There are a number of ways to get started into scuba. This article looks at where to learn to dive, the costs and the gear, what you will learn in a scuba course, the risks you will encounter and provide additional information on scuba.
Where to learn to dive
Resort dives: One way that many new divers are introduced to the sport is through "resort dives" - shallow, supervised dives in a relatively controlled environment for people without scuba certification. These dives typically have a short course (~1 hr) on how to use the gear followed by one or two short dives to shallow depths (20-40' maximum). They are usually very costly, because of the large number of certified professionals needed to supervise uncertified divers and the increased costs of liability insurance for the dives. Typically, these dives are offered at resorts. If you're interested in trying scuba once, it can be the cheapest route. Anything more adventurous and you'll require at least a basic scuba certification. The rest of the article will cover this.
Scuba certifications: To really learn to scuba dive, you'll need to take a basic scuba certification course. These courses vary in length, but typically involve at least 10 hours of classroom training and 10 hours of pool training, combined with five dives in open water. These requirements may vary depending on the certifying agency, instructor, scuba store and location. With a basic certification, you will be certified to dive to depths of 60-100', dive unsupervised, and rent/purchase your own tanks and gear.
Some people believe it's important which scuba certifying agency you get your certification from. Primarily, there are three major scuba certification agencies, NAUI, SSI, and PADI. There are a number of other agencies that offer scuba certifications, but these three are the largest and are recognized across the globe. In my personal opinion, the differences between the three agencies are primarily corporate and vary little at the consumer end. There are national training standards that all 3 have adopted for their training programs. NAUI and SSI even have a program to allow each other's instructors to perform the open water evaluations for students from both agencies. In the end, it's like choosing to purchase the same item from 3 different stores. The price may vary but the product (the training) is still the same. The only thing I caution against is going through an independent PADI instructor. NAUI and SSI require their instructors to be affiliated with a scuba store while PADI does not. There are independent PADI instructors that merely rent classroom space and pool time. This eliminates the most immediate level of instructor oversight - store management. I highly recommend only purchasing instruction through a store (or other corporation).
What will it cost
A basic scuba certification varies in price. Typical prices range between $150-$300. This varies on the season, the location, the competition, etc. Additionally, basic gear will need to be purchased and diving insurance is recommended. Insurance typically runs approximately $40/year and covers diving equipment and medical injuries sustained during diving - things your homeowner's/renter's insurance and health insurance may not cover.
Then there are the costs to dive. For divers that own their own gear and have local diving, the costs are minimal. Tank fills typically run from $3-$10 depending on the location and type of fill. To dive off a boat can run between $50-$100/day for 2-4 dives. For divers that like to travel, trips range in price from $100/day to $500/day depending on the destination and accommodations.
You will be required to purchase basic gear for almost any scuba course. This includes your mask, fins, boots and a snorkel. This will typically run about $150 at a minimum. It can get expensive from there - much more expensive. My fins alone run $190 retail.
The key point when buying the basic gear is to get something that fits well. When you're move through something as dense as water in 100 pounds of gear, poor fitting fins will cause leg cramps, muscles soreness and blisters. A poorly fit mask will leak, causing additional distractions and stress - especially in a new diver. For the relative benefits of different types of gear, check out the gear reviews at Scuba Diving Magazine.
During your certification class, you will typically be given the additional gear you need. After the course, you will be required to rent the gear until you purchase your own. This gear can be purchased for as little as ~$800 for the absolute basics. The price goes up as the quality and features increase. Here is a brief description of the other important scuba gear:
The other necessary equipment, tanks and weights, are typically rented unless the diver will be doing their diving from their home area. The difficulty in flying with air tanks and is not worth the cheap prices of renting them. Likewise, lead weights, which are used to compensate for natural buoyancy, are a hassle to pack and are always provided by dive shops. 99% of the time, both of these expenses will be included in a dive shops price for a dive package.
- Buoyancy Compensating Device (BCD)
- Also referred to as a Buoyancy Compensator (BC), this is a large, inflatable vest that holds your tank on the back. It is used to compensate for changes in your body/equipment's buoyancy as your depth changes. As you descend, the increased water pressure will compress air pockets (especially in neoprene wetsuits), decreasing their buoyant effect. Air is added to the BC to help achieve neutral buoyancy.
- There are two stages to a regulator. The first stage connects to the tank and regulates the air coming from the tank from the air pressure in the tank (in the thousands of PSI) to a pressure that is slightly above the current water pressure. The second stage, attached by an air hose and the part that you place into your mouth to breath, regulates this down to the surrounding pressure, delivering air whenever you breath in.
- Submersible pressure gauge (SPG), depth meter and/or computer
- Your SPG and depth also connect to the first stage regulator and give the current air pressure remaining in the tank, the diver's current depth and their maximum depth. In the last few years, these functions have been integrated into diving computers. These track depth, air, as well as compute the affects of nitrogen and oxygen on your body that will be covered later.
- Exposure suit (Wetsuits, skins and drysuits)
- The most common form of exposure suit is a wetsuit. It is made of neoprene (a form of oxygen injected rubber). Wetsuits range in thickness from 0.5mm - 7mm. They are tight fitting and trap a tiny layer of water between your body and the suit. This layer is quickly heated by your body to body temperature. The thickness of the neoprene controls the insulation level that is provided to the diver.
In warmer water, dive skins are sometimes used to replace a wetsuit. These are typically lycra or fleece suits that protect from scratches, stings or cuts while offering little in the way of warmth.
The final form of exposure suit is the drysuit. These are custom tailored suites that are completely waterproof. Ankle seals and neck seals prevent water from entering the suit. These suits are extremely costly (easily reaching $3000 for a high-quality suit) and introduce an extra complex piece of gear with it's own buoyancy issues. However, drysuits are the warmest form of exposure suit and allow divers to withstand sub-freezing water temperatures.
What you will learn
Basic scuba course: In the classroom portion of a basic scuba course, you will learn the basics of diving physics and theory, safety measures and practices and how to use dive tables. Dive tables are charts that show how much nitrogen has been absorbed into your bloodstream. This is the cause of injuries such as DCS (Decompression Sickness - also known as the Bends).
The pool portion of a basic scuba course will teach the basic scuba skills, such as adjusting equipment under water, clearing a flooded mask, snorkeling, water entry and exit techniques as well as basic buoyancy skills.
The final, open water portion of a basic scuba course will assess these skills in open water where there are other factors to cope with, such as current, lower visibility and greater depth. Emergency accents and other skills will also be tested in a more realistic environment.
Continuing ed: After completing your basic scuba certification, there are many additional courses you can take. There are courses on specific types of diving, such as wreck diving (diving involving under water wrecks) or additional skills (such as navigation or equipment repair). There are also courses on advanced diving techniques such as the use of mixed gases, or diving to deeper depths. The recreational diving limit is 130'.
What are the risks
Scuba has a number of inherent risks; however, proper maintenance and training can eliminate most of the risk. A health assessment must be completed before anyone will be allowed to complete a scuba certification course. Any medical conditions that can cause a student danger may disqualify them from receiving their certification.
The most common issues facing a diver are AGE (Arterial Gas Embolism) and DCS. AGE is gaseous bubbles that move into the bloodstream - possibly cutting off oxygen to a portion of the body. DCS is nitrogen bubbles that escape into the bodies tissues. These can both be prevented by following the safety procedures taught in the course and by not pushing the time limits of the dive tables.
For more information on diving risks, all of the agencies teach some form of a stress & rescue course that covers diving injuries, prevention and treatment.
That's the basic how-to for getting into scuba diving. After receiving your certification, it's time to hit the water. Different destinations throughout the world are known for their unique types of diving. Whether it's the cold-water diving in the kelp forests of British Columbia, the coral reefs off Australia, or checking out the local lakes, there's always a chance for a diver to get out and explore something new.
For more information, check out the websites for the certification agencies and scubadiving.com.