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By: Torben Lonne, PADI-Certified MSDT Instructor

Scuba Dive 101:

Learn to Scuba Dive:
What You Need to Know

This article will outline how to get a recreational scuba diving certification. It will outline everything a beginner diver needs to consider before signing up for a scuba class, either at home or while on vacation.

It's easy to get certified. Read on and you’ll find out what you can expect from scuba diving lessons.

You’ll learn how certification will allow you to confidently dive in the open water and travel to beautiful dive spots around the world.

Diver surrounded by brilliant marine life
Diving with a buddy, surrounded by brilliant marine life is the basic promise of what awaits you when you get certified
Photograph by Torben Lonne

Look out for links about equipment, the marine environment, health considerations and practical suggestions to safely guide you into the majesty of the underwater world.

This is an introduction for people who have only dreamed about scuba diving. Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s an activity that promotes well-being and respect for the planet and its creatures. You’re not wrong.

“People protect what they love.”

- Jacques Cousteau

What is scuba diving?

Scuba diving provides something for everyone. It’s a hobby, a sport, a form of tourism, a spiritual activity, and a lifestyle.

The SCUBA acronym stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. In simple terms, scuba diving means strapping a tank of air on your back so you can breathe underwater.

It is the key to adventure around beautiful coral reefs, swimming among fish for periods generally up to an hour.

Dive through beautiful corals

Part of a scuba diver’s gear includes an inflatable vest, called a buoyancy control device (BCD). This kit allows you to float on the surface and better regulate your depth when swimming underwater.

Because of the BCD, you don’t have to necessarily be an expert swimmer to go scuba diving.

Read more about Scuba Diving’s history on Wikipedia.

Do I need to get certified?

Taking scuba diving lessons makes good sense. Done right, scuba diving is not dangerous. But there are some risks when training and guidelines are not followed.

So get certified. It’s not legally required, but it is factually the wisest bit of knowledge you can get for yourself. It's to your own benefit, for the well-being of the ocean, and others in the open water.

PADI, SSI, SDI, and NAUI are some of the major certifying bodies for scuba divers. When you take a scuba diving certification course, it’s their curriculum one learns, taught by professionals at dive shops and resorts. They share a similar standard of quality and practice.

Taking scuba diving lessons will empower you to safely explore the ocean and all its creatures under the water. In other words, by getting scuba certified you will maximize your experience by minimizing dangers.

Students in actual diving in a pool

Can I dive without getting certified?

Yes, but just on a trial basis under supervision. There are non-certification programs offered by resorts and dive operators for those uncertain how they might react with a mask underwater.

Some students are afraid they’ll be overwhelmed by nervousness or start to panic.

Taking one of the "discover scuba diving" options offered at dive centers gives you the chance to see if being underwater freaks you out before committing to a full open water course.

A discovery dive doesn't count toward your open water certification but it'll definitely make your first open water dives easier and more enjoyable.

During confined dives there's no need to panic. It's strange taking the first breaths through a regulator, but trained professionals make you feel safe.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
Scuba students try to breaths through a regulator

Professionals in a swimming pool or in shallow coves will assist you in a pool with scuba equipment. You get a small taste of the demands of a scuba dive without committing to a plunge into the open water.

If you’re nervous or anxious about starting scuba diving certification, this is the best way to find out if it isn't something for you. Some people find pool-side try-dives in less than 6 feet of water exciting enough without needing to try anything deeper.

Learn How to Dive: Open Water Certification

Before getting into the open water, it’s necessary to feel comfortable in aquatic conditions. The goal is to understand the basic conditions for ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience as a guest in an alien ecosystem.

Open water refers to underwater diving in an unconfined water environment. That includes the ocean, lakes or flooded quarry pits.

Before starting the course, you need to fill out a medical form that declares you fit for fight, assuming you are. Doing some training in the period before a trip is not a bad idea. If you have some type of medical condition, you will need your doctor to sign off on it.

The PADI open water certification is the most common course, but it’s not the only game in town. There are quality schools under the SSI, SDI, NAUI, CMAS, and BSAC umbrella issuing the C-card to newly-trained scuba divers the world over.

All certifications will teach you essentially the same skill-set you need to become a scuba diver.

Students in an open water course practice their communication
"Going down." Students in an open water course practice their communication, showing their instructor their intent to descend while completing confined dives.
Photograph by Torben Lonne

What do Scuba Diving Lessons teach?

Scuba diving certification is painless and fun. How long does it take? Only 3-4 days. E-learning courses allow you to jump-start your theory lessons and study at your convenience.

PADI also has a fast track course where you can get you your C-card in just 3 days. It’s quite intensive though, and will not leave much time for anything else during those 3 days.

Course material is often digital

Course material is often digital. The theory portion of a certification course
is comparable to getting a driver's license. Just with friendlier people.

Scuba diving lessons consist of 3 modules, which can be taken together in succession or split up. Certification is dependent on completing all three in order:

  1. Theory: either through e-learning resources or in a classroom,
  2. Confined water dives: in a pool or in pool-like conditions with scuba gear, and
  3. Open water dives: this includes 4 dives the student can try only after successful completion of the previous 2 sections.

Among other things, the open water course will teach you how to:

  • Plan a dive, calculating for depth and time,
  • Control your buoyancy above and below the surface,
  • Easily clear a fogged mask underwater,
  • Communicate using signals that you will learn to use underwater,
  • Use and understand scuba equipment and make sure your buddy’s gear is good to go, and
  • Understand weather phenomena so you can take appropriate actions to avoid danger

Open water courses will also teach you about how the body reacts underwater and how to avoid decompression sickness (DCS). How to recognize warning signs before they develop into hazards is important.

Kids and scuba diving

Most people wonder whether kids can go scuba diving. The answer is, absolutely--most of the time. You can take your whole family scuba diving, but you’ve got to be realistic about these things. Wishful thinking is not a highly-prized commodity in the dive industry.

Scuba diving can be problematic for kids that don’t listen. Don’t let optimism compromise anyone’s safety.

Children from 10 years-old can get a junior scuba diving certification. They need to be able to understand course materials and the rules they describe.

A junior open water diver (aka a 12 year-old) is guided by the sure hand of an instructor during her first dive in the ocean at about 10 feet.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
A junior open water diver with the instructor

PADI’s Bubblemakers program offers children as young as 8 years-old a chance to take their first scuba breathes in a controlled space. Instructors will keep a keen eye on them in a swimming pool or enclosed, shallow cove. Parents are welcome to join in at the same time, ticking that box on the list for sharing immortal moments together as a family.

The Bubblemakers course is the precursor to the Junior Open Water Diver awarded to kids between 10 and 15. Both SSI, SDI and NAUI also have a junior certificate that the cardholder can trade-in after they turn 16.

A junior scuba certification card allows the holder to dive to 40 feet as long as they are accompanied by a certified parent/guardian or a PADI professional (Divemaster/Instructor).

What does a scuba certification cost?

Pricing varies depending on the location. A complete open water course in the US or Europe will cost on average between $450 and $550. You can learn the same PADI or SSI course in Thailand, Honduras or Bali for around $300.

An American shop may offer a theory and pool portion package for $200. They sell separately the certification dives starting from around $250.

PADI and SDI’s e-learning course on its own sells online for $129. It increases in price depending on the region or country. It includes knowledge development training and access to other course resources.

The PADI Open Water Diver e-Learning resource, though is only available for a year.

An SSI open water certification, on the other hand, is cheaper because you don’t have to buy the course material. And access to their digital resources won’t expire like the PADI elearning material.

A scuba tank doesn't weigh so much in the water! A student gets a helping hand from his instructor during Module 2 of the open water scuba course in confined water.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
A student gets a helping hand from his instructor

Comparing PADI, NAUI, AND SSI.

PADI, SSI, NAUI, and SDI are the three most common diving bodies found world-wide. There is an on-going discussion amongst scuba divers about which agency is better.

Some might complain that PADI is all about sucking as much cash out of its students as it can. Others will label NAUI or SDI divers snobs.

All three provide lessons in both the recreational category of scuba diving as well as more technical courses. A specialty course like wreck-diving or night-diving is offered by all these companies.

Each certifying agency has its own different profile. They all follow the same general safety framework established by the World Recreational Scuba Diving Council (WRSDC) or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

A graduate carrying a dive certification from any one of these can dive anywhere in the world. Also with dive shops working under a competing certification umbrella.

Sea turtles with the diver
Sea turtles swim great distances. Meeting one is humbling and inspires both awe and respect for the aquatic environment.
Photograph by Torben Lonne

PADI

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) was formed in 1966 by two NAUI divers looking to expand recreational diving. PADI is by far the largest certifying body and is found all over the world.

It’s not uncommon for the biggest player in the game to also be the target of criticism both from outside and from within. PADI has mass-produced the Open Water Diver, leading all competitors in the market. Naturally, it has an interest in maintaining its advantage. So, while it may be slow to change it can ill-afford to cut corners on safety.

SSI

Scuba Schools International (SSI) offers internationally-recognized certifications since 1970. SSI teachers train students with essentially the same skills as the other agencies.

They also operate all over the world. It's been said in the scuba grapevine that an SSI instructor has more flexibility to tweak course conditions to match students.

SSI offers more niche courses, teaching divers about specific elements of the aquatic ecology, like corals, sharks, and fish identification.

A diver in a pool

NAUI

The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) is the oldest recreational scuba diving organization (est. 1959). The entry-level NAUI course called Scuba Diver differs from other schools in that a skin dive is part of the training and basic diver rescue is introduced.

It is the second biggest agency by the number of certifications and NAUI affiliates can found everywhere.

NAUI also teaches specialty courses. Beyond the night dive course, underwater archaeology is one of the more niche specialties NAUI provides.

SDI

SCUBA Diving International (SDI) is the recreational wing of Technical Divers International (TDI) established in 1999. They too teach an Open Water certification provided by instructors all over the world with the ethos of training recreational divers through the lens of technical diving.

Compared to PADI, SDI has apparently less paperwork full of disclaimers and waivers. Otherwise, the same skill-set is provided and the course structure is modular with elearning material as well.

During a deep dive an instructor ensures students are fully cognizant at depths up to 100 feet (30 meters). Notice there are two sets of buddies diving together plus their instructor.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
deep dive with the instructor and students

Diving is a business and the recreational diving industry is competitive. The success of the scuba diving paradigm, as far as making money by graduating paying students, is predicated on safety and the absence of mishap.

In doubt about which scuba school to enroll in? Start by finding a dive center or resort near you or near your destination somewhere in the world.

Always use your instincts and best judgment. Talk to your prospective instructor. If you don’t trust the scuba diving shop, just find another one! Read some online reviews.

Scuba diving lessons should be fun and almost always are.

Your entry-level license is a lifetime certificate. It’s great to have in case you at some point in the future suddenly find yourself in a setting with great diving, great weather and deserving of joy.

People establish bonds that go beyond the open water certification course

People establish bonds that go beyond the open water scuba diving certification course. When learning to dive, one gets a taste for the elation and shared wonder of the ocean.

What can you do with your scuba certification?

Now that you’re a certified diver, you know the rules to safely maximize the joy of diving. You can travel to amazing destinations and swim with whale sharks around lush coral reefs where the adventure never gets old.

Upon completion of certification, divers receive a C-card needed to rent equipment, buy air and descend to depth generally not more than 18 meters.

No matter which company issues one, your scuba certification never expires.

It’s possible to dive, at the absolute max, up to four times a day if the dives aren’t too deep. But most divers are satisfied with two, usually back-to-back, and separated by at least an hour to give your body time to decompress and release residual nitrogen.

ship wrecks
Sometimes ships are sunk on purpose to create reefs, much to the benefit of marine life and the amazement of scuba guests.
Photograph by Torben Lonne

You’re ready to explore some of the best things scuba diving can offer including wreck diving, a liveaboard adventure (a floating dive hotel), cave diving and the extreme beauty of the undersea world surrounded by aquatic life as you’ve never experienced.

If you’re not inspired by the magic and majesty of coral reefs teeming with life and colors, I dare you to check out the Worlds 10 top best dive spots and begin to plan your next holiday.

Most divers will tell you charming stories of their certification course, describing in glowing detail the collection of people they connected with. Diving during the day and regaling each other with tales of aquatic adventure in the evening is true bliss.

And for the lucky souls endowed with more time on their hands after certification, some end up getting “stranded” for extended periods, diving and finding serenity away from the inconveniently complicated world.

A father and son buddy-team begin to remove their kit following a dive. Dive boats are specialized for ease of use so getting in and out is never a challenge.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
A father and son buddy-team for diving

The cost of recreational diving

If you’re wondering how much each recreational dive costs for a certified diver, you’ve read enough to know that it depends entirely on the region. It also depends whether you’re diving with a buddy from shore or through a shop.

It’s obviously cheaper to fill a tank and find a dive site accessible from the shore than to book a tour with a dive operator on their boat for the day.

Filling a tank of air will run anywhere from $5-$10 in the States and Europe leaving you on your own for the dive.

But diving with others, your new-found tribe, is part of the attraction for some. The ease and accessibility of a package also has its appeal.

Two tanks of air, equipment, and passage on a shop’s boat may run anywhere between $25 at the absolute cheapest to $100. Some trips will run up to more, but that's often if there's a long distance by boat or car to the dive spot.

You’ll almost always find “scuba lessons near me” and you can always find dive operators close to good diving locations where lessons can be found.

A diver makes a giant-stride entry from a rocky coast

A diver makes a giant-stride entry from a rocky coast. Some prime dive spots can be accessed without a boat and shore diving can make diving cheaper.

What scuba diving equipment do I need?

Word to the wise: wait at least until you’ve tried an open water dive or two before investing in equipment.

You’ll have a better feel for what you need and what you like. All dive shops provide gear for rental when you take your scuba diving lessons, giving you the insight you can use later.

However, many people can’t help themselves, tempted by the allure of gadgets and gear. When you get your scuba license, you’ll start to think a lot about the wonderful world of scuba gear & dive equipment.

Scuba tanks strapped into BCDs with regulators attached
Scuba tanks strapped into BCDs with regulators attached, ready for divers to go out. Two weight belts lay beside the tanks.
Photograph by Torben Lonne

You'll want A well-fitting scuba mask and fins are great because you can also use them as snorkeling gear

Underwater photography can create pictures to salivate over when not diving, but you should, again, wait a bit before buying a camera. Instagram isn’t going anywhere. Just enjoy being a scuba diver for a spell or two first.

Dive computers and dive watches have become so central to planning and logging our dives. Some first-timers invest in these gadgets early on in their scuba career.

The great part about having your own computer is the accuracy of your dive it captures. Most dive computers measure dives conservatively. They will warn you if you approach a depth or length of time that might be dangerous, giving you peace of mind.

Still, planning a dive using the analog techniques from open water training should not be given up.

Otherwise, here’s a quick summary of the gear you’ll strap on when scuba diving. We’ve added some reviews of some solid kit on the market.

Basic scuba gear consists of:

Remember to rinse off the salt from your gear with fresh water after diving in the ocean. Maintenance of your gear is important if you want it to last and continue to work as expected. You'll want to get your reg serviced every few years too. Do this at most dive shops.

Again, if you have NO previous experience diving it’s probably wise to wait to buy your scuba gear until after you’ve gone through at least some of your open water course.

Practical Concerns

Read our 11 tips to safer diving, but here are some quick tidbits of advice. When planning a scuba dive, no matter where it is, remember you SHOULDN’T FLY within 18 hours after your last dive. So plan accordingly.

Likewise, if you have any ear problems (ie.: infections) related to a cold, you might find equalizing on the way down uncomfortable. Talk to your instructor.

Checking to see if travel insurance covers any cancelations due to illness or injuries due to scuba diving makes sense. And scuba diving insurance doesn’t cost particularly much. We’ve curated some advice about getting insurance for scuba diving for you to read.

A diver depresses a release valve on his BCD to lose air in order to descend in the training pool.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
A diver depresses a release valve on his BCD

 Wondering if you can wear glasses when diving? You cannot because it means your mask cannot properly seal. If you wear glasses you get a prescription dive mask with glass corrected for your needs or Contact lenses are also an option for most divers. 

If you suffer any health conditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure or epilepsy, you will need your doctor’s aproval before starting ouy diving. Get them to fill out a medical questionnaire to advise you of the risks and prevent the dive shop from keeping you out of the water.

Best be weary of an evil hangover striking. Dehydration and pressure don’t always make for good bedfellows below the surface. It goes without saying how the natural tendency is to celebrate our experiences in the company of our fellow travelers in the evenings. But, accepting reality for what it is, just use good judgment.

So eat and drink, but do it responsibly. Your dive buddy needs you the next day to keep scuba diving the awesome life-enhancing activity that it is.

How safe is scuba diving?

Scuba diving has an excellent safety record. There are millions of recreational divers, diving every year and so few accidents.

Diving is safer than both driving and skydiving. The Divers Alert Network (DAN), a scuba-focused think tank, estimates that there are probably fewer than 2 deaths for every million recreational dives.

Procedural errors or failure to properly follow rules or protocols is the leading cause of scuba diving mishaps. Data collected by DAN reveals that many injuries and fatalities result from bad judgment calls. Often, these calamities involve more experienced divers rather than tragedies involving beginner divers randomly struck down.

Scuba diving certification provides you with guidelines to avoid risk. Remember your training so you can safely enjoy the dive.

Read our 10 things scuba divers should know.

two air hoses on a regulator
There are two air hoses on a regulator. The secondary can be used by a buddy should the need arise.
Photograph by Torben Lonne

Upgrading your scuba certificate

Now that you’ve scratched the surface of scuba diving, you can try the more technical scuba courses too.

With the advanced diving certification, sometimes called open water 2, night diving will reveal another universe within the ocean. Illuminated are the true colors of the sea by torch-lite, showing the warm colors that otherwise disappear at depth. Apropos depth, next-level certification includes a deep dive to up to 30 meters.

But don’t fret beginner divers. While deep diving can appeal to thrill-seekers, the colors of lush coral reefs, as well as verdant marine life is brilliant within the 60-feet range.

Next level certification will teach you to locate and help divers in distress. It’ll teach the tools needed to handle emergencies in the rare case that it may occur, allowing you to savor Neptune’s kingdom.

Some of the very fortunate few will roll straight from their benediction as a diver right into the Advanced Open Water course with the same friends. There are a lot of dive locations swelling with such dive enthusiasts.

As far as romantic experiences go, nothing can really compare to the intimacy of scuba diving with your lover.
Photograph by Torben Lonne
scuba diving with your lover

Some people cannot help but submit to the allure of the ocean, pursuing a career as a professional scuba diver. For me, it was a means to stay on an island with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was taking the advanced open water course with me. That quirky slipstream of fate led through a divemaster and produced a romance with two kids.

Divemaster is the first professional level giving you a license to work for a shop guiding certified divers, while instructor level graduates are self-evidently didactic. One good thing with this career is that you’re making a living doing what you love.

A career in diving allows you to travel the world and meet many unique people in beautiful settings. But be warned. It just might change your life! In the words of Jacques Cousteau, “the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

What about sharks?

You don’t need to be afraid of sharks. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to see one on a dive, contrary to making you panic, the encounter will likely leave you with a new appreciation of these creatures.

Catching a glimpse of a whale shark, a placid fish that also happens to be the biggest in the sea is a rare gift.

Staying safe with sharks in the water is easily done. Only by feeding these greatly misunderstood fish by hand do scuba divers approach a dangerous scenario. And even then injuries and death are both few and far between.

While there are only a few cases of sharks randomly biting scuba divers, the number of incidents does not warrant being afraid of a shark attack.

Does scuba diving hurt the environment?

A scuba certification teaches respect for the ocean and its creatures and corals. Don’t touch anything and don’t leave anything behind is taught. “Take only pictures, leave only bubbles,” we say.

A properly trained scuba diver knows the Dos and Don’ts of scuba diving. When a diver is a witness to damage or destruction, it is mourned. Read more about a diver’s impact on a coral reef for more guidelines on how to avoid harming the ecosystem.

We are also guardians of the sea, picking up trash and able to report when something is amiss like overfishing or illegal drilling.

Being a responsible diver is self-evident and requires very little brainwashing to generate respect. We are visitors and quickly learn to behave appropriately. Coral reefs, for example, are not to be touched nor harvested for souvenirs.

The one time I accidentally scuffed my arm against a wall in a cave, I had to tangle with a stubborn wound that just didn’t want to heal. That was the last time I touched anything other than an anchor line while diving.

Conclusion

Most people can’t wait to jump into the ocean with a tank of air on their back. But, be warned. Some divers experience a type of spiritual awakening that changes their lives forever.

The people you meet along the way may become great friends. You may suddenly be part of a tribe that spans the continents, giving you a totally new network.

Scuba diving in the open water is tranquility itself in a sublime sea of living poetry. Being a scuba diver is a way of life, with its own community and language and a path to respect and protect the marine environment.

But before you can kit-up with a scuba tank on your back and back-roll into waters around the great barrier reef, you need to get trained.

If you’ve read this far, you’re likely well on your way to adventure. Good diving.

If you have any questions about getting certified, getting started or about getting into more technical diving, drop us a line in the comment field below. It may also help another curious soul who reads it.

1 Comment

  1. David Tombs

    In this article you say that NAUI is the oldest diving agency formed in 1959. BSAC was formed in 1953.

    Reply

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