One of my favourite things to do while travelling, particularly in tropical destinations, is exploring the underwater world by scuba diving. If you are already a diver, you could probably skip this post, although my journey might be of interest to you, especially if you are not a diving professional but a strict amateur like me.
Scuba diving will not only open new horizons of terrain and marine life to you, but also enable you to capture the stuff on camera that non-divers will never see except, perhaps, in an aquarium. What you won’t see in aquariums, however, are the wrecks – thousands of them are scattered around the world at scuba-diving depths and are fascinating to explore.
Isn’t Snorkelling Similar and Safer?
Many people reject scuba diving for the fear of something “going wrong”. They believe it is an unsafe activity. They are wrong. I mean, of course, there are risks associated with it as with any sport and activity. But according to PADI, scuba diving results in 10 times less ER admissions than bowling and more than 20 times less than golf. So it is quite safe, providing, of course, that you are properly certified and dive in full accordance with what you’ve learned and practised during your certification. And of course, always check your equipment before going in the water.
What about snorkelling? Well, it is still one of my favourite water activities. It is free, you don’t need any equipment other than a mask and snorkel (fins are optional), and in some destinations, such as Hawaii, you can see almost as much while snorkelling as while scuba diving.
But there are differences. Lots of marine life is located much deeper than snorkelling would allow observing. You are unlikely, with the exception of very few destinations, to see anything big while snorkelling – such as reef sharks, manta rays, or mola-mola fish. And snorkelling allows you to observe marine life mostly from above, as opposed to from all sides, which makes a particular difference for underwater photography which I will talk about later.
What About Sharks?
If you’re like my mum, you’d probably worry less about any equipment malfunction than sharks. Oh my god, why would anyone want to get anywhere close to those predators, she would say.
Well, actually, of the world’s shark attacks in 2022, about half of the victims were swimmers and over a third – surfers. Divers and snorkellers are far less likely to be attacked by sharks. They move slower than swimmers or surfers, thus acting less like a prey, and with all your diving gear you actually look too large for most sharks to consider you a suitable lunch.
The majority of tropical sharks, such as black-tip, white-tip, thresher, leopard shark and so on, are rather docile with regards to people and almost never attack unprovoked. And they are highly desired to be seen underwater. People travel to specific destinations, such as Malapasqua in Philippines, just for a chance to see thresher sharks, for example.
And let’s not forget about the grandest of the all – a completely harmless whale shark, which is a real treat if you are lucky enough to see one underwater.
If anything, I would worry much more about jellyfish stings than any underwater predators. Fortunately, your wetsuit does provide a pretty good protection against these creatures, but of course, you’d have to be just as careful about them while diving as during swimming or snorkelling.
How To Get Started?
While you can do the so-called “Discover scuba diving” without being certified nowadays, it is highly limited in depth, is rather expensive and you are basically attached to your instructor at all times, limiting your freedom underwater. So the best thing to do is to get certified with one of the diving organizations.
There are dozens of those, but the best-known and most widespread one is US-based PADI. It comprises of almost 70% of certifications issued at any given year, so with a PADI training, you won’t have any problem with recognition anywhere in the world.
However, if cost of a PADI certification is one of the highest, so if that is a concern, there are other organizations to choose from that might be cheaper, such as non-profit CMAS, another American outfit called SSI, British BSAC and RAID, or Russian-based NDL. It might be wise to enquire which organization offers you the best bang for the buck before choosing the course.
I got my initial (Open Water) certification with PADI in Koh Tao in Thailand, which remains one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified (in the $300 price range). Other cheap locations include Utila in Honduras, Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, anywhere in the Philippines, Amed in Indonesia (see my post about Bali), and Cozumel in Mexico.
I highly recommend getting certified in one of the tropical destinations rather than in the US, Europe or Australia. Not only you will save lots of money (PADI certification in the US can cost well over $600), but you will likely learn in beautiful coral environment and warm waters rather than some swimming pool in New York City.
Open Water or Advanced?
While the first certification level, called Open Water with PADI (and its equivalent with other organizations), is vastly superior to Discover it is still rather limited in what you can actually do underwater. For example, you are technically limited to just 18-20 meters of depth, depending on the organization. It’s a good depth to be sure, but there are plenty of marine life and wrecks that sit just below that level.
That is why many people go for an Advanced Diver certification (or its equivalent in other organizations) shortly after completing the first level. It significantly increased the depth of allowed dives (to 35-40 meters), and you are likely to be allowed to dive in more complicated conditions, such as inside wrecks.
Personally, I didn’t do that. After I got my Open Water, I had dived mostly sporadically, but with about 20-30 dives under my weight belt (get it?), I was allowed by some schools to go much deeper than Open Water would normally allow. These schools were mostly in South East Asia and Mexico, and typically locally owned and less likely to care about my depth limits. Western-owned dive centres, however, are usually much stricter in sticking to the rules of your certification, so that is another reason to get to the next level.
And thus, after 15 years of Open Water, I finally decided to get my “Advanced” certification, or “Advanced Universal Diver” in my case because that is what it is called by NDL which I chose as my organization as it was significantly cheaper than PADI and its depth limit is 40 meters as opposed to PADI’s 30.
My Personal Struggles
Scuba diving is generally a very leisurely, almost serene activity that many people find quite relaxing and easy once they have a certain level of experience. However, I would be amiss if I hadn’t shared some of my personal challenges of my scuba diving journey.
The first challenge for me was (and sometimes still is) the ear equalization process. It is the technique to reduce the external water pressure on your ear drums as you descend underwater. It comes easy and naturally to many folks out there, but I have always struggled with it – perhaps due to chronic sinusitis.
The trick is to go down slowly and start equalizing as soon as you go underwater, literally from the first second. What works for me is squeezing my nose and blowing into it. And I always warn my instructor or divemaster, I might need a few extra minutes to equalize, and in 99% of cases that is completely fine. The exceptions are challenging diving conditions such as strong currents or if you are in a group of much more advanced divers than yourself and they lack the patience or courtesy to wait for you (as happened to me once in Mexico). It’s always best to discuss this with the centre before you make your booking.
The second challenge for me is the occasional disorientation and dizziness underwater caused by vigorous exhaling in order to obtain buoyancy. Buoyancy is the quintessential diving skill which can be challenging to many, especially during the safety stops, and you control it my exhaling or inhaling air.
What happened to me a few times, particularly in my early stages of diving, was that I got so dizzy under water that I got close to panic attacks. My advice is to a) anticipate it and recognize it early so that you can take steps and b) force your concentration on something particular and mundane, such as the logo on your instructor’s fins or wetsuit, or fiddle with your underwater camera, which is something I discovered helps me a lot. And don’t worry, these situations will become far less common with experience. Not to mention that they don’t happen to most people.
Isn’t Scuba Diving an Expensive Activity?
Yes and no. As I mentioned above, prices for diving in the so-called developed world can indeed me exorbitant. But most of the world’s interesting marine life is in the tropics, and the countries in whose waters you would dive there are typically not expensive. South East Asia in particular is a cheap diving region. Some places, such as Tulamben in Bali or Coron in Philippines will cost you as little as $30 per dive. Some, such as the Great Barrier Reef, Okinawa or Hawaii, are of course 2-3 times that price. Also, if you are a truly avid diver and decide to go on a liveaboard ship for a few days, that can certainly cost a bundle. But there are exceptions even to that: liveaboards to Similan islands in Thailand can work out to only $50-60 per dive depending on the boat, which isn’t bad considering you get room and board with that.
As for equipment, all the dive centres will have everything you need. If you are a true diving junkie, you might want to carry a heavy bag of your diving equipment with you – the BCD, fins, the wetsuit, the mask – the whole lot. It isn’t cheap but you might be able to save a few bucks on rental prices at most centres.
As an occasional enthusiast, I can’t be bothered carrying any of that except the mask – I find having your own mask with a tried and tested fit is like having your own hiking shoes. I recommend Dive Computer“>dive computer. I personally don’t because you will never dive without a divemaster or an instructor, and he or she will always have a computer on the wrist. However, I always wear a diver’s watch – but only because I love watches and always wear one anywhere I go.
How About Underwater Photography?
I’ve got to confess: I am a complete and utter amateur when it comes to underwater photography. However, I absolutely love it. Even though every single photo in this post was taken by me, I use entry-level gear.
Why? Because size matters, as they say. Most underwater photographers use higher-end cameras with housings. These housings protect the camera but are expensive and bulky and often quite heavy. On top of that, professionals use huge strobe lights and colour-correcting filters. A professional or semi-pro kit can take the entire backpack or a small suitcase. Unless you travel with the primary purpose of underwater photography, it is hard to justify the size, weight and cost of such gear.
That is why I currently own just 2 small underwater cameras. The first one is Nikon Coolpix W300. It is the only pocketable camera (other than GoPro or its equivalents) with the water resistance of 30 meters. It also has automatic colour adjustment for underwater photography, so it really is a little gem (most of the pictures of this post were taken with it).
Recently, I also bought an Olympus TG-6. It is reputed to be one of the best quality compact cameras for underwater photography. However, its native water-resistance is just 15 meters. To go deeper, you need a housing. There are some decently-priced options available, but make no mistake – they are big and heavy. For the time being, I only use that camera for snorkelling, although I am looking for purchase a housing for it in the near future.
As for GoPro, they are extremely popular among divers. They are tiny, easily mounted on a stick and have ridiculous water resistance. However, they are good only for videos. I have yet to see good still images taken by a GoPro, although I am sure with some post-processing you can achieve reasonable image quality.