Dive in at the deep end
Michelle Byrne gives you a simple guide to starting scuba diving.
Taking a deep breath underwater, a cautious gasping lungful, for the first time is an unforgettable experience. We’re not going to lie, it feels unnatural and you convince yourself you are going to choke and splutter on the chlorinated water surrounding you. But after a few inhalations you begin to calm down, you rationalise that you are in a swimming pool a toddler could stand up in and you start to trust the expensive gear strapped to your back – not to mention the instructor giving you an enthusiastic OK sign, which you return trying not to smile for fear of losing your regulator.
This is the first small step down the scuba diving path well trodden by millions of enthusiasts before. And soon you will be looking past the Darth Vader-style wheezing to an underwater world of possibilities – stretching far beyond the closed confines of the pool you are currently sat in. In Dubai, we are fortunate enough to have more diving opportunities than most bustling metropolises – with endless sunshine, clear seas teaming with exotic flora and fauna within a short drive of the city, and numerous good dive centres itching to give you a salty taste of the sport.
Before you sign up for an introduction to scuba (which incidentally stands for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’, and is likely to be the first question you are tested on) there are some considerations. Anyone between the ages of 12 and 80 (there are separate schemes for children) can go diving and although you don’t have to be of an Olympic standard you will need to be able to swim. You will also need to fill out a medical questionnaire or consult a doctor to give you the go ahead to dive – a preventive measure to detect any signs of trouble that might affect you below the water. Although accidents with scuba divers are rare, it is an activity that can be potentially dangerous for yourself and those around you, and as such dive centres take safety very seriously.
There are a number of scuba diving organisations that can award certifications, but PADI is the most universal, with 175 countries recognising the organisation’s qualifications and 900,000 certifications awarded each year. Most of Dubai’s dive centres offer PADI accredited courses – with the exception of Desert Sports Diving Club which offers its members BSAC qualifications – also recognised worldwide. Once you have chosen a dive centre (see page 86), you should opt for a course that suits with your individual needs.
If you are not sure whether scuba diving is for you then a short Discover Scuba Diving course will give you a sample of underwater life without a huge financial investment – with prices ranging from Dhs250 to Dhs450. You will be given a brief classroom introduction to the sport, and taught the basic skills and concepts in a swimming pool before embarking on a single dive in the sea. It is perfect for holidaymakers or anyone unsure whether they will enjoy the diving experience.
If you are feeling a little more confident, try the Scuba Diver qualification, a sort of a halfway house between the taster session and the full Open Water qualification. Expect to pay in the region of Dhs1200 to Dhs1450 and prepare to spend a weekend watching a DVD, reading the PADI manual and taking part in pool sessions, before embarking on two dives in the sea. You will learn most of the skills an Open Water diver will and, upon completion of the course, you will be qualified to dive with an instructor.
Then comes the Open Water Diver course – the next step up in the PADI education programme and your licence to dive without an instructor. This is the most widely awarded qualification and one to opt for if you hope to continue scuba diving in the future, as it is recognised in dive centres and resorts across the globe.
The Open Water course costs in the region of Dhs1,700 to Dhs1,850 and can take anywhere between one long weekend and a few months to complete, depending on your schedule and how quickly you master the required skills. One of the most important things to remember when learning how to dive is don’t rush, progress at a pace you are comfortable with. Your course fee will include a PADI dive manual, an interactive CD-ROM, dive tables (for working out your rates of descent and ascent), and a logbook (for recording details of all your dives). Dive centres will lend you all the kit you need, from wetsuits to regulators, BCDs, air tanks and weights – but you may want to buy a mask, snorkel and a pair of fins (not flippers!) as these are fairly inexpensive and you will be more comfortable with something that fits you perfectly.
During the course you will be shown and tested on how to assemble the kit, how to perform safety checks, controlling your buoyancy, diving safely and without affecting the environment, as well as what to do in an emergency in small groups – usually a maximum of eight. You will need to complete a multiple-choice written exam, tests in the pool and three drives demonstrating your newly acquired skill in the open water before divers over the age of 15 achieve their Open Water Diver Certification.
You can complete your dives off the shore of Dubai, but construction work has meant a depletion in aquatic life and visibility. With the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean both within two-hours’ drive you are more than likely to do your Open Water dives in Fujairah or Musandam. We learnt with Al Boom Diving (04 342 2993) at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort (09 244 9000) and headed by boat to Dibba Rock – a popular dive site due to the amount of marine life swimming around the archipelago jutting out of the ocean. If you are fortunate, you will share your first trip beneath the waves with elusive blacktip sharks, moray eels, turtles, lionfish, rays, and schools of barracuda – all seen on our first 30-minute dive.
The sensations gleaned from a scuba experience far surpass that of snorkelling. You are submerged in a thrillingly exciting and beautifully unique world, within touching distance of an array of underwater wildlife, coral caves, shipwrecks and other divers – all without the need to surface for gasps of air. Learning how to scuba dive is, for most, one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling sporting experiences you can have in the UAE. And it all starts with that first deep breath underwater.