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Your scuba diving experiences


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Hello everyone,

I need some peace of mind. I've recently started the process to get my scuba diving certification. It includes about 8 hours of theory and a 3 day trip starting with pool practice and ending with a full diving expedition. I signed up spur of the moment with a group from work, basically because the opportunity was right there.

The thing is, I'm terrified. So, if you are a scuba diver, I would like to hear about your experiences, especially when you first started.

Thanks!

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I used to go scuba diving fairly regularly - me, my dad and my sister were all divers. I started when I was about 14 and then had to temporarily give it up when I was about 20 because of some medication I was on at the time, and never got round to going back to it. My training was a few hours a week theory and then a similar amount of time in the pool, then training days, then open water diving - so over a much longer period of time. This is about 20 years ago now, but I doubt a huge amount has changed in terms of training - though probably equipment has advanced.

 

First thing to say is that it's an amazing experience, and I'd thoroughly recommend it. There are potential dangers, but properly qualified and registered instructors know what they're doing, and won't let new divers progress from stage to stage if they're not comfortable that they're safe to do so. You'll be in good hands. If the rules are anything like they were when I started, they'll use a "buddy" system whereby you're sorted into pairs (ideally) or threes for each dive, and you'll be told to stay together and keep an eye on each other. You'll also have an assigned instructor - they won't let you swim off on your own at any point, or at least they shouldn't. They'll also teach you diving sign language so you can communicate.

 

The main thing to get used to is breathing air from a tank through a regulator. You have to inhale a little deeper/almost suck a little to pull air into your lungs. The air will taste very dry and your mouth might start to dry out, but you get used to it. When you first start it's almost impossible to concentrate on anything but your breathing, and you'll probably find yourself breathing a lot more than usual. Getting used to being able to breathe underwater and that becoming second nature is a key part of the training. It's massively, massively weird when you start, and it takes time to learn to trust the fact that it's there and not to gasp at it as if the air is going to run out at any moment. Getting acclimatised is key, it's not straightforward, so give yourself time and don't be surprised if it's pretty horrible to start with. One thing they had me do was wear a blacked out mask and be led around the swimming pool underwater, so I couldn't see anything. This was to get used to reduced visibility, which is an issue in UK waters, and to learn to trust the kit. If in doubt, keep your breathing slow and steady, and everything else follows from that. If your breathing is slow and steady, you'll stay calm.

 

The second thing is controlling your buoyancy. You'll be wearing diving kit, possibly a wetsuit or drysuit depending on the temperature, and you may also wear a weight belt. The aim is to be neutrally buoyant so you're not having to fight to avoid floating to the surface nor scraping along the sea bed. This needs occasional adjustment as you go deeper, as pressure affects buoyancy. You'll have an inflate button to inflate the jacket with air, and a vent to empty it. In order to be safe underwater, you need to be able to control your buoyancy, and this takes a bit of experimenting both in terms of practising and in terms of working out how much weight to carry. And because of salt water, it's different in the pool to in the sea.

 

Three skills that you're very likely to have to learn before you go open water diving. They both sound a bit daunting, but you don't do them until you're comfortable breathing.

 

The first is sharing air. This is in case one of you runs out of air, and so you have to share. This involves taking a breath (or two), taking the demand valve from your mouth, and passing it to your buddy. She then vents it to clear the water, takes one or two breaths then passes it back. Key thing here is not to do what I did and adopt a one breath each strategy when my buddy was doing two breaths. I think either is fine, but probably two is better for keeping calm. In training, you'll probably do this on the bottom of the pool. Dunno if they'll ask you to do it open water.

 

The second is taking your mask off, putting it back on, and clearing it underwater. You need to learn to do this in case your mask starts leaking, perhaps because you've got a strand of hair in it, or because it doesn't fit properly, or because it's got worn, or because you get someone else's fin in your face. Like sharing air, this is mainly a task about not panicking. You then replace the mask, angle it, and exhale to blow the water out, and replace it. Once it's back on and mostly clear, it sometimes takes another go or two to completely clear it, but you can see at that point and it's much easier.

 

The third is controlling your ascent. I doubt you'll be diving that deep, but you need to be able to ascend slowly - it's dangerous to do so too quickly. As you ascend, the pressure decreases so the air expands, so (if you're not trained/careful) you ascend faster and can breach the surface of the water like a rocket. So the key is starting a slow ascent and then venting air to slow your ascent without stopping it, and keeping an eye on your depth gauge as you go. Reading and responding to your depth gauge and pressure gauge for your air cylinder are also things you're trained to do.

 

Training is quite serious because there are real potential dangers, but for people with the right training, equipment, and supervision, it's perfectly safe.

 

And it's awesome. Did I mention that? It's all worth it to see the fish, the undersea terrain, to get the feeling of weightlessness, to see the silvery surface from below the water. Completely worth it.

 Level 4 Human Adventurer / Level 4 Scout, couch to 5k graduate, six time marathon finisher.

Spoiler

 

Current 5k Personal Best: 22:00 / 21:23 / 21:13 / 21:09 / 20:55 / 20:25 (4th July 17)

Current 5 mile PB: 36:41 35:27 34:52 (10th May 17)

Current 10k PB: 44:58 44:27 44:07 44:06 43:50 (29th June 17)

Current Half Marathon PB: 1:41:54 1:38:24 1:37:47 1:37:41 (14th June 15)

Current Marathon PB: 3:39:34 3:29:49 (10th April 16)

 

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Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough reply. :)

 

What you say sounds very similar to what the instructors have said. They sounds very responsible and I feel like they take all the safety precautions, so that makes me feel a little better. 

 

I'm a worrier by nature so I have one question:

Do you remember experiencing any health complications related to diving? They mentioned the possible effects of the nitrogen or going up too fast and it sounds horrible.

 

On a more positive note:

Any health benefits? They also said it's extremely relaxing, so I'm looking forward to that

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I'd be amazed if you had to worry about nitrogen. The potential problem is "nitrogen narcosis" aka "the narcs". Nitrogen is fine to breathe at the surface and at shallow depths, but at deeper depths/under greater pressure (i.e. the weight of water on top of it) it starts becoming a problem, and has an effect that's a bit like alcohol. Sometimes it makes people happy/silly and swim around offering air to fish, and other times makes people jittery and paranoid. A lot depends on mood, visibility, underwater conditions etc. But the good news is that you don't need to worry about it, because it's only an issue past about 30m, and I'd be amazed if you ended up going much past 10m on the kind of course you mention.

 

There are two problems with going up too fast, and they're related. When you're at depth, air is under pressure (the atmosphere above plus the weight of the water - 10m = 1 atmosphere, or 1 bar). When you ascend, the pressure becomes less and the air expands. So the air in your lungs also expands, and if you don't breathe out, you can risk bursting a lung. The other problem is air in the tissues expanding too quickly and causing decompression sickness (aka "the bends") which is quite nasty. There are two ways of stopping this - one is ascending slowly and breathing as you go, and the other is taking what are called "decompression stops" - you pause your ascent at, say 10m or 6m for a few minutes before continuing. But you're very unlikely to be going deep enough or long enough for a decompression stop - to be able to do that safely means being really good at controlling your rate of ascent and controlling your buoyancy so you can stay more or less at a constant depth without anything to hold on to, and with only your depth gauge to measure. This is relatively advanced stuff,  and you won't be doing it.

 

But you will need to remember to exhale slowly on ascent, and to ascend slowly. But you'll be taught all that. If an instructor doesn't see bubbles coming from your mouth while ascending, you'll get reminded. Apparently in the old days in naval diving training the reminder was a punch to the stomach, but I'm sure they don't do that these days.

 

They'll run through any background medical conditions - asthma or a history of panic attacks might be a problem, and some medications don't interact well with pressure. But they'll go through this, and send you to see a doctor for a fitness note if there's anything they're not sure about.

 

As for health benefits, I don't think it's a great form of exercise, because swimming with fins takes a lot of effort from it. But there is carrying the kit around, and it does burn more calories than watching underwater nature docs on TV. It can be extremely relaxing and a lot of fun once you get comfortable with it. I'd say everyone who has the health and the means should give it a go at least once.

 Level 4 Human Adventurer / Level 4 Scout, couch to 5k graduate, six time marathon finisher.

Spoiler

 

Current 5k Personal Best: 22:00 / 21:23 / 21:13 / 21:09 / 20:55 / 20:25 (4th July 17)

Current 5 mile PB: 36:41 35:27 34:52 (10th May 17)

Current 10k PB: 44:58 44:27 44:07 44:06 43:50 (29th June 17)

Current Half Marathon PB: 1:41:54 1:38:24 1:37:47 1:37:41 (14th June 15)

Current Marathon PB: 3:39:34 3:29:49 (10th April 16)

 

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Hi there, 

 

I've been a SCUBA diver for about 12 years now, and I love it. I am also a certified rescue diver, and have a tendency to flirt with the idea of becoming an instructor-- but that is a lot of responsibility (and requires a good knack for customer service, which I, er, lack). SCUBA can be a very dangerous sport though if you are not a worrier -- most people who end up dead do not pay attention to their training, do not pay attention to their gear, and do not pay attention to what they are doing in general, or purely panic when things go wrong. Panic is a problem, a healthy dose of worry is not -- because it makes you cautious, and a cautious diver is a living one. 

 

It looks like you are set on taking things calmly and slowly: learning what you need to know so that you can breathe underwater -- obtaining an awesome superpower ;)

 

Not only do your instructors want you to be safe, but you want you to be safe as well. Part of that comes from understanding the physics of how your gear works, and the physiology of what happens to your body while you are submerged -- that is what the theory is doing.

 

When your instructors talk about nitrogen, they are including something called the bends, as well as nitrogen narcosis. The bends, is a problem that occurs when compressed air is taken into the body while under pressure. Air is a mixture of gasses, our bodies want the oxygen to make our cells work, but a large chunk of the air that we inhale contains nitrogen*. Since our bodies do not use nitrogen gas for anything, it can be a problem when diving because it has nowhere to go. When under pressure, air gets compressed and all of those gas molecules are tiny, however, when that pressure is relieved, the gas molecules are allowed to expand -- or take up more space. This is a problem if that space happens to be in our blood vessels -- because it is a small space. The bends comes about from moving from pressure gradients too quickly -- the air trapped in the body wants to expand as the pressure is released, since that air has no where to go, it can cause a lot of pain and trouble. This predicament is easy to avoid by diving within safe limits and not ascending too fast from depth. By ascending slowly and taking stops at certain depths, you give your body time to circulate any trapped nitrogen back out of your body without it harming you. 

 

In the past, calculations and dive tables were used to plan out dives and find out maximum bottom time at a series of depths. These were very conservative estimates, meaning safe dive limitations to keep from getting the bends and enjoy as long of a dive as possible. Now, many dive instructors have transitioned to using dive computers that have these calculations programmed into them -- I personally prefer redundancy, and plan and calculate my dives with tables before I dive, and pay a freakish amount of attention to my dive computer and gauges while blowing bubbles. Safe limits are dependent on the depth of where you are diving and the duration of your dive, so this is information you will have to know before you dive in order to plan your safety accordingly. You will also have to take into account how much nitrogen is in your system if you do multiple dives in a 24-hour period. Both tables and computers can help you out with this to maintain your safety

 

Majority of SCUBA programs give you training dives before they throw you into the ocean for certification. Those training dives are usually done in pristine and as safe as possible conditions (you are breathing underwater, you can't get more unsafe than that, and it takes a lot of getting used to). They will teach you skills that are very important in case things go wrong -- such as losing your mask while you are underwater -- and will help you to quell the initial panic that comes from something going wrong -- such as when water hits your face unexpectedly underwater. These skills are terrifying at first -- which is why they are done in a pool usually and done several times until a moderate comfort level is achieved. If at any point your instructor tries to exceed your comfort level, you absolutely do not let them do that. Pushing you is one thing, but if you feel uncomfortable about a skill at any point, that is extremely dangerous and inviting panic. Most Instructors are patient and will work with you when you have hangups (I mentioned customer service being in the job description). Only if you do something incredibly stupid, such as harming gear, harming other students, or harming yourself do instructors typically raise their voice. Physical retribution is hardly ever seen unless your instructor knows you on a personal level and you have forgot to turn your air on before jumping into the water....

 

During your certification dives, you will have to do all of the skills again to show that you are a cool and collected sea cucumber. Stay safe out there.

 

*You may be wondering, why don't we just use pure oxygen underwater and avoid the bends entirely. Well, not only is pure oxygen expensive, but at a certain depth (6 meters or just shy of 20 feet) it actually becomes toxic to our bodies -- 20 feet is not much of a dive, most people can snorkel this depth no problem.  Now there are some mixtures of gas that increase the oxygen content, thus reducing the nitrogen content, but they require additional training and fancy computations.  

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