Whether or not scuba diving is for you is a multifaceted question. It depends on your budget, location, interests, and, of course, how you fare underwater.
More than anything, I’ve been curious to see what the Philippines—one of the best and cheapest countries for diving—has to offer below the surface. That and a weekend to myself were enough to push me over the edge.
Discover Scuba vs. Certification Courses
When you walk into a dive shop for the first time, you have two options:
- Discover Scuba, a half-day experience with an instructor by your side throughout.
- Certification Course, a 3-day experience that certifies you as an open water diver.
What are the main differences between Discover Scuba and a Certification Course? Time and cost are the big ones. In Palawan, for example, one can cost about $75 and the other close to $375.
The big advantage of taking a Certification Course is that you’ll be free to dive anywhere in the world without an instructor to babysit and manage your gear for you. If you intend to dive more frequently, getting certified will save you money in the long run (because dive shops charge less when you don’t need babysitting).
Also, with Discover Scuba, you’ll spend an hour or two in orientation and practice before the real dive. When taking a course, this phase will occupy the entire first day. So if you’re not thinking about future dives, only have a day, or just want to see fish already, go with this one.
It’s what I opted for, and the experience I describe in the post. If you go with the certification course, keep in mind that your training will be longer and more extensive and that you’ll be learning to do everything yourself instead of relying on your instructor.
Things To Know About Your First Scuba Diving Experience
Walk into a PADI dive shop ready to scuba, and the first thing they’ll do is sit you down to watch a 20-minute orientation video.
(PADI is a diver training organization; the name stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors.)
The Discover Scuba orientation video will tell you more about what to expect, address things like the pressure change, and briefly walk you through the skills you’ll learn before your first dive.
After that, your instructor will help you with your gear:
- Wetsuit: You can choose between long and short. I went with long-sleeved so I wouldn’t have to worry about jellyfish or sharp coral. Either way, pick one that’s nice and snug. It might feel a bit tight when you try it on, but it’ll be more comfortable once you’re submerged and you won’t have to worry about water seeping in.
- Snorkel mask: You’ll want a design that sits nicely over the bridge of your nose so it doesn’t leave a mark.
- Diving jacket: You can leave the selection of this one to your instructor, but it should be a comfortable fit.
Beach or Pool Practice
Once you’re suited up, you’ll head to the beach or a swimming pool to practice in chest-high water.
In the water, the instructor will attach an oxygen tank and, with the regulator in your mouth, you’ll simply kneel down in the water. This way, if you panic, all you have to do is stand up.
Your instructor will kneel across from you and demonstrate three skills, all of which you must imitate.
3 Discover SCUBA Skills:
- Replace your regulator. This one is simple: take the regulator out of your mouth and put it back in. The most important thing here is to clear out the water before inhaling again (by blowing into the regulator or pressing the button on the front). Straightforward as it seems, you’ll probably be nervous about performing this skill—especially when you’re just getting used to breathing through the regulator. You might forget to point the regulator down when you remove it, as I did, and be momentarily petrified by a flurry of bubbles (called free flow; also not great because it wastes oxygen).
- Recover your regulator. One step up from the first skill: let the regulator fall out of your hand and float away, then use a simple technique to retrieve it. Lift your right arm, sweep it down until it touches your right knee, circle it out and forward, and the regulator will be on your arm. Put it back in your mouth and remember to clear out the water before inhaling. Losing your oxygen might seem terrifying, but once you get comfortable with this skill you’ll discover you have nothing to worry about. It’s also clearly demonstrated in this video.
- Clear your mask. The only reason you’d need to replace your regulator is if it got uncomfortable, or knocked out of your mouth—which doesn’t have to happen much. Clearing water out of your mask, on the other hand, is a skill you’ll use quite often.
Reminders: Always take a deep breath before removing your regulator and blow tiny bubbles until it’s back in. Scuba divers are taught never to hold their breath.
The Open Water Dive
We covered the three basic skills quite quickly and had time to spare while waiting for the boat, so we went for a little test run at the beach. It wasn’t an optimal dive site; in fact, it was pretty eerie.
The water was so murky that it felt a bit like floating through the upside-down world of Stranger Things.
Eventually, the boat came for us.
Photos courtesy of Let’s Dive Palawan.
My instructor and I, along with two certified divers and their guide, were ferried out to a dive spot called Maris Rock.
The divers suited up, vests on with oxygen tanks resting on the edge of the boat. One by one, they flipped off the boat and into the water.
Then it was my turn. The instructor thought calling it “James-Bond style” would make me feel more comfortable about throwing myself, metal tank and all, backward off the boat. I don’t much care for James Bond, but I had a bit of a mental picture: it’s gonna be super smooth.
I held my mask with one hand, placed the other behind my head for safekeeping, and next thing I know I’m head-up, bobbing in the water.
We followed the anchor rope deep, deep (10 meters deep) down to the ocean floor and landed upon Maris Rock—a beautiful coral reef upon a stunning cliff drop.
For 40 minutes I was in the zone, constantly thinking how amazing is this! and I want to take a picture of that! and Just enjoy it! followed by I am, it’s amazing!
(It’s all internal dialogue, eye-widening, and hand gestures when you’re underwater.)
Scuba Diving First-Timer’s Top Tips
1. Don’t Look Up
Just don’t. And don’t think about the tonnes of water weighing down on your body or the meters separating you from the open air above.
2. Relax Your Breathing
Strangely, one of the things I found most unsettling was the rush of bubbles past my ears every time I exhaled. Of course, this gets better as you learn to relax your breathing and settle into a smooth pattern.
3. Sink Into It
Like you’d sink into a warm bubble bath: focus on enjoying the experience. To do so, you’ll have to get comfortable with the things that are less-than-ideal. Like the regulator, which will feel awkward in your mouth.
Mind over matter: focus on how amazing the experience is and you’ll soon forget the trivial inconveniences. And if those weird bubbles are still rushing past your ears, just tell yourself to enjoy them.
4. Move Small
Don’t kick your legs or bother using your hands. All you have to do is lightly wave your feet up and down to let the flippers do the work of casually moving you through the water. Like the queen when she waves: minimal effort is key.
This was hard for me at first; I wasn’t used to swimming with flippers and found them to be a burden. But my legs felt like sticks without them by the time we got back to the boat..
Random Underwater Observations
Ups and Downs
I found staying at the right level—just above the coral without getting pricked by it—to be a bit tricky. Sometimes I would drift up and away, other times I’d flounder to keep from settling into a bed of thorns.
It’s something you get the hang of though. And, of course, if you take a certification course, you’ll learn how to manage buoyancy by increasing and decreasing the air in your jacket. (With Discover Scuba, your instructor handles that for you.)
Different bodies have different buoyancy. Some people are like rocks: put them in water and they drop straight to the bottom. Others have a way of resurfacing no matter how hard you try to push them down—kind of like the Fast and the Furious franchise, or your childhood crush on Keanu Reeves.
Anyway, I’ve always been a buoyant one. I can float easily and struggle to stay underwater. Though, with the right amount of weight added to my belt and vest, they did eventually manage to keep me down.
Fish and Coral and Things
Let’s not forget what we went underwater for: funky fish, coral, and other creatures of the sea.
Funky coral: big blobby blurbs with millions of tiny tentacles; classy vase-shaped arrangements that could belong in an art gallery; some with the look of an old leather bag billowing in the wind, weathered but still retaining a lovely lavender hue.
And the fish: some with rainbows patterns, others with tiger prints; leopard-printed ones, too; Nemo’s darker emo cousins; fish that look like crocodiles, with lumps that act as extra eyes; fish with tuner-fork-shaped tails and floppy-dog-ear fins; and one amazing (correctly identified!) lionfish.
Also spotted by other divers: stingrays, cuttlefish, and a turtle. (Turtle!)
Now I have to go back.