Beginner Scuba Diving: Open Water and Beyond

beginner scuba diving

Now that you have discovered scuba diving, you may be wondering, what now? In this guide, we tell you everything you want to know about the Open Water certification course. Next, we’ll outline the next steps to help you advance beyond beginner scuba diving.

We also cover some tips and tricks for improving your diving and explore the best places for beginners to dive. So let’s begin!

Scuba Diving Basics

SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. This is just a fancy way of describing a system that allows humans to breathe and move around underwater.

By bringing a tank of compressed air underwater and the necessary regulator to breathe this compressed air underwater, scuba divers are free to swim around and explore the underwater world around them.

Need more information about scuba diving basics? We’ve outlined lots of beginner tips at our discover scuba diving article.

Open Water Certification (OWD)

Many people start out of the gate with their open water course. Still, others have only completed a discover scuba dive (link). So, if you have not yet completed your open water diver certification, not to worry! This beginner diving course only takes between 3-7 days to complete and will make you a better and more confident diver.

An open water certification from any dive agency is recognized worldwide. Completing this course will allow you to dive with another certified diver to a maximum depth of 60 feet. That’s 18 meters for all you non-Americans.

Prerequisites for Open Water Diving Certification

You don’t need to be an athlete to scuba dive.  However, there are a few qualifications you must meet to take your open water diver course.

If you have any severe medical conditions or are concerned with your medical ability, you must get clearance from a doctor before participating in scuba training.

You need to be at least 15 years old for the Open Water Diver course or 10 years old for the Junior Open Water Diver course.

You also need to know how to swim. You will be asked to show your ability to tread water for 10 minutes and swim 200 yards in a swim test before you begin your course.

Junior Open Water Diver vs. Adult Open Water Diver

Although the minimum age for scuba diving is 10 years old, there are some restrictions on divers under 15 years of age. In these instances, there’s the Junior Open Water course.

Between the ages of 10 and 11, a Junior OWD may only dive to 40 feet and must be accompanied by a dive professional or certified parent.

Between the ages of 12 and 14, a Junior OWD can dive to 60 feet but must be accompanied by a certified adult over the legal age.

On a Junior OWD’s 15th birthday, their certification can be upgraded to an adult certification.

scuba diving basics

What Will You Learn During This Beginner Diver Course?

The Open Water certification course is broken into theory, confined water, and open water. You will learn the skills necessary to be a confident, safe, and self-sufficient diver in each of these sections.

1. Theory

In the academic portion of the course, you will complete bookwork, watch videos, study dive topics, and finally, take quizzes to ensure your understanding of the material.

You will complete a few modules, the breakdown of which vary depending on the dive certifying agency that created the course. However, topics will include:

  • An overview of buoyancy and swimming techniques
  • How air affects you differently at different depths and how partial pressures work
  • Safety procedures, such as what to do when you’re out of air or lose your dive buddy
  • Risks of diving including the four major diving injuries and how to identify them
  • Descriptions of local marine life and marine etiquette
  • Creating and sticking to dive plans
  • The parts of your equipment and how they work
  • Ocean conditions, including temperature, visibility, and currents
  • Hand signals you use to communicate underwater

Some people who travel for their OWD course may choose to complete some of the theory components at home through E-Learning to maximize their time on vacation. Be sure to reach out to the dive shop of your choice before exploring this option.

2. Confined

In the confined water sessions of the OWD course, you will get familiar with your equipment and practice basic scuba skills in a controlled environment. You may even be taking your first breaths underwater! Usually, these classes take place in a swimming pool, but sometimes you may practice skills in a safe, shallow body of water.

Scuba Diving Skills for OWD

The following skills are necessary for open water diving and therefore are covered during the confined sessions:

  • Gear assembly
  • Ear equalization techniques
  • Mask clearing and removal
  • Regulator removal and retrieval
  • BCD removal
  • Weight belt removal
  • Fin kick styles
  • Emergency ascents
  • Air share procedures
  • Cramp management
  • Achieving neutral buoyancy
  • Breathing from a free-flowing regulator
  • Assisting a panicked diver
  • Towing a diver at the surface

Most importantly, the confined portion of your OWD is designed to get you comfortable in the water and with your equipment. Once your instructor has determined you’re ready, you will move on to applying these skills out in an open-water environment.

3. Open Water Dives

This is the exciting part! Now you have the opportunity to dive out into the open ocean and put those skills to practice. During these open water certifying dives, your instructor will watch you closely to ensure your comfort and safety while you explore the underwater world.

Along with diving around seeing all the beautiful marine life, you will repeat many of the skills learned in the confined portion of the course. Your instructor needs to be confident in your ability to dive without a professional before certifying you.

On day two, for your first two dives, your maximum allowed depth will be 40 feet. However, on day three, you will be able to go as deep as 60 feet for your third and fourth dives. This is also the depth you will be allowed to dive recreationally to after certification.

What’s the Open Water Course Like?

Everyone has a different experience during their OWD course, but I will tell you about mine for reference! In 2018, I traveled to Koh Tao, Thailand, specifically to learn to scuba dive. This island is one of the most popular places for scuba training because of favorable water conditions, beautiful marine life, and affordable prices.

Orientation

The shop where I did my OWD course held a short orientation in the afternoon before the course officially the next day. I met my instructor, got an overview of the next three days, and watched safety videos. This helped me ease my nerves and better understand what to expect on the morning of day one.

Day One

At 8:30am, I arrived for a dive theory class. During this time, I got an overview of scuba dive gear and was fitted for rentals. This portion finished around noon with just enough time to grab lunch before the afternoon boat.

By 1pm, we were packed and ready to go diving! We met at the shop, and all piled into the back of a pickup truck taxi to the pier where we met the dive boat. Since the shop I picked did not have a swimming pool, we would be doing our confined dives in a shallow sandy patch near the shore.

But wait! Before you can take your open water course, you must pass a watermanship test. So the other future certified divers and I jumped in, swam eight lengths of the boat, and then treaded water for 10 minutes. Finally, we all passed and were able to continue to the fun stuff.

Back on the boat, we fully geared up for the first time, did our buddy checks, and were ready to dive!

This first confined dive is when I took my first breath underwater, which really freaked me out, to be honest. But after a few tries, I was able to start practicing some scuba skills. Again, my instructor demonstrated everything calmly and clearly, ensuring we were comfortable with each skill before moving on.

Day Two

The next day started similarly to day one, with academics in the morning. The difference was it was exam day! The night before, I was sure to read all my E-Learning materials so I would do well. I was nervous because you need to get 80% on the exam to pass, but it turned out to not be very difficult. The questions you get wrong are discussed between you and your instructor, and you can retake the test as many times as you need.

I finished my exam a bit early, so I packed my gear bag and went to grab some lunch at the hostel. Then, again, at 1pm, the taxi to the pier arrived, and we piled in, ready for our first open water dives.

Open water dives 1 and 2 were fantastic! Although you can only dive as deep as 40 feet / 12 meters, it was mind-blowingly beautiful. Again, my instructor did a great job of balancing fun diving in with the necessary skills tests. At this point, I fell in love with scuba diving. I was also starting to fall for my instructor… but that’s a story for another day.

Day 3

My phone alarm blared at 5am. But did I hear it? Of course not; I was on vacation. So to my extreme embarrassment, my dive instructor comes into my hostel dorm room to wake me up for the morning dive. Not my finest moment, but he forgave me – eventually.

The last day of an open water course in Thailand will typically end with a morning dive. At this point during the course, divers can go as deep as 18 meters; therefore, more sites are available to them. Dive operations go to these better, deeper dive sites in the morning when conditions are best and fewer inexperienced divers are in the water.

This is also to protect double boaters from reverse profiling. A good dive profile across a given day gets shallower, not deeper. Since many dive professionals will be on the morning and afternoon boats, it is crucial to consider their health.

Anyways, here I am back on the boat, coffee in hand, listening to the dive briefing. Unfortunately, we had some final skills to perform during dive 3. However, we still got to see some beautiful coral, a couple of clownfish, and even a turtle! Awesome.

Then our final dive was at Chumphon Pinnacle, one of the best dive sites in Koh Tao. So often, your shop will save the best for last for your open water course, and this was no exception. Chumphon is breathtaking. We saw lionfish, barracuda, and a moray eel. Not to mention the incredible variety of corals and anemones. This is still one of my favorite dive sites today.

Back on shore, we headed back to the dive shop to finish the certification paperwork and return the rental gear. That evening we all went out for drinks, instructors and students alike, to celebrate the newly certified divers!

scuba diving for beginners

Scuba Diving Beginner Tips

In creating this section, I asked my wonderful OWD instructor and my now-husband the question, “What is the best advice you give to your students?” Well, he had a lot of scuba diving tips for beginners.

  • Keep breathing, but don’t overthink it. If you’re struggling to breathe calmly, try focusing on marine life. It will help you relax and refocus.
  • Regulators are designed to handle everything that might come out of your mouth. So go ahead and sneeze, cough, spit, and even vomit in your regulator. It is much more dangerous for you to remove it and risk drowning. If that grosses you out, feel free to grab and use your alternate after an unfortunate reg incident.
  • New divers often struggle with trim, having good buoyancy. Try leaning forward more than you feel like you should. If it feels like you might tip forward, you’re probably in a good position.
  • Be properly weighted. A dive pro can help you determine the right amount of weight for you. If you need an uneven number of weights, be sure to put the extra on your stomach and not against your tank. Also, if you are diving in a new location, take more weight than you think you need. I recently made this mistake, and he has not let me live it down!
  • Set your gear up for success. Don’t forget to defog your mask with either soap, defog, or spit before jumping in. Also, bring a pair of old socks in case your fins start to rub.
  • Set yourself up for success. Don’t consume too much alcohol the night before a dive, and never ever drink and dive. Also, do not take decongestants before diving. They can interfere with equalization. Saline sprays and non-medicated nasal inhalers are good alternatives.
  • Take care of yourself. Drink lots of water because diving is very dehydrating, and consider adding electrolytes. Also, applying reef-safe sunscreen at least 45 minutes before diving reduces your chance of sun damage.
  • Try to kick using long and slow movements. They are more efficient and waste less energy than small quick kicks. Remember, energy needs oxygen, and the more you exert yourself, the faster you use your air.

Recreational Diving for Beginners

Congratulations! You are a newly certified Open Water Diver!

I’m sure you’re excited to get back in the water as soon as possible. But you may be wondering, “What next?”

  1. Get in touch with your local dive shop. Even if you’re from the frigid north and have no interest in cold-water diving. Connecting with divers in your area keeps you in the dive world loop, can help you find a dive buddy, and could even open up possibilities for group dive trips.
  2. Pick a place to go diving, but don’t forget your limits! OWD can dive to a maximum depth of 60 ft and must dive with a certified buddy.
  3. Consider your first gear purchases, including mask, snorkel, fins, and computer. Having your own gear can significantly improve your comfort and confidence underwater.

When considering scuba dive gear purchases, we’ve outlined the necessary and the extravagant dive gear equipment.

Choosing Scuba Diving Destinations for Beginners

There are countless beautiful places around the world to go scuba diving. However, not all are appropriate for beginners. As a newly certified diver, you should consider the following when choosing a dive destination:

  • Maximum depth of the dive. If the dive site begins at 80 feet, it will be difficult to enjoy a dive at your 60-foot limit. Choosing appropriate dive sites will ensure your safety and enjoyment
  • Water Conditions. Every diver struggles with poor water conditions. However, these challenges can affect new divers more. Bad visibility can create a stressed diver, while strong currents are difficult to manage until you have achieved perfect buoyancy
  • Dive shop services. I would highly recommend any new diver employ a divemaster to lead their dives. Even as a professional, I prefer having a dive guide if I’m not familiar with the site I’m diving. Think of them as underwater tour guides.
  • Quality of rental gear. A gear malfunction is bad news for any diver, but the stress it can cause a new diver can be especially hazardous. Ensure you have access to high-quality rental gear or purchase your own.

Best Scuba Diving Vacations for Beginners

There are fantastic dive sites all over the world for an OWD to explore. These are just a few recommendations that I have either been to or heard excellent things about.

Thailand

Maybe I’m a little biased here, but there’s a reason why Thailand is one of the most popular dive destinations. The diving here is amazing, with easy water conditions and incredible marine life, including the occasional whale shark. Scuba divers love to congregate here, making for a fantastic multinational group of people. Besides Koh Tao, you can check out Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lipe.

Honduras

Diving is super popular and beginner-friendly in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Roatan and Utila share similar diving, with Roatan catering more towards resort divers and Utila budget divers. Either way, you will find easy water conditions and beautiful marine life in this region.

The Maldives

I dream of diving in The Maldives. Check out any underwater photography from there, and you’ll see why. The diving is easy, the ocean is calm, and the water is warm. Plus, countless dive resorts will treat you to exceptional service.

Hawaii

Every island of Hawaii offers stunning dive sites with year-round warm waters and visibility of 60 feet or more. Dive operations in Hawaii hold themselves to a very high standard, so expect top-of-the-line rental gear. Most dives are also guided, so there is always a professional there to keep you safe.

Egypt

With excellent visibility and warm waters, Egypt is another superb choice for an OWD. While liveaboards are common in the area, Sharm El-Sheikh offers some great resort dives suitable for beginners.

Australia

Can you say Great Barrier Reef? A bucket list item for many, diving on the GBR is very beginner-friendly. While day trips out of Cairns are fun, it’s advisable to splurge for a liveaboard. With the reef so far from land, you can only reach the best sections after spending hours at sea. However, waters are typically calm, and navigation is a breeze.

Florida      

Some Florida diving can be challenging, but you can find some good beginner dive sites in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has excellent conditions for beginner divers and amazing marine life. As one of the most beautiful and accessible dive locations within the United States, it can’t be missed.

Mexico

I can’t make this guide without giving a shout-out to my current home Cozumel. Cozumel boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the diving is spectacular. Some dives could be challenging for new divers because of currents, but there are plenty of beginner-friendly spots to choose from. Just the other day, I saw an eagle ray! Diving in the rest of the Mayan Riviera is pretty cool too.

It’s impossible to list all the best scuba diving locations for beginners, but I hope this gets the wheels turning. You might also want to check out the Cayman Islands, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bonaire, Curacao, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Scuba Diving Experience

Scuba diving is incredible. You get to float weightlessly while witnessing the most beautiful scenery this planet has to offer. With your OWD certification, you get to experience a lot of what scuba diving has to offer, but what if you want more?

Advanced Open Water Diver

The next level of diving is the Advanced Open Water Diver (AOWD) certification. You will sharpen your skills in this course, dive deeper to 100 feet, and even dive at night! This course consists of 5 different adventure dives, which can be completed over 2-3 days.

A deep dive and a navigation dive are required for this specialty. You can pick from a ton of other adventure dives for your other three. Popular options include night diving, fish identification, peak buoyancy, wreck diving, and underwater photography.

Specialty Courses

While it’s not mandatory to complete your AOWD before starting specialty certifications, I would highly recommend it. The AOWD opens up many diving options and lets you try out some specialties you might be interested in.

Some of the best specialty certifications include Stress and Rescue, Enriched Air Nitrox, Deep Diver to 130 feet, Dry Suit Diver, Cavern Diver, and Wreck Diver.

About the Author Alex Dryjowicz

Alex Dryjowicz is an avid writer, blogger, and professional scuba divemaster. A nomad at heart, she spends her time bouncing between the world’s best diving destinations while calling a ridiculously oversized backpack home. She is thrilled to be here at Watercraft Watch, sharing her insights into all things scuba diving.

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