You are reading this so chances are you are ready to take the plunge and get your scuba certification. Or maybe you have just rewatched Little Mermaid to prepare yourself for the live movie version and thought: wouldn’t that be cool? Or you are sitting somewhere by the ocean and just saw a ripped guy carrying a tank or two and need a reason to talk to him. Or or or…
Regardless of what brought you here, welcome! I hope this post will inspire you to get your scuba diving certification or at least to dip your toes underwater. I have been diving for a little over 4 years now and to be honest, besides diving myself nothing makes me happier but to encourage new divers to give this magical underworld a try.
I stumbled across diving a bit by accident and to be honest, I cannot quite remember what made me get my open water. It wasn’t some big decision but rather my dad agreeing to get me my scuba certification for my birthday and since I was already in Thailand I thought ‘why not?’. As unexciting as my decision making sounds, the diving itself was anything but and I can still remember my awe of being able to hover in close proximity over a little Nemo and my anger when my instructor told me it was time to come up again.
Since then I have had plenty of underwater adventures, become a PADI divemaster, and also realized that while many are interested in scuba diving, the decision to take that plunge is not as easy for most. Many questions revolve around how to go about signing up for scuba diving lessons and so I thought I would try my best to answer the most common ones in one post.
The ins & outs of getting your scuba certification
Scuba Diving Organizations
There are quite a few different scuba organizations with the most popular being PADI ( Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International). There are a few others like NAUI but most high frequented dive areas will offer either PADI, SSI or both. For a beginner, it doesn’t really matter which one you chose as the fundamentals of the Open Water course are pretty much the same. SSI tends to be a little cheaper as they don’t require you to buy your textbook and instead, you can borrow it or read the materials online.
To get your SSI Open Water or your PADI certification you will need to do confined water sessions which are usually done in a pool or very shallow water as well as some dives in open water like an ocean or a lake. In both environments, you will need to master a few skills and in addition, there are some theoretical lessons and a small exam at the end.
Which organization you chose is entirely up to you and in my opinion not so important for a beginner. What I find much more important is to find an instructor that you like and get along with. Unfortunately, that can be tricky if you make arrangements on the internet or if there are limited dive centers in your area. While I got lucky with my Open Water instructor I didn’t get so lucky when I returned to the same dive center a few years later to become a divemaster. My former instructor had moved on and I was stuck with some teachers that I didn’t get along with all so well.
With that said, if you have the chance I would recommend to actually walk into a few dive centers, check out the facilities, speak to a couple of different instructors or get recommendations from friends (or in this awesome all-female scuba group).
Where to get your scuba certification
There are so many amazing places to dive in this world and chances are, there is a dive center close to where you live. You can dive in the ocean, in a pool, in lakes and quarries – if there is water, chances are there is diving.
Mind you, conditions and rates can vary greatly so it will depend on what you like and can afford. Cheap and quick courses can be found all over South East Asia while America, the Carribean, and Australia tend to be more expensive.
For me, important factors are water conditions and temperature as I tend to get cold very easily so Thailand was a perfect choice for me. Bad visibility and strong currents didn’t sound appealing to me though I dare say learning in more challenging conditions do make you a better diver in the long run – I still don’t like diving in currents and murky waters and consider myself an all-around warm water diver.
Mind you, I don’t consider that a bad thing and have noticed that quite a few new divers forget all about their fears and insecurities as soon as they see a cool fish or some pretty corals. There is a funny psychology to it which will let you forget all the alleged hardships of diving and jump straight to the reward – seeing one Nemo is often good enough reason to just power through!
Here are some of my favorite areas I have dived in that I would highly recommend for your scuba certification:
Cozumel in Mexico: While there can be some strong currents, the water is warm and the visibility is insane!
Koh Tao in Thailand: There are many dive centers to choose from, great prices and some pretty, easy dive sites.
Raja Ampat in Indonesia: Actually scratch this. Go to Raja Ampat a bit later in your diving life because starting here will spoil you forever – there is no place more beautiful or with more abundant marine life.
Mabul Island in Borneo: Mabul Island is adjacent to the world-famous Sipadan and while I don’t advise on the latter for a new diver (learned that the hard way), the dive sites around Mabul offer easy diving and some great macro life – it’s like a live version of “Where is Waldo?”.
Maldives Liveaboard: Getting certified on a liveaboard is not always possible as many will request a minimum amount of dives but if you are really keen I think a liveaboard is a great place to get your scuba certification. Not only will you get to see some amazing stuff but you will also get a ton of practice immediately after you are done with your Open Water which I think is invaluable.
Depending on the location getting your Open Water certification (OW) can take anywhere between two days and a week. This depends on how quickly you master your skills but also on the dive center. Many holiday destinations offer quick courses as they know that holidaymakers don’t want to spend a lot of time studying. While I understand the reasoning behind it, some skills simply need a bit of practice and some divers may need to take a little longer to master them. While most dive centers don’t like failing people you will need to manage those skills and offering courses that are too short creates unnecessary pressure for some. If you feel yourself struggling there is no shame in asking for some extra lessons – after all, practice makes perfect and this way you get to spend more time underwater!
How to become an Open Water Diver
Passing your Open Water course will technically allow you to dive to 18m unsupervised with a buddy. Whether you chose SSI or PADI doesn’t matter, once you have passed you are in and will get your brevet which is accepted at dive shops everywhere. I say technically because before you should go out on your own with your buddy you should gain more experience and dives under your belt and also know how to plan your own dives as well as navigate underwater.
But still, passing the Open Water certification is the first step to enjoy fun dives which are usually conducted in a small group and lead by a divemaster. They are as the name implies all about having fun – you don’t need to worry about doing skills anymore once you have passed your Open Water.
Here is what you need in order to get your scuba certification:
To be honest, I always sucked in physics badly. But love it or hate it physics is an important part of diving and when you study to become an Open Water diver you will at least need to master some basics about pressure and what it does to your body in various depths. These aspects are important so you understand how to control your buoyancy, calculate how long you can stay underwater, and how to avoid decompression illness like the bends or a lung squeeze. The latter sounded scary enough for me to pay attention, something my physic’s teacher never got me to do in high school.
Both SSI and PADI offer a manual which will teach you all about diving theory and yes, you will need to read and study it. Some things you can learn by doing, others need to be studied and practiced on dry land before as your life may depend on them. There is also a short exam you will need to pass to get your Open Water certification. Don’t worry, it is multiple choice and chances are if you have read and understood your study materials you won’t fail.
Today both organization offer the option to do your theory online beforehand. This can be quite convenient if you choose to get your OW while on holiday and don’t want to waste any time in the classroom. However, I enjoyed those classes and having an instructor talk me through things and be available to answer all of my questions in person.
Practical Skills you learn during Open Water Certification
To complete your Open Water diver you will need to master a few practical skills. While I dare say that diving is pretty effortless unlike other sports (yes looking at you, surfing!) and there is an amount of instant gratification, there are some things you will need to practice.
That starts with the basic equipment and how to set it up. You will learn how to fit a mask and fins correctly, and how to connect your new BFFs and what they do: regulator, BCD, and tank. In short – the tank has the air (not oxygen as so many think, but regular air with 21% oxygen and 79 % nitrogen for starters – pure oxygen would be dangerous at depth!) and the regulator connects to the tank allowing me to breathe through a mouthpiece. The BCD, short for buoyancy control device, looks a bit like a life vest and is also connected to the air from the tank and is in charge of helping you to get neutrally buoyant aka float underwater.
As a diver, you need to be able to set up your equipment and check it to make sure that all is working. Once you are underwater there are a couple of skills to master which include clearing water out of your mask, retrieving your regulator, and how to communicate with your dive buddy via signals. You will also practice neutral buoyancy, how to ascend and descend using both your lungs and the air in your BCD, equalize your mask and your ears, and what to do in an emergency. While all that sounds overwhelming to a new diver, your course should give you plenty of time to practice and it is important to remember that getting your scuba certification is just the beginning.
Things to consider before getting your scuba certification
- You will need special insurance for diving as regular travel insurance doesn’t cover a trip to the decompression chamber. Most divers use DAN, but also companies like World Nomads have the option to cover dive trips. Once you have settled on a dive center check with them if comprehensive dive insurance is included in the rate for your Open Water course.
- You will also need a doctor’s clearance before diving and sign that you are in good health before you can start your course.
- Oddly enough one of the most common questions from people who are interested in learning how to dive is whether they need to be able to swim. The answer is yes. You don’t need to be a great swimmer but passing your OW technically requires you to swim 200m (something I never had to do…ups). In general, I think being comfortable in the water and able to get around above the surface will only improve your overall comfort and performance below the surface.
- To start with you won’t need your own equipment as scuba equipment rental is usually included in the price of a course. If you like diving and want to build up your own set, I recommend you start with a mask and fins and then move on to a dive computer. Purchasing your own wetsuit can make a huge difference for comfort, however, the choice of wetsuit will depend on what kind of water you will mainly dive in. As a rule of thumb – the colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit.
For pieces like BCD and regulator, you will not only need to save a little more but also try a few styles and brands. As you won’t be able to take equipment from a shop on a test dive, I recommend renting for a bit until you know what you like.
Still not sure if scuba diving for you?
If you are unsure if scuba diving is for you, you can book a discovery scuba diving session to start with – this offers most of the fun aka finding Nemo and only the very basic skills and theory. Many dive centers will credit the dives of a Scuba Discovery to your Open Water if you decide on taking it further.
Do you have questions about getting your scuba certification I didn’t adress in the post? Leave me a comment and I will answer below!
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