Jul 212012
 

So what does it take to become a scuba diver?  What kind of training is involved?  What gear will you need?  There is a lot to cover here so let’s get with it.

Scuba diving is a physical sport.  You’ll be swimming, dealing with things like rough seas, cold temperatures, exotic and sometimes unfriendly sea life, dragging heavy complicated equipment around, and generally trying to not drown.  While knowing how to swim is not a requisite, it does help if you are comfortable in and under the water.  If you are claustrophobic or have a fear of the dark, you may not enjoy the sport very much.  It helps if you are in some kind of decent physical condition.  Things like obesity, punctured ear drums, heart conditions, pregnancy, and other assorted conditions could hinder your ability to participate in the sport.  As with any new venture that involves physical exertion, have a chat with your obamacare death panel consultant doctor before signing up for a class.

You would be surprised though how many people do dive.  One of my best customers when I worked at the dive shop was a paraplegic who had virtually no use of his lower half.  He was able to get around on crutches and from the waist up was built like a body builder.  While getting around on land was tough, in the water he was completely at ease.  One humorous side note, and I say humorous because he would joke about it all the time, was that he had to tie extra weights around his ankles, otherwise he would float on the surface upside down.  Despite his limitations, he was one of the best divers I ever knew and one of the coolest people I ever met in my diving career.

The bottom line though, make sure you are physically capable of doing the sport before taking the plunge, so to speak.  Many who offer classes may require some minor pre test to make sure you are fit enough.  Maybe swim a couple laps in a pool or something of that sort.  More advanced classes may require a physical.  For the most part there are few people who are not capable of learning how to dive at least at the basic level.  And as for age, I believe the minimum age may be 14 but I could be wrong.  You would need to check with your chosen dive instruction center to find out.  As for maximum age, it goes back to your own physical limitations.

I wrote about certification cards in the previous post.  While anyone can go out and splash around the water with a mask, fins, and snorkel,( it’s pretty easy stuff), if you want to strap a 20 pound metal tank  filled with air compressed to 3000 psi to your back and brave the depths of a completely alien environment, you’re gonna need a bit of training before hand.  In fact you cannot get air into said tank without proof that you are qualified and trained in the knowledge of how to use any scuba equipment.  That proof comes in the form of a certification card which is issued by a certification agency.  You get that card when you have successfully completed an approved training course.  And who offers these approved training courses?

At present there are three main certification agencies recognized in the sport diving industry:

PADI or Professional Association of Diving Instructors.

NAUI or National Association of Underwater Instructors.

SSI or Scuba Schools International.

All three are fine organizations and pretty much present the same information in their training.  All three run similar classes and are all well respected in the industry.

As for my own training, I was trained through an agency known as NASDS or National Association of Scuba Diving Schools.  They were pioneers in recognizing that gear sales were the profit machine that kept a dive operation going and I credit them for all the initial sales training I received in my early years.  Eventually NASDS was bought out by SSI and a lot of their standards and theories were incorporated into the SSI business model.

As for which one you choose for your training is pretty much dependent on your location and what is available.  If you have choices, shop around a bit.  And don’t base your choice strictly on price.  Look at the facility you are thinking about training with.  Is it modern, up to date, and well staffed?  Do they use an onsite pool or do they go to an off site location?  What shape is the rental gear in?  Does it look like it is well maintained, clean, and similar to the models on the showroom floor?  Do the instructors maintain a professional air about them?  Talk to other divers and get some opinions before you make a choice.  The better the training, the safer the diving.

So how much training do you need before you can go out and conquer the depths?  All training agencies start with the basic scuba course.  This course gives you all the initial training and required knowledge to allow you to competently jump into the water with all the necessary gear and return alive with all or most of the same parts of your body that you started with.  With the basic card you can buy or rent dive gear, get your cylinders refilled, and go out on dive boats.  All the courses after that are based on you getting more experienced and then branching out into specialty diving like maybe cave diving or underwater photography.  There are a lot of different ways to go and it pretty much depends on what interests you might have.

For some people though, a full class and certification might not be something they are into.  Perhaps they live in an area where scuba diving doesn’t exist like the mountains or they just want to try it and see if they like it.

Here is a bit of trivia for you:  When I was in the industry, the largest active dive club in the country was located in…Denver Colorado.  The largest snow skiing club?  Miami, Florida.  Go figure.

Anyways, say you are down here in the Keys on vacation and back home in Bugtustle, Pennsyltucky the only water is the crik down behind the barn.  But you’ve been wanting to try scuba diving, it’s just that you are only on the island for a few days.  Well, you are in luck.  Many of the dive operations here offer something called, “Introduction to Scuba”.  It’s exactly what it sounds like and has opened the door to diving for many who might not ever get the chance to experience breathing underwater.  The Intro to Scuba is a short-here-are-the-basics-enough-to-get-you-under-and-back-alive essentials.  You get a quick lesson in a pool and then go out and do a very safe and easy dive in a controlled environment where an instructor is always close by to assist as needed.  It’s extremely safe and an easy way to find out if you are cut out for diving.  At least when you return to Bugtustle you can say you went scuba diving while on vacation.  Many of the Intro courses will include somebody taking a picture of you under the water as proof you actually braved the depths of the cold, heartless sea and lived to tell your harrowing tale.

And speaking of safety, just how safe is scuba diving anyways?   All I can say is in all the years I was involved with the sport at that shop in Daytona, not a single survivor ever complained…just kidding, they complained but we bought them off.  Seriously though, despite all the dangers involved, scuba diving is a very safe sport.  Surprisingly, there is no governmental agency that regulates the sport to my knowledge.  It has been self governing for years and it has paid off.  Yes, there are accidents and fatalities, you get that in any physical sport.  In the Keys there about a dozen diving accidents a year.  Most all are due to poor decisions on the part of the diver, inadequate training for the conditions they are in, health issues, but rarely is it due to interaction with the native underwater critters or failure of dive gear.  Given that literally thousands of divers come down to the Keys and hit the water every year, a dozen or so accidents is not a bad figure…unless you happen to be one of the dozen, then it sorta kinda sucks.  But how safe is it?  Proper training is the key.

The majority of your dive classes will be learning about all the different ways you can die or be injured, and how to avoid dying or being injured.  You’ll spend roughly half your class in an actual classroom learning some stuff about physics, ocean currents, thermoclines, marine biology (or as we called it, the bite you’s, sting you’s and eat you’s) and how all that affects you when you are under the water.  You’ll learn about things like nitrogen narcosis, oxygen poisoning, the bends, and embolisms.  None of this is meant to scare you off from diving.  Knowledge is power and the more you know about how your body reacts to breathing at depth, the less likely you will have any issues.

I know what you are thinking.  What about sharks?  Sharks have a real bad reputation thanks to Hollywood…and a mouth full of really sharp teeth.  In fact, when the movie Jaws came out years back, it actually had a severe detrimental effect on the dive industry.  Reality?  Sharks live in the ocean.  You will probably see one if you dive in the ocean a lot.  For the most part, they are non aggressive, depending on the species,  and don’t bother divers as they are also part of the environment when under the water.  Many sharks don’t want anything to do with you any more than you want anything to do with them.  Watching them swim under the water is an amazing event.  They are quite beautiful and graceful in the water.  Like any wild animal though, treat them with respect and at a distance.  If you are spearfishing chances are you will have a closer encounter than if you are just taking pictures and looking around.  Sharks are to be respected, not feared, and attacks on divers are extremely rare.  So quit worrying about them.  Now where were we?  Oh yeah…

You’ll learn how to properly plan a dive, taking into account how deep you will be and how long you can stay down there.  There is a lot of math involved at first but it will quickly come together and make sense as you progress in the class.  And yes, there will be a test, or two, to make sure all that knowledge has stuck someplace in that head thingy you have inside your skull.

Once the classroom work is out of the way it’s into the pool where you actually go under the water and do that breathing stuff.  You’ll learn what all that mysterious gear is and how to put it together.  There will be regulators, buoyancy compensators, gauges, weight belts, and wet suits.  It may all seem confusing at first but once you get it all together you will see why it’s all needed…to keep your sorry wet ass alive in a totally alien environment.  All that gear that you will be using in a class is essential if you expect to have a long and healthy diving career.  Much of the pool time will be spent learning how the gear works and what to do in case it doesn’t.  It may all seem a little intimidating at first but in reality, it’s not a difficult sport to learn.

So what about cost?  It’s been a long time since I priced out dive classes but I am guessing you can expect to spend around $250 or so for the basic class.  That price will vary depending on the location and demand of course.  As for other costs, you will be expected to supply your own basics such as a face mask, that rubbery thing with the glass window so you can see, a snorkel, that long tube that sticks in your mouth with the other end out of the water, and no that is not an euphemism, and fins, which are your main propulsion in the water.  Depending on where you take the class you might have to spring for some extra cash to go on your open water check out dives.  The check out dives are the point in your class when you get out of the pool and actually go dive someplace where you can’t simply reach the side and get out of the water.  It may be a spring, a lake, the deep dark scary ocean, but that is where you will go and perform all the underwater exercises you did in the controlled environment of the pool.

Once you have successfully completed the classroom work, the written exams, the pool work, and the open water dives, you are officially a certified scuba diver.  You’ll get your certification card and you can now legally go diving at your leisure.  Where you go from there is up to you.  For most people, the basic certification is sufficient for what they want to do.  Get their air, go on trips, rent gear.  For others it may be stepping stone to more advanced ratings.  Many dive operations offer some sort of advanced classes and in some cases specialty classes like learning how to photograph underwater.  Others go full bore and offer the equivalent of a full college course where you go from know nothing land based life form to full fledged instructor over an extended period of time and training.  It’s really up to you as to how far you want to go.  And as for acquiring your own scuba gear?  What do you need and how much will it cost?  All that in the next post.  See you then.

Capt. Fritter

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