January 12, 2009

It's Time for Scuba Lessons!

If you live in a cold climate, you’re saying to yourself, “There is no way I’m going to start diving in January! That’s an adventure I’ll save for a 90 degree day.” Well, here’s another way to look at it. Learning to dive in the winter months means 1) you escape the after-the-holidays blahs, 2) you’ll be able to dive when you head to Florida or the islands for Spring Break 3) you’ll be in an indoor pool having a great time!

To get us all started, I asked Trevor Foulk, Travel & Training Director of Atlantic Edge Dive Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland (USA) to answer a few questions about scuba lessons. If this Q&A leaves you wanting more information, Trevor says you should e-mail him and he’ll do his best to help (see the bottom of this post). Now that’s service!

Trevor: It is a very, very rare person that learns to dive and thinks, “That was a waste of my time and money.” One of the most common messages I hear from students that have gone off and done their first dive trip is, “That was a life changing experience.” A lot of would-be divers have built up a barrier in their minds that getting certified is going to be hard, but it’s a lot easier than most people think.

AWB: What can a novice expect to learn at a beginning scuba class?

Trevor: In an entry level course, students will learn the basics of diving broken out into two main categories: In-water “diving skills” and classroom-based “dive theory.” The two most important in-water skills new divers learn are how to clear their masks and how to control their buoyancy underwater. As most snorkelers can attest, getting water in the mask can really be a pain. Add to that the fact that, when diving, you’re underwater with no way to simply dump the water out and you can see why clearing the mask is so important. The other key skill is buoyancy – that is, the ability to control whether you are floating or sinking. Divers want to achieve neutral buoyancy, where you are neither floating nor sinking, but rather gliding effortlessly through the water. This skill is kind of like riding a bike – it’s difficult to get at first but once you get it it’s easy to perfect. It is an important skill to learn to get the most out of your dives and also be safe.

In addition to these in-water skills, there are some technical aspects to most courses that cover nitrogen absorption in the body. These are taught in the classroom-theory section. Breathing compressed air causes the body to absorb nitrogen. There is an acceptable amount of absorption that can happen with no ill effects and we have to keep our dives within those limits. We have what we call the Recreational Dive Planner, which allows us to plan our dive times and depths to stay within safe limits of nitrogen absorption. Learning how to use it is another important aspect of the course.

AWB: What are the problems faced by most beginners?

Trevor: The problem faced by most beginners is simply acclimating to the “newness” of diving. Like the first time on skis, the first time with a golf club in your hand or the first time doing just about anything, it just takes some time getting used to having a tank on your back, fins on your feet and a mask on your face. The entry level certification course is specifically designed to acclimate new divers and put them in a position to be safe, happy divers when they get out on their first dives.

AWB: How many diving hours are required to earn a certificate?

Trevor: The amount of hours varies by dive shop. We run a fairly condensed course, which is about 4-5 hours of home study, a two-day weekend module that covers the class work and the pool work, and then another two days for the checkout dives (done in a lake or the ocean). Other courses are done over several weeks or months. This is one aspect of diving that has a very large degree of variability depending on the dive shop and the instructor that students choose. I encourage new divers to look around and find the course that most meets their needs.

AWB: If one doesn’t live near an ocean, what other options are available for diving practice?

Trevor: There are diving opportunities everywhere! When most people think of diving, they think of warm blue water with a myriad of colorful fish swimming around them, but there is much more to diving than just that. While only a lucky few get to live close to warm-water reef diving, everybody lives near some kind of diving. Throughout the country there are lakes and quarries that have been turned into diving parks with sunken attractions like boats, school buses, even planes and helicopters to explore. Most navigable lakes (like the Great Lakes) offer some outstanding wreck diving. Even lots of rivers offer cool opportunities to dive (though these are often not for beginners). There are even opportunities to dive that you would never think about, like in aquariums and other “man made” bodies of water. Our shop runs Guest Dives at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which is a truly unique diving experience!

AWB: My readers are scattered across the country and around the world. Is there a web site that will help them find scuba schools in their areas?

Trevor: There isn’t a consolidated web site that organizes the best places to learn to dive. It’s truly a thing where new divers need to do their homework; there are so many course options, scheduling options, etc. A quick web search will yield the dive shops in the area and the next step is to visit their websites and see how they do their courses.

AWB: Is there anything that one should look for in a good diving school?

Trevor: There are a couple of things to look for when choosing a dive shop. There are many certifying agencies – PADI, NAUI, SSI, and SDI, among others – but PADI is by far the largest. All certifications are generally accepted, but last I heard PADI had more registered shops than the other agencies combined, so all else being equal a PADI shop is a good place to start (although it’s not to say instructors from the other agencies won’t offer an excellent course). Most shops require students to buy some gear (generally mask, fins and snorkel) before the course starts, while others don’t (my shop, Atlantic Edge, for example doesn’t require students to purchase any gear) so if that is important to you it’s another thing to check out. Beyond that it’s just finding the course with the schedule that meets your needs. Many people prefer the condensed schedule, but there are those that prefer the longer more detailed course, so find a shop or instructor that offers you what you need.

AWB: If you have any questions, Trevor has offered to help you find answers. You can e-mail him at trevor@atlanticedge.com

Image courtesy of Atlantic Edge Dive Center

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