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Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Scuba Diving Certification

Scuba diving is an awesome activity. We mean that in the most literal sense of the word. It’s beautiful, amazing, and even life-changing for some when they realize they’ve unlocked a full 90% more of our planet to explore. For the uninitiated, “diving in” to diving can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a surprisingly simple, relatively inexpensive hobby (or, depending on how seriously you take it, sport) to get into. Here’s the low-down on the most common questions and concerns for wannabe divers. If you’re ready to take the plunge, you can also invest in a handy dive watch to supplement your water adventures.

Is a Dive Certification Really Necessary?

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The simple answer is no. If you’re keen to suit up with all the required gear, you can dive your nearest beach this afternoon. No scuba police will haul you away if you’re caught diving without a certification. However, from a safety perspective, you’d be crazy — bordering on suicidal — to dive without proper training. Also, any dive shop that will rent their equipment to you without a legit certification is not an outfit you want to deal with.

Am I Fit Enough to Dive?

Scuba diving can be a surprisingly leisurely activity. Because the goal is usually to take in the sights at your own pace, to stop and smell the proverbial sea anemones, divers typically swim at a very, very slow pace. For the especially lazy, drift diving can be immensely enjoyable. Drift divers enter the water up-current and let the natural movement of the ocean take them away. At the tail end of the current, your dive boat will often be waiting to pick you up. It requires little to no physical effort.

That said, it’s helpful to be reasonably fit. If you can’t walk to your mailbox without taking a nap, you’ll want to dedicate a few weeks to cardio before registering for a dive cert course. Oxygen tanks can be heavy and cumbersome as all get out. This can be a minor issue on the boat in the moments before you get in the water. However, once below the surface, they’ve virtually weightless. At a bare minimum, however, you should be able to swim a few hundred yards without stopping and tread water for no less than 10 minutes.

Do I Really Want to Be a Diver?

people on the beach prepping to dive
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Learning to scuba dive can feel like a significant investment — financially, physically, and mentally. If you want to “test the waters” (get it?) to see if it’s right for you, most decent beach resorts offer introductory lessons in their onsite pool. Best of all, it’s often free. This allows you to suit up and actually get in and under the water for an hour or so. This is more than enough time to determine whether getting a full scuba certification is something you want to commit to.

How Much Does It Cost to Get Scuba Certified?

The total price varies depending on a few factors, namely location and your proximity to a proper open water training ground (i.e., will you need to travel to complete the course?). As an example, for the three-day PADI Open Water Certification Course at Florida Keys Dive Center, the cost is approximately $600. This includes all classroom training, a complete scuba setup (except for a mask, snorkel, and fins), pool and open water training, certification fees, tank refills, and charter boat fees.

In less touristy areas of the country (New England, for example), the price tag could be less than $500; while in ultra-popular destinations like Maui, would-be divers should expect to spend considerably more. If that seems pricey, keep in mind that your certification is valid for life.

Doesn’t It Require a Lot of Expensive Gear?

Yes. If you’re looking to buy the entire kit — including the most expensive bits like a BCD (buoyancy control device), the tank(s), a regulator, and a dive watch/computer — expect an all-in price tag north of $1,500. Fortunately, this equipment can and should all be rented from any reputable dive shop. It’s cheaper (at least, in the short-term) and a lot easier than lugging it halfway ‘round the world on your next vacation.

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What every diver should own at a minimum are a mask, a snorkel, and fins. A wetsuit is a good investment as well, but that can be cumbersome to travel with. Because these pieces touch your skin and your body in some way, you want well-tested items that fit comfortably in the water. These can, of course, be rented as well. However, rentals are almost always low quality, uncomfortable, and leaky. Spend the extra $200-$300 to score your own, and your dive experience will be infinitely more enjoyable.

Anything Else to Know Before I Get Started?

More than which equipment you buy or which dive school you opt to train with, the single most important thing to know about diving is that it’s critical to go with a buddy. Having a dive partner is vital to your safety. No matter how skilled of a diver you might become over your lifetime, you should never, ever dive alone. As my nana was fond of saying, that’s how they make angels.

Which Dive School Is the Best?

There are two main scuba schools found throughout the world: PADI and SSI. Every diver will argue that the school they trained with is the best. The truth is that both rely on an educational framework spelled out by the World Recreational Scuba Diving Council. So, the short answer is that neither school is better. They both teach nearly identical curriculums but in slightly different ways. Regardless of which you choose, you will graduate as a proficient beginner diver.

Where Should I Train?

florida key west
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Where you choose to train is, of course, entirely personal. Your certificate is valid anywhere in the world so, in the end, it doesn’t much matter where you train. However, the skills you develop in the beginning are, by default, a product of the underwater environment — including water temperature, visibility, marine life, etc. — in which you trained. For example, divers who learn in the warm, calm, crystal-clear waters off Key West will have a different set of skills from anyone who trained in the frigid, murky waters around coastal Boston.

There’s no right answer. If you’re planning to dive regularly near home, it’s best to train with a local dive shop. If you’re angling to be more of a “vacation diver,” training in the Caribbean or Hawaii should suit you fine.

What’s the Student Experience Like?

Most courses require a full three days, from classroom to open water training. You’ll start with some form of online education. This requires textbook studying and watching videos related to dive terminology, safety procedures, and gear training. It might seem overwhelming at first, but it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Plus, this portion can be completed at home at your own pace.

You’ll then move on to the practical training, which will take place in a pool. Your instructors will review your gear with you beforehand until you’re comfortable actually getting in the water. Once in the pool, you’ll start with the basics like communicating via hand signals and breathing through a regulator. It’ll feel unnatural at first because it is unnatural. You’re (probably) not a fish after all. The most tasking lesson will be perfecting your buoyancy — that is, learning to float perfectly between the pool bottom and the surface of the water. This is a critical skill to master before graduating to the next phase. After a full day (or two half-days) in the pool, you’ve essentially been given the necessary education and basic skills needed to dive.

people scuba diving
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But the real test comes in the open water. This final phase can be undertaken immediately after your pool sessions or be scheduled for some point in the future. In most cases, it involves taking a charter boat to some relatively shallow location nearby (a coral reef is a good starting point). There, you’ll put into practice everything you learned in the pool. It involves all the same skills, except you’ll likely be diving in 30 feet or more of water. If this all seems like too much, remember that tweens do it all the time, so don’t overthink it. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, especially if you’re already comfortable in the water.

What About Sharks and Kraken?

We can’t guarantee it, but you’re probably safe from kraken — probably. However, dive long enough, and you’re bound to encounter other things that bite or sting. You’re accustomed to avoiding dangerous creatures like yellowjackets, rabid dogs, and wolverines on land. Likewise, in the water, give marine wildlife a wide berth. Few ocean-going critters are downright hostile, so they’re only likely to attack when threatened, prodded, or surprised.

It’s worth noting that, while shark attack stories make for great mainstream news fodder, worldwide shark incidents with humans are extraordinarily low. By the numbers, there were fewer than 60 unprovoked attacks worldwide in 2020. You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery twice than facing real-life Jaws. If you’re still spooked by the possibility, discuss it with your divemaster, who can suggest ways to overcome that fear. If all else fails, there are plenty of high-tech shark deterrent gadgets on the market.

I’m Certified! I Want to Take a Dive Vacation

Armed with your mask, snorkel, and fins, the only other thing you’ll need is your official PADI or SSI dive certification card. With these items packed, you’re ready to dive just about anywhere in the world. Every destination that’s reasonably near water will boast some type of dive shop. Head there, flash your card, and let the staff know what you need. If you’re planning to dive from the shore or you have your own boat (lucky you), just rent the gear you and your buddy need and make a beeline for the ocean. If you need a charter boat as well, the dive shop will be able to arrange that too.

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Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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