Did you know that you can learn to Scuba Dive and get SCUBA Certified on vacation? While getting ready for our trip to Sandals South Coast Resort in Jamaica, Brandon and I were reading through the website and saw that Sandals offers on-site certification, and knew that our time had finally come!
One experience that Sandals Resorts offers is unlimited SCUBA diving, which I think is one of the properties' most unique and appealing inclusion to their all-inclusive packages. If you have your Open Water certification, you can do as much SCUBA diving as you want, every single stay of your stay, for no additional charge - its all included with your stay!
I actually have been a certified SCUBA diver since I was 14 years old, I used to dive at camp every summer in high school. But since it had been about 15 years since I dove, I have wanted for the past few years to start over from scratch to make sure that I would be safe and comfortable underwater. My previous certification was also with NAUI, and since most international dive sites are PADI operated, I felt like the right thing to do was to complete my PADI certification, to ensure that there was never an issue with verifying my certification anywhere in the world. Brandon took a dive class while we were still living in New York, but never completed his open water dives, so this was a totally new travel experience for us, and I'm so excited that we finally can go diving now!
Here's a break down of the full process from start to finish, and what to expect if you're considering getting your SCUBA certification!
While SCUBA diving is generally very safe, a lot of that safety comes from knowledge and fully understanding your equipment, the underwater world, the risks involved, and how to get yourself out of any emergency situation quickly and safely. There is a fair amount of reading and understanding that goes into completing a SCUBA certification, and a knowledge test that you must pass before you can become an Open Water Diver.
However! PADI has made it incredibly easy to do all of this training on your own time, before you head out on vacation with their e-learning. Either on a computer or through an app on your phone, you can go through all of the lessons, watch illustrating videos that cover every topic of the training, and even take your final exam, which you then send to your in-person instructor to certify and sign off on. One thing that I really loved about the PADI learning app is that it will let you download every lesson and video to complete them offline - great for getting it all done on the go, or reading a refresher on airplanes or offline while you travel.
The app is a little buggy but overall worked great, and Brandon and I were both able to complete all of our training, take our tests right on our phone, and then send the final results to the on-site dive shop for certification.
Once you complete your e-learning and written training, you head to the resort's dive center training pool to meet your instructor and begin your practical and pool training. Here we learned to assemble our dive kits, test every piece before getting in the water, and get comfortable with underwater breathing. You walk through and practice all practical skills in the pool, just a couple feet under the water, before doing them all in the ocean on your actual dives to make sure you're comfortable in a very safe environment. Some of the skills you have to preform are: taking off your mask and putting it back on (and removing water) underwater, taking your regular out of your mouth and finding it again, sharing air with your buddy, taking your BCE and tank off underwater and putting them back on. All of these skills aren't things you would typically do while diving, but need to know in case you are met with an emergency, so you would know what to do on a real dive.
The pool skills process takes around 2 - 3 hours in total, depending on how comfortable you feel underwater, and how quickly you learn and can complete the skills and equipment assembly.
Our instructor and dive master Everett!
Then it's off to sea for your 4 training dives! One thing we really loved about Sandals South Coast is that the bay in which the resort is located in has wonderful reefs right there, so no long boat rides required. Both days we were only on the dive boat around 10 minutes until we reached the dive sites. On the boat you are responsible for assembling and testing your own gear - it's so important to be responsible for your own safety! But our instructor was of course there to help, and double checked it before you we got in to the water.
As long as you are comfortable in the water and don't panic, diving is incredibly peaceful and calm. Compared to snorkeling, diving is much calmer, quieter and feels more graceful. Instead of having to constantly diving down and coming up gasping for air, you hover and glide. Brandon described it as "flying underwater." We both loved it and cannot wait for our next dive trip!
Setting up our dive gear and getting our kits all ready to go.
Geared up and ready for our first dive together!
Since I grew up diving in California, the biggest thing I noticed is how WARM the water in the Caribbean is, even when you're deeply submerged. I was worried that being in the water for 40 minute dives would make me too cold, and wore a wetsuit on the first dive. However even at the thermoclines, the water is so warm that I just threw a t-shirt on over my bikini for the rest of the dives, just to add a thin layer between the vest and weights and my skin. When I used to dive on Catalina, we wore full wetsuits with pants, a vest, a full jacket, a hood and booties - and we were still always cold! I had no idea what I was missing by not diving in tropical water. I definitely need a cute long sleeve swimsuit for our next dive adventure - I linked some favorites to shop at the bottom of this post!
Once you descend, your training dives are a mix of exploring, enjoying the surroundings and testing your knowledge. Your instructor tests you on a number of practical skills - including the ones you first practiced in the pool, with the addition of navigating using a compass and using dive hand signals appropriately. We practiced finding our neutral buoyancy and floating just above the surface of the coral ocean floors. Your training dives are split up between two days, and once you complete your certification on the second day, you can do as many more fun dives as you have time for through the rest of your stay.
On our dives in the Whitehouse Bay, we saw lobsters, many schools of fish, coral gardens, a sea turtle, and the most exciting to me - a 10' nurse shark swimming between the coral!
On our second dive day, after we completed all of our training skills, we brought our GoPro down with us to take a few photos. Overall, Brandon and I both felt very comfortable with our training and diving out in the ocean, granted we both had prior dive experience. The PADI e-learning does a thorough job of explaining the equipment and how to dive safely, but we both found that all of the instruction made much more sense to us once we were able to get our hands on the equipment and set it up ourselves. While there are of course risks to SCUBA diving, as long as you are calm, responsible and stay focused, it is very safe. Diving is an amazing, other-worldly experience and such an incredible way to explore the underwater world.
My dad was a big SCUBA diver when I was growing up - he first started diving in the 1970's and has wild stories of the earlier days of diving, when there were many less rules, and much less information or infrastructure. Without the internet, he would rip pages out of dive magazine and save them in manila folders, most of the far-off sites just listed a phone number or mailing address to write to the place and book with them directly. There were many places in the world that he would travel to and stay on live-aboard boats, since the islands had no tourism infrastructure or hotels. He taught me to use underwater film cameras and was a big inspiration for my love of tropical travel and travel photography in general. I got my first Scuba certification at summer camp as a surprise for him - but then we never went diving together. But even in his 70's now, he's still a better swimmer and snorkeler than I am! Now my biggest dream is for my dad, Brandon and I to go on at least one dive trip all together.
And now, we can't wait until we can dive again!