Friday, July 9, 2010

Apple #469: Your First SCUBA Lesson

I just got home from my first scuba lesson, and I LOVED it!  I am so excited, I couldn't wait to tell you about it.  Well, I also wanted to do this entry because I had many questions before the lesson and I couldn't find answers online, so this is for anybody else about to take their first lesson in scuba diving so they'll know what to expect.  But before I get into all that, let me just say again how much I LOVED IT!  It was so cool!

If you like to swim, if you like being underwater, and if you ever get the chance to scuba, you should totally try it out.  It's like a dream come true, being able to breathe underwater about the same as you would out of the water.  You get to swim around, and you've got the big flippers on, so your leg kicks are much more powerful than they'd be with your feet alone so with just a little bit of effort you're cruising, and meanwhile, your whole body is underwater, but you're breathing in and out like normally.  It's really phenomenal.  And I didn't even do that much tonight.  Oooh, I'm excited.

Okay, I'm going to try to calm down enough to tell you what I want to say.  My purpose with this entry is really to tell people what to expect the first time they take a scuba lesson.

One note about terminology first.  Scuba is really an acronym.  It stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.  So really I should put the word in allcaps every time I use it.  But that will get annoying and shouty, so I'm just going to call it scuba.  Scuba, scuba, scuba.

All this equipment might look weird, and it might feel weird wearing it out of the water, but once you're in the water, you'll appreciate all the fantastic things it does for you and all it will enable you to do.
(Photo from Vai Diving)

  • If you want to do any scuba diving, you need to get certified first.  All scuba certification means is that you've been properly trained in all the safety procedures, you know how to use the equipment, and you and your diving buddy can have a fun, safe dive.
  • There are more advanced training classes you can take if you want to do more advanced or exotic things like cave diving, or if you want to be able to do scuba diving for a job -- underwater ship repair, for example, or marine biology research.  But if you want to go scuba diving just for fun and recreation, you need to get a basic level of certification.
  • I should qualify that by saying that a lot of dive shops and other places that do certification classes will often offer what's called a "discovery dive."  This is sort of like a mini version of the first certification course.  It gets you in the water, gives you a chance to try out the equipment, see if you like it, see how you like being underwater, without having to pay the full price for the complete set of certification classes.
  • The certification, by the way, does not expire.  Once you're certified, you're good to go for life.  Carry your certification card with you and they'll let you dive wherever you go.  Even if you don't take another refresher course ever, as long as you've got your certification card, you're still qualified. 

This is what the PADI certification card looks like.
(Photo by appaloosa on Flickr)

    • Okay, so say you've decided you want to get certified.  There are three major associations which manage the whole certification process, and a dive shop may offer classes through one or some or all.
    • The first association is PADI.  This is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.  This is the one you'll probably want to do if you're scuba-ing for fun and recreation.  It's also the largest association of scuba instructors.  Your nearest dive shop is most likely to offer PADI instruction.
    • NAUI is the National Association of Underwater Instructors.  This one operates globally, and it's very similar to PADI but it does have some more technical aspects.  Apparently it's better to go this route if you want to get certified for employment purposes.
    • SSI or Scuba Schools International is similar to PADI, but it is not as widespread.  It's headquartered in Colorado so there are a lot of SSI schools around there.  It's also big in Southeast Asia. [shrugs]
    • There are other associations which train people in scuba diving, particularly outside the US.  But these three are the most common in North America.
    • The initial certification class, if you go the PADI route, is called Open Water Diving.  That name sounds like you'll be jumping right into the water with the tank on and told to swim for it all by yourself, but it's not that way at all.
    • The Open Water Diving course mixes in-classroom instruction and in-the-water training. In the first three sessions you'll spend half the time in the classroom and the other half in the water.
    • During the classroom part, you'll watch some videos prepared by the PADI people that demonstrate the basics of the equipment, explain buoyancy, describe what happens to your lungs and your ears as you descend to deeper waters, and what happens as you ascend to the surface, etc.
    • You'll take really short multiple choice quizzes which test how well you've absorbed these basics, but don't worry too much about those quizzes.  They're very low-key, it's okay if you get some answers wrong, you can ask your instructor questions about things you didn't understand, and it's up to your instructor to make sure you get it.
    • During the second half of the class, the instructor will take you to the swimming pool or to a shallow, contained area in a lake or springs.  He or she will show you how to choose a mask that fits -- that's very important -- how the air tanks work, and how to attach the regulator to the air tank.  

    (Photo of a complete regulator from
    • The regulator is actually a group of four hoses.  They all connect in the center at what's called the first stage.  This is where the compressed air coming out of the tank gets decompressed to the surrounding air pressure level so you can breathe normally.  The four hoses each have their own purpose.  
    • Reading from top down, right to left, the first one has a pressure gauge on it so you can see how much air is left in the tank.  It also contains a compass.  
    • The second one connects to the BCD vest (more on that in a moment).  
    • Over on the left, the one with the big round thing on the end of it is your alternate air source.  This one is in case your buddy runs out of air.  You can give this one to your buddy and the two of you can breathe from your tank.  Or if something goes wrong with your air source, you can use this one as a back-up.
    • On the top left, the one with the most complicated-looking gizmo on the end of it is the one you breathe through.  The whole system of hoses is called a regulator, but this one mouthpiece gizmo is also called the regulator, or the second stage.

    In this photo, they're showing you both the first stage -- where the cluster of hoses connects to the air tank, that's the part in the background -- and the second stage, which is the part you breathe into, in the foreground.  The mouthpiece part is facing away from the camera.  That's the part you put in your mouth and you can grip onto it pretty well with your teeth, though you don't really need to clench hard.  The silver part facing the camera has a button you can push to clear water out of the regulator if you need to, but most of the time you probably won't need to.
    (Photo from Underwater Diving Equipment)

      • The instructor will also show you how the BCD vest works.  The BCD vest is a a totally cool device.  BCD stands for Buoyancy Compensator (diving).  The diving is in parentheses because there's a similar device for aviation which is called the BCA.  This vest is made of nylon, and it's got all sorts of velcro straps around it.  There are some at the back that strap and clip around the air tank, and there are some at the front that strap and clip around you.  But wait, there's more.
        • There are also built-in pouches where you can stow weights.  It may not seem like you'd want weights, but when you've got the vest on and the air tank, and if you're wearing a wet suit, which is extremely buoyant, you'd probably bob at the surface and pretty awkwardly, too.  The weights will help you get below the surface of the water.  After that, the breathing pretty much takes care of the rest. 

        You can see how this BCD vest clips twice in the front.  Those purple things on the side with what looks like orange seat belt fasteners are where the weights go.  They slide into the pouches and then clip to the orange things.  If you need to lose your weights fast, unclip the orange things and fling the weights away.
        (This vest sells for $235 from Scuba -- or it used to anyway.  It's now either out of stock or been discontinued.)

          • The best and most coolest thing about the BCD vest is that it INFLATES.  There's an accordion tube on the left side of the vest which connects to a hose to your air tank.  The accordion tube has two buttons on the end of it, one to inflate, and one to deflate.  Push the button, your vest inflates, and you rise in the water.  Push the other button, your vest deflates, and you sink.  If you're at the surface, push the button to inflate the vest, it blows up, and instantly you feel light almost as air and you hardly even have to tread water.  Marvelous.

          On this BCD vest, the accordion tube where the inflation/deflation happens is very visible.  I'm not sure I like the zipper on this vest, though.  Too easy to get stuck.  I'd rather have the clip & releases instead.
          (This vest sells for $479 from Scuba

          • All these gadgets have back-ups or fail-safes in case something goes wrong with them.  In the case of the BCD inflator/deflator thing, if the buttons quit working, you can also hit a bypass and blow into the accordion tube and inflate it with your mouth.  There's also a little pull-knob on the right side of the vest which is kind of like a rip cord.  Pull that and the thing deflates. Ingenious.  I mean, really.  The people who invented these things thought of everything.  It's kind of like having your very own Bat-vest.
          • So you get introduced to the BCD, you're shown how to strap in the air tank, connect the regulator, put everything on, and get into the water.  Once you're in the water with all your gear on, the instructor will show you how to breathe with the regulator.  If you can breathe through your mouth, you can breathe with a regulator.
          • You put the mouthpiece in your mouth and lower your face into the water.  Instinctively, you'll hold your breath.  But the next second, you'll want to inhale.  And it's okay.  You can inhale through your mouth with the regulator in with no trouble.  The compressed air does some of the work for you, so in a way, it's even less taxing to breathe with the regulator and tank underwater than without.  When you exhale, breathe out through your mouth.  Keep the regulator in your mouth and the air bubbles will push out around and past the regulator just fine.  When you're ready to inhale again, do.  It's that simple.

          See?  Breathing underwater is all OK.  Oh, you'll also learn hand signals to use underwater.  This is OK.  Thumbs-up does not mean OK, but let's go to the surface.  I'm going to have to get used to that.
          (Photo from Aquaviews)

            • If you've ever snorkled, you know how water can get into your snorkel tube and get all bubbly and burbly in there and kind of unpleasant.  You would think that even more water would get into the scuba regulator, but in fact the opposite is true.  Unless you take the regulator out of your mouth, you don't sense any water in the way at all.
            • You will take the regulator out of your mouth, though.  This is one of the things the instructor will teach you how to do because you need to be prepared in case something happens on a dive and you'll know that it's really not a big deal at all getting the regulator back in your mouth.

            This is what the in-the-pool part of the class looks like.  You're underwater with all your gear on, and so is the instructor.  He'll have shown you on the surface what's about to happen, then you'll all go underwater and he'll show it to you again.  Then he'll show each of you individually, and you need to do what he does back to him.  In this photo, the instructor is demonstrating how to take off your mask underwater and put it back on (this particular lesson isn't until the second class, though).
            (Photo from Scuba Diving Brazil)

              • You'll practice taking out the regulator, continuing to exhale through your mouth without it, and putting it back in.  When you do, there will be a very small amount of water in the regulator.  There's a button you can push on the back of the regulator that will shoot it out, or you can huff a little bit harder into the regulator than a regular exhale and that will clear it.  It's really easy because the equipment is so ingeniously designed.
              • So during your first class, you'll practice a lot of breathing things, you'll practice clearing water out of your mask -- this is a little tricky because it involves breathing out through your nose, and since you've been breathing only through your mouth for some time, you have to sort of re-route your breathing -- and you'll practice dealing with the change in pressure as you descend to deeper water and getting your ears to pop like you do when you fly a plane.
              • Once you get to swim around a bit on your own, you'll see that scuba-ing is actually really relaxing.  You have to keep breathing in and out so that your lungs can keep adjusting to changes in pressure, and it's best if your breaths are long and slow and deep.  That deep, slow breathing combined with the way things move a little bit more slowly underwater make it all a pretty calm, relaxing experience. 
              • So what you learn in the first class is all pretty basic, low-key stuff.  No need to batten down the hatches or go into major scuba-preparation mode or anything like that.  You'll be in a classroom, you'll be in the water, you'll learn some new stuff.
              • You'll want to eat a decent breakfast that day and a good lunch, too, but don't overdo it.  It's not as big a deal how much you eat or what you eat before your first training class as it is before you do an actual dive.  But, you know, be nice to your body.  It's going to learn a new skill today.
              • It's also a good idea to drink a little more water throughout the day than you normally would.  You'll be breathing through your mouth which dries things out a bit in there, you'll be in the water which requires more energy than you think it will, and if you're training in a pool, the chlorine will dry you out.  So some extra water in your system will be helpful.
              • Most dive shops will let you use their equipment as part of the cost of the classes, so all you'll need to bring is a bathing suit and a towel.
                • That's it!  It's great.  Have I mentioned that?  I loved it.  I can't wait until my next class, which is next week. 
                • Oh, right, that's just the first class.  There are three of these classroom/pool classes, and then there's the fourth part, which is the open water dive part.  That's when you have to put together everything you learned in the classes and demonstrate to your instructor that you know what you're doing.  

                This is an open water dive class in Alexander Springs, Florida.
                (Photo from Dayo Scuba)

                  • You have to do four dives in all, split between two days, so you'll do two dives per day.  This fourth part you can do within a year of completing the first three classes.  You can do them with your local dive shop, or you can go on your vacation and have the dude at the equipment rental place in Jamaica or wherever you're going do the open water dives with you to complete your certification. 
                  • Once that's done, you'll get your card with your photo on it, and you can scuba scuba scuba to your heart's content.

                  This could be you.
                  (Photo of scuba diver in Bunaken National Park, Indonesia, from Scuba Diving in the World)

                  PADI site
                  The Scuba Guide, Scuba Certification
                  Nicholas McLaren,, Scuba Diving Certification Agencies
                  Aquaviews, A Scuba Divers Diet Questions Answered
                  Scubadoc, Nutrition and Scuba Diving


                  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                    1. Doh! I clicked the wrong button and accidentally deleted this comment. Here's what it said:

                      Thank you so much for this. I'm writing a story where the main characters learn to scuba dive and I was clueless as to how the classes would go. This helps a lot :)

                    2. And now here's my actual reply:

                      Thanks for letting me know! I have relied on other people's sites on other topics for exactly the same reason. I'm glad to be able to pass along the favor. Such a handy thing, this internet, isn't it? Best of luck with your story!


                  If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!