By James Lapenta
In many areas of the United States, May is the month when divers are entering the water after a winter hiatus or into open water for the first time after training. Preparing for this is not much different for either group. Those who are already certified will have a leg up in some cases. They will have an idea of what exposure suit they will need for the local site, how much weight they will need, and a better idea of what they will see.
New divers will have to rely on the advice of the instructor for the thickness of exposure suit. They may have to conduct a weight check on site because the amount of lead they used in the pool is not going to suffice if they are using a thicker suit. They will have to rely on the experience of the instructor or other divers to tell them what they will see. For some, just seeing bluegill on their nest or a catfish swimming will be a memory they will treasure forever.
Planning for this will be made easier if the diver takes a few simple steps. The first will be creating a checklist. Or maybe several lists. In my Open Water class, I include for every student a set of wetnotes. The logbook that it’s in the materials for many agencies also has some form of a checklist. Usually, it covers the gear the diver will use. The details and comments section of the log can be thought of as an ongoing list. This is where you record weights, exposure suit, dive site details, etc.. Updating this regularly will allow you to use that information as a reference if you’re away from the site for some time. It will provide a starting point.
Another list should also be created for the ancillary details of the dive. Directions to the site, clothes, food, etc. All of this is actually part of the plan and can be the difference between a great day and a not so great one. A list will reduce the chance of forgotten items and help to reduce stress.
When choosing exposure protection for the dives, taking the time to get in the pool with what you will be using is not only a good idea, it may be a critical safety factor. Going from a shorty or skin in the pool to as much as a 7 mil suit is a big step. Suddenly you are not able to move as quickly, and you may feel claustrophobic. This can lead to feelings of panic in some divers.
The conscientious instructor will take a pool session to allow students to get in the water with the suit they will be using on checkouts. This may result in them being a bit warm, but it will get them used to the reduced mobility in controlled conditions. You can always pull the neck seal to allow some water in to cool down. Throwing divers into cold water feeling like the Pillsbury Doughboy without some form of prep is an excellent way to ensure they will not want to continue with diving.
This also helps when you have been training over the winter and may be out of the pool for a month or more waiting on the site to warm up enough to safely conduct training. I teach throughout the fall and winter and will always bring any student back the week before checkouts for a refresher on skills and to put them in gear they will use. I have seen students who were gung-ho throughout training get angry, scared, and even leave the training site because the instructor did not do a good job of pre-dive prep. Worse is when the instructor sees this and makes sure they will not dive locally by telling them “Hey, don’t worry. Once we’re done, you won’t ever have to dive here again. Sign up for one of our ridiculously expensive warm water trips.”
Taking the time to get used to the gear and become proficient with skills in it, doesn’t take a lot of time if the class was appropriately done in the first place. That means you had time to practice and build muscle memory and allow the basics to become almost instinctual. The best way to do this avoid any classes that offer quick, fast, easy, and inexpensive training. Run from these like the plague. These classes are often based on profit over safety and education. When I see a shop or instructor include these words in their course offerings, it makes my heart sink.
In some areas what the diver will see is going to be quite different than what they expect. The industry uses images of coral reefs, gin-clear water, bright sun, and people in little to no exposure protection to lure customers. While true in some areas, in others it’s a lie. For many of us the reality on open water dives is thick suits, limited visibility (30 feet is awesome, and 10 is sometimes considered great), and life has to be looked for. A proper class will tell you honestly what you will see. A great instructor will instill a sense of enthusiasm and wonder so that you will be as excited seeing one of the aforementioned bluegills as you would a whale shark.
There is always something to see. Often you have to look and maybe change your expectations. You also have to slow down and practice your buoyancy and trim so that the school of newly hatched minnows less than an inch long are clear. Prepping for your first dive of the season is an opportunity to develop the mindset of a diver as opposed to an underwater tourist. As I say on the back of my business cards.
“There are SCUBA divers. They are safe, skilled, and independent explorers with a sense of adventure. Then there are “underwater tourists” who need constant supervision. UDM Aquatics trains SCUBA divers.”
Hopefully, you have the same type of feeling about diving that I try to develop in my students or an instructor that feels the same way.
About James Lapenta
James Lapenta from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a Diver, dive Instructor, Author and owner of UDM Aquatic Services has been diving since 2004.
He is a Scuba Educators Instructor # 204, SDI/TDI Instructor # 16810, CMAS 2 Star Instructor # USAF0012000204
For more on basic skills and education pick up a copy of either of my books