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Scuba Diving on Vacation: What Novices Need to Know

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Scuba Diving on Vacation: What Novices Need to Know

If you want to learn how to scuba dive on your next tropical vacation, here's what you need to know.

Thousands of vacationers pack up their sunscreen and swimsuits and head for the tropics each year. Many of them go to scuba dive, and some are learning how for the very first time.

Formerly known as "resort courses," dive experiences are designed to teach novices the basics of diving, so that they can do a shallow dive with a certified instructor.

But before you put on a mask and pop in a regulator, be aware that industry professionals disagree on the safety of dive experiences at resorts.

What a Dive Experience Teaches You

"You get some orientation, get in shallow water to get a chance to practice, then it's either swimming off shore or off the boat," says Jeff Nadler, vice president of industry and government relations for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). "It's a very brief introduction. It's really designed for a person on vacation or a person who isn't sure they want to make a commitment to it as a hobby."

The 15- to 30-minute briefing covers the basics of the equipment and how to equalize the pressure in the ears, recover, and clear the regulator if it gets dislodged, clear a mask if it gets water in it, and breathe from an alternate air source.

Only for Supervised Dives

Dive instructor Tom Anderson of Chicago has taught dive experiences and says he makes it clear to his students that "it's just to let non-divers experience diving with supervision by an instructor. You're not teaching them how to dive." He add, "You're telling them enough to go there with you watching."

Not Enough Training, Say Some Dive Instructors

"A resort course, even a PADI-certified one, is just too short in my opinion," says PADI-certified dive master Brian McManus of San Francisco, California, who has trained divers in Hawaii and Alabama. "I don't know why they think they can take a class for three or four hours and be a scuba diver. They can't possibly train fully in that time, even to go on one dive, with all the X factors that can go wrong, even a leg cramp. You can't clear your ears, what do you do? Any one of these things can happen on your first dive. You can get hurt."

What to Look for in a Class

McManus suggests that travelers who decide to take a dive experience investigate the following factors before enrolling in a class:

While it would be difficult for an untrained diver to know if the equipment is in good condition just by looking at it, it should appear to be in new or like-new condition. The set-up should include the following:

  • Mask
  • Fins
  • Snorkel
  • Air tank
  • Buoyancy compensator (an inflatable vest; the air tank attaches to the back)
  • Regulator (the hose and mouthpiece that attaches to the tank so you can breathe) with octopus (back-up regulator) and a pressure gauge (shows how much air is in the tank)

The native language of the instructor is very important for the equipment review and safety instructions. If his command of your language is limited or his accent is so strong that you can't understand his directions, find another instructor.

Size of the class
Don't take a class that has more than three or four students per instructor; any more than that is too many for one instructor to watch underwater.

Instructor certification
Always ask to see the instructor's certification documents and make sure they're for the current calendar year. You can visit the PADI website to search its list of certified resorts and dive centers and to check its quality assurance report for instructors who have been expelled or suspended or for individuals who have misrepresented themselves as PADI-certified.

"In certain parts of the world, you'll have people who will cruise the beaches and offer scuba experiences to the bathers," PADI's Nadler says. "Be very careful of them. Work through an operator at the resort, through referral by hotel staff, or find a dive operator there in town."

Dangers of Diving

Cheryl Denick, MD, an avid diver and coordinating physician for the Philadelphia Alarm Center of International SOS, points out that people can't exist underwater on their own. In addition to the potential for life-threatening situations, including drowning, decompression sickness ("the bends"), and arterial gas embolism, divers can experience ruptured eardrums, seasickness, stings from fire coral or jelly fish, and both hypothermia and hyperthermia.

Don't Dive and Fly

New divers should not dive and fly in the same day. Nitrogen builds up in the body during diving and needs time to equalize to outside pressure. PADI recommends that divers wait at least 12 hours after a dive to fly.

"Flying after diving exaggerates the pressure differences; it can exaggerate the usual symptoms," Dr. Denick explains. "Joint pain is very common. In people who don't have normal circulatory systems, those nitrogen bubbles that can form can break loose and go to the brain and cause strokes [or] go to the spinal cord and cause paralysis."

Don't Drink and Dive

Perhaps the most dangerous situations occur when divers drink alcohol .

"Drinking and diving is like drinking and driving," says Dr. Denick. "There's no good reason to do it. It increases your risk of decompression sickness and any of the other maladies, and it messes up your judgment. You increase your risk of aspirating. If you're looking for a way to commit suicide, that's a way to do it."


Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)

Last reviewed February 2007 by ]]>Janet H. Greenhut, MD, MPH]]>

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.