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The cost of gear and lessons, and fear of being underwater, often puts potential divers off from taking the plunge. But being a certified diver can open up a magical underwater world. Here's how to try diving the safe way
Taster sessions, known as ‘try-dives’, are short and simple intros to scuba diving, often aimed at beginners. But how can you know it will be safe? And how can you pick a reliable company?
Snorkelling lets you briefly spy the ocean’s underwater world, but scuba diving allows you to go deeper – promising close encounters with sealife, such as turtles, rays and tropical fish, or get to explore shipwrecks. Try-dives offer a taster: short sessions (usually around two hours) that teach the basics of using a regulator (your breathing apparatus) and help you get used to things like using weights to counter buoyancy. They take place in a swimming pool or open water.
“A try-dive allows beginners to experience the sensation of weightlessness and breathing underwater,” explains Andrew Rose of Scuba Schools International (SSI).
“It can give you freedom to enjoy the wonders of the aquatic environment, and first-timers will be amazed by how much they can see.”
Scuba diving lesson (Dreamstime)
Mastering all the equipment in a short time can seem overwhelming, but try-dives are essentially guided tutorials, letting you go at your own pace. Nearly all centres provide apparatus and wetsuits, and there isn’t an obligation to go beyond that first session – as opposed to signing up for a course.
“Try-dives can help save both time and money by finding out in advance if you even like diving,” agrees Alison Dando of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC).
And more importantly, those first breaths underwater could lead to you ticking something incredible off your bucket list.
Picking the right dive centre can be key to feeling safe on your first dive – often one of the biggest concerns for first-timers. Your best bet is to choose a company that offers shore-based try-dives, as opposed to deep, open water. These give you the security of being able to stand up if you feel uncomfortable or need a breather, and they are very similar to the sessions held in swimming pools, so will offer a more natural transition for first-timers.
It’s also wise to check out the level of qualifications the instructors have, so you can get the best assistance if you find yourself struggling with your breathing, or coping with the weights.
“Check whether you’ll be led by a ‘divemaster’ (the certified level below instructor), as even though they can lead try-dives, they’re not qualified instructors,” says experienced diver Mel Roach. “Instructors have been taught how to teach and are more adept at giving you expert help.”
Girl diving in Malta (Dreamstime)
Experience counts in the water as well, as the longer-established firms are usually the ones that are better versed in helping first-timers. Plus, check the centre’s level of insurance and whether it’s affiliated to a dive training agency (BSAC, PADI and SSI are common examples). All the equipment you use should also have been tested, monitored and cleaned.
Ask to smell the air inside the oxygen canister, advises Mel: it should smell of nothing, but if it seems a bit funky, it’s likely that the canisters haven’t been wellmaintained or cleaned.
She suggests looking for signs of a green substance around the seals of the mask; this is as a result of bacteria build-up, caused by bacteria from the sea and people not washing their masks properly.
Feeling secure in the company of your chosen instructors is an important part of any dive. "Ultimately, try-dives are about enjoyment,” Andrew adds. "First-timers will relish the experience more if they’re comfortable with their instructors and should not be afraid to ask questions at any time.”
If you don’t fancy open-water diving straight away, many hotels offer poolside try-dives in conditions similar to those of shallow water.
Most centres will carry out a medical to ensure you’re fit to dive, so if you’re thinking of booking before you go, it’s best to get checked over by your GP in case you need written permission. If you have a cold or sinus problems, it’s advised you don’t dive until they’ve cleared up.
“It also helps if you’re a confident swimmer, although you don’t need to be of Olympic standard,” says Mel.
“If you aren’t, don’t let that stop you trying out diving – many people give it a go to conquer their fears of open water.”
Mel also adds that if you’re likely to feel claustrophobic, pick (or buy) a clear mask instead of one with black surrounds, which can often limit your peripheral vision.
For shore-based diving, Malta is Europe’s best spot. Head to the islands of Gozo and Comino for shipwrecks, marine life (octopi, rays and moray eels) and even a 30m-deep sunken Madonna statue at Marfa Point.
Elsewhere, Thailand’s island of Ko Tao has calm, shallow waters where you’ll be joined by reef sharks, rays and a host of tropical fish. And further afield, the British Virgin Islands are also famed for their shipwrecks, with many found at shallow depths – ideal for first-timers. The UK coastline is great for spotting seals, but its waters aren’t that clear, except in and around the Isles of Scilly.
Wherever you choose for your first dive, make sure you’re prepared and pick your dive centre wisely. But most importantly, enjoy the experience – there’s a whole new underwater world waiting to be explored.
Steven Barnes: Globetrotting reader and diving novice Steven shares his first try-dive experience
Why did you decide to do a try-dive?
Scuba diving was one of the things on my bucket list to try, and the hotel I was staying at in Mexico offered a trial diving session to new divers in its pool. So I thought I’d give it a go, as this seemed the best opportunity to scratch it off my list. It was designed to give beginners a taste of being underwater, equipped with all the gear to help you decide if it was something you wished to pursue in open water.
What were your expectations of try-dives beforehand?
I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt apprehensive. These fears were slightly alleviated because it was conducted within the pool of the hotel, and not in open water. I expected it to be as easy as you see on TV, but it wasn’t!
How safe did you find it?
I found the entire experience to be very safe. The instructor led the session with all the safety precautions I would have expected during an open-sea dive. I completely underestimated the weight of the equipment, however, and that came as a shock to me.
Once I entered the water, natural instincts started to take over. My brain seemed to panic, which caused my breathing to become irregular. I underestimated the ’mental’ aspect to scuba diving; it really is a factor that comes into play.
What advice would you give to other first-timers?
I would definitely recommend it to everyone who wants to give diving a go; you get the illusion of an openwater dive in a safe and confined area. I would advise you to not overthink it; this was my problem, and because of that, I panicked and couldn’t regulate my breathing, which led to me not going through with the full scuba-diving course.
I would go diving again, but I’d try another taster dive before attempting open water. However, the feeling you get being underwater is one of freedom and I would recommend it to all.
Main image: Underwater view of scuba divers (Dreamstime)
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