India’s vast coastline offers plenty of adventure, but few are as dramatic as scuba diving. It is a life-changing experience that can be enjoyed by many, and a well-taught course is the doorway to a lifetime of wonder and adventure. However, with the growing number of dive operators, it’s increasingly difficult to decide where to dive and whom to dive with. This guide will tell you everything you need to know, plus a few pointers to keep in mind.
Most people nod in the affirmative when asked if they know how to swim when they can barely manage a dog paddle across the pool. The good news is that to just experience diving, you do not need to know how to swim! The best thing to do is to check the watermanship requirements for various courses and then be brutally honest with yourself about your swimming abilities.
If you’re looking to get your first-level certification – a license to dive around the world without an instructor—you will need to demonstrate the ability to swim a minimum distance as well as float for a stipulated amount of time. Dive training federations have differing requirements, but on average, you should be able to swim 200m comfortably without a pause, and float on your back or tread water for 10 minutes.
Broadly, an introductory dive is a handheld or closely supervised dive in shallow water where participants experience what it is like to be on scuba (or “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”) under the watchful eye of an instructor or divemaster. Even non-swimmers can sign up for this. Keep in mind that this programme does not result in a diving license.
These experiences vary across India. In cities, the introductory programme involves a short briefing and orientation from the instructor followed by time spent in a swimming pool doing a few basic skills and generally experiencing what it feels like to be underwater on scuba. At locations that offer the possibility of exploring a larger underwater habitat, the experience starts with a similar briefing and shallow-water session, followed by a closely supervised dive in a reef or freshwater habitat.
This diving experience usually takes a couple of hours. Prices vary largely from place to place with some dive centres offering a no-frills experience for as little as ₹1,500–₹2,000 and others charging upto ₹4,500–₹5,000.
Dive federations have a particular manner in which introductory dives should be conducted. These dives often act as a precursor to an entry-level dive certification. So, under the PADI system for example, a participant who has enjoyed their Discover Scuba Diving experience can move on to their open-water (first-level) certification and be credited (both experience-wise and price-wise) for the shallow-water training and the dive that they underwent as part of their Discover Scuba dive.
However, in order for this to happen, the programme needs to be conducted by an instructor or divemaster following the training standards of a particular federation so that the participant’s introductory experience matches up to the requirements for credit in the dive course. Remember to keep your certificate of participation from the introductory dive.
Some dive centres conduct these introductory dives without the banner of a dive federation. This allows the dive operator to decide how to conduct a dive without adhering to the training standards of a particular dive federation.
Currently, there are no standardised training regulations set by the Indian administration. This means that dive centres do not have to provide the certificates and logbooks (sadly, in some cases, even the basic dive gear of wetsuits and fins) that the dive federation usually mandates – which cost more money. So, at worst, you could find yourself with no briefing at all, a few minutes to put your head in the water and get comfortable with your breathing regulator, and then dragged off about a metre below the surface to check out some coral and anemone fish. So it is imperative to pick a legitimate outfit to dive with.
It is difficult to know how your dive is going to pan out. I recommend going by the experience of a dive centre. Check for how long your instructor has been diving and teaching. An instructor with 10 years of active teaching experience can start a new dive centre. The centre may be new, but its operations will reflect the experience of the instructor and vice versa, with well-established dive operators employing new instructors with the minimum number of dives required to be an instructor. Avoid instructors who have got their certification via the increasingly popular zero-to-hero programmes that can be completed in six months. Nothing can replace the time spent gaining hands-on, real-world experience.
Evaluate your comfort level at every stage and communicate your questions and concerns clearly with your instructor. If things are moving too quickly and you aren’t being given enough time to get comfortable, request for some personal attention. If the group size doesn’t allow for it, call off the dive. Snorkel instead to enjoy the reef, and dive another day.
With entry-level dive certifications or licenses, things are actually more clearly laid out. These licenses are issued by internationally recognised dive training federations such as PADI, NAUI and SSI, and have specific guidelines on conducting a course. In India, different dive centres choose to be affiliated with or promote different dive federations.
There is a systematic progression from confined-water sessions to open-water sessions, with emphasis on a sound understanding of dive theory. The theory module (whether online or in hard-copy manuals) covers the basics of diving in relation to safety, equipment, maintenance and troubleshooting, the dive environment, and the physics and physiology of subjecting the human body to pressure and breathing compressed air at a depth.
Confined-water sessions involve equipment orientation, exercise, and troubleshooting sessions conducted in a pool or a calm, shallow environment where a participant can stand up or easily reach the surface if uncomfortable. It is here that participants gain familiarity with every aspect of their dive equipment and practise using the gear. They also learn the basics of buoyancy control and proper movement, as well as the importance of the buddy system.
Open-water sessions start usually at depths greater than 6m and require participants to apply their theoretical knowledge and confined-water skills in deeper waters, where they may be subjected to currents, bad visibility and other real dive conditions.
Many dive operators in India can get you started on your certification course in your city. You can enroll to finish their theory and pool training over a weekend. Most dive centres offer a referral system that allows you to finish the open water segment of your dives with any instructor of the same training organisation anywhere in the world.
The advantages of finishing two-thirds of your course (theory and confined-water sessions) over a weekend in the city are many. You begin your scuba journey in the familiar comfort of a pool, at a pace that allows you to get the most out of this crucial part of your learning. You get to your holiday destination ready to go out into open water and can spend more time holidaying than being a student. By mastering most of the theory and equipment requirements, you feel more comfortable, less rushed and have a greater sense of what to expect from the rest of the course. Regardless of the dive destination, most federations require a minimum of four open-water dives to demonstrate competence and complete your certification. Some dive federations limit students to doing no more than three training dives in one day. I recommend initially doing no more than two dives per day.
An entry-level certification course costs approximately between ₹17,000 and ₹25,000, depending on the dive centre and the certifying federation. PADI is more expensive (primarily because of training materials and certification processing fees) while SSI and NAUI are cheaper.
The licenses are usually valid for life without the need for renewal. However, divers who have gone a long time without diving are generally made to do a short refresher (a few exercises in shallow water and a dive with a divemaster or instructor).
The licenses allow you to dive anywhere in the world, to the depths certified by that particular license level (the max depth limit for PADI Open Water Divers is 18m). The supervision of a professional diver is not required and a certified diver can technically dive with another certified diver. But I do not recommend two newly certified divers or inexperienced divers attempting to dive by themselves.
In many adventure sports, and especially ones that involve water, there is a very fine line between having a great introductory experience that leaves you wanting more, and an experience that leaves you disappointed or worse, afraid of water and the sport itself. While there is no way to guarantee that everything will go well—all divers have bad dive days—here are a few things that you can do to put things in your favour.
Medical fitness: If you know that you want to do an introductory dive or a course on your holiday, get a medical check-up by your family physician before you go. Any dive centre or instructor should be able to provide you with guidelines for your physician regarding a scuba-specific health check. In the beginning, diving can be tiring. Your body is experiencing the absorption of nitrogen for the first time, and this can be quite strenuous even if the physical activity of a dive itself may seem fairly benign. Additionally, there is so much new information being learned that it is good to spread things out and give yourself time to mentally process your experience.
Communicate: Email a few dive centres that can cater to your requirements and establish a communication with them. You can tell a lot by the way a dive operator responds to emails, and developing a personal interaction with the dive centre will only add to your experience.
Don’t be lazy: Spend a little more time and money looking for a dive centre or instructor who understands the benefits of smaller group sizes, and adheres to their promise of greater individual attention.
Ask, ask, ask: Make sure you ask to see the certifications of the staff who will be conducting your dive or course. Our country is famous for cutting corners. My recommendation is that you should be led on your introductory dive by no less than a divemaster, and only an instructor should conduct your certification courses. Divemasters work as assistants to instructors and can conduct certain experiences like the introductory dive, however they cannot teach or certify students. That can only be done by an instructor.
Educate yourself: Learn about the training requirements of the course you have signed up for. These are very clearly laid out and a good instructor will start a course by talking you through how the course will be conducted and the expectations (both yours and theirs) for the course.
Voice concerns: If, at any point in your experience, you feel you need more time to practise or get comfortable with any aspect of the course, make sure that you voice your concerns and do not allow yourself to be coerced into continuing until these concerns have been addressed. A good dive instructor knows when to push a student and when to give him or her the space and time to get comfortable.
Trust your gut: Do not dive because of peer pressure, and do not hesitate to call off your dive if something doesn’t feel right. It could be the equipment, the pace of the experience, your dive guide, your dive buddy or your hangover from the night before—too many things can go wrong when a diver is not sure that they want to be in the water.
After almost 20 years of diving, I still write to dive centres that I plan to visit to get a sense of the people that I will be diving with. As a staff instructor, I still want a local divemaster to lead me on my dives because I learn so much more from them. And after thousands of dives I am still acutely aware of my own limits in this alien underwater world.
Umeed Mistry is a PADI dive instructor and award-winning underwater photographer. He has been closely associated with ANET (Andaman and Nicobar Island's Environment Team) since 2008, helping in the design of their educational material and education model.