Bookshelf: Scuba Fundamental

Scuba Fundamental: Start Diving the Right Way – Simon Pridmore

When I first learned how to dive, all I wanted was to find books about scuba diving that were relevant to my stage of knowledge and skill, so that I could learn more (my learning style is by reading). Unfortunately at that time the only books about scuba diving in South Africa that I could find were absolute rubbish (fortunately the situation has improved immeasurably – here’s a quality example). I wish I’d had this book to hand, but it was only published last year, so sorry for me.

Scuba Fundamental
Scuba Fundamental

I read it anyway, with my jaded old eyes. It isn’t specific to South Africa, but it’s written for people who are contemplating learning to dive, who are busy learning, or who are still early in their diving careers. Many of the topics that Simon Pridmore covers are ones that Tony and I tried to deal with in the early days of this blog. He is eminently sensible, and writes from a position of deep, international experience in the dive industry.

How does one choose a dive course? How does one choose a diving instructorWhen shouldn’t one dive? Which certification agency is best? Should a new diver buy their own equipment, and where does one even begin with that? Once qualified, what next? What about diving in cold water and cold weather? How can divers keep safe on the surface? Pridmore also discusses some important elements of dive etiquette such as peeing in your wetsuit, entry techniques (giant strides, backward rolls, and so on), seasickness, dive boat etiquette, behaviour around marine animals, and what to do if your dive buddy surfaces with a giant booger.

If you’re thinking of learning to dive, are busy with your course, have done fewer than 30 dives, or are just seeking some direction in the early stages of your love affair with scuba diving, consider this guide. If you have a friend or family member you’d like to start a conversation with about diving, or would like to buy a dive course for but can’t afford it, this book is an excellent starting point. I found myself agreeing out loud with the author’s observations more times than I can count.

Get it here (South Africa), here (US) or here (UK).

Thinking of learning to scuba dive? Read this!

Student dives in Maori Bay
Student dives in Maori Bay

This blog has been going for a while, and there’s some content that I’d like to revive – all in one place – as a handy guide for people who are considering learning to dive.

Once you’ve made the decision to learn to scuba dive, you may wonder how to shop for a dive course. If you’re doing it just on price, I think you’re doing it wrong. Scuba diving is a sport with inherent risks, like paragliding or rock climbing. Do you really want to base your decision purely on how much it costs…?

Should you go and buy yourself a full set of dive gear before you do your course (or worse – I made this mistake – as a package with your Open Water course)? Read about whether you should or shouldn’t buy gear, and if you do decide to go ahead, there are some tips on shopping for dive gear that might be helpful.

What’s the difference between the Scuba Diver and Open Water courses? There is a difference, and you should be aware of it!

Many people ask whether children can learn to scuba dive. The short answer is yes – from the age of eight, in the swimming pool, and from age 10 in the ocean. More information can be found in this post about scuba diving for kids.

We also have a bunch of other frequently asked questions, some of which might help you on your way:

Does one need to be a good swimmer in order to scuba dive?

Which certification agency (PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI, etc) is best?

Should one learn to dive before going on a dive trip, or on the trip itself?

Can one scuba dive in winter?

Isn’t it too cold to dive in Cape Town?

 

 

FAQ: What’s it like on a night dive?

Clare took this short clip on a night dive we did in February at Long Beach. There were seven divers, and you can see that – contrary to what you might expect – there’s quite a lot of light to see by. The frantically waving torch you can see at one point was me signalling to Clare to come and have a look at a doublesash butterflyfish we’d found. The visibility on this dive was about 5 metres.

This dive was part of JP’s Advanced course and Corne’s Divemaster training; the other divers just came along for fun. You can elect to do a night dive as one of your three dive choices on the Advanced course (you have to do a deep dive and a navigation dive), and you can even do an entire Night Diving Specialty if that’s what floats your boat. Divemasters are expected to be familiar with night diving in order to be certified.

Night diving is excellent training for low visibility diving in general. Divers each carry a torch (preferably two), and we use strobes and cyalumes attached to each diver’s cylinder to keep track of everyone. At the beginning of the dive we cover our lights and allow our eyes to acclimatise to the gloom. It’s surprising how much ambient light there is, specially if there’s a full moon.

FAQ: What’s the difference between an Independent and a Freelance instructor?

It is important to establish the credentials of your diving instructor and it is equally important to establish whether he/she is an independent or freelance instructor.

An independent is just that, an instructor who can take you right through the course without being dependent on a dive centre for equipment, training material or training aids.

A freelance instructor will need to rely on the availability of gear and training aids from a dive centre. A freelance Instructor will not be able to guarantee the same gear, wetsuit, mask etc. that you have used in the pool when you do your sea dives as they are rented and may therefore be out with another diver when you need them.

The divemobile taking in the sights in Gansbaai
The divemobile taking in the sights in Gansbaai

To be an independent instructor you need to be able to operate independently of any dive centre. This means you will need:

  • to have your own rental gear: regulators, BCDs , wetsuits, cylinders, fins, masks, and possibly even a compressor; and
  • to be able to find students, discuss and plan their course schedule entirely independent of a dive centre schedule and without relying on someone else’s training aids. For example if you are going to sign up for an Enriched Air/Nitrox course will there be a Nitrox analyser? If you plan to do night diving you will there be torches available, glow sticks, and strobes? Search and Recovery dives will require slates, reels and a lift bag. Being an independent instructor requires a certain degree of self-sufficiency.

(Often, independent instructors or freelance instructors open dive centres themselves. This transition usually comes with having a retail outlet and often the main focus is then diverted from teaching diving to paying the rent. Sales become more of a focus and they then arm themselves with freelance instructor contact details so anyone wanting to do a course can be accommodated.)

When you’re signing up for a dive course, this is a useful distinction to be aware of, and you should ask your instructor about whose kit he uses, and whether he’s dependent on a dive centre in any way.

FAQ: Diving in Cape Town

Tony and I recently had to put together some material for an advertising brochure, and were invited to submit a 400 word advertorial on diving in Cape Town. It has some salient points in it, so we thought we’d include it here for your reading pleasure.

What is there to see while diving in Cape Town?

The waters around the Cape Peninsula are extraordinarily rich with marine life found nowhere else in the world. The clean, cold waters of the Atlantic and the warmer waters of False Bay are host to countless fish species, giant sting rays, beautiful sea plants, and extremely diverse invertebrate life such as nudibranchs (colourful sea slugs), molluscs and brightly coloured sea anemones. Diving in Cape Town is colourful and always exciting.

There are many wrecks to explore, easily accessible either on a dive boat or from the shore. Some of these were deliberately sunk as artificial reefs, and others fell victim to winter storms and now have a permanent home on our coastline. There are also rocky reefs and mysterious kelp forests that hide a multitude of fascinating inhabitants. You can even do dives with seals or with remarkable sevengill cowsharks if you want to – the options are endless.

What’s the best time to learn to dive?

Summer is an appealing time to learn to dive because the weather is sunny and warm, and this is a busy time for diving in the Cape. However, the best water conditions in False Bay are in winter: the water is clean, clear, and not too cold. Cape Town is a year-round diving destination and there’s no bad time to sign up for a course. If you’re planning a tropical holiday where you hope to dive, we’d recommend getting your dive qualification before you go so that you can have the best possible experience on your holiday.

Which diving course is right for me?

There are a couple of options for a beginner diver. The first is called Discover Scuba Diving. You will learn some very basic skills, and then do a proper sea dive under instructor supervision. It’s not a qualification, but gives you a chance to decide if diving is for you.

If you do decide you want to become a qualified diver, the course to start with is the PADI Open Water course. This course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, anywhere in the world – all you need to do is show your PADI certification card to book a dive or rent equipment. The course takes about four days to complete, and can be done part time and over weekends to suit your schedule.

Where can I get more information on diving in Cape Town?

Check out www.learntodivetoday.co.za, and our blog at www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog. We’re happy to answer any questions you have!

FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.

FAQ: How do I clean a stinky wetsuit?

Maybe your wetsuit smells funky because you perspired in it. Maybe there are other reasons… Whatever the cause, here are some tips for keeping it fresh and fragrant.

Give it a hot rinse

This is the most important part of regular pong prevention. Don’t waste your time dipping the suit into a communal rinsing tank at the dive centre. Unless you get there first, that water is full of contaminants…salt, body fluids and sand. The easiest way to do this is to take your suit in the shower with you, otherwise lay it down flat in the bath and give it a good once-over with the shower head. Hot water is better than cool water for breaking down the mineral salts from the ocean and your body.

Our garden after a day of diving
Our garden after a day of diving

Hang it in the shade

After rinsing, hang your suit to dry on a thick wooden or plastic hanger, preferably one specially made for wetsuits. You can tape two normal plastic hangers together to make a (much cheaper) good solution. Try to keep the front and back of the suit apart so it can dry more quickly. Even a length of plastic piping pushed through the arms of the suit to make them stand out helps a lot with drying. (Plus, it makes the suit look like someone is in it, which scares away burglars and pigeons when it’s hanging outside!) Air circulation is key. Avoid direct sunlight, it will dry faster but will be stiff and hard to get on the next time you try.

Soap the suit

Every once in a while give your suit a shampoo. Scrub it well inside and out, using a sponge on the neoprene and a soft brush on any nylon or plushy linings. Almost any kind of soap will work to reduce the smell, but some are better than others. The best soaps for the job are “wetsuit shampoos” (check your local dive store) or a gentle baby shampoo like Johnson’s. Next best are regular bath soaps and shampoos.

I also use the cheapest, smelliest shampoos and bubble baths that I can find. Examples are Colgate shampoo and those 1.5 litre bottles of luridly coloured bubble bath that cost almost nothing. The cheaper it is, the stronger the smell, it seems! Dish and laundry soaps (like the green Sunlight laundry bars) are too harsh to use regularly on your wetsuit, but will do the job in an emergency. Don’t ever have your wetsuit dry cleaned (unless you want to destroy it)!

Clare and I occasionally put our suits through the washing machine – on the coolest temperature setting (it’s 30 degrees celcius on our Bosch), with mild organic laundry detergent (Pick n Pay and Woolworths have good in-house brands) and some baby fabric softener for smell (Sta-Soft has a good baby-safe fabric softener fragrance that is very mild and smells great). Turn off the spin cycle and let the suits air dry out of the sun. Just be careful when you open the drum – there will still be water inside if you didn’t spin the wetsuits, and arms and legs tend to trap gallons of liquid!

We also use laundry detergent to wash the suits by hand in my plastic tubs in the garden – the best seems to be something with enzymes in that will clean off the biological waste (you know what I’m talking about) inside the suit. Woolite, which works like a charm, has been discontinued (at least in Pick n Pay in South Africa) but something like Bio-Classic, added to the washing water and foamed by hand, also seems to work quite well. Purpose-made wetsuit shampoo will be your very best option for a long term solution – there are quite a few available.

Of course, all of this applies to booties too, which can develop an unearthly smell quite of their own accord. A good soak after rinsing in some Dettol or Savlon helps to keep bacteria at bay. Once dried I silcone the zips. I put talcum powder (the smellier the better) inside all my pairs now and then to keep them fresh. The only problem is that you may resemble a cocaine smuggler the first time you put them on after powdering. But your dive buddy won’t mind!

FAQ: What is a double tank dive?

Carel of Dive Inn goes the extra mile for one of his clients... And demonstrates what a double tank dive is NOT!
Carel of Dive Inn goes the extra mile for one of his clients... And demonstrates what a double tank dive is NOT!

From time to time dive charters will offer double tank dives. This means you load your gear on the boat, along with a second cylinder and off you go.

It is common practice to choose two sites, the first being the deeper dive. It’s old school opinion that a deep dive must be done first (debatable, but it does improve your overall dive profile). You then head off and do a dive and instead of returning to the harbour or launch site to change cylinders, you change cylinders on the boat and then move off to a new dive site.

What are the benefits?

Well, your day of diving is much shorter as you will probably have a 30 minute surface interval and then do the second dive whereas driving the boat back to shore, off loading, re loading and so on takes well over an hour in most instances.

It’s important the boat is not overloaded. A double tank dive means each diver takes up two slots on a dive rack on the boat so numbers need to be smaller, you all need to agree on where you are going and you all need to want to do both dives. This is easily arranged if you are a member of a dive club and dive often with the same people. Odds are you all enjoy similar dive sites and this makes planning easier.

This isn't a double tank dive either... Mauro is doing some technical training!
This isn't a double tank dive either... Mauro is doing some technical training!

FAQ: What can I expect on a deep dive?

I was very nervous before my first deep dive. It actually took a few deep dives before I was comfortable with them, and now I even look forward to them. Mental preparation for deep dives is something you might need to work on – it’s easy for one’s imagination to run wild when it’s an unfamiliar skill.

If you haven’t done a deep dive before, there are some things that you might want to know in advance:

  1. There will be a boat ride. You’ll roll over the side of the boat on the skipper’s count, along with the other divers. Don’t roll over late – rather stay on the boat and let the skipper drop you again when everyone has moved clear. If you land on another diver it’s a good way to ensure you won’t get invited for any more boat dives!
  2. You will probably descend on a shot line. This is a weighted line with a buoy on the end, and the skipper will drop it close to the  reef or wreck you plan to explore. You’ll use the line to make sure that you find your dive site – you’ll be descending through a large water column, and a current can easily carry you away from your destination. Circle the shot line gently with two fingers and use it as a guide while you descend. DO NOT grip it like a monkey!
  3. If you’re diving in Cape Town, it’ll be cold. And it’ll get colder the deeper you go. It might even be dark, too. The first 10-15 metres of water may be very murky and green, but down below that the visibility will probably improve, even if it’s dark.
  4. You will feel stupid. At about 25 metres, nitrogen narcosis becomes a noticeable issue. If you feel weird, ascend a bit, wait for it to dissipate, and then resume your descent – SLOWLY. But even if you don’t get it severely, your mental abilities WILL be limited. This is a fact of deep diving on air. You might find your field of vision narrows a bit, that you obsess over things, or that you are very conscious of only being able to do one thing at a time. All this means you need to take extra care, and don’t be reckless. Stay close to your buddy and watch each other carefully.
  5. You will feel heavy at the bottom – no matter how much or how little weight you are wearing. Don’t wait until you’re at 30 metres to start inflating your BCD. Stop at 10 metres, slow your ascent, and inflate your BCD slowly as you continue going down. This way you won’t rocket into the sand at the bottom (assuming there IS a bottom within the range of scuba – not the case if you’re diving a wall) like a cannonball, the chances of severe nitrogen narcosis are minimised, and you can be in control of your buoyancy all the way down.
  6. Colours will be dim and greyish. Take a torch – you may not think it’ll make a difference, but even at 20 metres the reds and oranges are significantly diminished and by 30 metres you just won’t see them at all without artificial light. One of the joys of deep diving is illuminating a very ordinary object and seeing the colours pop out at you.
  7. Swimming will be more of an effort than usual. The water will feel a bit like molasses – thick and viscous. You’re under tremendous pressure, and you simply won’t be able to dart around like a mosquito. Take it slow, don’t over-exert, and move at the speed of natural creatures.
  8. The dive will be short. This is for two reasons: first, you will use your air up very quickly at depth. If it is your first deep dive, this will be especially true – you’ll be nervous, or excited, and you won’t have the experience that enables you to reduce your air consumption. Second, your no-decompression time decreases the deeper you go. So even if you have lots of air, you will only be able to spend 20 minutes or so at the bottom before you have to ascend. If you can’t remember what no-decompression time is, it’s time to revise your dive tables!
  9. You will do a safety stop. Don’t be slack with this – it is absolutely vital. You’ll ascend slowly, maybe stop at 10 or 15 metres for a little bit, and then do a safety stop of at LEAST 3 minutes at 5 metres. Your cylinder will be quite empty, so you’ll be buoyant. Make sure that you control your buoyancy very carefully. Watch the Divemaster, your computer, or the reel on the DM’s buoy line (he may let it hang in the water next to him) to ensure that you stay at a constant depth. Your depth gauge will respond slowly to changes in depth, so it’s not hugely reliable at this stage of the dive.
  10. You might deploy a surface marker buoy (SMB). Your instructor may get you to do this yourself, for practice. An SMB (or as I like to call it, a safety sausage!) is a long tube on a line, usually orange or yellow, that you inflate with air from your octo (NOT your regulator). One end is closed (the top) and one end is open for you to put your octo into and press the purge button to fill it with air. It stands up straight in the water, and warns passing boats that there are divers about to surface. It also shows the skipper of your boat where you are, so that he can be nearby to fetch you. When inflating the SMB, hold onto the line attached to it – not the tube itself, or you might be pulled out of the water with it when you inflate it. Don’t fill it to capacity if you’re still at the safety stop – just a couple of purges of your octo will be enough. As it ascends the air will expand and when it reaches the surface the SMB will be sufficiently inflated to stand vertically out of the water.
    Gerard demonstrates correct safety stop technique in Sodwana
    Gerard demonstrates correct safety stop technique in Sodwana

    In the photo above, note how Gerard is watching his dive computer for depth and while it counts down his safety stop, hanging onto his SMB while he waits to ascend.

  11. There should be a hang tank for you to breathe off at the safety stop. A hang tank is a spare cylinder of air, with several regulators attached. It allows you to complete your safety stop without worrying about being low on air, if that’s the case. It also provides a useful reference for keeping yourself at a constant depth while you’re degassing!

    Divers breathing from a hang tank in Smitswinkel Bay
    Divers breathing from a hang tank in Smitswinkel Bay

FAQ: Which certification agency is best?

For those of you wondering which certification is better – PADI, SDI & TDINAUI, CMAS, SSI, IANTD, etc. – there are LOTS of them! – there are one or two things to bear in mind:

  • All the agencies teach you to dive. There may be minor differences in course duration and when you learn what skill, but at the end of the day you’re learning the same thing… So don’t stress about it too much!
  • The agency you learn to dive with must be a member of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). This body sets minimum standards for dive training, and if your agency is recognised by the WRSTC you can be assured that you’ll get a certain level of training including a particular set of skills. WRSTC membership also ensures your qualification will be accepted worldwide.
  • The quality of your instructor is far more important than the agency (s)he teaches for. All the flashy course accessories in the world won’t make a difference if you do four twenty minute dives for your Open Water course – it’s just a waste of time.
  • Some agencies are very cheap to get certified with – the manuals are photocopied, and you don’t get as many free bits and pieces (like carry cases, stickers, SMBs, etc.) when you sign up for a course. Check that the lower course price is related to the lack of flashy accessories included in the course price, rather than to the fact that you’ll be in a class with seven other divers, or that the class will only be held every third Tuesday at 4 a.m.! (You should probably read this post, too.)
  • Some of the certification agencies specialise in particular areas of diving. IANTD is an example – they will teach you to use a rebreather, for example, if that’s your thing. I would select a specialist technical agency such as IANTD or TDI, rather than a recreational agency that has branched out into Tec. if you plan to go into technical diving. They have a long history and quality record of this kind of training, and their instructors have a solid grounding in the sport.

Tony teaches SDI and PADI, which together issue over 75% of diving qualifications worldwide. This combination gives him flexibility to offer affordable and quality courses that include online theory or hard copy materials. All students have the opportunity to do boat dives off our boat, Seahorse, conditions permitting. He’ll be the first to admit that the end goal of any diving qualification is the same… Learning to dive!