Ah-hh, your first exotic dive trip. Colorful adjectives such as swaying palm trees, aquamarine waters, and fish storms are words chosen by travel writers designed to entice you. But, what about currents, depth considerations, and topside activities once you reach your dream destination?
In this installment of Landfall's Travelling Diver, we'll focus on travel arrangements that a novice diver should consider when getting ready to embark on a dive travel vacation. This article should not be considered the final word on this subject. It is a guideline to certain issues put together by experienced divers relating to questions we wished we had asked before planning our first dive vacation, along with suggestions we wished we knew when we got started.
Who should be considered a novice diver? It may be someone headed to a tropical destination to complete their certification or it may be someone with C-Card in hand, but a log book with few entries. A novice can also be a diver with previous experience, but who participates in the sport for only a week each year on their vacation. Long periods of inactivity may make it difficult to fully develop skills exhibited by people who dive on a regular basis.
Dive holidays fall into two major categories, land-based resorts and live-aboard dive boats. Let's look at live-aboards first. This is where people who want to dive, dive, dive, spend their vacation on a "floating hotel". This can be a true dive dedicated trip, which usually visits remote locations where there may be little else to do. Three to four dives a day over several days can become exhausting and feel more like work than fun for a novice. This is because most beginning divers are still fine tuning their physical ocean skills, familiarizing themselves to their scuba gear, and are developing the stamina to participate. Diving at a live-aboard pace for a novice could result in a loss of prospective of what diving is all about; critters, colors, and the thrill of the adventure. Instead, you could find yourself struggling just trying to keep up with the crowd. The remoteness of live-aboards can also mean long ocean crossings and rough seas. Of course there are exceptions to all of the above situations so if you are thinking of a live-aboard holiday, talk to a dive travel specialist to find the boat and program that's right for you.
Land-based resorts offer day boat diving, usually two dives a day is the standard routine. They come in all shapes and sizes in a variety of geographical locales. You can choose from a quaint, 10 room inn surrounded by lush mountainous jungle to a sprawling high- rise hotel with color satellite TV situated along a wide stretch of sparkling white sand beach.
Certain islands offer a wide variety of nature activities. Others have great shopping and eateries. Whatever your poison, land-based vacations can offer a greater variety of things to do besides diving. For some people this is the perfect way to ease into diving. Others who are truly bitten by the bug may want a resort with more than two dives a day. Presto, try a land-based resort with unlimited beach diving which is usually included free with the price of the vacation package.
Sorry this theme is lacking in originality, but it can't be said any simpler. JUST SAY NO! The experiences you encounter on your first dive vacation will shape your future decisions about diving. Never, ever, let your travelling companion or someone on a dive boat, regardless of their so-called position of authority, pressure you into doing something you don't feel comfortable with or you don't feel you have the skill level for. JUST SAY NO. There is a big difference between compromising on an overdone steak in a restaurant compared to contending with a ferocious current headed to who knows where in the open ocean on your first exotic dive.
I like pea soup as long as it's served for lunch. I don't enjoy it when it describes the water clarity. Diving isn't much fun if you can't see the schools of neon colored fish darting between corals. Good visibility also has a soothing effect making it easier to make that first giant stride into the unknown. Some destinations may be subject to better or worse visibility depending on the time of year, annual rainfall, island geography, or unusual ocean conditions. Be sure to ask about this when choosing a destination, especially if you are locked into travelling at a specific time of year.
There are currents and then there are CURRENTS. Mild ones can actually be conducive to beginning divers, you just relax and go with the flow. Follow the divemaster and the boat follows you and everybody has a wonderful time. Some destinations are known for having CURRENTS. These can also be pleasurable if you have a more experienced open water background and more dives under your belt. Again, ask questions to determine if the destination suits your skill level.
Don't overlook this one. Just because you are heading for the tropics don't assume you can jump in with just your bathing suit, that is unless you have plumage and not skin. Sixty-five degree air temperature can be real comfortable. Heck, I run around in shorts and a tee shirt in that kind of weather. But an unprotected diver would not last five minutes in 65 water. The colder the water, the more thermal protection required. This also means more weight which could spell discomfort for a novice.
THE QUESTION OF DEPTH
Depth should be a function of comfort and skill level. You don't have to push the limits to see what's down there. Sunlight only penetrates so far and it is the shallows that support the most sea life for this very reason. I have seen divers who have sharpened their skills and good ole ocean sense early on. These people are ready to safely dive a bit deeper and they thoroughly enjoy it. I have seen others who are not ready, and quite frankly, have a terrible time. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DIVE DEEP TO HAVE FUN. However, you do need to match your needs to the proper destination. The geological features of some places make it necessary to dive deep at nearly every site. If this is an important consideration to you ask about the dive sites before you buy your plane ticket.
You are finally at the resort. Relaxed, rested, and ready to dive. Wait a minute. Why is that diver shaving his beard with a dive knife? Look over there. That guy has enough dive gizmos to make the Rocketeer jealous. In the restaurant you overhear two other people talking about their new depth record from the morning's dive. All of the sudden you don't feel so good.
Relax. Don't ever let anyone's actions, equipment, or fish stories influence your feeling towards diving. If you start to develop anxieties the key to overcoming them is to communicate your feelings. Start with the divemaster. Be honest. If depth is your concern ask, "What are my options?" Don't worry about what others will think of you. A mature person is not going to laugh. Hopefully, they will remember what it was like for them when they were learning. If they can't appreciate your concerns as a new diver, simply place them in their own special category, "Dive Bubba". Sooner or later you'll encounter a bubba, it's inevitable, smile at them but don't speak, turn, and try your best to avoid them during the rest of your vacation.
Does your arrival day at the resort have any bearing if you are a novice diver? You bet! The majority of people travel to arrive at their destination on the weekend. This initial period is the time for the resort divemaster and the guests to become acquainted. The general rule finds that the first day briefings tend to be the most thorough, covering subjects ranging from boat departure times and procedures to an overview of the diving and dive policies specific to the area. These first couple days allows the divemaster the opportunity to observe underwater skills of the new arrivals. Once comfortable with each other, dive sites may become more challenging and exciting. Divemasters are human too. As the week progresses, briefings become more informal because the divers have learned the routine as entry and exit techniques have been mastered.
Enter, Denny Diver and his travelling companion Dorothy on Wednesday. They do not get the well rehearsed speech that the others heard. Everybody is going about their business while Denny and Dorothy are in a bit of a daze. They begin to rush since everybody else is ready to jump in. A little anxiety begins to build. Completing the dive, Denny proceeds to remove his weight belt, then fins, and starts up the ladder. "Hey, what are you doing?" somebody yells. Oops! that wasn't the way it is supposed to be done, and back into the water he drops to remove his tank and BCD.
The point to this story, continue to ask questions once you reach your destination if things seem to be vague. This incident I described, although not a big deal, could make some people feel uncomfortable. Remember, divemasters get tired of their jobs too, and when things become routine they can sometimes be taken for granted. Overall, divemasters work very hard and you will find them very accommodating to your needs.
One more time to sum things up. The key to successful dive vacations is to COMMUNICATE. First to a dive travel specialist to help plan your trip. Second, review procedures with your dive buddy before jumping in so you both have the same understanding about the dive. Discuss insecurities with the divemaster and don't be afraid to ask questions. Finally, always ignore the dive bubbas.
By following these suggestions your first exotic dive vacation and the many which will follow, will leave you with memories of swaying palm trees and aquamarine waters long after you've returned home.
Dennis & Karen Sabo
Dennis and Karen Sabo, both certified scuba instructors, have over 21 years of dive travel experience and are accomplished underwater photographers. Their work has been featured in Dive Training, Dive Travel, Discover Diving, and Scuba Times magazines, and the book Best Dives in the Caribbean.