Last month I shared the 5 False Fears about SCUBA diving. Today I want to help you take the next step towards becoming a comfortable SCUBA diver. No one will stick with an activity that makes them uncomfortable. That discomfort might be fear, anxiety, physical discomfort, boredom or frustration. As I created that list, I was actually thinking of my attempts to learn Golf. Hence the boredom and frustration components. (That is a story for another day.) However, I hope you never find diving boring. Learning any new skill set to the point of comfort requires 5 components.
- Access to organized and well-presented knowledge base.
- Proper gear
- A community of supporters
#1 Acquiring a Strong Knowledge Base
You will notice that I kind of cheated with the numbers and listed Practice twice. At the risk of sounding like a mother or piano teacher; practice, practice, practice is the primary key to raising your comfort level in anything. But I will get to that in a bit, for now let’s look at your Knowledge base.
SCUBA Certification Organizations
There are many organizations that offer certification training in SCUBA diving. Depending on where in the world you are, you will most likely encounter one of these 5 main organizations.
CMAS, Based in France
BSAC, Based in UK
Each of these organizations has a slightly different culture. All will teach the same important basics to help you become a safe and comfortable SCUBA diver. Any gathering of international divers will debate the “virtues” of their favored organizations but for simplicity sake they are equivalent. In my region of the US, the most common group is PADI so this will be my reference point.
Initial Certification Courses are designed to make you a safe SCUBA diver
As you can see in the graphic below, PADI offers a vast array of courses. A couple of these courses are a good starting point.
Discover SCUBA is an introductory course that lets you get a feel for the underwater experience prior to committing to certification.
The Open Water Diver is the full certification course. PADI now offers the academic portion of the course online or at your local dive shop. You will also learn about the basic scuba gear, have pool training and finally progress to an open water experience. The course is standardized and well-organized. Instructors work patiently and carefully with you as you learn the necessary underwater skills.
Unlike many educational experiences in my past, I actually found that every skill this course taught me was relevant and important. There are several skills that seem odd or awkward when you first start. I recommend you patiently and calmly persist because they will all make you a more comfortable SCUBA diver. Unexpected things do happen underwater and the certification programs have identified the most common of these. They teach you how to be prepared.
Advanced Courses are designed to make you a comfortable SCUBA diver.
Each dive organization also offers a slew of advanced and specialty courses. I remember finding this confusing. The initial course is not cheap and requires a significant commitment of time. So I was perplexed about why I needed any further courses. Let me help you sort through this.
The initial certification courses are very thorough and do allow you to get out there and do some diving. I will be honest though, many dive experiences will require that you have the next level of training. In the case of PADI that is their Advanced Open Water.
I highly recommend that you move onto the Advanced courses as soon as possible. I understand that it is another financial commitment but it is the best path to improving your comfort level.
The advanced course goes “deeper” figuratively and literally. PADI explains it as “fine-tuning” your skills. Topics include buoyancy, deep diving, underwater navigation, fish identification, and underwater photography, and many more. A firm grasp on each of these skills goes a long way in making you a comfortable SCUBA diver and insures you will enjoy diving much more. Additionally, it gives you an expanded set of dives with the supervision of an instructor and mentor. In other words more Practice…
#2 Practice makes you a comfortable SCUBA diver
In the early days of diving you will still have a lot of questions and many of the skills feel awkward. Practice! Practice! Practice! That sounds great but where and how do you get practice if you aren’t blessed to live on a beach in Hawaii? As I said above, sign up for the Advanced courses ASAP. I actually recommend that you do this course on vacation ( preferably somewhere that your native language is spoken). Reputable dive shops all over the world offer the courses. For those of us who took our initial certification in some form of murky and cold freshwater, the prospect of controlled practice in a beautiful tropical setting is very attractive.
Beyond the obvious advantage of going on vacation, I like to repeat learning new skills with different teachers. Even though they are teaching a standardized curriculum, insturctors each bring their own unique experiences to bear when giving you pointers. For instance, one skill that proves troublesome for many beginners is the process of clearing your ears as you descend into deep water. Instructors who have been diving a long time often have many little tricks to help with this.
** One caveat, I recommend that you do your initial certification at home. It is comforting to have a local dive shop that you know and trust. There are no language issues, this is where you will mostly likely have your equipment serviced, and where you will meet a community of divers.**
#3 Proper Equipment
There is a direct correlation between the cost and the fun of hobbies. In my household, the more expensive the hobby, the more we love it. We have to face the fact that SCUBA diving is not a cheap hobby. That being said, let’s talk about equipment.
I believe that quality, well-fitting equipment increases the longevity and enjoyment of any hobby. Just like a bike, hiking shoes or golf clubs need to fit well, proper fitting equipment makes you a comfortable SCUBA diver. SCUBA equipment needs to not only fit well but also be well-maintained and familiar to you. Many divers rent some or all of their equipment. I understand that you need to get a few dives under you belt before you know if you want to invest in this new hobby. I am just saying that if you want to get comfortable with this hobby, purchase your own equipment as soon as you can afford it. What should you purchase first?
- Wetsuit This is the most obvious piece of equipment that should fit well. If you have a very average body size and shape then this is less important and you might get away with renting longer. However, if you are taller, shorter, heavier or thinner than average a rental can range from uncomfortable to flat out impossible. In the first post of this series we talked about the false fear of claustrophobia. Nothing will make you feel more claustrophobic than a poor fitting wetsuit.
- BCD For me the piece of equipment that accelerated my comfort level the most, was the BCD. The BCD is a lifeline and the closet organizer for your dive. Like your wetsuit the BCD needs to fit you well. It is is crucial to buoyancy and it keeps you afloat on the surface. I called it the “closet organizer” before. All of your equipment attaches in some way to your BCD.
If you want to be a comfortable SCUBA diver you need to recognize where all you equipment is by touch.
The BCD hooks to and carries your air supply, your safety sausage, your knife, your light, your slate, your gauges/computer and often your weights. You want all of this equipment tidily tucked in but easily to hand. A comfortable diver is one that can grab whatever they need instinctually. Each BCD is slightly different with its pockets and hooks and zippers. If you are always renting one you never know exactly where to grab your essentials. My grandmother lived by the mantra of; “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This mantra serves you well when diving.
- Regulator It is intuitive that your air supply equipment would be the most important piece to buy. This is truly your lifeline underwater. Interestingly however, it is not the biggest contributor to comfort level. I think because you are testing this thoroughly each time before ever entering the water, it is easier to get by with a rental. There are some specialty issues like cold water diving that may come into play but not usually for the novice.
- Computer/Gauges In my experience I have found that most dive operations now require everyone to dive with a computer. They are an easy thing to rent however. Rentals can be temperamental but if you are looking to reduce expenses renting one is still the best solution. However, if you are a techie, this may be the piece you want to prioritize.
- Mask, Fins, Snorkel etc In the grand scheme of things these are the least expensive but also the easiest to rent. Personally I have a small face and struggle with masks filling with water so I enjoy having my own. While these will contribute to becoming a comfortable SCUBA diver, they are not essential.
#4 More Practice
In the first Practice step I recommended taking Advanced courses to provide supervised practice. Now I am going to recommend a few simpler ways to practice. I live in the Upper Midwest and have 9 months of the year without local access to diving. Going 6-9 months between dives is not conducive to being a comfortable SCUBA diver. Each time you dive all the equipment looks and feels completely foreign.
Find a pool, get wet! Practice clearing your mask, practice clearing your ears, practice swimming with a snorkel and fins. You don’t even need tanks and weights just improve your comfort in water. Check with your local dive shop, they can usually recommend pools that are open to divers practicing in the deep end.
#5 Find a Community
Community was the reason I gave before for doing your initial certification with a local dive shop. Finding a community of divers is so important in your journey to becoming a comfortable SCUBA diver. The shop itself should have knowledgeable staff to recommend equipment and techniques. Often shops will host group dive trips locally and/or to exotic destinations. I have developed lifelong friendships from these trips, not to mention priceless tips and support. When I walk into my dive shop, I feel like the Cheers theme song plays. “Everyone knows your name…” If you don’t feel that way in your shop, look for another. A good shop should be about more than just selling you stuff.
A shout-out to my friends at Aquatic Adventures.
Comfortable SCUBA Diver Habits
So to wrap up those 5 steps to comfortable diving are:
- Knowledge is king. Never stop learning and tweaking your skills. Continue to add to your knowledge arsenal.
- Practice by taking courses and diving as much as you can early on.
- Acquire and maintain great equipment.
- Practice simple skills often and constantly work on getting comfortable underwater.
- Cultivate a group of friends and supporters. This can be locally, online, or at your favorite destination.