The stingrays were intimidating, despite all the assurances of my safety. With wingspans up to six feet across and a long barbed tail, one was frightening, but when a dozen charged me simultaneously it was downright scary. As their velvet-soft bodies wriggled over mine, their curious eyes investigating a stranger, their mouths seeking the piece of squid I held in my hand, I was totally mesmerized.
I had come to dive at Stingray City, arguably the most popular dive site in the world. Divers flock to Grand Cayman for its calm, clear, warm waters, and despite an abundance of great underwater sights, most everyone who comes dives at Stingray City, at least once.
For those who wish to pass up the stingrays, scuba diving offers myriad other attractions. Some divers delight in the beauty beneath the sea--the colors of coral reefs, the brilliant hues of aquatic animals and plants, the strange sights that have no equal on land. Others are enthralled by the thousands of lost ships, aircraft and other man-made devices. After taking your first plunge as a scuba diver, you will find that there are dozens of different paths of special interest to explore, from underwater archaeology to photography.
More than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water. The sea contains the world's tallest mountains and deepest holes, and the largest living creatures on the planet float effortlessly through the void. Although man has explored the sea in boats for more than a thousand years, travel beneath the surface is still in its infancy. The earliest divers were skin divers, those who dived equipped only with the air in their lungs, usually to gather sponges, pearls or other valuables. While skin divers have achieved some remarkable feats, diving to depths that exceed 100 feet, their journey beneath the surface is fleeting, as they must return to the surface to draw another breath.
Early commercial efforts at salvage introduced helmet diving, where a diver encased in a full-body suit and a huge helmet would walk clumsily along the bottom, attached to the surface by an air hose--a fragile lifeline that if tangled or cut had fatal consequences. Helmet divers were barely mobile, clumsy, and dependent upon staying close to their mother ship.
Diving as a sport has existed only for about 50 years. In June 1943, legendary seaman Capt. Jacques Cousteau donned his Aqua-Lung, a device that he invented and built with fellow Frenchman Emile Gagnan, and the sport of scuba diving was born. Cousteau liberated man from the hose and helmet, and the concept of his original device, though refined, is still the backbone of diving today.
SCUBA is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, the key element of that phrase being self-contained. The scuba diver experiences a freedom that only a handful of astronauts have known--the sensation of true weightlessness. Drew Richardson, editor-in-chief of The Undersea Journal, a quarterly magazine, describes diving as "three dimensional flying," and the uncompromised maneuverability is one of the chief reasons for the ever-increasing popularity of the sport.
"It takes you into a whole other world," says Randy Shaw, training manager for the Montclair, California-based National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). "You get the opportunity to interact with a variety of plant and animal life that simply has no equal on the surface." Sales and marketing director Len Todisco of Ft. Collins, Colorado-based Scuba Schools International says, "It's like returning to the womb--very relaxing and stress-relieving."
There are many unique attractions in the undersea world. Divers regularly cavort with whales, dolphins, sea tortoises, even schools of sharks. The natural architecture of lava flows, towering rock pinnacles and undersea caves beckon to explorers. Thousands of shipwrecks dot the globe, well within the reach of modern dive technology.
Every destination where diving is popular has its own attraction. While Grand Cayman is known for stingrays, Bali is known for drift diving, where divers take an effortless ride on the predictable currents. The Truk Islands, in Micronesia, are world renowned for their extensive collection of wrecks from the Second World War. Hawaii has its "cathedrals," inverted translucent domes formed by lava from volcanic eruptions. Australia offers the mammoth Great Barrier Reef. The list is endless.
Although it attracts some strange looks, I often compare scuba diving with a more landlocked pastime: golf. Once you've learned the basics, both sports can be enjoyed at a wide variety of places. You can drag cumbersome equipment with you, or rent it readily throughout the world. You can become obsessed with either sport, or participate in them once or twice a year. Vacations can be built around either, or they can be just one of many pursuits to enjoy while on a trip. Like golf courses, each dive site is unique, and each area has special characteristics that can leave even the most fanatic sportsmen befuddled as to which is the best. St. Andrew's or Pebble Beach? Palau or the Great Barrier Reef?
The first step in diving is to become certified, which is akin to getting your driver's license. While there is no law to prevent you from diving uncertified, proof of certification, commonly called a C-card, is required to rent equipment, board a dive boat or fill air tanks. Diving without proper training would be as sensible as driving on a freeway in a blizzard with no prior experience. There are more than a dozen certifying bodies in the United States, the largest of which is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, headquartered in Santa Ana, California. According to spokesman Kevin Young, the association certifies about three-quarters of U.S. divers and a little more than half worldwide. About 680,000 divers received basic PADI certification in 1995 and more than 728,000 were certified last year; growth has averaged more than 10 percent annually for the past 20 years. The next largest agency is the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Other large certifying organizations include the YMCA, Scuba Schools International (SSI) and the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS).
There is no clear advantage to being certified by one group rather than another. The basic requirements for certification courses are laid out by a nonprofit industry group known as the Recreational Scuba Training Council (RSTC), and most of the certifying bodies incorporate the RSTC's minimum standards. A more important issue is universal acceptance. NAUI, PADI, YMCA, SSI and NASDS cards are recognized by dive shops throughout the world, while you may have some difficulty with C-cards issued by smaller organizations. Internationally, other major groups include the British Sub Aqua Club and the Confederation Mondiale des Activities Subaquatiques in France.
Which group's course you choose often depends on the most convenient dive shop. Many dive shops are affiliated with more than one organization and may offer a choice. Some instructors are qualified to teach for several groups. "The defining factor in which certification to go with is what your instructor is certified to teach," says Daryl Polenz, a New York investment banker who has been diving actively for five years. "I found a dive shop I was comfortable with and took a basically NAUI course, but my instructor taught PADI as well, so I was able to get both NAUI and PADI cards."
Len Todisco suggests slightly different criteria: "You should choose a dealer based on your comfort level with the retailer and the services they provide, not the letters on the card."
Generally, you start out with a basic course. PADI calls its first level of certification Open Water, while NAUI goes with the straightforward Scuba Diver. Both programs include a mix of classroom study, swimming pool sessions and real dives. Most courses consist of four to six classes, each of which is followed by a pool session where basic skills and use of equipment are taught. At the end of a course, divers must complete four dives with their instructors, usually over the course of two days. The length of the course depends upon where you take it. In most urban settings, classes meet once or twice a week for about a month. In tropical resorts, many individuals take the basic course in less than a week, with sessions every day. Both NAUI and PADI offer the classroom portion of their course on interactive CD-ROM for home study.
Since scuba diving is much easier in warm water, many students opt for what are known as referral dives. They complete their classroom and pool requirements at home, then do their certification dives at another dive shop in a warmer climate, where they have been referred by their home instructor.
Before signing up for a course, find out exactly what is and isn't included. Prices for courses are not set by the organizations, but by individual instructors or retailers. Many shops require students to provide their own fins, mask, snorkel and weight belt; tanks and other equipment are generally supplied. Some shops include the four certification dives in the price of the course, while others charge a separate fee. It is especially important to check this if you plan to go the referral route.
With locations in Grand Cayman, Aruba, Hawaii, Curaçao and the Bahamas, Red Sail Sports is one of the world's largest chains of retail scuba shops. Instructors at all of their locations are certified to teach PADI, NAUI, NASDS and SSI courses, and they give a lot of referrals. Red Sail charges $440 for a five-day basic certification course, including all equipment and materials, and $275 to complete referral dives. Courses may be more expensive in urban areas and places where the competition is not as intense.
Kate Copley, marketing director for Red Sail's busiest location, located at the Hyatt Resort on Grand Cayman, is an example of someone who has been bitten by the diving bug. "I came to the U.S. for the summer [from England] to work, and when I was done I went down to Key West on vacation. There was scuba diving everywhere, and I'd always wanted to try it so I went out once, and that was it. I sold my plane ticket back home and began working in a dive shop and training the next day. When I became an instructor, everyone said to go to Grand Cayman, so I did, planning to stay three months. It's been eight years now."
Mask, fins and snorkel are the basic equipment of the diver, and because they're easy to transport and more personalized, most divers invest in these items even if they decide to rent the rest of their gear. A basic setup costs from $100 to $250. Many eyeglass wearers have their masks outfitted with prescription lenses, and contact lenses work fine for diving.
The investment of time and money often scares off would-be divers who are unsure whether they will enjoy the experience. In response, many shops offer what are known as resort courses, half-day affairs that get the diver into the water quickly. There is some brief poolside equipment and theory instruction, some in-pool training and a shallow dive in which the instructor closely accompanies the group. Resort courses, which can be had for as little as $50, are an excellent way to experience the sensation of diving for the first time. PADI offers a Discover Scuba Diving program and NAUI offers Passport Diver classes. These classes can be used for credit towards your basic certification if you choose to pursue the sport.
Other required equipment include a tank, a regulator with an "octopus," depth and pressure gauges, a watch, a weight belt and a buoyancy control device, or BCD. The regulator consists of two parts--a first stage, which attaches to the air tank and controls the pressure of the air flow, and a second stage, which is the device that you put into your mouth to breathe. This is equipped with automatic valves that deliver air when you inhale and allow you to exhale into the water. For safety reasons, an alternative air source is required in case you have a problem with your second stage, so there is a duplicate dangling from another hose. This two-hose setup is called an octopus. Also hooked into your first stage is a gauge that monitors your air supply. Finally, your tank also inflates and deflates your buoyancy control device. The BCD is usually a vest, with the tank attached to the back. Inflating and deflating your vest allows you to ascend, descend and maintain neutral buoyancy. Since a person is naturally buoyant, and the air tank increases buoyancy, a weight belt is required to allow you to sink. The amount of weight you carry is determined by your own weight and the weight of the equipment you're wearing.
A final important piece of equipment is an exposure suit. In warm tropical waters, divers often wear nothing but a bathing suit. In cooler waters, they add items ranging from a vest to full-body wet suits. Most wet suits are made of neoprene, which provides insulation but also increases your buoyancy. The colder the water, the more layers you wear and the more weight you need. As a result, many people find cold-water diving uncomfortable because the gear--rubber wet suits, hoods, gloves and bulky weights--may be cumbersome. This is one reason many people choose to do referral dives; some divers practice the sport only while vacationing in tropical climates.
In truly frigid climates, some divers opt for dry suits, so called because they offer total protection from the water, and divers can wear jeans and sweaters underneath. While water temperatures rarely drop below freezing, anything that's less than 60 F is considered cold.
People take dive trips to nice places," says Clive Cussler, a novelist and an avid diver. "Everyone goes where there is 200-foot visibility and 80-degree water. I like to go somewhere else." Cussler has authored more than a dozen best-sellers featuring scuba diving secret agent Dirk Pitt, including Raise the Titanic, Inca Gold and Sahara. "It's tough diving for the average sport diver, but one of my favorites is the Great Lakes, where there are about 55,000 recorded shipwrecks, many of them in 100 to 150 feet of water."
Cussler began diving in Hawaii in 1951, just as Cousteau's work had transformed the activity into a sport. After reaping the financial success of his novels, Cussler put quite a bit of his royalties back into the sea. He fulfilled his lifelong passion of searching for shipwrecks of immense historical value and founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency, a nonprofit group devoted to discovering lost ships. His most recent book, The Sea Hunters, is his first nonfiction work, and details some of his more interesting searches. Between dives, Cussler uses his time on board to enjoy fine cigars, a habit he has indulged in for several decades.
Except for certain medical restrictions, almost anyone can learn to dive. Asthma is the biggest prohibiting factor, as are other respiratory problems, insulin-controlled diabetes, nervous system disorders that can cause seizures or blackouts, and sinus or ear problems.
Basic certification--you must be at least 12 years old--entitles you to rent equipment, participate in organized dives in fair-weather conditions and go 60 feet down. For certified divers, most dive shops offer one-, two- or three-tank dive trips, usually on boats. The number of tanks correspond to the number of dives, and trips typically last less than half a day. The group of divers on the boat is usually accompanied by an instructor, especially if there are interesting sights to explore in the area. Certified divers can find these offerings in almost all resort areas, and many dive shops run shuttles to transport divers to and from their hotels.
The next step for divers is advanced certification, which features more sophisticated diving techniques. As divers advance, courses require less time in the classroom and usually none in the pool. Advanced certification can be acquired in as few as two days. Further specialties can often be obtained in one day. Content varies widely among certifying bodies, but the advanced curriculum usually includes a deep dive, an underwater navigation dive, a night dive and two or three elective dives. After taking the advanced class, divers can descend to 100 feet and participate in numerous specialty classes.
The specialty courses certify divers for a particular area of interest. According to PADI's Young, the most popular specialties are wreck diving, underwater photography, night diving, search and recovery, and deep diving. Wrecks fascinate many divers, but, unfortunately, they often lie in water that's too deep. (Deep diving certification allows divers to descend 130 feet, the absolute maximum for sport diving.) Night diving is very popular, because many aquatic creatures are nocturnal. "You should check out the night creatures, such as octopus and lobsters--things that only come out after dark," says investment banker Polenz. Also, many parts of the color spectrum are filtered out as daylight travels through deep water, and using a flashlight at night is the only way to see the true colors of the deep.
Many more specialty courses are offered, and some agencies allow students to create their own subspecialties, so the list is truly endless. Mainstream offerings include underwater navigation, underwater naturalist, cavern diver, ice diver, dry-suit diver, altitude diver, drift diver, underwater ecologist, reef diver, underwater archaeology and river diver. Not all dive shops are equipped to teach each specialty, as some are dependent on having the natural features available. You need a wreck to do a wreck dive, and you can't ice dive in Florida. If you are interested in a particular specialty, find an area where that specialty is popular. "In Cozumel, Mexico, drift diving is excellent," says Polenz. "The boat drops you off at one end of a reef, and there are currents parallel to the reef. You just go down and hang there motionless, and the current carries you along the reef, so you get to see a tremendous variety of aquatic life effortlessly. It's almost as if you are standing still and all these creatures and coral are parading past you."
One of the hottest courses is enriched air diving, or NITROX. "Technically, regular diving uses NITROX, which just means a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, which we have in the air we breathe," says NAUI's Randy Shaw. "But for divers it refers to enriched air, where there is a higher than normal oxygen to nitrogen ratio." Enriched air allows divers to remain below the surface longer and decreases the risk of decompression illness, or "the bends," which is the most well-known diving malady.
The deeper you dive, the greater the pressure exerted upon your body. This causes your body to absorb nitrogen. When you return to the surface, nitrogen is released into your body tissue. If you rise too quickly, rapid decompression can cause severe neuralgic pain, breathing distress and even paralysis or death. Enriched air diving lowers the nitrogen content of the air you breathe, theoretically lowering the risk of the bends.
All recreational diving is known as no-decompression diving, which is much different than that done by commercial and Navy divers. Adhering to the training and depth recommendations provided by certifying groups allows recreational divers to virtually eliminate the risk of decompression sickness and other diving injuries.
Fortunately, diving is much safer than most people think. According to PADI literature, "The risk of injury is much less today for diving than for other adventure-oriented sports like snow skiing.... The greatest danger facing today's recreational diver is usually sunburn." Bruce Delphia, who works the emergency hot line for Divers Alert Network (DAN), agrees. "There's a saying that it's more dangerous driving to the dock than diving, and that's probably true. Each year there are fewer than 100 deaths to U.S. citizens from diving." There are an estimated four million active recreational divers in this country, and DAN's statistics include fatalities to military and commercial divers as well.
The network, which is a part of the Duke University Medical Center, is a clearinghouse for diving information. Hospitals throughout the world contact its hot line for advice when confronted with dive accidents, and DAN provides the industry with many of its most widely used safety recommendations. Membership in DAN costs between $25 and $35 and is highly recommended for all recreational divers.
The world is filled with treasures that await divers who fall in love with the undersea environment. In California, divers swim through jungles of giant kelp. Micronesia offers a lake with two million nonstinging jellyfish. In Puerto Rico, "fireworks" go off every night in a unique bay filled with phosphorescent aquatic life. The list goes on and on. As Clive Cussler says, "Adventure is where you find it."
Larry Olmsted is a PADI advanced diver who frequently writes about travel, golf and outdoor recreation.
Excellent diving can be found in numerous locations around the globe. Here are some of the best:
California: The coast of Northern California offers what
many divers consider to be the best cold-water diving around, with forests of giant kelp and abundant aquatic life, especially around the Channel Islands.
Cayman Islands: The top dive destination in the Caribbean, known for excellent water conditions and steep wall diving, especially Bloody Bay Wall on Little Cayman. Grand Cayman's most popular dive site is the famed Stingray City.
Central America: Excellent wall and reef diving in Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras.
Cozumel, Mexico: The world's second-largest coral reef and
the best drift diving, as currents attract whale sharks, manta rays and sea lions. Home to Mexico's most modern dive shops.
Florida Keys: Abundant shallow dive sites, the first underwater state park in the United States and numerous wrecks, including what may be the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create
Great Barrier Reef, Australia: The world's largest living coral reef, in warm, very clear water.
Live-Aboard Boats: Specially designed cruise ships for divers, live-aboard boats offer weeklong packages to many of the world's top dive destinations. Guests spend time diving, not driving to dive shops and getting on boats. Live-aboards offer luxurious accommodations, on-board photo labs and up to five dives daily. The Aggressor Fleet (800/348-2628) and Peter Hughes Diving (800/932-6237) are the biggest operators of high-end live-aboards.
Micronesia: Palau and Truk are legendary dive destinations. Palau is renowned for such dive sites as Blue Corner and Jellyfish Lake, and took the world's top overall score in the most recent reader's poll in Rodale Press' Scuba Diving magazine. Truk Lagoon is the world's top wreck destination. One of Japan's largest naval bases during the Second World War, it was attacked by U.S. aircraft in 1944, which sent 60 ships, a submarine and 416 aircraft to the bottom of the crystal-clear harbor.
Red Sea: Superb diving in the cradle of civilization. Excellent reefs and conditions.
Saba: A pure diver's destination, the island of Saba, in the Caribbean near St. Martin, has a handful of small inns, a handful of residents and tremendous diving. The reefs that encircle the island have been designated as a marine preserve and are yet to be fully explored, as are the more than 400 shipwrecks nearby. This is the new hot place to dive.
Divers Alert Network (800) 446-2671
National Assoc. of Scuba Diving Schools (800) 34-NASDS
National Assoc. of Underwater Instructors (800) 553-NAUI
Professional Assoc. of Diving Instructors (800) 729-7234
Scuba Schools International (800) 821-4319