Scuba diving was on my bucket list, and since I was close to retirement in the summer of 2013, I thought it was time to cross it off. As I took my first scuba lessons, I quickly learned that it is true what many scuba instructors say – water is not man’s natural environment. So, I was a little anxious about completing this certification.
After some basic research in local opportunities for scuba instruction, I had selected a dive shop in Salt Lake City, a short 20-minute drive from my home. The reason I selected them is because of the calming influence the owner, Lori, had on my anxiety. She also suggested an instructor who was almost my age, further diminishing my fears.
I aggressively completed the academic work and completed the pool training in good order. The open water certification was accomplished in a salt water “inland ocean” west of Salt Lake City. I had learned the basics and was now a certified, yet still uncomfortable, scuba diver.
I knew I had to master these skills to be a safe and competent diver. Although addressed in my training, I was barely able to control my buoyancy and even though I spent most of my adult life as a professional pilot navigating around the western United States, my underwater navigation skills were almost nonexistent. Moreover, I was certified at a depth of 23 feet, and I knew I wanted to go deeper. And to top it off, I never jumped from my sailboat with 50 pounds of gear on me, so boat diving would be a new experience. By the way, since we live at around 4,200 feet MSL, altitude diving was part of the training I received.
To borrow and modify a saying from aviation, now that my scuba training was completed, I was certified to really learn how to dive.
Knowledge is King
I adopted a 3-step approach to this challenge. First, I committed to joining the dive-a-longs the dive shop offered every month to local lakes. Second, I signed up for several specialty courses, such as buoyancy, navigation, deep diving, nitrox diving, and boat diving. Since I really do believe that knowledge is power, I signed up for a course titled Diver Stress and Rescue, to further allay my underwater fears. I also signed up for the Night and Limited Visibility course, as well as the First Aid, CPR, AED, and O2 training. The Science of Diving course was not far behind. And finally, I devoted time to improve my physical condition.
Whew! I know, that is a lot of study and effort. But it was worth it for me. I learned not only the specific academic material, but I also learned something about how to be a better diver in every course. This was further strengthened every time I went diving. I practiced, watched, and learned.
And then one day, I suddenly realized I had not been paying attention to the little things that could help me be a better diver.
Here are several examples.
Buoyancy and the BC (Buoyancy Compensator) and Weights
We had used weights in the training environment in the pool and I never questioned their need. One of the first things I noticed afterward was that I really needed no weights to descend in the pool. This translated to no weights in fresh water (unless I was wearing a wet suit). In the buoyancy class, I learned I had been doing the buoyancy check incorrectly. This resulted in me being overweight for every dive to that point. After I corrected my misunderstanding, I used less air in the BC, resulting in more air for me.
The buoyancy compensator (BC), sometimes called a buoyancy control device (BCD), is the piece of equipment that makes recreation diving possible and popular. Its job is to establish neutral buoyancy underwater and positive buoyancy on the surface. But it is the diver who controls the BC. I had to learn to use shorter bursts of air and to wait for neutral buoyancy to become apparent. As mother said, patience is a virtue.
I look back now and chuckle as I remember how fast my air seemed to disappear on a dive. Next to buoyancy, this is, in my opinion, the most important skill for a diver to master.
I learned that my anxiety, which resulted in poor breathing habits underwater, could be offset and eventually eliminated by my increased knowledge and growing experience. My strong desire to improve was also a factor.
As soon as I really paid attention to my breathing, I relaxed. The result was twofold – I was not only more relaxed, but I also had enough air to fully explore more of our underwater world.
The Value of a Computer
Every scuba diver should learn to use dive tables. That way we understand the principles of gas compression and decompression better. We learn why off-gassing is so important and how to accomplish that by obeying the tables. Having said that, diving with a computer is so much better than diving on tables.
But here is a caveat – learn to use your computer before you dive. Then do an easy dive next and use all the underwater features of your computer.
I recently bought a new computer and practiced all its features at my kitchen table. All but one, that is. Guess which feature I accidentally activated on my next dive? It turns out I can inadvertently turn the light off while in the water, which makes the computer nearly impossible to see. Partially in my defense, I was wearing thick gloves and couldn’t feel when I pressed a button. Nonetheless, I should have learned about this feature beforehand, and I should have practiced at home with my gloves on.
The last 5 years of my career were spent sitting in a chair in front of a computer. In other words, I let my physical condition deteriorate. I discovered this to be a distinct disadvantage while learning to be a proficient scuba diver. So, I joined the local gym and began the journey to better health, including trimming my weight by 6 pounds. What a difference this made! Now I could carry my gear from the parking lot to the shoreline without being winded to the point of resting for 20 minutes before I could dive. This also improved my breathing so I used less air underwater.
Knowledge About the Dive Site
I found that if I did a little research about the upcoming dive site, I was more at ease during the dive. Research can be anything from an Internet search to comments from divers who have been there. This lowered anxiety about the dive resulted in being more relaxed during the dive – again resulting in using less air throughout the dive.
This goes right along with the previous topic. The more you know about the dive, the more relaxed you can be in the water. The Divemaster or Captain can make every dive more interesting and enjoyable. Be sure you attend their briefing for each dive; they will have seasonal updates on the site, including what you can expect to see.
Like most new divers, I used rental gear for my early dives. Although the gear was suitable, it just wasn’t quite right. I made it work, but I knew there had to be a better way. I eventually invested in a better BC and an upgraded regulator. These two purchases made diving less taxing and more enjoyable. Because I do a lot of diving in cold water, I decided to invest in a best – not better, but all the way to best – 7 mm wetsuit that fit my body form just right. This, along with proper boots and hood, made diving in cold water more comfortable.
By the way, I purchased the wetsuit after talking to the dive shop owner. Her years of experience resulted in me getting a quality wetsuit that works perfectly for me. The tip here is, don’t neglect to talk to more experienced divers for recommendations when you have a question.
I recently had a student ask me if I had ever lost my mask or regular; she wondered why we stressed these skills so much during training. It turns out that on one dive I wasn’t paying attention when my buddy, who was in front of me, stopped and I swam into his moving fins. My mask was lopsided and full of water and my regulator was floating in front of me. So, yes, the skills learned in training can be something you need some day, so practice them periodically. If you only dive a few times in the summer each year, consider an update class before the next year’s diving begins.
My point is, we need to pay close attention to the instructors and other divers we dive with so we can learn from their experience. And we need to make a point of learning something new on every dive. If there is nothing new, then we can practice something we learned years ago, but haven’t used recently.
Another useful, and potentially lifesaving, skill is the determination to make a safety stop on every dive. I know, computers can indicate no stop is necessary, but if you are making multiple dives per day, or over several days, the benefit of a safety stop outweighs the minor delay in getting to the surface. Plus, it allows you to practice buoyancy skills.