How to Get Started SCUBA Diving - Frequently Asked Questions
Learn to scuba dive, and you have a passport to another world of adventure and exploration. Starting out can seem a little daunting though, add in the jargon and acronyms and strange looking equipment and I would forgive you for feeling too intimidated to ask questions.
To help we’ve answered the most common questions posed by those wanting to give scuba diving a go.
Is scuba diving safe?
On the whole, diving is a safe and very enjoyable pastime, yes there are risks, but there are risks associated with driving a car or crossing the road.
Follow established safe protocols for any of these activities and your risk of injury diminishes significantly but of course, accidents do happen.
There are creatures in the water that Hollywood would have you believe hunt humans, this is not the case.
There are certainly creatures out there that can cause harm, but they don’t hunt you down to do so. Most incidents where animals have caused injury are defensive reactions.
You will learn about the marine life that you will come into contact with and understand their behaviours and how to avoid situations in which you could be harmed. Divers pay premiums to see sharks, watch your first shark cruise passed, and you will understand why - they are so thrilling to see that you will forget you were supposed to be scared!
Do I need to be able to swim or be a strong swimmer?
You do need to be able to maintain yourself in water which essentially means being able to keep yourself on the surface, so yes, you do need to be able to swim and float, and you will find learning to dive easier if you are comfortable in the water.
Courses do have a ‘swim test’ but this is not timed, and there is no set criteria for which stroke to use. If you are more comfortable using a mask, snorkel, and fins, some courses offer the option of a slightly longer distance for this ‘test.'
How old do you have to be to learn to dive?
For eight and nine-year-olds there are some specially designed scuba experiences which are simply ways to do what the big kids are doing. They take place in the pool or are limited to very shallow water and are great fun for children that love the water.
At ten years old children can take the full open water course, but their depth is limited until they are twelve years old when they are treated the same as an adult student diver.
I wear glasses or contact lenses, will I be able to see underwater?
If you wear contact lenses, then you should just carry on as normal. It hardly ever happens, but it is possible that the water can cause you to lose a lens; pack some spares just in case, and you should be okay. If you don’t wear contact lenses but need glasses to see, then there are masks available with prescription lenses and some stick-on lenses that can be applied to masks.
Prescription masks are more expensive that those with clear glass so do check if the school you are learning with has any for hire first; not many have them available, but it is worth asking just in case you decide scuba diving isn’t for you.
If you love it, then you will need to purchase your own as you can’t rely on availability in the future. More commonly though, you will have to buy a mask upfront, so make sure you get good advice on fitting a mask for your face; one size does not fit all, and there is a remarkable range.
Are there any other requirements?
There is a medical form which needs to be completed before you can start diving. The form queries many conditions which can have implications while diving. Just because you answer yes to an item listed doesn’t mean that you can’t dive, it means that you need to have a doctor certify that you are fit to dive.
It is worth noting that not all doctors have the same level of understanding of dive physiology and it is possible that a physician who specializes in dive medicine will clear you to dive, whereas a doctor with limited knowledge of the subject may just say no to err on the side of caution.
Also remember that if you plan to learn to dive while on holiday, you should have a look at this form before you go. If you have any of the conditions listed, get the required clearance before you go.
The form also asks if you can walk a mile in 12 minutes. This question is about your general level of fitness. You don’t need to be super fit to learn to dive but if you are overweight and out of shape you will find diving harder, and you do put yourself and those you are diving with at greater risk.
Do I need a qualification to scuba dive?
Technically, no, you don’t. Most agencies offer a way that you can jump in and give scuba diving a try without committing to a course to get your license. Taster dives, called Discover Scuba Dive by PADI or referred to as try scuba or try dives, take you into the pool or sometimes ocean to shallow depths for an underwater experience.
You do need to learn some basics about using your regulator and how to get water out of your mask, but otherwise, your instructor takes care of everything else for you.
To be in control of yourself and your dive and be able to dive independently of an instructor, but with a buddy, you will need to take a course to earn a license. Training will ensure that you understand the safety aspects of scuba, how your gear works, how to look after yourself, find your way around, and safely plan and execute a dive
What’s a diving agency? Which one is best for me?
PADI is probably the best-known dive agency, but there are many more: - BSAC, SSI, TDI, SDI, NAUI, CMAS, IANTD, RAID and this list is far from complete. All of these companies produce course outlines and student and instructor materials to support each course outline.
You should note however that a PADI scuba instructor does not work for PADI, they will work for a dive centre or school or maybe even for themselves. The dive agencies sell membership and course materials to the instructors and schools who use them.
Agencies are governed by the WRSTC, the World Recreational Scuba Training Council, who set minimum course standards. You should consider that the science, knowledge, skills, and techniques required to learn to scuba dive are the same – think about it – how can they be different?
The subtle differences in course outlines lie in the terminology they use, the way the materials are presented and the way the course is structured. So which is best for you, to be honest, it’s usually a question of what is available to you at the location you are choosing to learn to dive.
What you should be looking for is a safe, careful, patient and experienced instructor teaching in small groups who has access to all the necessary gear, materials and environment.
Check out our article if you'd like to compare BSAC to PADI
Is my licence valid everywhere?
A scuba diving license from any agency is valid anywhere in the world even if the organization you are diving with is not affiliated with that same agency that you qualified with. Further, just because you take your first course with PADI, for example, it doesn’t mean any further training courses that you want to take has to be with PADI too, qualifications are interchangeable. Each training course has a minimum entry requirement regardless of agency.
What will I do on my course?
Learning to dive can be split into three main areas.
2. Shallow water skills development
This is where your practical skills start.
- You will learn how to put scuba diving equipment together, its functionality, how you use it, and how to take it off and put it on.
- You will execute mini-dives in shallow water. The environment doesn’t have to be in a swimming pool, but it should have swimming pool like conditions; shallow, clear and calm.
- You will learn; - how to breathe from your snorkel and regulator and how to clear them of water, how to get water out of your mask, how to move using scuba gear and how to control your position in the water, how to ascend and descend and you will practice emergency procedures too.
3. Open water dives
This is where you put all you have learned together and make open water dives.
You will practice all the skills, techniques and emergency procedures again as well as planning and executing a dive using a variety of entry, descent and ascent techniques.
You will tour a dive site and fine tune your buoyancy control and propulsion techniques and learn a little about navigating your way around too.
Where should I learn to dive?
The answer to this depends on a few things. If you have a scuba diving center close to you, and you feel that you would dive in your home country and not just on holiday, then go and check them out. Go and have a chat to them, meet the instructors and find out how their courses are structured.
If you want to dive at home, it's important to see if they have an active club or program of dive trips and outings. If you have a few choices locally then you likely live somewhere that has local dive spots, so do go and speak to a few before making your choice.
If you feel that you would just dive on holiday due to temperature, location or the availability of time then why not choose your next holiday location around learning to dive. Make sure you choose somewhere that has calm waters and is not prone to current.
If you do decide to learn to dive on holiday but have a local center close to you, know that you can split your course and do some of your course at home; breaking your course up like this will save you time on holiday. Note that many agencies now offer the choice of doing your theory work online too.
How long does it take to learn to dive?
Technically you can complete a full open water course in as little as four full days, and this will be the likely scenario if you learn to dive while on holiday. If you don’t want to take this amount of time out of your holiday, you can split your course up. Many agencies offer you the possibility of doing your theory online or through an app which is reviewed by your instructor; this means no classroom sessions.
Further, if you have a local dive center you can do your shallow water training with them before you go; this means all you have to complete when you arrive at your destination are your open water training dives. Do note that if you are splitting your course up like this, then you need to stick to the same agency.
If you are learning to dive at home, you will often find the course split into sections over several weeks; the schedule is likely to include evening sessions for pool and theory work and, depending on where you live, maybe a trip away for your dives.
More and more dive schools are steering their students towards independent learning for the theory portion of their course, so you might find yourself learning at home with your computer or device.
Some agencies, PADI and SSI being two of them, offer a qualification course which is shorter than the full open water course. PADI call their course PADI Scuba Diver and SSI call theirs SSI Scuba Diver. It is still a qualification but limits the depth you are allowed to dive to and states that, until you take further training, you need to dive under the supervision of a professional.
By taking this shorter course first, you could break learning to dive in half over two holidays. The other advantage of this shorter course come in if you are doing this as a family and your children are on the younger end of the scale.
This shorter course leaves the more complicated and maybe scary-for-children portions out which means they can just get on with the business of enjoying the marine life and top up to the full certification on their next holiday.
Do I need to buy equipment?
What equipment you need depends on the place you choose to learn to dive. If you are learning on holiday, the dive center is unlikely to have any requirements for equipment purchase. A good mask and snorkel are always a great investment, and you should have a proper fitting on your course and probably a range to choose from and try during your course too.
In this case, I would advise buying whatever mask it is that you have tried and that you have found comfortable and leak free. If you are going to the tropics or somewhere sunny, then I would strongly advise buying a rash vest. A rash vest is a t-shirt like garment made of thin material, usually spandex, nylon, or polyester, that you can wear while snorkeling or underneath a wetsuit.
Some people who try scuba diving get bitten by the bug and instantly know that it will be a lifelong passion for them. Others grow into the sport more slowly and collect gear as their experience grows. you don't have to rush out and buy a dive knife and the top of the range regulator before you've started.
The advantage is that it offers sun protection; get a long-sleeved one, and you won’t have to worry about sunburn while out on the boat, and you won’t be dumping chemicals into the ocean either.
Learning to dive at home, can be slightly different and each center will have its policy on what gear they ask you to buy. There is likely to be a requirement for investment in some equipment which might be a mask, snorkel and fin package but it could be more.
How much is the course?
The cost of learning to dive is set by the dive school and not the agency and costs vary widely.
In locations popular with backpackers where competition for students is high, you can pay as little as USD270-300 for your course. In a place like that with many options spend some time looking for a centre that teaches in small groups and gets great reviews from previous students and, if you can, go and check a few out before making your decision.
Learning to dive in the UK can cost USD500 for your course which may not include extras like accommodation if you need to travel to take your open water dives.