By Meg Hathaway
Hello Ladies! Everyone knows that the best way to keep cool in the summer is to head for the water. This year I decided to up my game and become a certified SCUBA diver. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope to see some of you soon under the sea!
First of all, no, you won’t have to go diving in the Potomac. It would be dangerous with all the boat traffic, and there’s too much sediment to see clearly down there anyway. Dive shops in the DC area have arrangements with hotel, university, or rec center pools where you will do your initial training. For your final certification dives, you can use a local quarry (that’s what I did), or get referral paperwork and fly to the exotic SCUBA destination of your choice.
There are three basic steps to becoming certified as an open water diver, or entry-level SCUBA diver. In addition to completing four “confined water” (i.e., pool) dives and four open water dives, you’ll also need to do some reading and pass a written exam. Most people do the pool work over one weekend, and the open water dives over a separate weekend or on an upcoming vacation. Your dive shop will walk you through the process. How do you choose a dive shop? Google it, and trust me on this, pay close attention to the Yelp reviews. I won’t name names, but there is one local dive shop in DC that has a reputation for pushing beginners to buy way more gear than they need. I went to a meet-and-greet at that place and promptly made plans to do my training elsewhere.
That said, there’s no getting around the reality that you’ll need some start-up cash to get into diving. You’ll be expected to buy your own “personal gear” prior to taking an intro to SCUBA class, which includes your mask, snorkel, fins, and special booties designed to be worn with the fins (like socks). I wear glasses, so I paid extra to get a SCUBA mask with prescription lenses. It is awesome! Contacts also work with SCUBA masks, but be forewarned that a required emergency skill in SCUBA class is how to remove and replace your mask underwater. This is a prime opportunity for your contacts to wash away, which stinks because you need to see clearly in order to read your gauges. Bring extra contacts if you decide to go that route. One final note on gear – the SCUBA community is very good about accommodating people with different needs. Divers with limited or no leg mobility, for instance, can propel themselves with special underwater scooters or webbed gloves instead of fins.
If you aren’t sure SCUBA is for you, I highly recommend signing up for a Discover SCUBA session before you commit to a full introductory class. In Discover SCUBA, you pay around $80 to spend a few hours in a pool learning the very basics of SCUBA, all gear included. Some dive shops will credit the price of the Discover SCUBA session towards an intro class if you decide to continue. This is the route I went. For me it worked perfectly because I was able to spend my Discover SCUBA time getting over the initial weirdness of breathing under water, then pay closer attention later on during my Introduction to SCUBA sessions.
What will you do in an introductory SCUBA class? You’ll familiarize yourself with how to set-up and break down your gear; stuff yourself awkwardly into a wetsuit; jump in; work on the proper techniques for diving, swimming, and ascending; and then run through how to handle various emergency situations. A few key points will be drilled into your head. There’s the cardinal rule of “just keep breathing!” which seems incredibly obvious until you get distracted fiddling with all your gear underwater. There’s also the importance of safety and the buddy system. The person next to you in the water is your auxiliary air supply if anything goes wrong, so it’s in both your interests to be respectful and stay close. Your buddy is also there to help you plan a dive that you both agree will be interesting yet safe, double-check that your equipment is rigged properly before entering the water, and of course, be there back above water to verify your wild tales about all the cool things you saw.
For me, SCUBA diving so far has been a great experience because it pushed me out of my comfort zone, taught me new skills, and opened up new possibilities for places I can see around the world. I’m just starting out with diving, but ultimately I’d love to go on a conservation mission-based SCUBA dive trip. There are programs out there where you can help scientists photograph and track marine life, capture invasive lionfish, or rebuild coral reefs by hand. How amazing is that?
Meg Hathaway is a Chemical Review Manager for the Office of Pesticide Programs in the US Environmental Protection Agency. She enjoys contra and swing dancing, studying international environmental policy, flipping merchandise online, and telling herself she practices guitar every day. She’s also on the DC EcoWomen executive board.