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What to Expect on Your First Scuba Dive

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Scuba lesson on passenger liner
Barry Winker/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Chest-deep in Florida's calm, turquoise waters, buoyancy compensator inflated, regulator in hand, I began to wonder if learning to dive was such a great idea. When I signed up for the open water course, scuba diving seemed like a great adventure, but now I was being asked to put my face in the water and inhale. I found this counterintuitive. To be honest, I enrolled in a scuba course as a lark, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. If had, I would have perhaps been less nervous. Here is some information that I would have liked to know before getting in the water for the first time.

Scuba Courses Are Taught in "Baby Steps":

New scuba divers are not expected throw on a full set of scuba gear and leap off a boat into the deep blue sea on their first scuba dive. A dive student's first dive will be at a controlled dive site such as a pool or shallow bay. At least one area of the dive site will be shallow enough to stand up in. What's more, before ever entering the water, a scuba instructor will explain to new divers how all the dive gear works, and will familiarize them with simple techniques used to dive safely. The first skill you are likely to try is breathing through a scuba regulator with just your face in the water. I would be lying if I didn't say that breathing through a regulator feels a little weird at first.

Breathing Through a Scuba Regulator:

Breathing through a scuba regulator for the first time can feel strange. The act of breathing itself, especially in very shallow water, feels almost exactly like breathing in the air. The aspect of breathing through a regulator that is disconcerting is that a student is required to put his face in the water and inhale. This is not a typical human behavior, and it is completely normal to be a little hesitant to put your face in the water and inhale at the beginning.

Skills you might do on your fist dive:
Communicate Using Hand Signals
• Remove Water From Your Mask
• Equalize Your Ears

The trick that I like to use with students is to ask them to put on their dive masks and practice breathing through the regulator above the water until they become comfortable with mouth-only breathing. Then, they lower just their faces into the water while exhaling fully through the regulator. This usually tricks the divers into breathing in automatically, and gets them past the first, disconcerting step of inhaling underwater. The most important thing is to exhale fully after each breath. This prevents divers from hyperventilating and feeling starved for air. Some students adjust to regulator breathing after just a few breaths, while others take longer to gain confidence in their scuba equipment. Take your time! Be comfortable with breathing at the surface before descending into the water.

The Noisy Underwater Environment:

Divers who have done research into scuba diving have probably read about the silent, relaxing underwater world. This is not completely accurate. Breathing underwater is surprisingly noisy! Once a diver becomes accustomed to breathing underwater, he starts to tune out the bubbling sound of exhalation and the comforting whoosh of air as he inhales, but at the beginning, the sounds are surprisingly loud!

Water conducts sounds much more efficiently than air does because of its density. Sound waves travel more quickly in water, and reach each of diver's ears almost simultaneously. Pinpointing the origin of a sound is difficult, as the physics of sound wave transmission underwater make it seem that all sounds are coming from directly behind a diver's head. While this can be confusing at first, after a few dives you will adjust to this aspect of the underwater environment and will hardly notice it.

Underwater Vision:

Most scuba masks cut off a diver's peripheral vision. At first, this can be disconcerting and may make some divers feel slightly claustrophobic. Don't worry! As with most aspects of the scuba diving, new divers will quickly acclimate to their limited field of vision. Imagine that you are driving a new car with some significant blind spots. These blind spots can be annoying the first time you use the vehicle, but after a few trips, you will become aware of exactly where the blind spots are and will learn to turn your head when you need to see into an area which is out of your field of vision. Scuba diving is just the same! If you cannot see you instructor, simply look left, right, up and down and you will find him.

The physics of underwater light transmission have a magnifying effect. Objects appear about 33% closer than they actually are. The implication of this is that your dive buddy, instructor, the floor, the surface, and any other objects seem nearer than they are. (This also makes it really easy to read your gauges!) Again, this aspect of the underwater world begins to seem "normal" after a few dives. Most experienced divers do not even notice the magnification because a diver's brain quickly learns to adjust to the difference. A good way to speed the learning process is to reach out and touch objects such as the pool floor, pool wall, or your dive buddy. This will teach you quickly how distant these objects really are. Never touch corals, fish, or other aquatic life.

Weightlessness and Freedom of Movement:

One of the best parts of scuba diving is the feeling of weightlessness. Scuba divers can fly up, down, left and right. The weightlessness of scuba diving is one of the most freeing sensations in the world. Divers can move easily in three dimensions. The trick is to relax into the weightless feeling of the water and let the water and your buoyancy compensator (BC) support you. Don't fight the water. At first, a new diver may feel that he needs to move to stay in position -- he doesn't. Try to be as still as possible and enjoy the freedom from gravity. It's like being an astronaut!
Common questions about diving:
• How Long Does a Dive Last
• How Deep Can You Scuba Dive?
• Can You Dive With Corrective Lenses?

The Density of Water Restricts Movements:

Water is, of course, denser than air. A diver who tries to move quickly will feel resistance to his movements from the water, and may quickly exhaust himself. Underwater movements, including swimming and arm motions, should be slow and controlled. Once a diver accustoms himself to the resistance of the water, underwater movements become an exercise in forced relaxation, almost like Tai Chi!

You Might Need to Pee:

The human body reacts in unusual ways to the underwater environment. Being surrounding by water lower than body temperature may lead to a physiological reaction known as cold water immersion diaresis. The body speeds up the synthesis of urine, leading to the need to urinate underwater. On ocean dives, many divers simply pee in their wetsuits, but if a new diver is learning to dive in a pool, or is using a rental wetsuit, he may need to hold it! Don't worry, needing to pee underwater is a completely normal consequence of scuba diving. If the need becomes too great and peeing in your wetsuit is impossible or disgusting to you, simply end the dive.

It Is Normal to Forget Skills, Hand Signals, and Other Instructions:

The underwater environment exposes new divers to a completely new world. On your first dive, your brain is working hard to adjust to the feeling of weightlessness, the magnification of the water, underwater breathing, and all the other aspects of the environment listed above. This is a huge amount of information to process, and sometimes instructions which seemed clear on the surface such as the use of hand signals and the steps of underwater skills get pushed to the back of a new diver's mind. It's okay! If your instructor has to bring you to the surface to explain something again, don't feel bad. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the new sensations. It is a new, delightful world down there!

Scuba Diving Takes a Little Getting Used to . . . But It's Worth the Effort!:

Some divers take to scuba diving like fish underwater. They put regulators in their mouths and off they swim! However, this is the exception rather than the rule. For most new divers, scuba diving feels a little strange at first. Be patient with yourself, don't rush through skills, and take your time. By the end of your first dive you will already feel exponentially more comfortable underwater than you did when you first entered the water. I am a scuba instructor, but getting used to the underwater world took me a few dives, too.

What Information or Advice Would You Tell New Divers?
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