by B. N. Sullivan
We are contacted rather frequently by readers who want to know if we are diving instructors. After reading The Right Blue, they say, they want to learn how to dive, and they would like to learn from us.
We are always touched and flattered by those kinds of messages, but we have to say that no, we are not dive instructors. Both of us are trained and certified as divemasters, but we don't work as divemasters or dive guides either. As we explained in a much earlier post, we became certified as divemasters out of self-interest -- so that we would be qualified to manage our own dives, both at home and when we travel.
Nevertheless, we have coached many new divers to help them develop their skills, and we have advised many others on issues pertaining to diver training, equipment choice, and the like. We are happy to share what we know -- we just do it in an informal manner.
Quite recently, we have had a flurry of inquiries from people who are just beginning their first diving course, or who are thinking of doing so in the near future. Several have expressed a combination of enthusiasm and reservation: They want to learn to dive, but at the same time, they are more than a bit scared.
We have responded individually to those inquiries, but we thought it might be a good idea to share publicly some of what we said, for the benefit of other prospective divers who were too shy to ask us directly. This will be the first in a series of articles about learning to dive.
If you love being in and around the water, you're in reasonably good physical shape, you love to swim and are comfortable in lakes or the sea, and you want to learn to dive, go for it! Seek out a reputable instruction program that offers a widely recognized certification, and dive right in.
But what if you're not such a good swimmer? What if most of your swimming has taken place in pools and you're worried about diving in open water? Should you sign up for a scuba course and hope for the best?
Every dive instructor can recount stories of people who showed up for their first dive class, barely able to doggie paddle across the width of a backyard pool. What were they thinking? One total non-swimmer who showed up for a class run by an instructor friend of ours said she figured it didn't matter that she didn't know how to swim on the surface. She believed that having an air supply would make up for the fact that she didn't even know how to float! The instructor gently pointed out that eventually she would at least need to swim to and from the beach or dive boat, so if she couldn't do that, she would not be able to proceed with the dive course.
If you are not a reasonably good swimmer, or if you are not confident of your skills in the water, it might be a good idea to work on improving your swimming skills before you begin diving instruction. You don't have to be a champion swimmer, you don't need to be able to swim fast, and you don't need to have perfect form, but you should have mastered basic competencies like being able to tread water for several minutes, swim several lengths of a pool un-aided, and so on.
If most of your swimming has been in pools, and rarely in natural bodies of water - lakes, rivers, sea -- then you may feel anxious when you first venture into open water. There's something about all that open space -- the lack of visible walls and a nice flat, clean pool bottom -- that unnerves some people the first time they go swimming in the ocean or a large lake.
Lots of pool swimmers have good basic skills, but they have to learn what to do about things like surface chop, swells, waves and currents. They often have initial fears about all those creatures in the open water, too. If you have been mostly a pool swimmer, we advise that you spend some time snorkeling in natural bodies of water before you begin scuba lessons, just to become more comfortable with the conditions and surroundings.
Some people sign up for scuba instruction solely because they are urged to do so by someone else. Their spouse or significant other (or parent, child, cousin, friend) either is a diver, or is learning to dive, and wants a companion. We would be the first to tell you that having a regular dive partner that you know well away from diving is a wonderful thing. But if you are going to take dive lessons only because someone else has urged you to do so, it may be a mistake -- especially if some of the factors above, relating to swimming skills and comfort in the water, also apply.
Lots of couples and pairs or groups of friends learn to dive together. Some become lifelong dive companions. However, if you are otherwise uninterested in diving, or you are uncomfortable in the water, but you are being nudged to go through a course to satisfy someone else, you might want to reconsider.
Again, the key factor is comfort. If you are not at ease while swimming in the ocean or a lake, if you are not confident of your swimming skills, diving may not be right for you at this time. Once you spend more time in the water, and once you improve your skills so that you feel relaxed, then you can think about learning to dive.
We hope the title of this article does not put off would-be divers. We like to promote sport diving for people who really want to do it, but some people are just not well suited to be divers. We think it's better to take a realistic look at your own suitability -- your skills and limitations -- ahead of time.
If your skills or comfort level in the water are less than optimal but you really want to dive, you can and should prepare to do it. If you are planning to learn to dive only because someone else wants you to do it, think again. Diving is not for everyone.