Imagine swimming deep underwater, surrounded by natural wonders and exotic animals.
Scuba diving is often a wonderful adventure.
But many beginners start to feel a bit nervous and overwhelmed when they’re first learning to scuba dive.
If you’re new to scuba diving or are thinking about taking some lessons, but you’re not quite sure what scuba diving is like, here’s a complete rundown.
I cover what scuba lessons involve, what gear you’ll need, what to expect on your first dive and more.
Don’t Be Sunk By Fear
If you’re new to scuba diving, what sounds like a fun adventure at first can start to feel a bit frightening when it’s time to put on the gear and start breathing underwater.
Pretty much every beginning scuba student has a moment (or two or three) where they wonder just what they’ve gotten themselves into.
As you first start to learn, scuba diving can feel confusing and even scary.
Don’t worry. Feeling a bit overwhelmed is perfectly normal.
Even if you feel like a total “fish out of water” during your first dive, or even your first lessons, don’t feel discouraged.
Soon enough the info will click and diving will feel easy, safe and fun.
Learn to Scuba at Your Own Pace
Beginning scuba students aren’t just thrown into the deep end and expected to figure everything out
Instead, your initial lessons will take place in a pool inside or a shallow bay outside.
At least a portion of the body of water will be shallow enough for you to stand.
Scuba instructions are divided into two broad categories: equipment and technique.
You’ll learn all about the scuba tank, respirator, attire and more.
By the time you’re entering deep water, you’ll be comfortable and familiar with how all of the scuba gear operates.
Scuba techniques involve all of the motions, breathing and safety procedures you’ll need to know when underwater.
You’ll learn how to enter, exit and navigate the water.
All scuba techniques emphasize safety procedures so you’ll automatically know what to do in an emergency.
Scuba Diving for the First Time
After you’ve completed your courses, it’s time for your first time.
You should feel confident, excited and maybe even a little nervous.
But don’t worry too much. Scuba diving is easier than you think.
Swimming – and breathing – underwater is a completely unique experience.
You’ll be moving through an environment which isn’t designed for human beings.
One of the best ways to prepare is to learn a bit about what diving feels, sounds and looks like.
The Sounds You’ll Hear Underwater
Many beginning divers think the world underwater is completely silent.
But that’s not really the case.
First-time divers are surprised to learn how noisy diving can actually be.
The respirator and tank are the main sources of noise.
You’ll hear a rush of air as you breathe in and then a bubbling sound as you breathe out.
As you become a more experienced diver, you’ll be able to tune these sounds out – but they can seem surprisingly loud during your first few dives!
Plus, water conducts sound differently than land.
Basically, the positioning of sounds will feel off.
You’ll likely have a hard time pinpointing where sounds are coming from.
Sound waves move quicker through water than through air.
A rather bizarre effect is created for divers.
All sounds will seem to originate directly behind your head.
While this will be understandably disorientating at first, with experience you’ll be able to adjust.
The Sights You’ll See While Diving
Diving underwater often feels like you’re exploring an alien world.
You’ll see animals, plants and landscapes which will be amazing, thrilling and beautiful to behold.
But, at first, you might feel like your vision is a bit restricted.
Scuba masks will likely cut off most of your peripheral vision.
Don’t be embarrassed if you feel a bit claustrophobic during your first few dives.
The limited field of vision can actually seem a bit jarring at first.
Scuba masks also create quite a few blind spots in your field of vision. Instead of tracking movement with your eyes, you’ll probably need to move your head around more than you’re used to.
If you ever feel lost or disoriented underwater, turn your head right, left, up and down to help get your bearings.
Water also changes how light behaves.
People, animals, plants and all other objects will seem about 33% closer than they are in reality.
After spending time in the water, even during your first dive, your brain will likely adapt.
The sense of touch is a great way to help your eyes adapt.
Reach out to make contact with the pool wall or even your diving buddy.
Note the difference in where the object appears to be and where it is in reality.
However, be careful touching objects in the wild.
Never touch coral, fish or other wildlife.
This can be dangerous both to yourself and the underwater creature.
How to Move Underwater
Moving underwater is an experience more similar to flying than swimming laps.
With practice, you’ll be able to move up, down and side to side with ease.
This freedom from gravity can take some getting used to.
Water is denser than air, which restricts movements.
Even simple movements require more energy than on land.
Even if you’re in good shape, you might be surprised at how quickly the water will tire you out.
Instead of fighting against the water, you’ll learn how to work with the resistance. In many ways, moving underwater is similar to Tai Chi.
Underwater movements are based around the idea of conserving energy.
Learning to move underwater requires some practice but most people get the hang of it fairly quickly.
But beginning divers frequently have problems learning how to stay still.
Instead of fighting the water, you’ll want to learn how to relax into it. Remain still and you’ll have a much easier time moving with weightlessness.
To Pee or Not To Pee
Every beginning diver has the same question: If I have to pee when I’m diving, do I just… go?
First, understand that the human body gets an involuntary urge to urinate when exposed to cold water.
This is cold water immersion diuresis and it’s perfectly natural.
So, the general rule is this. You can pee in oceans or lakes.
But avoid doing so in pools or when wearing a rented suit.
Gear: What Do I Need to Go Scuba Diving?
Scuba diving has a fair share of gear.
If you’re new to diving, you can often rent everything you need.
Here’s a rundown of common scuba diving gear:
Diving suits keep you warm and help prevent accidental injury.
There are two main types of diving suits: wet and dry.
They each have their advantages and disadvantages.
These are the most popular type of diving suit.
Wetsuits are designed to trap a very thin layer of water actually inside the suit between your body and the insulated rubber.
Your body heat warms the water, which in turn keep your warm throughout your dive.
Proper fit is important. Cold water will constantly touch your skin if the suit is too loose.
Consider purchasing your own suit if you’re planning on diving more than just once or twice.
You’re able to get the perfect fit when you don’t have to rely on rental suits.
Wetsuits are available in two different styles.
Short suits cover only your arms and torso. They’re great for warm waters and more tropical locations.
Full-body suits extend coverage to your legs and feet.
They’re usually the better choice for more temperate or even cold water.
Dry suits are the other type of diving suit.
They use double-walled material to create an insulated air space between the two layers.
In order to keep water from entering, dry suits have tight-fitting necks, wrists and ankles.
Although not as comfortable, dry suits are the warmest type of diving suit.
This is because air provides more insulation than the water in a wetsuit.
Plus, you can wear undergarments with a dry suit, which many people find to be more comfortable.
Diving Suit Water Temperature Breakdown
While there are some (relatively minor) differences in comfort levels, most people choose between a dry or wetsuit based on the temperature of the water they’ll be diving into.
- Bare skin and nylon wetsuits are best for water between 82 and 90 degrees.
- Short wet suits work best in water between 78 to 90 degrees.
- Full-body wetsuits are best in water between 68 and 85 degrees
- Dry suits suited for cold water 72 degrees or lower
Accessories are also available including gloves, boots, vests and hoods.
The human body has a natural buoyancy of .98 compared to water.
Basically, this means the body naturally wants to float on the surface of any body of water.
While that’s great if you’re swimming, a person’s naturally buoyancy can be a hassle when diving.
A buoyancy compensator is used to help with buoyancy control.
Also called a buoyancy control device, stabilizer, stab jacket or wing, this device helps control your buoyancy both underwater and on the water’s surface.
You’ll learn how to establish both neutral and positive buoyancy on the BCD.
A BCD is a vest with a rubber bladder.
The diver can directly inflate or deflate the vest at will.
Low-pressure air can be taken through an inflation tube or through the regulator (I’ll discuss regulators a bit later on).
BCDs have several different styles. Each vest contains air cylinders.
Difference styles of BCDs place these cylinders in the front collar, back or body. Most buoyancy vests also contain pockets for additional gear.
Perhaps the most important piece of scuba gear is the one which lets you breathe underwater.
The scuba regulator controls the airflow while you’re submerged.
Scuba divers usually use one of two mixture types.
The first is compressed air which is a mixture of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen.
The other type is Nitrox, which is a combination of about 68% nitrogen and 32% oxygen.
The gas is stored in an aluminum tank which you wear strapped to your back.
How an Air Tank Regulator Works
You can’t just breathe directly from the tank.
The high pressure would cause serious damage to your lungs.
This is why the tank needs to be fitted with a regulator.
A regulator performs two functions:
- Reduces pressure for safe inhalation
- Gives you control over the air supply
Regulators have two stages, which are small devices attached to the tube between the tank and you.
The first stage reduces the pressure from the tank from 3000 psi down to 140 psi.
The second stage reduces the pressure down to the ambient water pressure.
This stage also supplies air.
Typical operation provides air only when you inhale. Emergency operation allows for constant air supply.
The second stage consists of the following components:
- Outer rubber diaphragm which reads ambient water pressure
- Purge button
- Inner valve with movable lever
- Exhaust Value
Using a Regulator
Operating a scuba tank is a five-step process:
1. Inhale. This lowers the pressure in the intermediate-pressure chamber to below ambient water pressure.
2. The water pressure opens the value between the intermediate and high-pressure chambers
3. Air flows into the high-pressure chamber into the intermediate-pressure chamber.
4. As the pressure equalized, the piston closes.
5. The process repeats with the next inhale.
The regulator is one of the most important pieces of diving gear.
After all, it’s what keeps you breathing underwater.
So you want to make sure it’s in tip-top shape before every dive.
Regular cleaning keeps your regulator in good working order.
After each dive, clean the regulator with freshwater.
Otherwise, salt water and silt can corrode parts and impair valve movement.
Have your regulator serviced by a scuba professional at least once a year.
Many people buy their own regulator but rent just about all the other equipment.
When you own your regulator, you have peace of mind because you know the regulator works correctly.
Emergency / Alternate Air Supplies
Regulator or tank failures are rare. But you still want to be prepared for an emergency.
Another important piece of gear you’ll need is an emergency air supply.
Designed to be lightweight and portable, there are several options available:
These are small cylinders with regulators.
They attach onto the main air tank although they’re not connected function-wise.
Pony tanks hold quite a bit of air. They can be used for an emergency ascent from deep depths.
Spare Air Unit
This is a smaller device with a smaller air capacity. A regulator is built directly into the on/off valve.
While the air capacity is small, these lightweight units are easy to carry in a BCD pocket.
Only suitable for diving in relatively shallow depths.
This is a low-tech, J-shaped breathing tube.
While you can’t use a snorkel in an emergency, many divers use them as to conserve tank air.
Simply use the snorkel whenever you’re in shallow water.
By swimming facedown, you can still view the sights below.
Diving Knife and Watch
Many experienced divers bring along a dive knife.
This is a special knife which can easily cut fishing line, nets and other items you might find in open waters.
Plus, the blunt side of the knife can be used to knock on another diver’s tank in order to grab their attention.
A watch is also a good idea. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re underwater.
Keeping track of time also helps you keep track of your air supply.
A regular wristwatch might not fit around your wrist depending on the thickness and type of your dive suit.
But you can usually clip a watch to your suit with no problem.
Learning to Breathe Before Your First Dive
Humans weren’t built to breathe underwater.
Your body will naturally react if you try to inhale when submerged.
It’s absolutely normal to feel a little confused and even panicked the first few times you breathe with the scuba gear.
The biggest hurdle for most people is the first inhalation while underwater.
Your brain will usually push to prevent you from breathing in.
Even though you know better logically, there’s a very instinctual fear of inhaling water.
Here’s a tip for success. Practice breathing through the regulator before submerging yourself in the water.
Wait until you’re comfortable with mouth-only breathing.
Then lower your face into the water.
While doing so, exhale through the regulator. You’ll feel the urge to breathe automatically.
This can “trick” your body into that first underwater inhalation.
Potential Health & Safety Risks
Scuba diving is a risky activity whether it’s done as a sport or a hobby.
The risks are not just due to possible failure of the underwater safety equipment but also due to extreme underwater pressure and changes in pressure during descent or ascent.
So, before you suit up or learn to dive for the first time, take a moment to understand of the safety risks.
But don’t let this scare you away from diving – just be responsible out there to stay safe.
Middle ear damage. One of the common injuries divers suffer from is middle ear damage caused by too much external pressure that is not equalized in the middle ear.
The middle ear is a hollow region and is susceptible to sudden changes in the external pressure.
This is why divers pinch their noses and swallow to push more air into the middle ear.
But this technique may not work when the dive is too rapid.
Symptoms of barotrauma-induced middle ear damage include vertigo, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and hearing loss.
Bends (decompression sickness). When go deeper into the water, you subject your body to increasing ambient pressure, and this affects the gases inside your body.
Your tissues tend to absorb more nitrogen at extreme ambient pressure.
As you ascend, the pressure decreases, and your body slowly releases nitrogen.
However, something peculiar happens when a diver ascends rapidly.
The excess nitrogen is not released safely out of the body and forms bubbles inside your tissues, causing joint pain and sometimes death.
Also, too much build-up of nitrogen in the body can impair cognitive functions (nitrogen narcosis).
Lung damage. This is another danger related to pressure changes during descent and ascent. Deep divers breathe in denser air.
The dense air is necessary to equalize the pressure in your lungs with the surrounding pressure in the deep water.
Rapid ascent can cause the dense air in the lungs to expand.
Barotraumas also result in embolisms.
When the air in the lungs expands rapidly, air bubbles leak into the bloodstream and may plug small blood vessels, which could be a potentially life-threatening situation.
Divers avoid this by ascending slowly and making sure they are adjusting the pressure of the air in their self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Oxygen toxicity. Nitrogen is not the only problem with deep diving. Another potentially dangerous gas is oxygen.
You need oxygen but only up to a certain amount.
The problem with deep diving is you tend to inhale more oxygen than necessary, and your body tends to absorb more oxygen than necessary as well.
High levels of oxygen in your body has toxic effects with symptoms like nausea and twitching–and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.
Drowning. This is an obvious risk, although trained divers are supposed to prevent this. The usual cause of drowning for divers is faulty equipment.
Thus, divers have to inspect their gear before and after a dive to check for defects.
Hypothermia. This is sometimes overlooked. But diving in cold waters can result in your body temperature falling below normal.
This happens when you’re wearing an inappropriate or defective gear.
Learning to scuba dive can sometimes feel complicated or overwhelming. But stick with it.
After all, you’re learning to breathe underwater – and that’s not easy at first.
When you know what to expect on your first scuba dive, you’ll feel far more comfortable and far less anxious.
A whole new world of wonder awaits underwater!