Perhaps you’ve found yourself in Australia, about to visit the Great Barrier Reef, but you didn’t have time to get that certification to SCUBA dive before you left for your trip. Or you’re nowhere near the ocean, but curious what it’s like to breathe underwater.
SCUBA, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, lets you explore the underwater world and encounter extraordinary marine life in their own environment. However, since SCUBA diving can be very risky, you need to be certified to do it. That process can involve multiple classes and a few open water dives.
One thing you should not do is take up a casual offer to go diving, unless it’s through a legitimate, instructor-led program for non-certified divers. That said, if you haven’t had the time or the bandwidth to get certified, and still want to swim alongside sea creatures, here are a few safe options.
Introductory or Trial Dives
Also known as resort dives or discovery dives, most dive operators can offer curious first-timers an introduction to diving, which combines a guided “fun dive” with a preview of some the skills you’ll learn on Open Water course.
These start with on-land training to orient you with the equipment and safety procedures, and to teach you the hand signals you’ll need to communicate with your fellow divers. Then you’ll get your first taste of what it’s like to breathe beneath the surface, in either a pool or ‘pool-like’ conditions. Then you’ll head to a shallow dive spot for an instructed-led tour of the reef and the local marine life.
Ocean Frontiers on the Cayman Islands offers a half-day “Resort Course” for anyone who can swim, is at least ten years old, and has completed a medical form. It starts with a training video and a quick quiz, followed by a shallow reef dive with no more than four students per each PADI-certified instructor. The four-hour session costs $149 per person.
In Hawaii, Maui Undersea Adventures offers introductory dives at the Four Seasons Maui, and you don’t have to be a hotel guest to sign up. Instructors start with a 45-minutes lesson on the basics by the pool and, once you’re ready, take you to the reef for a shallow dive. The costs is $129 per person, for people 12 and up. If you have a 10- or 11-year-old in your group, you’ll have to shell out $258 per person for a private lesson.
Many of the world’s major aquariums offer dive experiences, giving you the chance to get up close and personal with the local residents from the other side of the glass. A unique aspect of aquarium diving is the fish are often completely fearless and used to approaching people closely, which can be pretty exhilarating – especially when the big guys come to the party!
The big guys being, well, sharks. Aquariums love to lure in thrill-seekers with these dives. At Deep Sea World in Scotland, anyone 16 and over can get instruction from PADI-certified instructors before going underwater to hang out – and probably keep very, very still – alongside a slew of ten-foot-long sand sharks. It costs £185 ($218) per person. There’s also a £95 ($111) program for kids 8 to 15, which keeps them near the sharks, but not right next to them.
Another bonus of aquarium dives is that you can do them even if you’re a thousand miles from the actual ocean, like in Denver. At the Denver Downtown Aquarium, non-certified divers aged 10 and up can breathe underwater for the first time in their Discover Scuba Diving program. For $205 per person, you get the basic training and then hang out alongside groupers and rays in their exhibit modeled on coral reefs.
Diving in an aquarium is still different to diving in open water. You’re in an enclosed space, where bumping into walls and other objects is a genuine hazard. To prevent this, you’ll generally go without fins and given a little more weight than normal, so rather than swim, you sink to the bottom and walk (or more accurately, bounce) around the aquarium floor. The feeling of weightlessness might be what it’s like to walk on the moon.
SNUBA involves breathing air via a long hose connected to an air source floating on the surface. In SCUBA, on the other hand, your air supply comes from a tank strapped to your back. In SNUBA, you’ll never descend below a comfortable six meters (20 feet), but most SNUBA locations are on tropical reefs where you don’t need to go deep to see colorful corals and marine life.
While SNUBA is generally safe, it still involves breathing compressed air – so SNUBA sessions start with mandatory briefings on how to do so. The golden rule whenever you’re breathing compressed air applies to both SCUBA and SNUBA. Never hold your breath and make a rapid dash for the surface, as lung expansion injuries can occur even in shallow water.
SNUBA is growing in popularity in resort destinations worldwide. The official SNUBA website lists SNUBA operators in over thirty distinct locations. You can SNUBA all over the Caribbean, Fiji, Hawaii, California, Florida, Australia, and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
Green Island Reef Cruises offers SNUBA expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef at Australia’s Green Island National Park, which is home to hundreds of types of hard and soft corals, as well as coral trout, angelfish, parrotfish, and dozens of species of underwater plants. Green Island Reef Cruises offers SNUBA for healthy swimmers 12 and older, at $159 per person.
In the Florida Keys, SNUBA Key West, will take adults and kids eight years and up on a SNUBA dive, following a safety introduction. Prices are $109 for adults and $89 for kids. You’ll likely see stingrays, tarpon, and maybe a barracuda or two.