How to Scuba Dive

Scuba Diver

Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more are you lookin' for?

Life certainly is sweet under the sea. Next to space exploration, the ocean floor is the last unconquered frontier around us - thankfully scuba diving is a lot cheaper and less dangerous than a trip to the moon. This month we decided to put together a How To Guide for all of you who are lucky enough to be going on a scuba diving holiday - especially those taking the plunge for the first time.

  • Do

    1. GET CERTIFIED. If you're a novice and want to go scuba diving on holiday, you need to find out the following: does the resort offer a basic course for uncertified divers. If not, you will need to do a basic course before you leave, or find somewhere near your resort that offers one. There are some critical basics, like clearing your mask under water and equalising the pressure in your ears which you'll need to be able to do.

      Do not go with a company that allows novices to dive: it's generally unsafe practice and your travel insurance policy won't cover you if something goes wrong. Rather call your resort ahead of schedule and make plans to get certified.

      Travel Tip: Rather get certified before you leave for your holiday. The basic resort course will take up loads of diving time and cost a fair penny (it is a service in high demand).

    2. RESEARCH YOUR DIVE DESTINATION. For travel insurance purposes it's important that you have a clear idea of how frequently and how deep you will dive on your holiday. Essential Travel recognises PADI, BSAC and SSI qualifications only. Below are the grades of insurance cover available to dive.

      Grade 1 (free for all policies): Three dives per trip, of up to 20 metres depth if you're not qualified - with other divers or a qualified diving instructor.

      Grade 2: Unlimited number of unplanned dives up to a depth of 30 metres if you're qualified - with other divers or a qualified diving instructor.

      Grade 3: Unlimited number of unplanned dives up to a depth of 50 metres if you're qualified - with other divers or a qualified diving instructor.

      Please note that you will not be covered if you fly within 24 hours of a scuba dive.

    3. CHECK YOUR EQUIPMENT. This does not only mean making sure that your tank is full and your mask works. Be thorough about everything - your fins, gloves, hood, towel, cap etc. There is nothing more annoying than getting all the way to the reef and realising that you've left your weight belt at the hotel. Sharing gear with someone else will make the dive less exciting for you and the person donating their gear. Make a list and ensure that you have ticked everything off before you set off.

      Checklist Sample
      Does everything work? Complete a check-out dive if not using rented equipment
      Do you have something to put your gear in when you get out of the water?
      Do you have fins/mask - all those extras that you do not want to leave behind?
      Do you have snacks and water for when you get out
      Do you have sun screen (at least SPF 15)

    4. USE A MESH DIVING BAG. Almost every diving website reiterates this point. You want to pack all your gear into a proper diving bag with Velcro-sealed compartments. Avoid spreading all your gear out across the deck and taking up space unnecessarily. You want to be able to find everything when it's time to dive.

      BE PUNCTUAL. If you are heading out to a reef by boat, make sure you get there early, so that you can check all your equipment one last time, get settled and secure good seats. You could be driving for quite a long way, so you'll want to be comfortable. This is also just being considerate of your fellow divers, who are just as anxious as you to get out there: no-one likes waiting around for someone else to arrive.

    5. Make sure your diving gear fits. A wetsuit that is too big will allow excess water to seep in and make you colder than you would be without it. A wetsuit that is too small will limit your ability to move naturally and possibly cut off circulation. Your hood, gloves and booties (if you are wearing them) have a major role to play, too. You lose up to 40% of body heat through your head and hands, so these have to be snug on your appendages.

      Your fins are another essential part of your diving experience. Without them you'll be going nowhere in the water. They need to fit comfortably on your feet. Fins that are too tight will give you terrible cramps (trust us, it feels a bit like having your foot crushed in a vice). Fins that are too loose will get lost easily.

    6. GET REST THE NIGHT BEFORE.

      A good diving excursion will last for an entire morning or a full day - depending on how far out the reef/wreck is, how far down you are going and how many people are in your group. It's a physically and psychologically demanding activity that is immensely pleasurable at the same time. The pressure on your ears and sinuses at twenty feet will make you feel like your head is exploding at times. Also, as strange as it may sound, you'll dehydrate in the water if you are hung over - all the salt in the ocean is no good for thirsty mouths.

      You want to be at your best, not only to perform well and minimise the risk of physical injury, but also to be alert to the beauty of the ocean. If you are in Mexico, for example, and have a chance to swim with whale sharks, you'll regret being hung over or sluggish when the opportunity arises.

    7. RELAX.

      Make sure you are warmed up and feeling loose before you dive - you need to be relaxed, to conserve energy and oxygen. Don't hold your breath - you will over-compensate when it's time to breath and end up using more oxygen that way.

      When breathing under water, take long, deep breaths and try to move as slowly as possible. Frantically swimming from one side of the reef to the other will have you panting and using up oxygen at an unnecessary rate. Forget about being a diver. Think of yourself as a strand of seaweed, cruising along with the ebb and flow of the ocean's moods.

    8. BRING CASH FOR TIPS.

      At most resorts around the world, a tip for the dive master, crew and boat driver is expected, though it is not compulsory - if you leave one tip for all three that is fine (it will normally be split up accordingly). The staff make their bread and butter from tips, so they work hard to earn it. Ten to twenty percent is the general norm when it comes to tipping, but if you feel the service has been outstanding there is nothing wrong with being generous.

      At the same time, if you feel disappointed by the service and the crew failed to impress you, there is no need to open your wallet. The act of tipping is based on the understanding that you have enjoyed the trip and want to reward the staff members.

    9. STAY GROUNDED. After a dive, give yourself at least 24 hours to recover before travelling by air. The decreased air pressure in airplanes has been known to cause decompression sickness - otherwise known as 'the bends.' The bends occur when the body is not given enough time to adjust to pressure changes. Going from 20m underwater to sea-level and then to the low pressures of an airplane cabin is a recipe for disaster. Most insurance policies will not cover you if you travel by air within 24 hours of diving.

  • Don't

    1. PREPARE FOR SEA SICKNESS. Being sea sick is a bit like having sinus problems: some people suffer from it and some don't. You won't know if you will be susceptible to getting sea sick until you've been out on a boat and ridden the bumpy swells that cause it. One of the best solutions for this is to chew some ginger before you leave. It settles your stomach and has no side effects.

      LISTEN TO THE DIVE BRIEF. Before you head for the bottom of the ocean, the dive master or a member of the diving crew will give a safety brief and a summary of the dive site. This is for your benefit, so pay attention. The safety brief is absolutely essential for practical reasons - the ocean currents, water visibility, state of the reef or wreck, and season are all major factors at every site. There will also be some highlights to look out for. If you are talking to your friend or still scratching around the deck, looking for your fins or hood, you will miss out.

Last Updated: July 2011

Clayton Truscott

Clayton Truscott

Clayton is a comfortable traveller, having grown up in a small city that was far away from everything. He spent lots of time in the car as a child, driving up and down the coast of South Africa on surfing trips with his family. After studying abroad in the United States and spending a year working in London, he moved to Cape Town, where he completed a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. He now works as a freelance writer for various travel, surfing and action sports publications.