Going Scuba Diving? Here’s What You Need to Know to Get Certified.

So you want to learn to scuba dive. Congratulations! This is an excellent decision -- not as good as going to therapy, but at least on par with getting a dog. Diving is pure magic, a word I almost never use because it causes that cringey face you’re doing right now, but anyone who’s ever found themselves suspended, weightless, in the middle of a gazillion fish, will get it.

To get properly certified you’ll want to go through PADI, which stands for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, but nobody calls it that and I actually had to look it up. In most places you can get scuba certified as young as 10. To get started, you don’t need to be anywhere near the ocean, or near any body of water in particular -- all you need is a free weekend and a few hundred bucks. Here’s what you need to know.

Hoiseung Jung/EyeEm/Getty Images

Do I need to get certified?

It’s not illegal to dive without a certification. It’s a lot less safe, though, and according to probably every certified diver I’ve met, a lot less fun. Certification -- like a diploma -- represents an education you’ve achieved; it’s not just a title on a piece of paper.

“Everybody has to ask themselves how much their life is worth,” says renowned underwater photojournalist Brian Skerry, who’s been a contributing photographer for National Geographic for the past two decades. “Whenever you engage in a potentially dangerous activity, you’re betting your life that it’s gonna work out OK. If you jump out of an airplane without the proper training you’re literally betting your life that it’s gonna work out OK. It’s the same with diving.”

But is it still OK to dive without getting fully certified… sometimes?

“If you go to some shallow coral reef, with 20 or 30 feet of water where it’s warm and tropical, it’s easy to just take a resort course in the pool where they just tell you not to hold your breath,” Skerry says. “And 99 times out of 100 -- much more than that probably -- you’re going to be fine. But something could go wrong; you could get claustrophobic, a barracuda could swim by and you panic and spit out your regulator. At the end of the day, those resort courses probably work fine, but if you’re going to dive on any sort of regular basis, you should definitely get certified.”

coral | Anna_G/shutterstock

How much does it cost to get scuba certified?

First, you’ll take an online course that will cost somewhere around $185. The second part, where you’ll go diving in a pool, will be another $200 or so. The cost of the third and final open water course varies more, since it depends on your proximity to the nearest ocean. You might be going to a beach five minutes from your house, or booking a week-long trip. Remember, as travel-related activities go, scuba diving is expensive, because you’re usually incurring incidentals like gear rental and a guide and, y’know, a boat.

How physically hard is scuba diving?

You need to be able to swim several hundred yards continuously, and you need to be able to tread water for at least 10 minutes. That’s the bulk of it -- the tanks are heavy when full and can be kind of a bitch to stand up in, but there’ll be someone to help hoist you up if you need it.

What gear do I buy and what gear do I rent?

If you’re bothering to get certified I assume it’s because you intend to dive more than once, so believe me, it’s worth buying your own properly fitting mask and snorkel. Fins are good too, but that’s pretty much it. Vests and tanks you’ll always rent on-site, and it’s overkill to buy your own wetsuit since you’ll need different ones for different locations (bc water temperature). Don’t spring for those mask defogging drops, either -- spit works fine.

Anything else I should have?

A buddy! You’ll learn this during the online course, but diving is built around the buddy system. You’ll never dive alone -- you want someone to know where you are and that you’re OK at all times, and to share their oxygen reserves in an emergency. You can get paired up with the instructor or another single from your certification group if necessary, but it’s much more fun to do all this with a friend.

Angelo Giampiccolo/shutterstock

OK, talk me through this -- where do I start?

The first thing to do is look up your nearest PADI dive shop, which you can search for here. Click your chosen location’s “Sign up for eLearning” option and enroll in the online course. This is essentially the book-learning phase of the process (though you’ll watch a lot of videos), where you’ll get familiar with safety protocols, terminology, and generally what to expect. You can complete it from home at whatever pace you like. It’s more or less like a high school textbook where you have a light review and quiz after each chapter, and at the end there’ll be a written exam. Don’t stress about that; remember, 10-year-olds pass it all the time.

Once you’ve passed the exam, you’re ready for Phase 2: confined water diving, which just means diving in a pool. The instructors at your dive shop of choice will familiarize you with the gear and help you start practicing all the stuff you just learned about online. Do not freak on Day 1 if breathing through the regulator feels weird and like you’re not getting enough air. It will, but by Day 2 you will have gotten used to it. And just as importantly, don’t be embarrassed by how ridiculous you will look while you learn how to control your buoyancy, and find yourself helplessly zooming up to the surface feet-first, like in that elementary school experiment (the purpose of which was never fully clear) where you put raisins in 7-Up and watch them bob up and down.

Those first two phases can be done in a weekend, and once you’ve completed them you’re technically certified to dive… but in a pool only. And nobody wants to be restricted to that. To truly complete the course, you need to do some open water diving. This final phase will typically take another two days, with a morning dive and an afternoon dive on each day. You can start it as soon as you complete your pool lessons, or choose a later date to fit your schedule.

Irina Klyuchnikova/shutterstock

OK, I’m open-water certified. Now what?

You can keep logging hours and work your way up the ranks in terms of certification level. After Open Water Diver you’ll hit Advanced Open Water Diver -- at which point you’re pretty much qualified to do what you like -- and eventually you’ll reach Divemaster. There are also a bunch of specialty qualifications you can pursue, when and wherever you like. There are certifications for wreck diving, cave diving, ice diving, and so on. I got my Rescue Diver certification at a quarry in Virginia, and Navigator certified at my Colorado hometown’s entirely unremarkable local reservoir (which was ideal because it’s so polluted you’re forced to rely on your compass due to not being able to see your hand in front of your face).

It has come to my attention that we need to save the oceans. How do I help?

“The majority of the 7 billion people on this planet are not divers, will never go into the ocean, and if you’re even a casual tourist diver you’re seeing things most people never will,” Skerry told me. “If you’re a diver -- at any level -- then you’re really an ambassador for the ocean. What people can do on a big scale is to elect politicians who understand that protecting the environment is in our own best interests. And when you go on vacation and take a dive I do think it’s important to ask questions of your dive operator, the charter, the people on the boat -- ask what they do in terms of protecting the reef, protecting their own backyard, and not adding more plastic to the choked up oceans. If they don’t get those questions, they think tourists just want an adrenaline hit and don’t really care about the environment.
The government will listen to dive operators as an industry, because it brings in revenue, and ultimately it’s commerce that drives progressive initiatives. Even if you’re on your one vacation a year, ask those questions and beat the drum a little louder.”

Last thing. Sharks?

“Contrary to popular belief, most divers will never see a shark,” Skerry says. “You think the minute you go in the ocean you’re gonna be attacked by a shark, but they’re shy. They stay away from people.”

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.