I want people to dive. It keeps me in a job, and it helps drum-up passion for the Earth’s oceans; which is important now more than ever. But, for many folks who have thought about learning to dive, there maybe some niggling concerns that prevent them from making the leap into becoming an ambassador for the underwater world.
I hear about these apprehensions from friends, family, and the people I interact with all the time. More often than not, it’s the same few common concerns that most people have. Here in this post, I will try to address each of what I consider the most common ‘barriers’ to learning to dive, and attempt to use my knowledge and experience to allay any worries – and get you diving!
Of course, some people just simply don’t want to learn and have no interest in changing that – in which case, this post is not for you! For everyone else – read on!
One: I am not a good swimmer, am I still able to learn to dive?
While a certain level of competency in the water is very important, you don’t need to be a great swimmer to learn to dive! An instructor is simply looking to see that a student diver can tread water/float for ten minutes, and swim a distance of 200 metres/yards. (Any stroke or combination of strokes is allowed, and no time limit.) The idea is to show a degree of comfort in the water, but also demonstrates the student’s ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances such as surfacing some distance away from the boat, or having to wait to be picked up. Very rarely do my student divers have major issues with the swimming aspect of the course, but if you are worried then do a few practice sessions beforehand!
Two: I tried snorkelling a few times, but it made me nervous/hurt my ears/I choked on water/got water in my mask (delete as applicable) so I don’t think I can dive…
Do you want to know an embarrassing secret? Snorkelling can be scary! Unlike diving, there is wind and waves to contend with, the latter of which can cause water to go down inside your snorkel and inside your mask. Also, of course, there is that primal, sub-conscious fear of being on the surface in deep water which relates to our dread of what could be below, and our instinctual fear of potential predators. Thirdly, when snorkellers try to duck down to see coral or marine life close-up, often they are trying to frantically swim down as fast as they can (often head-first) before they need to come back up for air. This leads to pressure and pain in the ears and sinuses that can put-off even the most salty of ocean babies!
All of the above create the ‘perfect storm’ for having a bad experience. I cannot even begin to count the amount of people that say they don’t want to dive because of that ‘one time’ they went snorkelling and (insert problem here) happened which put them off. But the truth is (and not many people like to admit this) that SCUBA diving, when done correctly, is actually way less stressful and scary than snorkelling!
Once below the surface, there is no wind, and waves are much less perceptible, if at all. The SCUBA regulator (breathing apparatus) does a great job of staying dry due to the positive pressure inside, and your nice calm relaxed face keeps the mask sealed and free of water too! The primal urge to avoid predators is suppressed once underwater. Because you have an air-supply strapped to your back, you have time to descend in a slow and controlled manner to prevent pressure build-up in the ears.
I know plenty of people who hated snorkelling, only to go on to become avid and enthusiastic SCUBA divers.
Three: I get claustrophobic. I don’t think I could go underwater on SCUBA
This is a common one, and no doubt one of the toughest ‘barriers to diving‘ that exists. Some folks don’t like having a mask on their face, and the thought of being deep underwater gives them heebie-jeebies! My recommendation is to get a mask with a clear skirt (unlike the black one I am wearing in the photo above) to allow lots of light in and to give lots of peripheral vision. Also, try to get dive in locations that typically have good visibility, and avoid going inside caverns and tunnels. (Unlike me in the photo above!) In places such as the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the Red Sea can often offer underwater visibility of 30-metres plus. (100 feet) The effects of claustrophobia are therefore much more reduced.
Four: What about sharks/barracuda/jellyfish?
A valid concern – for those who watch too many movies! The biggest thing to remember about wildlife, including aquatic life, is that they behave generally along a set of well-established trends. Why an animal behaves in a certain way usually falls into one of several categories that can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy for a given species. Unlike us complex humans, most animals (not all) don’t do things out of spite, or just because ‘they feel like it.’
That being said, the vast majority of animal attacks, in or out of water, and generally related to the animal trying to protect itself, its offspring, or its food. This includes bears protecting their cubs from hikers, lions protecting the fresh zebra carcass they just killed, or triggerfish protecting their nest of eggs from divers.
Shark attacks are generally against swimmers, snorkellers, and surfers in particular. This is a case of mistaken identity as the shark sees the outline of a surfer on the surface for instance, sees the associated splashing and assumes it’s a distressed or injured seal – perfect lunch! Humans actually don’t taste good to sharks, hence why you hear mostly about shark bites as opposed to someone getting eaten entirely. This is of course of little comfort for a surfer who is now bleeding out from having their leg bitten off, but it proves that sharks follow a set of pre-determined behaviours. As divers, we are not on the surface, and we are hissing and bubbling in such a way that you’ll be lucky if sharks even stick around, not to mention attack. We simply do not look (or smell!) like food. Although not unheard of – shark attacks are incredibly rare on SCUBA divers.
As far as other marine life is concerned, we generally adopt a ‘no-touch’ approach, which in my experience prevents problems before they even occur. Barracuda may hang ominously around the divers looking all mean and scary, but I have never seen one do anything more than look menacing. Jellyfish can be a concern, and most divers at some point their careers have had the sharp tingling sensation after swimming into one, but it’s generally of low concern. In areas know for high numbers of jellyfish, or more dangerous ones, more extensive exposure protection such as long wetsuits is usually sufficient.
Five: I heard about ‘the bends’ so I am resistant to trying diving
More accurately called Decompression Illness, (DCI) ‘the bends’ is indeed a real concern for divers. However, after many years of exhaustive research since diving’s inception, conducted over literally millions of dives and with millions of divers, modern protocols and procedures have reduced incidences of DCI to negligible proportions.
Breathing compressed gas under pressure causes inert gas (gas not used by the body for respiration) to dissolve into the body tissues. When the diver returns to the surface, the dissolved gas comes back out of solution and is expelled by the body. DCI is caused by the inert gas coming out too quickly and creating bubbles. This is most commonly caused by the diver coming up too quickly or a condition that prohibits the body’s ability to expel excess inert gas efficiently; this can include dehydration or pre-existing medical conditions.
“Compare opening a bottle of soda/coke slowly vs cracking it open quickly. The dissolved gas either comes out of solution slowly and in a controlled way, or sprays all over your shoes. A crude yet somewhat accurate analogy!”
Staying hydrated, in good health, and following commonly-accepted protocols will reduce your chance of DCI to very low proportions. Although the odd ‘un-deserved’ case of DCI does happen, for the most part millions of dives are conducted annually across the globe without problems. Your instructor will teach you all about how to prevent DCI when you learn to dive!
Thanks for reading! I hope this helped to alleviate any fear you may have had, and give you the push you need to start diving! 2021 is going to be our year – I can feel it!
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