4 beginners on a pier starting scuba diving

A Beginner’s Guide To Scuba Diving

So you’ve decided you want to learn to scuba dive. Congrats! It’s a great hobby to have and a community to be a part of. However, you probably have a number of questions. 

After all, scuba can be a bit confusing for those unfamiliar. This guide intends to provide relatively brief answers to the major questions that people often have when they begin scuba diving.

What Is The Process?

Probably the most common question asked is how people become a scuba diver. 

The process is relatively simple in nature and entails three different components: a course, in-person instruction, and checkout dives. 

Together, this is what is known as open water certification, which is the basic level of certification for scuba divers.

The first part is a course. While this may occur in an in-person class setting at your local dive shop, most divers actually take the course as a self-directed e-learning module. 

2 scuba divers standing up getting ready to dive in shallow water

In the course, you learn basics about safety, equipment, and procedures as well as a bit about marine life and the science of diving.

Once the course portion is complete, it is time to move on to the in-person instruction.

Here, a certified instructor will teach you how to set up and use scuba equipment and the various skills that you will need as a diver. This typically takes place in a swimming pool in order to have a more controlled environment.

Finally, all divers must complete four checkout dives where they demonstrate these basic skills in an open water setting. Depending upon your location, these may take place in the ocean or an inland lake or quarry.

How Much Will It Cost?

The cost of learning to scuba dive will vary based upon your location. However, the typical cost for open water certification is approximately $300

This cost may be more if you live in a major city, but for most people, finding a course in this price range should not be an issue. Some may even find one a bit cheaper.

4 scuba divers going over sandy coral

What Do You Need to Start?

To start learning to dive, all you really need is a positive attitude and desire to learn.

There are some slight fitness requirements that most people will be able to meet (we’ll discuss these later). However, scuba instruction is designed to take someone with zero knowledge and make them into a competent diver.

You won’t even need to own any equipment, although you may decide you want to. The cost of open water certification often includes rental equipment from your training provider. 

In situations where rentals are not included, you will be able to rent equipment fairly cheaply.

Note that you may encounter dive shops that say you need to buy equipment. After all, they do want to make money. Be sure to ask about rentals in this case as it is perfectly fine to rent everything when you start out.

a single scuba diver going through a shoal of fish

Should You Buy or Rent Gear?

This is a very common question. If you’re like me, when you get into a new hobby, you want to learn a lot and often get excited and want to buy equipment. For scuba diving, divers have an important choice: rent or own.

For a beginning diver, I always recommend renting. First, if you haven’t even stepped into the water yet, you don’t yet know if you will like scuba diving. 

You probably will, but there are some people that attempt it and simply do not find it enjoyable. Buying equipment before you know you want it to be a frequent hobby is simply a waste of money.

When is it worth buying your own gear? In the event that you decide you want to dive frequently, especially if you are diving a lot locally, buying gear will save you money over time. 

However, for most people, renting gear is the most efficient way financially and will save you from having to engage in maintenance and upkeep on gear such as regulators.

If you do decide to even be an infrequent diver, I do recommend eventually investing in your own mask, snorkel, boots, and fins as these are highly personal items where fit and comfort are very important. 

You can typically find these items for good quality at approximately $200. A mask is the most essential piece of equipment for a diver to own and a good mask can be found for as little as $50-60.

2 scuba divers in open water

PADI or SDI?

For those not well versed in scuba slang, there are two major certification agencies (although others exist): PADI and SDI. Beginning divers often want to know which one they should choose for their certification.

Depending on who you ask, people will have vastly different, and sometimes quite passionate, opinions. People often are quite fond of the certification agency that they personally used because of familiarity and the fact that most people have very good experiences with training.

PADI is an agency that was founded with a focus on recreational diving and is often a favorite of beginning divers for this reason. Meanwhile, SDI was founded by Technical Diving International (TDI), so they have the unique perspective of viewing recreational diving from a technical perspective.

However, I would advise that the agency you choose is not an important factor. The reality is that any scuba certification from a World Recreational Scuba Training Council member will be accepted anywhere you want to dive. 

Additionally, both PADI and SDI have similar training processes that do an excellent job of covering the necessary material.

a scuba diver about to explore a cave

Thus, in my opinion, the determining factor should not be the agency you choose but rather which dive shop you choose for training. Everyone teaches a bit differently and finding a shop that matches how you best learn and your schedule is important. 

Ask friends who are certified for recommendations, join local Facebook diving groups and ask for input, and read reviews. Whichever shop you choose will be affiliated with one of these agencies.

How Long Does it Take To Learn Scuba Diving?

This is another common question. In fact, one of the reasons that many people decide to learn to scuba dive is the desire to engage in diving while on an upcoming vacation. Thus, the time it takes to get certified can be an important consideration.

The reality is that this question does not have an easy answer. While the requirements are the same for everyone, the process can look quite different. 

First, there is the course component. If you are doing an in-person course, it is typical to complete it over anywhere from 4-8 weeks. Conversely, if you are doing the e-learning version (as most of you will be), it is self-paced and you can theoretically knock it out in a few days if you have the time.

Next, there is the question of instruction. Some places do instruction in small chunks over many weeks so that divers can gradually gain exposure and learn the basic procedures and techniques. 

Others offer all-day weekend instruction aimed at appealing to those who want an intensive yet quick process. My instruction was the latter, and I was able to complete it in two weeks from the start of e-learning to the completion of my checkout dives.

a scuba diver surrounded by rays

Again, the important thing here is finding something that fits your needs. Do you learn better by gradually practicing new skills or are you comfortable learning to do many things in a short time period? 

What does your schedule look like? It is incredibly important to master the skills and information so reflecting upon these things is important.

Ultimately, you can get certified in probably as little as two weeks and as much as a few months.

How Deep Can I Go?

Once you get certified, how far under the water are you allowed to explore? After all, while coral reefs are relatively close to the surface, there are lots of shipwrecks to explore at greater depths.

Recreational scuba divers can dive up to 40 meters (130 feet). However, to reach these depths, you will need to complete advanced open water certification. Your open water certification will allow you to go to depths up to 18 meters (60 feet).

However, even if you don’t decide to go for advanced open water certification, you will still be able to see many things at this depth. 

Most of the popular dive sites in the world are less than 40 feet in depth. For example, Florida’s Blue Heron Bridge, named America’s best dive site by PADI in 2013, has a maximum depth of 25 feet.

a scuba diver ascending towards a boat

Is Scuba Diving Safe?

Many people may be a bit leery about scuba diving just from a general fear of water. The short answer to the safety question is yes. Scuba diving is very safe.

However, it is important to remember that scuba divers go into an environment where they cannot survive naturally. Your equipment is your lifeline. Sometimes equipment may experience issues while underwater, and you will have to respond appropriately.

This is why training is incredibly important. Open water certification will provide you with all the necessary information about how to be safe and what to do if you do encounter a problem. 

This is also why divers always dive in pairs. If your equipment has a major malfunction, your buddy will have an extra mouthpiece so that you can continue to breathe while you surface.

It is also important to note that scuba equipment is well-regulated and designed with many fail-safes in mind. Issues are relatively rare and following your training will enable you to deal with them safely should they happen. 

Like most things, there is some assumed inherent risk in scuba diving; however, the quality of modern equipment and safety protocols make diving extremely safe.

a scuba diver having their photo taken

Is Scuba Diving Difficult?

One of the surprising things for people to find is that scuba diving is not very difficult at all. From a knowledge standpoint, it is relatively easy to master the skills and information that a beginning diver needs to know.

From a physical standpoint, scuba diving does not require an extensive effort. In fact, divers typically learn to explore with minimum effort in order to conserve oxygen and get more time under the water.

Additionally, scuba diving is likely the closest anyone other than an astronaut can come to experiencing zero gravity as your goal under the surface is to become perfectly buoyant which essentially means you are relatively weightless.

You will find it much easier to glide through the water than you will to swim at the surface. Divers can explore with relatively little physical effort unless at a dive site with a strong current.

Where Will I Be Able to Dive?

It is tempting to say that you will be able to dive anywhere; however, that is not quite true for a beginner. For example, you won’t be able to dive in the Arctic – and possibly wouldn’t want to – as it requires equipment which needs extra certifications.

However, you can dive almost anywhere in temperate or tropical waters. You will also be able to dive in many inland lakes and quarries. Open water certification means that you can dive in open water up to 60 feet

So this also excludes caves and exploring inside shipwrecks due to the need for further safety training.

However, your options as an open water diver are quite extensive. Many frequent divers never even get an additional certification, particularly those who prefer to focus on diving coral reefs in the tropics. 

Before diving a site, you’ll want to check things like temperature and current in order to determine if you are comfortable, but as you build experience, you’ll be comfortable with a wider range of conditions.  

a scuba diver going through a cave

Is There an Age Limit?

When people ask this question, they typically want to know if they are too old to learn to scuba dive. There is no maximum age limit. You can learn to dive at 20 or 60; it doesn’t matter.

However, there is a minimum age limit. This varies by training agency, but most agencies (including PADI and SDI) have a minimum age of 10. Additionally, a parent must typically accompany a child at training. 

Children under 15 are limited to a lower maximum depth that varies by age (40 feet if under 12 and 70 feet if 12-15).

Do I Have to Be in Good Shape To Scuba Dive?

There are some basic requirements that a person must meet before being able to learn to scuba dive. Obviously, you need to know how to swim. Specifically, you are required to be able to swim at least 200 yards without stopping. 

You can use any stroke you like and take any time to swim the distance – you just cannot stop.

You will also be required to tread water for ten minutes. These are tasks that are typically completed in swimming pools. The purpose of these requirements is largely to ensure that divers are safe while at the surface. 

If you cannot currently meet these requirements, you should be able to meet them with just a little practice.

Additionally, these requirements are not typically done during diving. Because of your BCD (a vest you wear when diving that can be filled with pressurized air), you can typically float at the surface. 

Treading water is only really done if you reach the surface with an empty air tank.

a scuba diver in clear open water in a pool

Does My Certification Expire?

The good news is that your scuba diving certification will never expire. Once you are a diver, you are one for life!

However, it is important to stay engaged in scuba diving in order to stay up to date on your skills. If you do not dive regularly, you will likely forget important information and become a bit rusty.

Thus, if you do have a prolonged time between diving, you can take a short, refresher course with a dive shop to brush up on skills. This can be important for safety and is often required from dive operators if you haven’t dived in a specific period of time prior to your upcoming dive. 

This time varies by operator but is typically in the one year to 18 months range. Thus, diving once a year at a local site (even a quarry for inland folks) will keep you familiar.

What If I Don’t Know If I’m Ready to Learn?  

You certainly may still be a bit unsure about scuba diving. After all, it is a significant investment of time and money. Fortunately, there are options for you to determine if you want to become certified.

For those who still are not sure, you can take part in a Discover Scuba course. These courses are very affordable, typically around $60. They teach you basic information about scuba equipment, how to use it, how to move underwater, and give you practice breathing under water.

Discover Scuba courses provide supervised instruction with professional trainers to ensure safety and will also discuss the open water certification process. You won’t leave with a certification, but you will leave with a good idea of if scuba diving is right for you.

female scuba diver in shallow water

Tips for Learning to Scuba Dive

Now that you have a good understanding of the process of learning to dive and answers to common questions, it is important to provide some tips that you should practice when learning to dive.

Pay attention. Scuba diving is a fun sport but is also something to be taken seriously, especially during the learning process. Pay attention to the material, seek to understand, and take the learning process seriously. You will be a better diver and get more value from your investment.

Consider learning with a friend. Getting certified with a friend or significant other can make the experience more enjoyable and also gives you a built-in dive buddy. This can also increase comfort in the learning environment.

Ask questions. If you don’t know something or are having trouble with a concept or skill, your trainer wants you to speak up. Their goal is to produce divers that are well-trained and know the basic skills. Some skills are invariably a bit tricky when you try them at first. 

For example, I had trouble learning to clear my mask efficiently.

Equalize pressure often. You will cover this in class; however, it is one of the most important things for new divers to remember. As you descend, you must compensate for the change in pressure in your ears by pinching your nose and blowing (the Valsalva maneuver). 

This will equalize pressure in your ears and prevent ear pain. If your ear does start to hurt, kick up a foot or two, and do this. As you become more knowledgeable about your body, you’ll learn how often you need to do this. Some people need to do it much more frequently than others.

Don’t touch marine life. This is something else you’ll cover in your training but is important to emphasize. When doing your checkout dives in a real environment, don’t touch things. 

First of all, some animals can hurt you, and you can definitely hurt or startle them. This is true even with things like plants or coral. Touching coral can easily destroy it while some coral can cause a severe sting due to toxins. Thus, feel free to look and film, but do not touch.

a female with long hair scuba diving

Final Thoughts

Scuba diving is an incredibly enjoyable hobby and one that can be undertaken by almost anyone. Whether you prefer to visit Caribbean reefs and lagoons while on vacation or aspire to dive major shipwrecks, the start of this process is learning to dive with your open water certification.

If you are interested in learning to scuba dive, the next step is to do research on local dive shops that offer training. Once you’ve identified a place that you want to work with, contact them for details about training and how to sign up.

Remember that the scuba diving community is a very friendly and welcoming one. Fellow divers, and even strangers on internet groups, are usually happy to provide advice and answer any questions that you have.

Mike Seals
Chief Crisp Eater at Guiness Brewey | + posts

Mike resides in landlocked Indiana but takes every opportunity to travel to warm waters for diving. When in his home state, he typically dives quarries. His favorite place to dive is the reef off of Ambergris Caye, Belize. When not diving, he works as a researcher, runs marathons, and spends time with his three kids.

One thought on “A Beginner’s Guide To Scuba Diving

  1. Thanks for the tip that renting gear is preferable for beginner scuba divers. I plan to go on a scuba charter for my next vacation because I’m curious about how fish look like when viewed underwater. I bet that they would look very different because of how more noticeable their movements would be.

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