Taking the Plunge: Becoming an Advanced Diver

Back when I was in Bonaire last August, I did something I never thought I’d have any desire to do: I became an advanced open water SCUBA diver. Now, if you remember correctly, a mere five years ago, I was terrified of being in open water of any form—lake, river, ocean, it mattered not. And while I nearly had an anxiety attack during that first dip in the Maldives in 2007—I made the dive master hold my hand the entire time—it wasn’t long until I was hooked. The marine life in the Maldives was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before: Not only did I see the entire palette of primary and secondary colors, I spotted vivid magenta, electric aquamarine, deep crimson, safety yellow and hues for which I don’t even have names. And I learned a major key to my future diving success: Being fully submerged at 50 feet below really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s surprisingly far less scary than snorkeling, where you don’t have nearly the range of vision and, accordingly, can never be quite sure what’s lurking just behind you.

Getting your basic open water certification is easier than people think. You take a series of classes—mine was from 9am until 5pm on a consecutive Saturday and Sunday; others are two weeknights for two straight weeks—then do four open water dives (anywhere you like, whether it be in your own town or in some tropical locale on vacation), in which you perform a series of maneuvers to prove you know what you’re doing.

Becoming an advanced diver was a bit more difficult, but still hardly challenging. In other words, anybody can do it. This go, I didn’t have time to sit in a classroom to do all the work before I left on the trip, so I did my classes online via the PADI website. (I only recommend this for people who already have their open water degree. There was a guy at the dive center doing his basic certification who had done all the preliminary work online and had NO clue what he was doing. It was frightening really! A sport as dangerous as diving, you want to go in prepared.) Then, after a day of fun diving on my own, I dived two straight days at Captain Don’s Habitat, the premier dive resort on Bonaire, with a funny Dutch dive master who tested my skills one-on-one and gave me pointers, with occasional trips to the classroom to go over diagrams and do a bit more book work.

What’s fun about getting your advanced degree is that you get to choose three specialties from a whole list of options, as well as complete two required dives, and you study those selections and do one check-out dive of each. I would have picked a night dive, which is on the list, but that didn’t work out with our schedule. (SVV and I did a night dive in Borneo last summer, and while it was extremely spooky, it was awesome. So many creatures you don’t see during the day come out of hiding once the sun goes down.) So instead I wound up with a line-up of peak performance buoyancy, navigation (required), wreck dive, boat dive and deep dive (required). (The boat one is a weird option, as I’ve rarely done shore dives and almost always do boat dives, but the instructor chose that one for me based on the other dives already going out from the shop. I really wanted to opt for underwater photography, but he told me it wasn’t worth my time.)

Doing the deep dive was no biggie. It’s more to work on your breathing and descent. Most open water dives stay between 40 and 60 feet. Technically, you aren’t supposed to dive any deeper with just a basic open water certificate, but SVV and I had done a 117-foot wreck dive in Honduras three years ago, so I knew I could handle 120. Plus, we snuck down to 80 feet while diving Sipadan on pretty much every dive, and I’d done a few others around 100 feet, so there was nothing unexpected on the horizon for that dive. One big challenge of dipping down to 120 feet is testing your motor skills and learning to prevent (or at least placate) nitrogen narcosis. I have a constitution of steel, so I was fine doing so. In fact, I didn’t get the slightest bit dizzy!

The navigation and buoyancy control dives may not sound fun, but they’re probably some of the best skills a diver could learn. And given that I was a math major in a former life, I loved working with degrees and geometry and having to swim a perfect triangle back to my divemaster using just a compass. You do both of these dives in shallow water, around 15 feet, which is all the more challenging as it’s easy to get sucked to the surface at such shallow depths.

But the most fun dive was the wreck dive (which also was a deep dive at 100 feet). I’ve done plenty of wrecks before, but this one is one of the most famous sunken ships in the Caribbean, the Hilma Hooker, that went down in 1984 after locals seized its crew and found 25,000 pounds of marijuana on board. It was very dark and eerie with its many nooks and crannies for divers to explore.

I don’t have a diver’s flashlight, so I was a bit petrified to swim through some of these very tight spaces—have you seen what happened to Ariel when she explored such a shipwreck?!—but just followed as close to the girl in front of me as possible in order to make it out on the other side, alive.

Diving the Hilma Hooker from Camels & Chocolate on Vimeo.

Just kidding—it wasn’t that scary, but it was a new experience for me. And after my tutorial and four check-out dives—a total of two days, on top of the nights I spent on the classwork back in San Francisco—I was officially granted my advanced diver’s certificate. This isn’t imperative as a diver, but it does allow me additional privileges open water divers don’t have like night and deep dives.

There was another exciting facet of my trip…I got to step foot in my first decompression chamber!

It was cool seeing it, but truth be told I’m the most squeamish person on the Internet, and plugged my ears during much of the talk in basic open water class about the bends and all the other dive-related illnesses for risk of passing out so—aside from the fact that I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars—I only hope I never end up in one of these.

I’m so hooked with the dive degrees, I think I might go for a specialty certificate or two on future dive trips. It’s an addiction I never thought I’d have.

How about you: Have you ever gone diving? Do you find the mere thought scary? Or are you a fellow scaredy cat-to-diver convert like me?

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Comments ( 53 )

  1. I find the mere thought of being the deep paralyzing. But I really, really, really, really want to learn to scuba dive. I know I’ll make it happen soon just have to be in that right frame of mind. My biggest excuse currently is the water off the coast is too murky — I think I’d like to get certified where I can see clear water far-far into the distance.

    • I don’t blame you one bit, Jill. I’ve been diving four years and refuse to dive off the Northern California coast. Most people, my husband included, do their classwork at Bamboo in the city then check-out dives in Monterey, where the vis is 15 feet…on a good day. No thanks! I did my check-out dives in the Bahamas. You could always do it that way, or do it somewhere fabulous like Thailand or the Philippines on your trip!

  2. I really, really want to learn to dive but the idea of barfing in my mask scares the crap out of me. I’m so scared I’d get sick OR blow out my ear drums since I have ear troubles! I think snorkling might be a better plan, haha.

    • I actually get frequent swimmer’s ear from just the shower, so I *never* thought I’d be able to dive. And here I am! Oddly enough, I’ve done more than 100 dives now and no trouble with my ears at all. You won’t barf in your mask–I’ve never known anyone to actually do that!

  3. Congratulations! I think the Advanced Open Water is the most fun course PADI has. Did you buy the book? If so you should still read the chapter on Underwater Photography, I found it basic but very helpful when I first got my hands on an underwater camera. If not shoot me an email, I (and by I, I mean my instructor boyfriend :) ) may have the PDF somewhere.

    If you really want a challenge try the Rescue Course… I only did it as it is a job requirement for most underwater video jobs, but in the end I was so pleased to have done it, mostly because I was impressed with myself for actually passing. And it does make me feel much more comfortable underwater.

    As for the chamber… eeek! But I love the photo of you standing in the doorway. If you’re worried about ending up there maybe spring for DAN insurance (its like $100 for a year). Says the girl who has done over a hundred dives without dan insurance.

    Well I’ve written a book here and I could go on and on. I could talk about diving all day!

    • I’m a few steps ahead of you! I bought DAN insurance before I even got certified, ha. And now I buy the annual couple membership, as Scott would never buy it on his own =)

      I actually think I’ve got the basics on underwater photography down–at least what they teach you in the advanced course, which is my instructor said I shouldn’t do it–and that the next step is to ditch the point and shoot and get the appropriate housing for my DSLR and some lighting equipment. That won’t be happening until I fall into a big chunk of money, though! Oh, but the peak performance buoyancy did help my underwater photography more than anything, I think. (These photos aren’t very good as, like I said, it was murky and low vis the whole trip, but next time…)

      • Good for you on the insurance! its been on my to do list for a year so maybe I’ll get around to it soon! I remember when Mark bought his and I was laughing so hard at the coverage… at least at the instructor level it covers bail money! And also liability insurance, which I had to explain the significance of to my non litigious UK boyfriend.

        Underwater photography is no easy hobby, but I suppose that’s what makes it fun when you get that great shot. I have been so impressed though with the results people can get out of a point and shoot. That’s what I have no and no plans to upgrade anytime soon, though I will invest in a strobe. For the bulk, weight, and cost, I think you have to be really hardcore to have the SLR housing be worth it. But I totally agree about the buoyancy- the number one tip for taking better underwater photos is be a better diver!

  4. I tried diving in the FL Keys and wasn’t really excited about it. No gills in this life. However I snorkeled in the Carib and loved that. How about cave diving as a specialty?

  5. Learning to dive is definitely on our “life list” and stories like this are a real inspiration. We recently did some snorkeling out in the Dry Tortugas, but diving opens up a whole other world.

    Thanks for sharing,

    • I’ve heard the Dry Tortugas are amazing; my friend who is a dive writer just spent a week there and said it was some of the best diving she’s ever done. I’ve been trying to get down to the Keys the last couple years while home visiting my family in Tennessee, but flights are so pricey. One year, I’m just going to fly to Orlando or Miami and drive the rest of the way, as I’m dying to see that area of Florida.

      • If you’re driving, there are plenty of places along the way to stop for great diving/snorkeling. Spend a night in Key Largo and hit John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. It’s about half-way between Miami & Key West, so it makes a good break in the drive.

        The Dry Tortugas are about 70 miles from Key West, which makes for a long 2.5 hour boat ride, or 45 minute sea plane trip. We had a great time. I don’t know if this image link will work in comments, but this is what it looks like, above water . ..

      • The Keys are great, and are definitely worth the trip. If you’re driving from Miami, you can spend a night in Key Largo and dive the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

        Happy Travels,

  6. I freak out even going snorkeling – I do not like to be in the ocean/river/lake/etc, but on top of it. And yet, I want to try scuba diving, because I LOVE that feeling of overcoming your fears. Someday, maybe I’ll get up the courage. I’ll use you for inspiration!

  7. I got my open water and Advanced Open Water two years ago. In Salt Lake there are a lot of hot springs where you can go diving. Some are only 20 or 30 feet deep, but some are 90-100 including the COOLEST one, The Crater. It’s a freshwater hot spring that is inside a dead volcano. Seriously. It’s about 90 feet deep, but because of the altitude (4,800 feet) it feels like 120 or something. They’ve blasted a tunnel to the center and the water is a hundred degrees. It’s just lovely. And a little creepy, but mostly awesome. :) (Coincidentally, I didn’t have any problem with the depth, my math skillz (simply multiplication, our test for nitrogen narcosis) were better at 120 feet than at sea level.) 😉

    I can’t wait to SCUBA in the ocean! I’m hoping to make that happen this year!


    • I love you right now! I mean, I love you normally but PARTICULARLY at the moment as Scott and I are going to be in Salt Lake in May and MUST DO THIS. I’d never even heard of such a dive, but now I’m obsessed. I may be emailing you in the near future for more details!

  8. Oh I think I’m with you in this one. I love to dive and must say, it’s something I miss in Switzerland – I deny to dive into the scary and dark (and particularly cold) lake of Geneva. For some reason, I don’t get scared of Barracudas, but have an ridiculous phobia to sea weed!!

    • I’ve met so many divers from Switzerland who were certified in that very lake–I can’t even imagine diving in such cold water! I definitely prefer warm water diving, and I’m with you on the seaweed. I’m far more petrified of getting tangled up in a kelp bed than I am of seeing a school of 500 barracuda (which we did in Borneo!).

  9. I like you was nervous to try diving as it just doesn’t seem like a natural thing to do to one’s body, but my then boyfriend and now husband really wanted to give it a go so I was persuaded. My first experience in the Similian Islands in Thailand (doing our Open Water PADI course) was the most visually ecstatic experience of my life and I LOVED every moment of it. No wonder they made a Disney movie starring a clown fish, as that is one seriously cute little gaffer swimming about in his sea anemone. Alas I ended up in the dread re-compression chamber with a bad case of the bends (no balance, auditory confusion, pins & needles, numbing and a fuzzy head/drugged sensation that may have been pleasant if one had taken something to get the feeling). It took five trips down in the re-compression chamber to fix me, and I still felt reoccurring symptoms the rest of that trip. It was scary, I will confess. But the most interesting lesson was that in this particular re-compression centre 80% of the folks that wind up there, had completely safe dive profiles (including me). Apparently they blame it on live aboard trips with repetitive dives each day for several days in a row (whether safely in the zone or not). Oh and make sure you have insurance that covers diving related injuries if you’re going. This little sojourn would have cost me $12,000 US if our insurance didn’t cover it.

    • Now see, that is my nightmare! Just the thought of going into the chamber (claustrophobia aside) is enough to make me sick! My husband and I both have DAN insurance for this very chance occurrence. Glad you were OK in the end!

  10. I have to say, the night dive sounds like the scariest thing in the entire world…but I really am into conquering my fears. I’d love to learn to SCUBA. Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Oh man, I feel like we were in Dive Kindergarten together and while you went on to become Valedictorian of Diving, I’m the kid who got held back in first grade five times. That is to say, you have lapped me with the dive awesomeness!

    • Ha! Or more accurately, you and Nigel are far too busy in your Quest for Greatness and Social Media Domination that you have no time to be dive buddies to little ol’ me. Yes, I think that’s the case!

      (But seriously, when are we doing a Caribbean dive trip together again?!)

  12. I am, and have always been, PETRIFIED of diving. But I must admit, your adventures, stories and photos have me exceptionally curious. Although I have claustrophobia issues too, and watching you navigate those tight spaces in the wreck had me involuntarily clenching my jaw and holding my breath. :) I’ll keep reading, and just might follow your lead one of these days. Stranger things have happened, right?!

    • I have extreme claustrophobia, used to see a therapist, have a scrip for Xanax, even feel claustro in the San Francisco FOG, and I am perfectly fine underwater. Then again, I also dive in places with good visibility because were I to dive in cloudy conditions like Monterey with low vis, I think those claustrophobic feelings would come out. But if you stick to warm weather locations, I think you would be totally fine diving, too–even with claustrophobia!

  13. Congratulations! I did my Advanced Open Water a couple of months ago, in Bali, and it’s really nice to have that additional cushion of skills… Though I still don’t feel very proficient. It’s good, I think, to do it after you’ve been at depth and had a bunch of dives at Open Water level. The scariest thing, I find, is people who’ve done their Open Water and Advanced back to back and feel they’re qualified to dive solo in whatever conditions…

    • AGREED. I’d been diving pretty frequently for three years before getting my advanced! And the guy I dived with the final day did his class online and then the four check-out dives and had NO clue what he was doing. He flapped his arms like a chicken, shot to the surface because he “wasn’t weighted enough” (i.e. had no buoyancy control) and was, simply put, terrifying to dive with!

  14. Looks like you were having a blast. Living in florida this is something I could really go for. Nice Post!

    • If you’re not already certified, the Bahamas is a great place to do it–and so easy and cheap from where you live. I did my basic open water at Green Turtle Club in the Abacos. Though I imagine there are some great places to get your certification in Florida, like the Keys!

  15. We definitely want to get our certs and Sprog is old enough now to get his and no have to get the limited kid one, so we’ll likely try to do it as a whole family.

    I agree with the Pennekamp suggestions, I’ve only snorkeled it but it was gorgeous. It’s on my blog somewhere :)

  16. Very mixed feelings about diving. I’d like to try it — seeing all those gorgeous critters swimming around is so tempting. But I’m absolutely TERRIFIED of the possibility of encountering a shark. I refuse (even to this day) to watch Jaws, because I have such a terror of them. There are a lot of predators down there, and not very much to stop them, except BIGGER predators. I guess on one hand, it’s no more dangerous — actually probably a lot LESS dangerous — than walking down the street in a big city. Predators of the human kind lurk there, but most of us rarely – if ever – encounter them. Hmmmm. Will have to think about this. Maybe I should seize an opportunity to confront and overcome the fear. Beautiful photos — as usual. :-)

  17. We’ve got our Advanced planned for Malaysia in May and I’m so excited! We completed our OW in Cyprus and had such a great experience. It’s a shame we haven’t managed to do any other dives in between but the temperatures around the UK are not my idea of a diving good time. It’s really helpful to read about someone else’s experience.

    On a totally unrelated note… I love your dress in the last picture! Very Cute :)

  18. On my list of things I HAVE to do. Get Certified! I’m really jealous of all of you who dive, in a nice way of course :)

    Hope to get the chance to do this soon, it opens up a whole new world to photograph. Sweet photos Kristin!!

    • Ken, I would LOVE to see some of your signature HDR shots taken from deep below the ocean’s surface. That would be phenomenal. I don’t have any of the housing or other underwater equipment for my DSLR, so I find it very challenging to shoot with my Canon G11 without any sort of fill flash while diving unless the light is ideal (which it wasn’t on this trip)…you also have to perfect your buoyancy first in order to keep a steady hand. But it’s definitely fun and a whole different kind of challenge for a photographer!

  19. This is one of the top things on my “bucket list.” I really love snorkeling and basically anything else involving tropical water, so it’s the logical next step. A long weekend in the Bahamas sounds perfect for learning! I totally love using my Canon point and shoot with its underwater housing… I’ll need to figure out how deep I can take it.

  20. I have never been on a dive of any variety, but it’s something I’m itching to do! I feel like going on a dive is the closest we can ever come to visiting another planet.

    • And yet, I have NO desire to go to outer space, even if Richard Branson were to offer me a spot on his spacecraft! I find space even scarier than the ocean (though SVV and I are currently obsessed with Battlestar Galactica so there’s that).

  21. Thanks for submerging us in your undersea adventures! I love to snorkel and free dive, exploring reefs is my favorite aquatic pastime and yet I have never SCUBA dove. My buddy here in Seattle keeps telling about the amazing dives he is going on and keeps urging me to get certified…I think it is high time I took the plunge!

    • I’m impressed you free dive. I can hardly hold my breath for 30 seconds, let alone long enough to reach the bottom! But yes, apparently there is some amazing diving in the Pac Northwest; you should definitely look into certification up there.

  22. I was scared when i first learnt to dive as well. But like you said it is actually less scary than snorkelling! Weird isn’t it! Ant would love to become a dive master (and we are considering stopping somewhere for a while so he can do that) but for me I’m just happy as an open water diver. We are Tulum, Mexico at the moment and are about to go cavern diving in the cenotes that are here-which should be pretty good-although I’m not sure how I’ll go diving into dark areas!!

  23. Sometimes you may be required to hold your Advanced degree just because the dive site you’re heading to is deep. In that case, if you do not want to commit to a full certification course, you may just book an Adventure Dive : Deep and your instructor will take you to 30m and then certify you to dive up to 30m anywhere in the world.
    This being said, if you have time, do your Advanced as you get 4 more dives and you can choose to learn new skills such as photography or wreck diving !
    Cindy recently posted..Where to go for a first scuba dive ?My Profile

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  1. How to Get an Advanced SCUBA Diver Degree — Camels & Chocolate…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. […] claim to fame is its dive scene—but didn’t have time because I was getting my advanced degree and also my purpose for being there was Celebrate the Planet Week, and there were events I had to […]

  3. […] got the bends. I’m going to have to face my worst fear: death…or, even worse, the compression chamber of doom!” (I didn’t. I was totally fine. Not so much as a headache. Though definitely not a […]

  4. […] nature—is investing in annual travel insurance. I hope I don’t ever end up in a compression chamber, but if I do, my insurance plan will be footing the bill for the tens of thousands of dollars that […]

  5. […] of us had our advanced diver certification, and the other half had the basic open water, so we split up into two groups. We still dove the […]

  6. […] diving anywhere. What we didn’t realize about the Keys is that if you don’t have your advanced diver certification, you also have to hire a guide on top of that. In the hundreds of dives I have logged, I have never […]

  7. […] seen for diving anywhere. What we didn’t realize about the Keys is that if you don’t have your advanced diver certification, you also have to hire a guide on top of that. In the hundreds of dives I have logged, I have never […]

  8. […] was another dive in which we were both required to have our advanced open water—a certification that only I have—or hire a guide, so we did just that (and were glad to […]

  9. […] was another dive in which we were both required to have our advanced open water—a certification that only I have—or hire a guide, so we did just that (and were glad to […]

  10. […] an amazing spot for dolphin and whale shark sightings, it’s also one of the best places to learn how to dive, which is exactly what I did during my five-night stay there, despite my initial hesitation. Eight […]

  11. […] and as such, many of the activities over the course of eight days revolved around that. I got my advanced diving certification at Captain Don’s Habitat, but beyond that, didn’t log a whole lot of time under the […]

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