I love to learn. I learn a lot on the job, but career growth is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s not easily measurable either, unlike learning a new language or learning to play guitar (where you feel yourself improving each day). That’s why it was so unique for me to have a whole week dedicated to learning how to do something I had zero skill in beforehand. I chose to get my PADI Open Water scuba diving certification in Utila, Honduras – where I was surrounded by people who are more passionate and knowledgeable about the ocean ecosystem than anyone I’ve ever met. After learning to dive in this environment, I can’t imagine if I’d settled for some resort where people are pushed through to “Pay and Dive Immediately” on vacation… or, in some miserable filled rock quarry in Virginia. In Utila, I always had someone to answer my endless questions. And every boat dive made me fall in love all over again with that impossibly, gloriously perfect water.
For anyone who is thinking about getting into scuba diving and is unfamiliar with what the beginner course entails, I thought I’d break down the parts of the class, and talk a bit about what I struggled with the most. The sequencing and order of skills varies according to school and instructor. In Utila, most shops are very flexible to accommodate your travel days. My two-person class ended up completing our course over four days, a pretty relaxed schedule:
PADI is not the only dive training organization. It’s the most commonly recognized worldwide, however, with more beginner divers certified by PADI than all other agencies combined. Most agencies recognize each others’ qualifications – so I wouldn’t worry too much about it for beginning courses. I unfortunately don’t have a ton of photos to share since I was busy paying attention in class 🙂 But, just a tiny taste of what life in Utila is like can be found in my highlight reel.
Theory and Videos
I almost did an Open Water scuba class as an elective my senior year of college. I would’ve had to pay for PADI e-learning (completing the theory/videos and exam portion upfront), do all the confined water skills in a pool, and then pay for a trip to the Florida Keys to complete the checkout dives over winter break. I’m so glad I waited until I could afford to take a week of PTO to focus on learning the skills and enjoying the island, for less than just the flight to Florida!
In Utila, we breezed through this material in two days, compared to an entire semester. The videos were mind-numbing by the 4th hour, so it’s definitely not an exciting day. If you don’t have the luxury of taking a week off, PADI e-Learning is a good option that most places will accommodate. Doing so is much more expensive, but time is money!
In my opinion, 80% of the Open Water course is preparing you for what to do when something goes wrong. You’ll use some of the skills, like mask clearing and recovering your regulator, pretty frequently. You’re highly unlikely to encounter some of the others (i.e. running out of air, emergency ascents, etc.)… but God forbid you find yourself in an emergency, hopefully your adrenaline will kick in and you’ll be able to recall the skills and knowledge of how to safely handle the situation. What I appreciate is the “why” behind safety requirements. The material teaches you how physics and chemistry interacts with your body, hence the preventative habits they emphasize like safety stops and slow, controlled ascents.
Confined Water Dives
Open Water students begin learning essential skills in confined water, meaning a dive site at which the environment is entirely predictable and controlled. This is often a pool, but in Utila we did some of the confined water dives off the dock as well. My dive school was actually one of the few schools in Utila with a pool, so confined water means off the dock for most of the other schools. Being in the water and following the instructors’ lead is where the student-teacher ratio becomes really important. The maximum student-teacher ratio mandated by PADI is 8:1. Most classes are 4-6 students to an instructor in Utila.
I was at Bay Islands College of Diving at the start of shoulder season, so I had an incredible 1:1 ratio of instructors. Divers in Utila are so passionate about what they do, they’ve dedicated their lives to it. This was quite a departure from the experience I would’ve had in a classroom full of college students in inland North Carolina. Especially for anyone not super comfortable in the water, a low ratio allows for more individualized skill development. Wherever you decide to dive, ask about the instructor ratio! (and specify instructors, not just divemasters or instructors in training)
At some point before you complete your Open Water dives, you’ll have to do a swim test. “Swim test” makes it sound scary, but you can do any stroke and there’s no time limit. You must demonstrate that you can continuously swim 200 m (or 300 m with a mask, fins and a snorkel). We just floated/doggy paddled together while chit-chatting… but afterwards, you also have to tread water for 10 minutes. That’s another advantage of doing your whole course in the ocean: it’s way easier to float in saltwater than the pool!
OPEN WATER Dives
I will never forget descending into a circle of sand surrounded by colorful fish and healthy reef on our first Open Water dive – like being inside an aquarium, but it’s the open ocean. A Divemaster in Turks and Caicos said it right – “snorkeling is like watching a show, and diving is like being in the show.” The skills we had to perform as a ‘practical exam’ were mostly the same skills we already practiced in confined water. We did them at the beginning and end of the dives (different types of ascents), but the rest of the time we just followed one of the instructors around, getting used to controlling our buoyancy and looking for marine life.
On my first dive, I had to equalize on pretty much every breath on the way down to be comfortable. I could see other divers already on the bottom, but it’s not a race! There’s no harm in taking your time and going slow. In general, the biggest tip I have is to try to fight the feeling that you’re holding anyone back by having to repeat a skill. Even though I had the most patient instructors, I felt like if I didn’t get something right the first time, I had to go faster. That only made it harder, and made me use more air because I was anxious.
In Utila the boats go out on two-tank dives with a surface interval, meaning you come back up and chill on the boat for awhile before going to a second dive site. I didn’t have lunch that first day and severely underestimated how energy-consuming diving is. I was shaky and tingly when I came up after that first dive, but felt much better after having something to eat. If they’re not provided by the operator, bringing snacks and plenty of water on board is a must.
Communicating underwater is a fun aspect of diving I didn’t think too much about until we started learning dive signals. Some basics are covered by the video and reinforced throughout the confined water dives. In the ocean though, we got a crash course on signs for different Caribbean fish and organisms. I wouldn’t imagine that “angelfish”, “trigger fish”, “sergeant major”, etc. are in typical sign language vocabulary 🙂
My biggest challenges
In my research I came across many accounts of new divers battling anxiety, claustrophobia, panic attacks, and other unpredictable challenges. I’d never done anything like scuba diving before, so I had no way of knowing how my body would react to this foreign environment. Logically, I knew that I could do anything with enough practice and repetition. My fear was pretty much gone knowing how safe I was with all the capable instructors around me. The toughest parts for me were:
- putting on a wetsuit. I gave up and stopped wearing one until the last day, because the more dives you do the lower your core body temperature becomes.
- replacing the LPI connector with the tank on. If there was one time I wanted to give up, it was having to push and pull at the same time to get this slippery piece back on while pressure was pushing it back out. Each time I failed, I lost a little more willpower and got a little more anxious. Thankfully we didn’t have to do this in open water!
- CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent). I’m just bad at holding my breath, and that’s all there is to this one.
- navigation. We kind of sped through this right before our last dive, so I didn’t get enough practice using the compass. I don’t plan on diving without a divemaster until I get quite a few more dives under my belt, and this is part of the Advanced Open Water course so I’m sure I’ll have a chance to practice more eventually.
Thankfully I didn’t have any major roadblocks or accidents in Utila other than accidentally slamming a door on my finger (it still doesn’t feel right to this day). I also got eaten alive by sand flies, even using 30% picadirin lotion… but maybe I would’ve been worse off without it.
Dive equipment can get really expensive, and take up a ton of space in your luggage. I always thought I’d just rent everything. After snorkeling in Turks and Caicos though, I realized I wanted a dry snorkel so I wouldn’t keep swallowing saltwater. Then, reading about how important mask fit is and knowing my low Asian nose bridge would make that tough, I went to a local dive shop to try on a few low-volume masks. I would definitely recommend having your own mask and snorkel, as it makes such a huge impact on being comfortable in the water (mostly the mask). Some people argue about diving with a snorkel, but it’s required for the PADI Open Water class.
Other than a mask and snorkel, I wish I’d picked up a few things before I got to Utila:
- neoprene mask strap. This makes it way easier to don and remove your mask without tangling your hair! I chopped off 8 inches of hair right before leaving, and struggled with the best way to keep my hair out of my face. I ended up buying a BICD neoprene strap, but not until after the part of the course where it would have made my life easier.
- wetsuit. Lots of people dive in the Caribbean with just a rash guard or a shorty, but in Roatan I accidentally brushed my exposed knee against some fire coral 🙁 I think if I had my own suit that was fitted to me, I wouldn’t have hated wearing it so much. Some people wore waterproof leggings for protection, which was smart. This will probably be my next investment!
- rashguard. See above – since I didn’t want to wear the wetsuit, I spent way too much on a Mares rashguard since there aren’t a lot of options on the island.