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The Certified Diver's Handbook
The Complete Guide to Your Own Underwater Adventures
By Clay Coleman
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Clay Coleman
All rights reserved.
Switching Attitude Gears
As the saying goes, there are old divers and there are bold divers, but there are no old, bold divers. I have no idea where the saying came from. It could have originated from a wise old diver who wanted to make a point about the foolishness of youth, but I think it was more likely first proclaimed by a young person as a way of thumping the chest and announcing to the world, "Look at me, I'm young and bold." I think this because the corollary, "Look at me, I'm old and cowardly," just doesn't sound right. Whatever the case, now that I'm what must be considered an old diver, the saying doesn't seem quite as pithy to me as it once did.
Of course, being old does not necessarily mean being smart, but it does give me a perspective on the evolution of the sport of scuba diving that younger divers might not have.
Don't panic! I'm not about to start waxing nostalgic about the "good old days" of scuba. The fact is, there has never been a better time to be a scuba diver than right now. Scuba divers today have the benefit of options that simply did not exist in the past—options ranging from interesting and accessible destinations to a veritable plethora of training opportunities.
PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) was a young certifying agency when I got my Basic certification in 1973. The class was made up entirely of young men, and it was conducted in a pseudomilitary fashion. We swam laps and treaded water; we swam with blackened masks in a pool while our instructor harassed us. When it was all over, we took a written test and made a single dive in the ocean. Surviving that, we were certified scuba divers—as qualified on paper as Jacques Cousteau himself.
Our visits to the local scuba shop after initial certification were solely for the purposes of filling tanks or replacing gear. Advanced training was available, but it was not promoted and was primarily for those wishing to become instructors. Nobody logged dives (something I regret today), and divers were known locally only by reputation. Scuba certification was an either-or proposition. Either you were certified or you were not. Degrees or classifications of certification simply did not exist as a practical matter.
Equipment was basic in those days. We had hard backpacks onto which steel 72- cubic-foot tanks were strapped. The negative buoyancy of the tanks pretty much negated the need for weight belts. We had uncomfortable safety vests that could be inflated on the surface by means of a small CO2 cartridge, but we seldom wore them. Submersible pressure gauges to keep track of our air were newfangled gadgets that were actually condemned by some hard-core divers of the day. Choices regarding gear were limited, and our rubber masks and fins rotted quickly.
Much of our gear was manufactured by the AMF/Voit/Swimaster Company and was comparable in fit and quality to the packaged snorkel gear that can be found in drugstores today. We typically dove in nothing but a bathing suit or a pair of shorts. Those who chose to dive in an "exposure suit" wore jeans and a long- sleeved shirt. The really fancy guys wore coveralls.
The lack of an established dive infrastructure limited our dive opportunities. Charter boats that catered to divers were virtually nonexistent in most areas of the country. Dive travel to the Caribbean was exotic and dicey. The islands were difficult to reach and provided little, if any, support to recreational diving. Pacific destinations were worse.
Yet, we dove. We drove to the Florida Keys and other isolated pockets with dive infrastructures. We weaseled our way on board local fishing boats, and we made trips on independently owned boats. We dove off beaches and jetties. We dove any way and anywhere we could.
Dive techniques in those days differed significantly from techniques used today. We made no safety stops, and our ascent rate was determined by the smallest bubbles of our exhalations. Of course, there were no dive computers, and our use of the dive tables was sporadic and undisciplined. Sometimes we dove with common sense, but sometimes we dove with the common nonsense of youth. The fact that nobody in my personal dive fraternity of friends ever suffered a serious dive injury is a testament to the inherent safety of the sport of scuba diving.
Recreational scuba diving has certainly come a long way since then. In the past thirty years, scuba has evolved into a mainstream activity enjoyed equally by men and women. Manufacturers now offer a baffling array of high-quality equipment, and most scuba shops offer an entire curriculum of training options. The sport is far safer and more convenient than it has ever been.
At the same time, something seems to have been lost. Despite an exponential explosion in the number of certified divers, relatively few divers are actually striking out by themselves and going diving. A whole new genre of "classroom divers" has emerged as divers continue to pursue dive training but never seem to get around to using it.
I can think of more than one explanation for this. As scuba became more available to those with only a casual interest, it stands to reason that more casual divers would be produced. There's nothing wrong with that. Many resorts cater to the casual diver, and the diving is supervised, fun, and safe.
There's another possible explanation that bothers me a little. As advanced- training options became commonplace, many divers began to get the idea that their Open Water I certification was somehow inadequate. If you enjoy diving and if you are reasonably confident and comfortable in the water, this idea is simply false. Your Open Water I certification is not merely a prerequisite for more-advanced training. It is your ticket to real diving adventure, and it is proof that you are a "real" diver, albeit possibly an inexperienced one.
Let's make this analogy: Scuba diving is like driving a car. Both activities require special training and the development of skills, and both can take you to places that you might otherwise not be able to reach. Once training is complete, both require a written test and a transitional period before you become licensed. For driving a car, this transitional period consists of behind-the- wheel practice with a learner's permit; for diving, it is your open-water training (checkout) dives made under the supervision of your instructor for your diver's license (C-card).
You weren't ready for Daytona on the day you received your driver's license. On the other hand, you probably didn't feel the need to get a chauffeur's license before you actually started driving a car. You probably began your driving with short excursions at times of light traffic until your skills and confidence grew.
Likewise, Open Water I divers are not ready for a dive to the Andrea Doria. However, they are certainly qualified to dive most sites. By limiting their dives to areas and conditions with which they feel comfortable, Open Water I divers gain experience, skill, and confidence—attributes that are essential to diver development and cannot be learned in a classroom.
I certainly do not mean to disparage training beyond Open Water I. Quite the contrary, I wholeheartedly recommend that you continue your formal training in all areas that interest you. Later in the book I recommend some of the advanced training that I think is most worthwhile. The point is that advanced classroom training cannot take the place of actual dive experience.
A relatively new phenomenon has developed in this age of advanced and specialty training. Some divers seem to be engaged in "card competition"—a game in which the diver with the most impressive array of certification and specialty cards is considered the "best" diver. While this kind of game might be more suitably addressed in a book on ego management, it can present a real danger to the players. Far too many divers mistake classroom training for actual competence.
The key to becoming an independent diver is a marriage between formal training and actual dive experience. Even though formal training beyond your initial Open Water I course is necessary for some types of diving, your Open Water I training is enough to get you into the water to start building the experience that is crucial to independent diving. Only through actual dive experience can you realistically develop water skills and risk assessment skills, and only by the development of those skills can you become a diver capable of planning and making safe dives in a variety of conditions or situations.
Independent divers are those divers who have developed confidence in their capabilities to the point that they assume sole responsibility for their dives. Of course, they will adhere to the buddy system, and they will seek the advice of those with local knowledge and experience or of those with greater general knowledge and experience, but independent divers do not defer to anyone on matters of their personal safety or well-being. Becoming an independent diver is an act of personal responsibility as much as it is a declaration of freedom.
If you are a newly certified diver whose only dives have been under the supervision of your instructor or a divemaster, it's time to change attitude gears. You are a trained diver, and, as such, your safety underwater is no longer the responsibility of your instructor or of your dive buddy. It's yours.
As an example of independent decision making, I was recently on a live-aboard dive boat a hundred miles out in the Gulf of Mexico for two days of diving. (Note: Miles are statute miles unless otherwise indicated.) The weather was marginal, and the diving was marred by a hellacious surface current, poor visibility, and high seas. After a full day of diving in those conditions, the boat's divemaster made an announcement that a night dive would be available but that it was not for the squeamish.
I knew about half of the divers on the boat, having dived with them many times before. I knew them to be more than capable of making the night dive. The other divers on the boat were newer divers, and some had struggled to overcome problems during the day with the diving conditions. After assessing the effort of the night dive against the probable reward, I told the divemaster that I would not make the dive and retired to my bunk for a bit of reading.
I returned to the dive deck some time later to see how the dive was progressing. Joining me on deck were most of the divers I knew. They had each decided to pass on making the dive. All of the newer divers were paired with each other in the black water.
The newer divers made it back on board without incident. Many exchanged stories of problems encountered and overcome. The whistling wind and heaving sea made a dramatic setting for their tales of adventure. Those of us who had passed on the dive smiled and nodded at the stories.
We smiled because we had eaten all of the brownies and ice cream normally provided by the boat for returning night divers.
All the divers on that boat could be considered independent divers. The newer divers who had made the dive knew full well the conditions they would face and decided that stretching their experience envelope was worth the effort. The more experienced divers who had passed on the dive felt no need to make a dive that would not be much fun.
Or maybe we were just a bunch of old, un-bold ice cream bandits.
Diving as a Lifestyle
I wish scuba diving was more like the game of golf. I don't mean that I wish scuba diving was more like a long walk interrupted by whacking a little ball with a stick and cursing, but I do wish it was something that could be easily done for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Scuba requires travel and expense for the vast majority of us, and the planning and commitment involved tends to limit our time in the water. However, with proper commitment, scuba is an activity that can be enjoyed for most of the year.
A common trap into which many divers fall is the tendency to plan only for the annual Big Dive Trip. These trips are typically to popular destinations, and they are typically time-consuming and expensive. Don't get me wrong; they're great. However, by putting all of their proverbial dive eggs into one basket, these divers generally limit their diving to one week out of the entire year.
Wherever you live, there is probably a body of water suitable for diving within a day's drive of your home. It may not be the warm and beautiful blue-water diving advertised by the most popular sites, but the diving may well be interesting and worthwhile. A summer of short dive trips to nearby destinations rounded out by the Big Dive Trip in winter will provide you with more diving for your investment in time and equipment than will a single annual trip. Local trips are usually worth the small expense, and the dive experience gained will always serve you as an independent diver. In fact, some divers become so intrigued by local diving that they dispense with the Big Dive Trip altogether. We explore the possibilities of local diving in more detail in chapter 13.
Active diving is a lifestyle. Whether actually in the water or not, the active diver stays interested and committed by keeping current on destinations, equipment, dive fitness, and dive skills. Always have a trip planned.
Pursuing Your Own Interests
As an admitted tunnel-visioned fanatic, I'm always curious about why anyone would give up scuba diving. Some of the reasons are understandable. Some people simply don't like the water. Some people feel claustrophobic in scuba gear.
There is another reason that I hear too often, and it pains me each time I do. The reason is, "Scuba wasn't what I thought it would be." This is clearly a statement that requires further investigation. To return to our "driving-a-car" analogy, making this statement is like saying, "I quit driving because the car didn't take me anywhere I wanted to go."
Like most people taking up adventure sports, prospective divers tend to romanticize the activity. They envision themselves as explorers of the liquid domain, going where no one has gone before on quests of discovery. Unfortunately, many experience something quite different. Here's an example:
I was recently engaged in a conversation with a casual friend at a social gathering. As in most of my conversations, the topic turned to diving. He told me that he did not care for diving—he enjoyed more adventurous and less crowded activities. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.
My friend told me that he had always enjoyed the water and that he had always wanted to learn to dive. He made a point of watching TV shows about the underwater world. He did well in his certification class and he enjoyed all the pool sessions. His open-water training (checkout) dives were made in poor weather, but he got through them with flying colors. He was so excited to be a certified diver after his checkout dives that he immediately signed up for an exotic trip that was being promoted by the shop that had certified him. He had been assured that the destination had some of the best diving in the world and that the shop personnel accompanying the trip would provide for his every need.
I recognized the destination as an excellent choice. It does, indeed, have worldclass diving off its shores. I wondered what could have gone wrong.
My friend said that he began to have misgivings about the trip at the airport. The group with which he was traveling was large and boisterous, and its members seemed more excited by the prospect of visiting a famous bar on the island than they were about the diving.
Things got worse when the group arrived at their destination. The local dive operator was not prepared for such a large group. Rental equipment was quickly exhausted, and gear was borrowed from other operators to make up the difference. My friend ended up with a tattered buoyancy compensator that was too large for him and a regulator that he did not trust, even though it performed well when he dove with it.
The group had a big first night at the bar and arrived generally unfit for diving the following morning. The boat was crowded and chaotic. My newly certified friend was surprised to notice that several divers in the group acted as if they had never seen dive equipment before and had trouble with their simple setups. The divemaster gave strict instructions that the group was to dive together and follow her. As few of the divers had computers, the divemaster planned the dive for the entire group, and she expected strict adherence to the plan.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for my friend was the diving itself. The dive site chosen was a shallow patch reef in a sandy area. Most of the coral was dead or damaged, and the large group kicked up enough sand to spoil visibility. All there was to see were the fins of the diver in front of him. A lone stingray was the highlight of the day.
The second day of diving was more of the same.
My friend declined to dive on the third and last day of planned diving. He instead rented a jeep and explored the island on his own. It turned out to be his most enjoyable day of the trip. He finished his story wondering why anyone would spend a month's salary to travel so far only to be stuck on a crowded boat, then to follow a jaded divemaster for an uneventful swim over a dead reef.
I had to admit to my friend that his experience was not uncommon. In fact, many people seem to actually enjoy it. However, it's a sad fact that many would-be divers who have had this type of experience mistakenly believe that this scenario is what diving is all about.
I explained to my friend that one of the most spectacular sights on the planet was only a few miles from where he dove. While he was dutifully following his divemaster like a cod on a conveyor belt, other divers nearby were safely soaring along a fantastic underwater cliff festooned with outrageous corals and teeming with fish. He had come within a hairsbreadth of the diving experience that had been his lifelong dream, yet he had missed it. Worse still, since he had missed it, he had assumed that it was unattainable.
My friend had been what I call a dependent diver. He depended upon others to fulfill his wishes. He even depended upon others to provide him with the equipment he needed. He assumed that everyone wanted to do what he wanted to do, so he was willing to go along for the ride.
Diving is a vehicle. It is up to you to decide where it will take you. Whatever your vision of diving was when you first decided to get certified, no matter how romantic or exotic, that vision is attainable. It is up to you to decide what you want to do and to research the best way to get there.
Excerpted from The Certified Diver's Handbook by Clay Coleman. Copyright © 2004 by Clay Coleman. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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