Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… learn to SCUBA dive

Insider secrets of the successful diver
© Jose Kevo

SCUBA Diving is a sport you can take with you everywhere, and as almost two-thirds of the world is covered in water, there is no limit to where and when. So whether you just want a dip now and then when you’re on holiday or you fancy exploring the mysteries of submerged shipwrecks, it’s a good idea to become a certified diver.

SCUBA stands for ‘Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus’ – an appliance that allows you to swim underwater using a cylinder that contains breathable compressed air  – and it’s one of the planet’s most popular water sports, with over a million people becoming certified divers worldwide every year. Whether you want to dive recreationally or professionally, with the help of PADI master instructor Steve Ware and SCUBA enthusiast Rob Cantle, WideWorld gives you the low-down on how to get started.

Steve has been diving for 14 years and has accrued five-thousand-plus dives. He has worked his way through the PADI system on a gradual basis and has dived all over the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, the Mediterranean, Djibouti and the UK. Rob has been diving for 25 years, having trained in England and then taken his PADI open water qualification all round the world.

Why dive?

“Most people are concerned about what is happening with the surface of the planet,” Ware says. “But now many people are becoming concerned what is happening underwater. It has been predicted that in 50 years time, many corals will change beyond recognition and disappear.

“When you dive, you enter an environment which has hardly been explored,” he continues. “You get such a buzz from diving, especially when you see certain species, some of which are on the verge of extinction.”

Where do I begin?

There is a wide variety of SCUBA schools and organisations. In Britain the two most popular are PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club). PADI is the largest and most recognised diving organisation in the world, with courses ranging from Snorkelling to Course Director. BSAC is the UK’s leading dive club and the sport’s national governing body, providing an internationally recognised diver training and development programme. But which one is best?

“I am biased so I would say PADI,” Ware says. “I think we have the most professional dive instructors and you can use your qualification nearly everywhere in the world. The BSAC process is slower; you can get a PADI qualification in much less time.”

Cantle, however, prefers BSAC: “I have trained through both organisations, and I would say that BSAC is a lot more thorough and professional. A BSAC qualification might take you four months where a PADI one might be four weeks. If you just want to dive on holidays, PADI would be the best, but BSAC is a higher standard.”

Both PADI and BSAC provide courses for beginners up to instructor level. “There are vocational courses which just increase your knowledge as a general SCUBA diver. These start at Open Water Dive and go up to Assistant Instructor. From then on, Dive Master up to Instructor are professional qualifications that you can use to dive anywhere in the world,” Ware says.

“Obviously different qualifications allow you to go different depths,” adds Cantle. “ Recreational dives never really exceed 28 metres. The Open Water qualification is the standard, where everyone starts. The BSAC version is called the Ocean Diver.”

NOTE: In North America, you might want to check out NAUI — the National Association of Diving Instructors.


“Before you start a diving course you will need a reasonable level of fitness. However, you don’t need to be super fit. You will need to be able to swim the minimum of 200m and tread water for 10mins,” Ware suggests.

“If you have breathing or heart complaints”, Cantle says, “You probably won’t be able to dive.”

If you tire easily or are predisposed to heart disease or diabetes, its best to check with your doctor first.

Most, if not all, courses will have an academic side. Buy the relevant diving manual and get to terms with it at home. You will have several weeks to absorb various topics including buoyancy, diving physics, depth and time limits, during which time you will be taking swimming pool test dives, learning survival/safety requirements and getting used to the kit.


“Most first time divers will not need to buy kit, renting is fine,” claims Cantle. “However, every beginner should buy fins, snorkel and a mask. You might want to buy yourself either a decent wetsuit or a decent dry suit, depending on where you want to dive. There is never really much point in buying a tank because technology changes so quickly. Best to rent them.”

Wetsuits acts as a thermal wrap and reduce the amount of heat your body loses when it comes in contact with water. They work by trapping a layer of water between your body and the suit and this then warms up. For warmer climates wetsuits that are three to five millimetres should suffice.

“If you’re a more experienced diver and you want the whole caboodle, it is going to cost you around £1200 to £1500,” Ware says. “Then you will need to buy a tank, regulators, BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), and computer (to monitor nitrogen absorption), among others.”

Popular diving destinations

Once you have your Open Water Diver certificate, you can more or less go diving anywhere in the world. Which are the best places to go?

According to www.scubatravel.co.uk’s ‘Top 100 Dives in the World’, Yongala, Australia is the number one scuba diving site providing divers with fascinating diving spots. Others include Thistlegorm in the Egyptian Red Sea and Lake Malawi in East Africa.

“For Europeans, Egypt is the closest and most beautiful place to dive,” according to Ware. “The Red Sea just has the most fantastic coral. My favourite destination in the world is Indonesia, for its impressive biodiversity of marine life and corals, which is far greater than anywhere else on the planet. Anywhere in the Indian Ocean is fantastic… Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka, for its blue water, great visibility and coral reefs. But there is great diving in the UK too. The UK has more wrecks than anywhere else in the world. We do have atrocious weather in this country, so be prepared for bad visibility and boat cancellations.”

“The Maldives is a pretty special place to dive,” Cantle suggests. “Its visibility and numbers of fish is astonishing.”


One of the first questions someone new to diving has is how to deal with pressure underwater. Pressure builds in the diver’s ‘middle ear’ between the ear drum and the inner ear. In order to reduce this pressure, a diver must ‘equalise’ this building pressure by doing one of several things;

  • Blowing – the diver must press his/her nose through the mask using the thumb and the forefinger and then try to exhale through the nose with mouth closed
  • Chewing
  • Swallowing

All these actions will essentially make your ears ‘pop’ like they would in the cabin of an aeroplane when pressure increases. Equalising can be hard, so try to equalise as soon as you start to reach two metres in depth this will help you get used to the action. But if equalisation is impossible, then the diver should not attempt to dive at all.

Staying safe

“Diving is a perfectly safe activity if you stick to the rules,” Ware says. “You always have to dive with a buddy to make sure the other person is safe. I think if you practice what you are taught calmly, diving is fool-proof. It is quite simple, if something goes wrong, just come up to the surface. In my 14 years as a diver, I have never had a problem.”

“You will be taught all the safety precautions in your lessons. Just stick to what you have been taught and you will be fine,” says Cantle. “You will need to learn the universal sign language and first aid, but that comes with the training. The important thing is to stick to what you know and don’t dive deeper than your qualification allows.”

For more information see: www.padi.com/scuba/; www.bsac.com; www.scubadiving.com; www.naui.org