. For some reason, our inner ears are not terribly happy with the motion. If you're subject to seasickness, take your medication. You should also be doubly sure you prepare beforehand. There is no point in offering up your breakfast to Poseidon and the submarines can't hear you anyway.

Gaining Experience
A fresh open water certification is a lot like a fresh drivers license. In some respect, it says you know more than you really understand. Yes you can drive that car. Should you go out in black ice conditions? I don't think so. Same thing with SCUBA.

SCUBA diving rewards patience and persistence. Patience lets you take things at a truly comfortable pace; persistence keeps you practicing until it all becomes easy. Along the way, you're going to push the envelope a little too far, have a bad day, or just make some mistake that looks completely obvious in hindsight. As long as everyone makes it back in without need of medical attention, you've done well enough. This is where you get the experience you'll need to dive with confidence.

Whatever happens, debrief afterwards. Discuss the things that went wrong, and things that went right. Try not to take events personally, and also try not to blame people. You can also talk to more experience friends for a different, and perhaps a more dispassionate perspective.

I've shamelessly stolen a couple of rules from the aeronautics world that seem to make a lot of sense in SCUBA diving's context:

  1. Catastrophes are usually caused by a series of problems and/or poor decisions. Taken by themselves, none of the problems  were sufficient to cause a catastrophe.
  2. Abort the dive at the second problem, even if it seems manageable. The problems can be simple, but each successive malfunction reduces your safety margin.

We've all had those kinds of dives where nothing seems to go well. Experienced divers know there will be another day to dive. You go back, regroup, and try again. This is another reason to cut your teeth on local diving. The stakes are lower. If things don't go well, you're out $35, a few hours, and some gas. You won't stress out over $35 nearly as much as you would $3000 for a 1-week liveaboard trip.

Your initial dives are going to be awkward affairs. Let's face it; nothing about diving is natural to us Homo sapiens. If you keep trying, you'll discover somewhere along the way, that your buoyancy control markedly improves, and you're spending more time looking at things instead of tweaking your BC. You won't look like a klutz anymore, and you only crash into the bottom when you're reaching for a lobster. Your air consumption will drop too because you're working less. For some people, this destination is a real struggle. For others, it comes more easily. It's important to take the time you need. Don't cut yourself short.

Somewhere in this learning process, you should take the advanced open water (AOW) course. From my own observation and experience, I think it's good to try somewhere between 5 and 10 dives before you do your AOW. First off, you'll get to rendezvous with an instructor after you've discovered which things are giving you difficulties. You'll also be on mission-oriented dives. If you can't comfortably handle the basics, you're not going to learn well in the class.

When you get some experience under your weightbelt, it's time to go further afield. Take some longer boat trips. I really like the Channel Islands liveaboards. They take care of the logistics, and you concentrate on the diving. Four dives a day is a great way to hone your skills plus these trips are excellent values.

It's been said that if you can dive in California, you can dive almost anywhere. This is very true if for tropical locations. I really like tropical diving, but at best, I can only do it a few times per year. I can dive around here most any time I want to and conditions cooperate. Plus, when I factor in the very real hassles of getting to the tropical location, California diving doesn't seem so hard anymore.

I've also grown to love California diving. Our local marine environment will keep you preoccupied for a lifetime if you take the time to learn the fundamentals. It's nowhere near as colorful as a coral reef, but, it's every bit as precious. And, you can't beat the convenient location.


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