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Scuba Diving: what, why, how, where, and when

I know it has literally been years since I published a new post (the delayed publishing of the Greece post notwithstanding). While management consulting tales could take a life of their own, I thought I would write about my newly acquired obsession hobby instead for my first post after all these years.

As I was starting out scuba diving early last year, I did a bit of research online to arm myself, and I found that most of the articles online were one of two extremes: either they were articles for people who'd never scuba dived before, or they were articles for people who'd done more dives than they could count. My goal here is to share a bit with you what I picked up throughout my journey from the former to the latter. Whether you have no idea what scuba diving involves, or you're an avid diver wondering what my take on the activity and the locations I've visited is, I hope you'll find something in this A-to-Z post of my scuba diving tales.

What, exactly, is involved in scuba diving?

You basically float and breathe underwater through a breather (called a regulator) connected to an air (as in atmospheric, breathing air, not necessarily just oxygen) tank that is strapped on to you. All the other complicated-looking gears serve to allow you to do just that - there is a spare regulator for emergencies, weights so you can go underwater as opposed to float on the top, an inflatable vest (called a BCD) so you can counteract the weights and float underwater - as opposed to be stuck on the ocean floor.

Why would one risk one's life by engaging in such an absurdly dangerous activity?

I've always loved the water, and the ocean. The idea of being able to explore more of it than what I could see on the surface or through snorkeling was compelling to me. Since 70% of the Earth are the oceans, scuba diving opens up so much more of the world to explore. It's an adventure into the unknown.

And the explorations - they are jaw dropping, breathtaking, otherworldly, I have struggled to find words to describe it. It is truly a whole different world down there - even 10-20 meters under the surface, there are landscapes - coral valleys and mountains and plains and formations and tunnels and so on, that stretch as far as the eyes can see - towards a horizon. The wildlife at sea is gorgeous and magnificent - fish of so many different colors and shapes, sharks, turtles, rays, colorful slugs, lobsters, octopuses, the list goes on. The best part is, unlike snorkeling or visiting aquariums, diving allows you to be closer to the vista and sea life, and float any which way. This means you can swim through a colorful coral tunnel with arches of soft corals hanging over you, while graceful eagle rays fly (yes, they fly) through the water above or right next to you. The first time I watched a sea turtle float over by my side to then graze on a coral, I was mesmerized - he was inches away from me and was so happily munching away on his lunch while I hovered right next to him.

To be clear, scuba diving can be dangerous if you are not properly trained - but this is why there are certification processes that you must do before you can (legally) dive. Once you are certified, you are equipped with the skills needed to save yourself, and your dive buddy, in the event of emergencies - which rarely, if ever, does occur. And to address the one concern I had before starting out: Really, the air tanks and regulators do not malfunction all that often - if they did, there'd be a lot more dead divers (or a lot fewer divers in general).

How does one get started and become certified, then?

Ha, I'm glad you're still reading! By and large, the scuba diving certification process has 3 main parts: the theory, the pool (closed water) dives, and the ocean (open water) dives. The theory consists of book/class work, the pool dives are typically conducted in a pool in the area you live in, and the open water dives can be conducted elsewhere after you've completed the first 2 parts. This means if you live in Chicago, you don't have to do your open water dives for the certification in Lake Michigan. I strongly suggest doing your open water dives in a good diving spot with great visibility - you don't want your first experience to be a bad or frustrating one due to poor visibility or an uncomfortable environment. I did mine in Cancun, which was an amazing place to start - I'd say most places in the Caribbean would be a safe bet (see next section for locales).

There are a number of diver certification organizations, such as PADI, SSI, CMAS, or SDI, each with their own sets of processes and qualification titles, but generally they all follow the same general path and stick to similar standards. To start, find a scuba diving school/training shop in your area that can help you do the first 2 parts.

Once you do your open water certification dives (they call these the "check out" dives) - you do 4 of them, which you can easily do over 2 days of 2 dives each - you are certified. It will take some time before you are 100% comfortable under water (which will significantly help with the efficiency of your air usage), but it comes a lot more naturally than you'd expect. It probably took me 6-10 dives before diving became almost completely second nature - after which point it became 100% enjoyment and 0% effort.

Where are the best diving locations?

"Best of" lists are always the subject of much debate, and there's plenty of articles online covering this ad infinitum. The areas that always come up, though, are typically:

  • South Pacific Ocean: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Palau, Malaysia, among others. Known for great biodiversity and vibrant corals and wildlife; however, locals may or may not care for the environment leading to pollution and dearth of wildlife, and infrastructure (e.g., hotels, reputable diveshops) can be limited depending on where you go.
  • Caribbean: The Cayman Islands, Mexico's Riviera Maya (in particular Cozumel), Bonaire, Turks and Caicos, among others. Typically calm, and clear waters and predictable conditions lend themselves to comfortable dives. Well-established dive operators are credible and provide above-and-beyond services, and locals rely on ocean tourism so the majority of areas have healthy sea life (Jamaica is one I've seen that is an exception - the corals were sad looking - I'm sure there are others).
  • Indian Ocean: in particular Maldives, Seychelles, and the Red Sea. Fantastic sea life, and in the case of Maldives and Seychelles, the locals rely on healthy oceans for their livelihood, so the corals and fish are very healthy and abundant. Well-established, comfortable, and in many cases luxurious operators and resorts abound.
  • Barrier Reefs: Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down through to Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. Typically terrific diving, but to really explore the beauty of the reef systems, you may want to consider staying a few days on a liveaboard boat, which will allow you to get further into the barrier reef, and therefore the more exciting dive zones.

In addition to the general areas above, there are many places you'll see mentioned with specific attractions, such as the manta ray night dive spot off the shores of Big Island, Hawaii, or this wreck or that wreck - I'm sure they're all worth checking out, but to me, the above general grouping by area is helpful in thinking through destinations when I plan a dive trip/vacation.

When should I get started?

Now! Nownownownownownow. Don't do what I did: I grew up in Indonesia, lived in Australia, and it wasn't until I lived in Chicago - Chicago! For goodness' sake - did I finally scratch the diving itch. Now I'm desperately wanting to go diving in Indonesia and Australia - virtually diving meccas - and I'm halfway over the world away. You can get the first two parts of the certification process done within a weekend wherever you live (I did mine in Chicago over a freezing February weekend - thank goodness the training school I went with had an indoor, heated, pool). The only thing left to do is then to get yourself to a gorgeous dive location to do your check out dives. There are worse things you can do with your vacation.

For your check out dives, I'd suggest going to a dive destination that not only has reputable dive operators (TripAdvisor is your friend here), but one that also has plenty of other things to offer, should you need a break from the diving; Grand Cayman and Aruba, for example, have stunningly beautiful beaches, great food, fascinating culture, some of the best run dive operations in the world, and happening nightlife, alongside the spectacular diving. In contrast, Cozumel and Bonaire are thought of as the height of Caribbean diving, but unless you're ready to commit your entire vacation trip to diving, they don't make much sense, as neither island have real beaches to speak of.

In closing, if you were to heed anything I've shared here, let it be this: if you are even remotely curious, just go and give it a try. If you don't enjoy it, at least you've given it a try. The highly likely scenario is that you'd get hooked, and then you'd wonder why you hadn't given it a try sooner, so you could explore more of the Earth in your span of a lifetime. Just go and do it - and let me know how it goes!

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