Like bungee jumping, tattoos and photography, SCUBA diving is something I never did prior to the start of my trip. I did my first dive and got my certification in Lahania in Maui. Since then I have dove in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Palau and the Great Barrier Reef. Some of my dives have been the highlight of my trip and are where some of my best stories have come from. I’ve also met some of the most remarkable people on my drip while I was diving.
A lot of people who are considering taking a trip like mine read this site, so I want to take the time to go through how and why you want to learn to dive and what you might want to do prior to the start of your trip. No matter where you go, you will probably be in a tropical part of the world near the ocean where SCUBA diving will be available. If you don’t dive, then you are really missing out on seeing a big hunk of the world.
Diving is something I never ever would have done if it wasn’t for traveling. I spent my life in Wisconsin and Minnesota. While there are dive shops there, diving in lakes really doesn’t seem all that exciting. Most are very muddy and you can’t see anything, and save for a few months, they are quite cold. I never even saw a body of salt water until I was 21.
To be able to dive in most places, you need to be certified. While there are more than one certification organization, odds are you will be taking a PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certification course. They are by far the largest dive organization in the world and pretty much every single dive shop I’ve seen uses the PADI courses.
PADI offers different levels of certification. The certification you want to get is the PADI Open Water Diver. If you see things like “Discover Scuba Diving” or “Scuba Diver” they are not what you want. They are basically just a tightly controlled introduction where you can put on some gear and go into the water. You might want to do that, but there is no certification card you can get at the end to take to other dive centers and you wont earn points you can use on your real certification course.
The Open Water course consists of three parts. 1) The book/classroom section. 2) the “pool” section, and 3) the diving section. The big question you have to figure out is if you should get certified before or after you leave on your trip. There are pros and cons to each.
Before or After
The biggest advantage to getting certified before your trip is that you don’t have to waste time getting certified once you are on the road. The Open Water course usually lasts about three days. Those are three days you could be diving. The classroom and the pool part of the course can be done almost anywhere at anytime. Even in Minnesota in the middle of winter, it was possible do those parts of the course. A lot of people when they are in the planning stage of a trip like to think they are doing something, and getting certified is certainly more active than packing a bag.
The downside to doing this are possibly two fold: 1) it might be more expensive. This depends on where you will be traveling to. If you are going to Thailand or the Philippines, it is almost certainly less expensive than getting certified in North America or Europe. 2) If you live in a land locked or cold area, you probably can’t complete the final dives unless you do it in the summer.
I did some research in Minnesota about getting certified. They did the final dives either in a quarry in Northern Minnesota during the summer, or they took a trip to Mexico or the Caribbean to do the final dives.
If doing the final dives aren’t an option where you live, you can do parts 1 and 2 locally, then get a signed piece of paper to take to the dive instructor where you are traveling to, to do the final two dives. This way you are at least diving when you get there and don’t have to waste time in the classroom.
You can’t really fail the written part of the certification. If you get something wrong, you just have to go over that again with the instructor and sign something saying you now understand it. There is some basic science involved regarding pressure (Boyle’s Law) and some basic math.
Cost and Equipment
Certification isn’t cheap and price can vary a lot depending on where you are getting certified. The lowest I’ve seen was in Fiji and that was around $200 USD. I’ve also seen prices near $500 USD in Australia.
The big hidden cost in any PADI certification are the books. It is sort of scam to be honest. They make you buy the books for a highly inflated price. Expect to pay at least $40 for a book. Some places might just have a book you can check out and make photocopies of the test. Technically, I don’t know if that is legit by PADI, but it does happen.
Depending on your finances, you might want to take a more expensive course at home now while you are working, rather than a cheaper one on the road when you are on a budget.
Once you are certified, you are good for life. You are supposed to take a refresher course if you haven’t dived in a long time, but that is usually just another PADI money maker and a “cover your ass” policy.
What Do You Do
The certification goes over things like dive tables, learning about decompression, how long you have to be on the surface between dives, how deep you can go, etc. It also covers things like safety and practicing things which you will hopefully never have to do when you are out diving: removing your gear, taking your mask off, sharing your regulator, etc.
Most of the things you go over are never used in normal, recreational diving when you dive through professional dive shops. They calculate surface times for you, so you don’t worry about it. You usually never go beyond 20m in depth because most of the interesting things are closer to the light at shallower depths.
If you are like me, you probably never gave much thought to SCUBA diving before. You breathe air out of a tank….the end. However, there is a lot more to it, and you at least need an intuitive understanding of how gases work under pressure.
Some of the things are not intuitive until you think about it (the deeper you go, the less buoyant you become because the air in your vest become compressed). When I took the course, I also realized that the breakthrough behind the SCUBA tank wasn’t the tank, it was the regulator which lets you breathe air at the same pressure as the ambient water pressure.
After You Are Certified
Once you are certified, you can take your card anywhere and go diving. The most common sort of dive is a two tank dive. You get in a boat and go out to where you are going to dive in the morning. You dive for 45-60min, come back up and have lunch and sit around. I’ve been on some dives where we went to an island for lunch. After 1-2 hours on the surface, you go and have a second dive in the afternoon and go home.
A 2 tank dive will usually run you $75-120 USD. That will take up a good chunk of your day. You’ll probably be diving with a few more people and your dive master. You are almost always better off doing a 2 or 3 tank dive. Much of the cost is hiring the dive master and boat for the day. Getting in another dive while you are already out there is pretty cheap.
You don’t need to carry any gear with you. If you want you can pack your own goggles/snorkel/fins, but all of those can be provided by a dive shop. Packing all that gear is usually just too heavy unless you are a super serious diver. It is also really expensive. I think you’d have to do hundreds of dives to recoup the cost of buying your own gear.
Some dive shops will throw in the gear as part of the cost. Others will charge extra. Find out before hand. The gear you use will be: mask, fins, wet suit, BCD (buoyancy control device, aka your vest that holds your tank), regulator and tank.
The length of a dive will depend on how deep you go and how quickly you use up air. The deeper you go, the quicker you will use air. The average length of my dives has been 40-50 minutes. As a general rule, women go through air slower than men. The less relaxed you are, the quicker you go through air.
You owe it to yourself to dive if you are going to visit places like the Red Sea, Fiji, Queensland, or the Bahamas. Some people are uneasy about diving, but they should at least give it a try and maybe take one of the into sessions where they can do it in a pool. Honestly, so long as you don’t go in caves or something, diving is really safe. Floating is a bigger problem than sinking.
Take the time and research getting certified before you leave on your trip. You’ll be glad you did.