Scuba Diver vs Open Water

I’ve been bugging Tony to write this post because we often see advertisements related to this subject, to no avail, so I thought I’d just go ahead and do it. It’s about the distinction between two PADI courses – one of which is downright bizarre, if you ask me… but I guess suits some people otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

The course I think is bizarre is called Scuba Diver. The official PADI webpage for it is here. It qualifies you to do the following:

Dive under the direct supervision of a PADI Divemaster, Assistant Instructor or Instructor to a maximum depth of 12 metres

The other course, with which you are probably very familiar, is called Open Water. Here’s the PADI page about it. It involves a bit more theory and more sea dives than the Scuba Diver course, and qualifies you to do the following:

Dive independently (with a certified diving buddy) to a maximum depth of 18 metres

Here’s the catch: because the Scuba Diver course is a lesser qualification, and takes less time to teach, it costs less – often about half what an Open Water course costs. Of course, you can upgrade it to an Open Water course at any time, but that involves more theory, more skills and more dives. And of course, a small cash payment!

If you’re shopping for a dive course, be very sure that you understand what you’re getting and how it stacks up against what’s available. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the dive centre advertising that they’ll “turn you into a scuba diver” for a fraction of the price of the other operators is offering the same product… They’re probably not! The Scuba Diver course is great if you plan on doing lots of shallow dives with an Instructor by your side, but you may want to plan your own dives one day, and for most dive sites, 12 metres is going to limit your options!

Ode to the logbook

I am a numbers person. I love to record things, analyse trends, draw graphs, and notice patterns in data. For this reason, I’m totally obsessive about filling in my dive logbook. Apart from making me happy to record all that information, and filling a wonderful hour or two after each dive looking up what I’ve just seen in the pile of books on sea life that Tony and I have amassed between us, it has had some other, unexpected benefits:

  • I’ve been able to track my progress as a diver with respect to air consumption. When I look back at early dives, I feel proud about how much longer I can stay down with the experience I’ve built.
  • I can track my progress as a diver with respect to buoyancy and lack thereof – when I started diving, the dive centre loaded me with 12 kilograms of weight, including cylinder weights. I sank like a lead cannonball. With Tony’s help, we’ve reduced my weight to somewhere between six and nine kilograms (depending on how many wetsuits I am wearing and how much custard has been consumed in the recent past).
  • I can look back on different gear configurations, and see what worked in order to reproduce successful ones: how much weight I wore and where (on my weight belt or as integrated weights or as cylinder weights), how many layers of neoprene were donned, how large my cylinder was, and so on.
  • Regional information is useful. When planning our annual houseboating trip this year, I was able to look back on the water temperature from when we dived in Knysna in 2009, and decide how many layers of wetsuit I would need.
  • Seasonal information on fish life (what appears when – for example, giant short-tailed sting rays visit Long Beach in summer), water temperatures and general conditions is useful and interesting. Now that I’ve been diving for over a year, I’m delighted to start noticing the different patterns of life… what time of year we see lots of juvenile fish, when there are lots of egg ribbons at Long Beach, how visibility correlates with water temperature, when the shaggy sea hares are out in force, and more.
  • We like exploring, and have on occasion dived forgotten sites or even places that aren’t recognised dive sites as such, but we’re curious to see what’s there. Recording dive information and what we saw makes it easy to tell others about these sites, and to assist when we decide whether they’re worth visiting again.
  • The bucket list aspect is also fun. Tony and I want to try and dive as many of the dive sites listed on Peter Southwood’s Wikivoyage site for the Cape Peninsula and False Bay as possible. Recording the dives in my logbook is like ticking the places off on a list!
The Number Two Cat understands the importance of keeping a logbook
The Number Two Cat understands the importance of keeping a logbook

Many people start a logbook as students on their Open Water course, and then lose interest. Don’t give it up – aside from these personal benefits, your logbook will be useful in at least two other situations involving other people:

  • If you go diving or want to rent gear somewhere other than where you learned to dive, or with new people (for example a club), you may be asked for your logbook (as well as your certification card). The club or dive centre may want to verify that you have the experience to handle the dives you have signed up for. If you’re certified with a lesser-known agency, your logbook can also help persuade the dive centre that you know what you’re doing.
  • For certain PADI courses you need a minimum number of logged dives (for example, 60 for Divemaster and 100 for Instructor). If you don’t have a record of the dives you’ve done, it complicates matters somewhat!

The perfect diver

One of the first concerns many qualified divers have is buoyancy and their air consumption. As an Instructor, skipper and Divemaster I am often reminded of my own concerns when I started diving. Don’t envy the diver on the boat staying down the longest on the smallest cylinder. Dive often, enhance your training, hone your skills and soon you will be that diver,  first in and last out, with air to spare.

It makes no difference who your Instructor was, which certification agency you obtained your qualification from or where you are diving. All divers are taught the basics of diving during their initial training. However, the duration of your qualifying dives has a huge impact on your level of competency at the end of your training.

If you have done four, or five in some instances, short twenty minute dives (the minimum for PADI) and – let’ s presume – you spent two hours in the water during your confined water training then your total bottom time will be less than four hours. However if your qualifying dives were 50 minutes each it will be the case that your total bottom time when you’re newly qualified is a lot more.

Some people take to diving instantly and do not find any aspect of the training intimidating and within two hours of getting into the water they are relaxed, have good buoyancy and controlled breathing. For others it is a little harder coming to terms with the heavy gear, good buoyancy control seems to be a distant dream and managing to get 30 minutes on a 12 litre cylinder in shallow water is out of the question.

With bottom time comes perfection. This involves becoming comfortable with your gear so you instinctively find your pressure gauge, being correctly weighted (a huge factor in air consumption), being warm, and moving slowly with the correct profile. All of this improves air consumption dramatically.

Another important factor is confidence. Diving beyond your ability and training, doing a dive you feel you should rather not be doing are huge ”gas guzzling” factors so don’t do that deep dive to a wreck because you feel you can or think you should, do it when you know you can and really want to.

The learning curve for a diver is steep and for me the most rewarding aspect of teaching diving is to watch and be a part of a students initial flapping around in the water like a fish out of the water, to becoming relaxed, calm and confident, and watching them grow into a competent diver in such a short period of time.

Night Diving as a Specialty or a fun dive

Tony and I do night dives quite often. We love it – there are creatures that only come out at night, and there’s something very exciting about going somewhere familiar and seeing how different it looks at night. We’ve seen something new on every night dive we’ve done (latest: white sea catfish at Long Beach). Besides, I LOVE cyalumes (for the uninitiated, those are the awesome little light sticks that you snap to release a chemical and then they start glowing) and all things glow in the dark.

I admit that I found my first night dive a little bit scary, and I still find I have to be more deliberate about relaxing in the water and not letting my imagination run wild. But it’s a very good discipline, forcing yourself to breathe deeply and be calm, and very quickly you get distracted by all the creatures that are either attracted to or hypnotised by your torch.

A lot of fish will swim right up to your torch, giving excellent photographic opportunities and time to examine them in detail. I specially like the beaked sandfish – they only come out at night (when I dive Long Beach during the day, I always wonder where they are). They’re long, thin, shiny, cream-coloured fish with translucent fins like dragon fly wings, and they use their pointy noses to dig themselves into the sand when they get a fright. But most of the time they gather together in little groups, milling about langurously on the sand. They love to check out torches and are not shy unless you make sudden moves or try to touch one.

I’m busy doing the PADI Night Diver Specialty – since we do so many night dives, and since I’m hungry to learn more at the moment, it seemed like a good idea. It’s not a demanding course at all, but I’m enjoying it. The manual covers night diving techniques in a lot of detail, and has a very useful section on choosing a dive light, and the relative advantages of different types of light and batteries. Most of it seems to be common sense, like remembering not to shine your light in people’s eyes, not going into any overhead environments (because there’s no daylight for orienting yourself) and making sure you have a backup light. However, it’s the kind of common sense that one needs to be reminded of or have specifically pointed out – I would never have thought about the danger of going into caves or penetrating wrecks at night, and would probably have gotten myself into trouble without giving it a second thought.

The practical section of the course involves three dives. There are a couple of navigation tasks, and on one of the dives you have to sit on the bottom for three minutes with the lights off. It’s surprising how light it is underwater at night. We did a night dive at Long Beach on Saturday, and even though there was cloud covering the moon, the ambient light underwater from our cyalumes and from the city lights was not inconsiderable.

If you enjoy night diving, or want to challenge yourself with something new, different and unusual, this is a really cool specialty to try. You can also do a night dive as a fun dive with an Open Water Qualification, or as an Adventure dive towards your Advanced Open Water diver qualification.

Learning to dive

I always try and learn as much as possible from potential divers when I first meet them. There are several reasons for people wanting to learn to dive.

People often start their dive course with a statement like ”I don’t think I want to do this.”

These are often spouses of qualified divers, under pressure to learn to dive. The spouse always wants to tag along and this just places unnecessary pressure on the student. If you dive and have a new boyfriend or girlfriend and want then to learn, help them find an instructor and then back off, support them from a distance and don’t try and justify their every weakness. Don’t tell then not to worry ”everyone struggles with that” and don’t hang around while they learn. Go home and do something else.

The same applies if one of your children wants to learn. If you are qualified don’t join the child on every step of the course. Again, find an instructor you are comfortable with and let him or her do their job. Having you peer over the instructor’s shoulder distracts the child and your presence places unnecessary pressure on them as they feel you are going to step in any moment and tell them off if they are slow or struggle with certain skills.

Diving in Sodwana
Diving in Sodwana

The most important aspect of learning to dive is finding an instructor who teaches for the love of the sport. Yes, they want to be paid for it, but the difference is the right instructor will have the patience, the time, the ability to calm you and the patience to wait for you while you deal with all of the wild thoughts running through your head. You can make it easier by being honest with the instructor and trusting their judgement, but trust doesn’t arrive with the signing up of a course. This comes slowly during the training and a good instructor will earn this trust from you quickly if they are good at what they do. They will allow you to voice your fears, will talk you through them one by one instead of saying ”no, that’s crazy,” and they will talk about each and every fear and wild thought you are having until you are ready. They will spend extra time in the pool with you if you need it and don’t be afraid to say you do. Don’t be afraid to admit you did not get something or do not feel comfortable with a skill. Do it again until you feel at ease with what you need to achieve underwater.

Being able to clear your mask of water whilst on the verge of panic is not the right way. Sure, to an observer you cleared your mask, but to a dedicated instructor you did not do it right, you need to be able to do this whilst swimming along enjoying the scenery and without hesitating or hyperventilating. This may seem intimidating, but with the right amount of effort on the part of your instructor, patience and understanding everyone can perform each and every skill as a diver with ease.

Remember, talk to your instructor if you are not comfortable with something, anything, and fix it before you wander off and explore the ocean.

PADI is in my opinion the best certification agency. The rest are doing the same as PADI: teaching people to dive. I don’t want to get into the different techniques as ultimately everyone ends up as a diver, free to explore and experience the wonders of the ocean. Every certification agency has minimum standards of achievement. If you feel you have just scraped through everything by the skin of your teeth, talk to your instructor, get some more bottom time and you too will soon look like a professional underwater and you will wonder why you even found something to be difficult.

After all all instructors want you to be as good a diver as possible and your exemplary dive skills make us proud of what we do, and motivated to do it again and again and again.