We work very hard at our jobs. We want that promotion, that raise, or that recognition which will help us negotiate the former two at a later date. For the lucky few, it is because they genuinely enjoy what they do; for the others, it’s because that’s what they were taught to do as children or or out of fear of being fired. While many of us work hard, few of us play hard. After a while, life seems duller and monotonous. The best thing to do in these situations – when you’re enjoying your life yet it seems stuck in a rut – is to pick up an extreme hobby. I mean extreme only in comparison to being a desk jockey.
One activity that has stuck with me over the years is scuba diving. It’s one of the few things that I felt was truly spectacular, and I’ve done whitewater canoeing, spelunking, mountaineering, sky diving, and been stupid enough to try even bungee jumping! Under water, it is as if you are on a different planet – I’ve always imagined it to be somewhat similar to spacewalking (maybe that’s why astronauts train underwater) – completely cut off from all sound except your own Darth Vader-esque breathing! Turtles, all kinds of flora, and a myriad variety of fish surround you as you glide through the beautiful and clear blue water…weightless.
Unless you can afford space travel, I strongly urge you to have a go at scuba diving. You can do a one-off vacation dive at many places, but if you’ve become addicted as I have, you’ll need a license. There are many kinds of certifications you can get once you are licensed – wreck diver, underwater photography, rescue diver, cave diver, night diver – but the first step is an Open Water Diver license.
There are three major agencies in the world that give out diving licenses – PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), and Scuba Schools International (SSI). There are others, of course, but these three are the most recognised ones. PADI is perhaps the most popular and ubiquitous, but NASA and the elite US SEAL teams train with NAUI. Despite the propaganda and trash talk yo may see online about these agencies, what ultimately matters is how good your particular instructor is.
Since my certification is from NAUI, I’ll tell you what I went through. Essentially, I had sixteen hours of classroom training and sixteen hours of practicals in a swimming pool. Then, I had to take a written exam and pass a medical test. The medical test is to reveal heart conditions, blood pressure, and any ailments you may have that might affect your underwater breathing. There is little to worry about – I know people with heart conditions and chain smokers who are excellent divers. However, such people will need to talk to their doctors before going underwater.
There was also a swimming test before we started practicals. This is probably to ensure that you have no fear of the water than for actual diving – the buoyancy suit you wear will ensure that you don’t drown and with the air tanks, buoyancy control device, and weight belt, there is no way you can swim even if you wanted to.
Finally, NAUI conducts five check-out dives – you dive with an instructor and s/he’ll ask you to perform certain tasks underwater such as removing your apparatus and putting it on again (trust me, there’s a good reason for this), clearing your mask of water, etc. Based on your performance, you’re certified to become a mer…person!
If you’re in India, there are a few diving spots nearby – the Andamans are my favourite, but Lakshadweep is good too. Goa is overrated, but if you do go there, surely hit Netrani Island. You can, of course, go to nearby Thailand, Cambodia, Maldives, or the Seychelles too. Research dive operators before a trip. You’ll presumably rent flippers, suits, BCD, and breathers from the operator until you have a few dives under your belt; you’ll get oxygen from the dive operator too – you want to be sure that the equipment is completely kosher.
If you’re in the United States, there are many places to go to. You can go to the Carolinas but beware the shorter diving season. Florida is another great spot. However, I always recommend Bonaire in the Caribbean for beginners, but Cozumel and Belize are quite splendid too.
In the United States, the course should cost around $450 dollars but that varies by a good $100 depending upon what extras your instructor throws into his course (for example, unlimited pool time). A trial vacation dive might be best for you if you’re not sure how you’d take to the water. Dives are costly individually and cheaper in bulk – on one trip, a single dive could have cost me 4,000 but since I bought 24 dives, they ended up costing me about 1,800 each.
Finally – is it safe? Yes, absolutely. Most deaths in scuba are caused by the diver’s stupidity. Some have been known to dive with a hangover (a BIG no-no) and others have taken unnecessary risks by going too deep, staying below too long, or going into a cave or wreck without training. If you follow the rules, you will enjoy a very different perspective of our planet. I hope to see you below!