For centuries, humans have been fascinated with exploring the 70% of our world that lies under the water. From the enigmatic Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s classic novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to James Cameron and his solo submarine. And, by learning how to scuba dive, you can venture into this frontier too…
One of the beauties of scuba diving is that it’s never too late to get stuck in. Just ask Ray Wooley, who at the age of 96, broke the world record for the third time as the world’s oldest scuba diver.
However, unlike some hobbies, scuba diving isn’t an activity where you can pick up a few pieces of equipment and go. It’s quite technical, with lots of safety procedures – so, if you’re looking to get involved, it can be a little tricky to know where to start.
To give you a helping hand, we’ve put together this short guide. We’ll cover what scuba diving is, what the benefits are, and how you can get going on your own scuba journey…
What is scuba diving?
Humans have been ‘free-diving’ for centuries, even making improvised breathing apparatus from things like hollowed-out plant stems as far back as ancient Greek times. But modern technological innovations and scientific discoveries have now made it possible for people to dive safely for long periods of time by using a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA).
Scuba diving is practised recreationally all over the world as a way to explore wrecks and reefs, and to encounter marine life of all kinds. But it’s also used in other situations – for example, by the navy in combat and rescue, and by scientific researchers who want to access marine habitats.
What are the benefits of scuba diving?
As well as being a fun way to explore the submerged world, scuba diving has plenty of health benefits.
Top of the list is that it’s excellent for our physical health. During a scuba dive, you constantly move your entire body against the resistance of water, which is a great way to improve your strength, flexibility, and overall fitness levels.
Scuba diving is also especially effective at building up strength in your core and leg muscles, and improving posture. And the fact that it’s low-impact means it won’t put unnecessary strain on your joints.
The underwater experience is beneficial for our mental health too. While diving, we engage in deep, focused breathing, which can help to ease stress and anxiety. It’s also difficult not to stay in the present moment; making it an effective form of mindfulness. When you’re down in the quiet and peaceful water, your worries can often disappear!
In addition, studies like this one have shown that when we spend time in ‘blue spaces’ like marine and coastal margins, our sense of happiness and wellbeing is higher than in any other environment.
How do I get started with scuba diving?
It’s important to note that if you want to get involved with scuba diving, you can’t just rent the equipment and give it a go. You’ll need to become certified with a recognised diving organisation first.
The most important reason for taking a scuba certification course is safety. While it can be incredibly fun with multiple health benefits when done properly, scuba diving can be dangerous when done incorrectly. Therefore, learning everything from different underwater hand signals to how each piece of equipment works is invaluable in keeping you safe.
Plus, learning from a qualified diving instructor will help you get to grips with all the basics quickly and efficiently, so you can start exploring the world under the waves confidently and capably. Once you’re qualified, you’ll be able to rent scuba equipment from dive shops across the globe.
Here in the UK, there are three main scuba diving certification bodies: the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), and Scuba School International (SSI).
Although their teaching may vary a little, qualifications from each of these bodies are equally recognised by diving shops and centres around the world. The organisation you gain your certification with will usually boil down to which one has a diving centre near you.
If you’re lucky enough to live within a close distance of more than one, you may want to look further into what each one offers. This article from Scuba Diving Earth can provide a good place to start with this.
BSAC, PADI, and SSI all offer a scuba diving certification that can be undertaken with no prior experience, as long as you can comfortably swim 200m, tread water for 10 minutes, and pass any medical requirements that they may have. BSAC has its Ocean Diver course, and PADI and SSI each have an Open Water Dive course.
As for the price of your course, it’ll depend not only on which certification body you learn with, but which club or dive centre you do your practical learning at. To give you a rough idea, Ocean Diver and Open Water Diver courses typically cost between £200 and £500
What can I expect from my first diving course?
Each course will vary slightly in teaching style, length, etc – but whether you become certified with BSAC, PADI, or SSI, courses will generally be split into three parts. These are a theory/independent study section, a series of dives in a pool (or pool-like environment), and a series of dives in open water.
In the theory section of your course, you’ll typically learn about and be tested on things like basic scuba diving principles, terminology, hand signals, and safety information. Nowadays, this usually involves online learning, which you can do in your own time before attending your in-water sessions.
The next part of your training will involve your first practical step into the world of scuba diving. At this stage, an instructor will take you through how to use each piece of equipment and all the necessary skills and techniques (such as buoyancy control and underwater movement) in a pool or a pool-like environment. You’ll also learn how to deal with any common problems that may arise, so you’re ready for every possibility when it comes to diving in open water.
To finish off, you’ll undertake a series of supervised open water dives, where you can apply everything you’ve learned in the pool and classroom to a real-world environment.
Afterwards, you’ll be qualified to dive to a depth of 18m (20m, if you choose to become certified with BSAC). Your initial qualification will take around five to seven days to complete.
Can I give scuba diving a try before enrolling in a certification course?
If you’d like to give scuba diving a go before getting certified, then you have two options. You can either register for what’s known as a ‘Try Dive’ at your local BSAC club, or you can sign on to do a Discovery Diver course.
Try Dives are a great opportunity for you to dip your toe in the water and see if scuba diving is for you. For a relatively small fee – many BSAC clubs usually charge £20 or so – you can receive some basic tuition on diving equipment and techniques before doing a scuba dive in a pool alongside an instructor. This will give you a chance to get a feel for what it’s like to breathe underwater using a scuba apparatus.
To find out more about Try Dives and how you can have a go, why not head on over to the relevant page on the BSAC website? If you don’t live within easy access of a BSAC club or centre, then SSI and PADI also offer similar opportunities at their dive centres.
Or, if you’d like to get started with a course but don’t want to go straight into a full Ocean Diver certification, then you can do what’s called a Discovery Diver course.
Discovery Diver courses are offered by BSAC, although SSI and PADI offer similar programmes. They’re essentially half certifications, so once you finish, you’re only a few modules away from completing the full Ocean Diver certification. A Discovery Diver course can typically be completed in less time than an Ocean Diver certification, and they’re cheaper, so it’ll give you a chance to have an experience diving in open water before you decide to become certified.
You can move on to a Discovery Diver course after completing a Try Dive, or you can go straight into it.
Once you’ve completed your Discovery Diver course, you’ll be able to dive in controlled conditions down to a depth of 12m, under the supervision of a higher-grade diver.
Can I learn to scuba dive on holiday?
There are lots of reasons to learn to scuba dive in the UK. For example, our coastal waters are home to some of the best shipwrecks out there (with Historic England estimating that there are over 40,000 of them strewn about the place). Plus, many people cite encounters with friendly British grey seals as one of the best diving experiences out there. This is because they’re often known to play with divers; sometimes hugging their legs and nibbling at their fins.
Despite this, the visibility in UK waters isn’t the best and, as we all know, it can get a little balmy. So if you’re wanting to learn to scuba dive somewhere with crystal clear waters and tropical temperatures, why not consider doing it abroad?
You have plenty of choices for where to learn abroad, as BSCA, PADI, and SSI (and other accepted certification organisations) all have centres around the globe.
You can either choose to do all of your learning abroad or you can take advantage of programmes like PADI’s Open Water Referral Scheme, which allows you to complete most of your learning at home (e-learning and pool dives) while doing your final open water dives overseas.
Take a look at this article from Dive Magazine to get an idea of popular places to dive all around the world.
What equipment is involved in scuba diving?
Some dive centres and clubs ask you to bring your own mask and snorkel but generally, when you enrol in a scuba diving course, you’ll be provided with all the equipment that you need. And once you’re fully qualified, you’ll be able to rent everything from dive shops. But as you progress as a diver, you might want to start buying some gear of your own.
Below, we’ll take a look at the essential scuba diving equipment and what it’s used for…
- Mask – One of the most important pieces of diving equipment, a mask will allow you to see clearly underwater. Diving masks typically cover the eyes and nose, leaving the mouth free to access the regulator mouthpiece.
- Snorkel – A snorkel serves as a companion piece to your mask and allows you the breath underwater at a very limited depth. Though it’s not used when actually scuba diving, it’s helpful when exploring dive sites from the surface, assessing visibility, and swimming back to the boat after a dive.
- Fins – Another essential piece of diving equipment, fins will allow you to move swiftly and efficiently through the water with as little effort as possible.
- Wetsuit/drysuit – Even if you’re diving in warm waters, it’s generally a good idea to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit of some kind. This will not only prevent you from getting cold but protect your skin from things like stings, cuts, scrapes, and even sun damage.
Wetsuits and drysuits come in a variety of styles and thicknesses, and the best one for you will depend on the water temperature where you’re diving. Check out this article from Scuba Diving to find out more about how to choose.
- Cylinder/tank – The first part of the scuba apparatus, a diving cylinder is generally made from either aluminium or steel, and contains a large amount of compressed breathing gas.
There are a few different types of gas mixes that a scuba cylinder can contain – for example, nitrox (which contains less nitrogen than standard air) and trimix (which contains helium, as well as oxygen and nitrogen). These are both used for deeper, more technical diving. Though, as a beginner, your cylinder will contain regular air.
- Buoyancy control device – If you’ve ever been swimming, you’ll know that humans naturally float in water, which can be a problem when you’re diving – whether you’re wanting to dive down or effortlessly retain a certain depth. This is where a buoyancy control device comes in.
Working in tandem with a weight system, your BCD is worn like a life jacket and used to control your depth by either inflating or deflating it with air. Your BCD is also what your tank is attached to.
- Regulator – Often described as the ‘hub’ of your scuba system, a regulator is what actually allows you to breathe underwater when scuba diving.
It connects your mouth to the tank and in the process, reduces the pressure of the air coming from your tank so that you can breathe it in comfort and safety. It’ll also contain a spare mouthpiece so that you can share your air supply with a partner if anything should go wrong.
Your regulator will also involve a submersible pressure gauge (or SPG); a tool by which you can view how much air is left in your tank.
- Dive computer – In order to dive safely, you need to be aware of a wide range of factors at any one time, including depth and time.
For example, when you dive underwater, pressure increases; meaning you breathe in more air than usual. And because air is mostly a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, you breathe in more nitrogen than you usually would.
At normal pressures, you exhale all the nitrogen that you don’t need. But, underwater, you can’t exhale this excess nitrogen fast enough, so it gets absorbed into your blood instead.
To allow this nitrogen to be released from your body when diving, and avoid the risk of developing decompression sickness, you need to ascend slowly and make what’s known as a ‘safety stop’. Among other things, a dive computer can give you all the information needed to do this properly.
Whether you want to explore haunting shipwrecks, encounter dazzlingly marine life, or you’re just on the lookout for a new and fun way to keep fit and meet some new people, why not consider learning to scuba dive as your next hobby?
Once certified at an Open Water or Ocean Diver level, you can begin diving all around the world. And if you’re especially interested, you can even move on to become even more qualified – so you can dive at deeper depths or undertake more technical dives like night and cave dives.
If you’re interested in taking up a new watersport but don’t think scuba diving is for you, why not check out our beginner’s guides to surfing, kayaking, and open water swimming over on the hobbies and activities section of our website?