Back in the fall of 2015, I got certified for SCUBA diving. I wrote this shortly after, but never got around to publishing it. Hope you enjoy!
I’ve loved the water since before I could walk. My mom likes to tell stories about how, if there was a body of water around, I was in it (despite any signs or instructions to the contrary). Most of our family vacations growing up involved a lake, river or ocean for swimming, fishing, tide pooling, exploring, kayaking and snorkeling. On a couple of these snorkel outings there were a few people SCUBA diving off the boat, but we stuck with snorkeling. My mom and I occasionally talked about getting SCUBA certified “someday,” but we never did. Fast forward a few years, and I started dating Greyson. His family is super into SCUBA diving, and they have been taking dive vacations all over the world since he was a teenager. With my love for the water, he encouraged me to get certified, but with all my other hobbies, SCUBA certification got pushed to “someday” again.
Fall 2015 came along and “someday” came sooner than I was expecting! Greyson’s parents planned a SCUBA diving trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, and they invited me along. This combined with the fact that my parents got me the SCUBA certification class and gear for my birthday meant that it was time to get certified. Greyson and I spent a few afternoons in Donner Lake practicing in snorkel gear to prepare.
I finished my classroom sessions, pool dives and open water dives in September, and I’m now officially a certified open water SCUBA diver! For those of you who are interested in SCUBA diving but haven’t taken the plunge (no pun intended), I thought I’d write a little about what it was like to get SCUBA certified. Going into it, I was super nervous. I was worried about the classroom part, being able to pass all the skills in the pool, not being able to handle the open water portion, etc. It turns out that all my stressing was for nothing, and I found SCUBA certification to be a breeze.
The first step of getting SCUBA certified is the classroom portion. I did my certification through Sierra Diving Center based in Reno, Nevada, which is a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certified center. PADI is the main diving certification worldwide, and many diving resorts and destinations will only let you dive if you have a PADI certification.
When I signed up for my diving class, I was given a packet of materials that included a DVD, a workbook and a special diving calculator. I spent a couple of hours watching the DVD while going through the workbook and finishing all of the practice problems. The problems are simple math problems to help you understand important diving safety concepts like pressure groups, volume, water pressure, dissolved gases in your body, etc. I thought the concepts were fairly straightforward, but there were definitely some in my class who struggled. Your mileage may vary.
The classroom session took place over a few hours on a Friday evening and Saturday morning. We covered the topics that were in the workbook, like equipment, safety and dangerous situations that can arise while diving, air chemistry, volume and pressure, what to do in case of emergency, and other diving related topics. We did practice problems using our diving calculators and had the chance to ask lots of questions. We also practiced setting up our SCUBA gear – tank, buoyancy control device (BCD), regulator, and computer. The SCUBA instructors I had were great – really funny, responsive to questions, thorough and knowledgeable.
After we passed all of the required quizzes and tests and asked our final questions, we headed to the pool for our confined dives. The dives in the pool were where we were tested on our physical fitness and learned and practiced the skills we’d have to complete in our open water dives in order to pass. The physical fitness tests were pretty easy for me – we had to swim 300 meters using our mask and snorkel and float/tread water for five minutes.
We got out of the water, and now it was time for the hard part – getting into our SCUBA gear and getting properly weighted. It was in the high 80s in Reno that day, so I didn’t bother with a wetsuit, figuring that I’d be fine in a heated pool in just a rash guard and two piece, so I was weighted accordingly. We started off standing the shallow end, before I knew it, it was time to take my first breath underwater. It was definitely a weird feeling, but really cool! Our instructor had us practice breathing through the regulator while standing and without our masks, to prove that we could. Once everyone was satisfied that it was, in fact, possible to breathe underwater, we sunk slowly under the surface.
There is lots of sitting around and waiting during the confined and open water dives, and I eventually got pretty cold and added a shorty wetsuit. One of the instructors threw a five pound weight in one side. This would turn out to be both not enough weight and made me way uneven underwater.
At this point, we graduated from the shallow end and swam to the deep end of the pool. It was so cool to float slowly down to the bottom; I was able to clear my ears quite easily and didn’t have too much problem with the pressure. I did have a problem floating gracefully to the bottom, though! I didn’t have enough weight on my belt, and one of the instructors had to pull me down. Once I was actually on the bottom, the extra water pressure squeezed the air and I was able to somewhat settle on the bottom.
Even though we were all in a small pool, we followed SCUBA best practices and stuck close to our buddy. I totally lucked out with my buddy, Tessa. She was great – and super strong which is nice when you’re getting in and out of the heavy SCUBA gear. We learned how to put our masks back on while under water, how to clear water out of our masks, how to share air with a buddy and other important skills. We did more sitting around while other people practiced their skills, though I was stuck in more of a bumping around, semi-kneeling position, listing to my left. This movement + short wetsuit + rough pool bottom meant my knees were super scraped up by the end of the day. This was really my only complaint about the whole class though.
I got smarter, and wore my ankle-length triathlon wetsuit for day two in the pool. The second day involved practicing and perfecting more complicated skills, like taking off your BCD and tank and putting them back on, slowly kicking to the surface with no air (but not holding your breath!), buoyancy control, and sharing air with your buddy while dragging them to the surface. I had the hardest time with buoyancy control! It’s apparently a tough skill to learn, and you can take an entire separate class just to practice. We also went on some “exploratory dives” which was mostly just trying to not accidentally pop to the surface or get kicked in the face while we swam around a fairly small pool. After two days in the pool, I was feeling ready for our open water dives, which happened the next week.
One thing that was super awesome about Sierra Diving Center’s certification class is that we got to do our open water dives in Lake Tahoe! Lake Tahoe is at 6,224 feet, so we got to do our first dive at high altitude. This added some complications to our calculations and set some stricter limits on how deep we could go, but it was a fun experience for our first dives.
The open water portion consisted of four dives across two days – three where we practiced our skills and a fourth “exploration dive.” We dove at Sand Harbor State Park in Nevada. While I’d been to Sand Harbor a few times for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, I’d never actually swam there before so I was excited about the opportunity. Plus the water is crystal clear and littered with interesting boulders and rock features.
We started out learning how to navigate with our compasses in the parking lot – I’m sure the other people at the park thought we were hilarious. We hauled our gear to the water (much further than usual due to the drought!), and before I knew it, my dive buddy and I were following an anchor line under water. We bottomed out at about 12 feet, and started demonstrating the skills we’d learned and practiced in the pool. I won’t list off everything we did, but, if you’re interested in diving, you can check out a generic list of open water skills here.
Tessa and I passed everything pretty much on our first try – my one exception was underwater compass navigation. I kicked too much and ended up on the surface on my first try. I remembered to watch my depth on my second try and it was fine. So there was more sitting around on the bottom, but it was definitely more interesting than the pool. We saw a ton of crawdads, which I knew lived in Lake Tahoe, but I’d never actually seen. After the final skills dive and a lunch break, it was time for our final exploration dive.
Our class had started out with both men and women, but, by the time of our final dive, all the men had dropped out and our class was all women (and one 13 year old girl!). We came up with a dive plan (where we’d go, how deep we’d get, when we’d turn around, etc.) and headed out. While being underwater and practicing skills had been cool, nothing prepared me for how awesome actually diving was! Our small group got deeper than we’d been before, swam around and over incredible underwater rock formations, and swam through a school of thousands of minnows.
When we popped up at our designated meeting spot, we all had huge grins on our faces. The instructors told us, “Congratulations! You are all certified SCUBA divers.” We had a quick debrief session and the instructors signed our diving logs, and that was it. We were done!
Getting SCUBA certified with Sierra Diving Center was a great experience, and I’d highly recommend them for anyone looking to complete a SCUBA certification. I haven’t been back in the water in quite awhile, but Greyson and I are hoping to do some diving this year.