Learning to Scuba Dive

Aside from our 5 day boat trip, the other main reason we decided to visit the Philippines was to complete our scuba diver certification so that we could scuba dive throughout our travels in Southeast Asia.

Scuba diving can be dangerous if not done properly and therefore a class is required before your are allowed to dive. Upon completing the course, you earn a certification card that dive shops will require you show before they will rent you scuba equipment or book you on a dive trip. There are several different certification bodies for scuba diving. We signed up for the three-day PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water diver course at the Rockstead Dive Center in Coron, Philippines, the terminus of our Tao trip. The Open Water course is the standard entry level course and provides a certification to dive up to 18 meters. Our talented instructor, Thomas, was a stoic, chain-smoking German with a nipple piercing who had been living and diving in the Philippines for over 15 years. Luckily, we had him to ourselves for the entirety of the course since the off season had only just ended. 

Snorkeling is swimming with a mask and snorkel, a tube that allows you to breathe by floating on the surface and looking down. Fins are sometimes used. Snorkeling is done at or near the surface of the water and does not require special training or courses. 

Scuba diving is swimming deep under water for long periods of time with a mask, fins, suit of some kind (often a wet suit), weights, and a scuba unit. The scuba unit is made up of multiple parts, including an air tank, a regulator to breathe air from the tank, a backup regulator in case your or another diver's regulator malfunctions, and a vest that can inflate and deflate to change your buoyancy in the water.

How It Works

The scuba certification process has three parts.

  1. Theory. This involves book work or watching the cheesy PADI videos, both of which come in 5 sections and have written quizzes. The chapters cover things like understanding the use and purpose of your equipment, diving hand signals, the science of breathing underwater and depth pressure, safety procedures and risks, and warnings not to pet jellyfish. The academic part takes around 5-7 hours total and you can split it up over the course of the training. Overall, no big deal and not that hard. 
  2. Skill drills. You put your equipment together and practice using it in shallow water. You also learn lots of emergency skills, like how to take off and replace your mask under water, making emergency ascents, practicing buoyancy under water, and sharing air with a buddy if they run out. Also not too bad, except taking off your mask which is scary for a few seconds when you can't see anything and your nose and eyes become submerged. We spend 1/2-1/3 of each day doing these in the water. 
  3. Practice dives. Put on all your gear and go diving for 40-60 minutes at a depth of up to 18 meters. Two full practice dives and several smaller "mini" dives are required for certification.

Going into the experience, my knowledge of how scuba diving works was limited to breathing through a tube attached to an air tank on your back. Taking the course has helped me move from "this must be witchcraft" to a marveled appreciation and understanding for what science has empowered humanity to accomplish. Basically, in addition to oxygen tank and tubes, you wear an inflatable vest and a weight belt. Through controlled breathing (deep exhale to go down, deep inhale to go up) plus the two aforementioned tools, you manage to move up and down through the water and float at whatever depth you please. It's also important to constantly pop your ears through swallowing so your head doesn't explode (or more realistically, so you don't rupture an ear drum) as pressure increases with depth.

Before beginning our dive course, the main danger I knew about scuba was decompression sickness, also known as the bends. When a diver goes into the ocean, as they swim down the water above them exerts pressure on them. At about 10 meters deep, divers are experiencing twice the normal pressure as at sea level. If a diver goes to a deep depth or dives for a long amount of time, the change in pressure between under water and the surface can cause gas in their body to bubble out of solution, literally putting bubbles in their body. The consequences to this can vary from joint pain, rashes, or more serious conditions such as paralysis or death.

In our dive course we learned how to sufficiently minimize the danger of decompression sickness. Safe divers need to carefully plan how long they will stay at a given depth and to pause at various shallower depths before they rise all the way to the surface to allow their bodies time to adjust. Besides following these steps, our risk of decompression sickness is further minimized by the fact that our certification is to 18 meters, a depth at which decompression sickness is uncommon.

Going Diving

The word "disconcerting" best sums up our first practice dive. Perhaps we didn't expect that on the first day we'd actually be, I dunno, actually diving? It wasn't that the diving was physically difficult - you mostly focus on breathing slowly and exerting minimal energy. Mentally and emotionally, however, it was really hard to shake that feeling of "omg I'm really far underwater and if something happens I can't escape quickly and will either drown or get decompression sickness and die." Thinking these things is bad, because the #1 rule of scuba diving is to have constant, controlled breathing - if you freak out and breathe fast, not only do you use your air faster but you'll feel short of breath, panic more, and the problem snowballs until only the fish will hear the blurbled scream in the final air bubbles drifting upward from your breathless corpse. I was also unnerved because I kept trying not to think about that terrifying This American Life podcast where those two guys go diving into a 900ft black hole in South Africa (it's really good though, listen to it)...which if course means I only ended up thinking about it more rather than concentrating on the corals and fish.

I'm a bit claustrophobic in general, so the idea that I was sort of stuck underwater for the entirety of the dive meant that it took pretty consistent effort for the full 45 minutes of our first dive to stay calm and keep moving. I almost panicked and decided to surface within the first five minutes, but our instructor calmed me down and I was able to proceed successfully through the dive. What I didn't know before diving is that even at depths as shallow as 10-12 meters, when you look up it can be hard to see the surface; you really feel quite far down. It can also be hard to make your ears adjust to the pressure, which can make it frightening when the pain in your ears increases as you go down, sometimes in water of little visibility.  

On the boat ride back, I learned that Andrew felt similarly uncomfortable and a bit frightened by the experience. We worked hard to cheer one another up and remind ourselves that, hey, breathing underwater for almost an hour without, uh, dying is kind of a big deal for one day so to not be too downtrodden on ourselves. Going diving was an especially significant challenge for Andrew. Only a few days prior he had had to overcome the major hurdle of learning to snorkel as a not-very-confident swimmer. Even underwater, I could see that Andrew had more trouble mastering buoyancy, but he kept at it and worked hard to persevere through the day. 

Day two went significantly better, and we were both heartened and extremely proud of our progress. We managed both practice dives smoothly, avoided panicking, and surfaced feeling sufficiently proud of ourselves to proceed eagerly into day three. Day two and three was when we really learned to enjoy our dives. When you get deep enough to see colorful fish, corals, and sunken Japanese WWII ships (stay tuned in our next post!) it distracts you in a good way and makes scuba a lot more fun. Also, once you learn the rules for safe diving and apply them carefully, the risks of diving can be sufficiently minimized that you don't have to worry too much as long as you follow best practices.

Overall, learning to scuba dive was a great experience, both in that we pushed ourselves far outside of our comfort zone and got a huge payoff in terms of confidence building, seeing cool stuff underwater, and generally feeling superhuman. We can't wait to dive again in Thailand in just a few weeks!