You don’t have to be a Navy Seal, or James Bond--or a mermaid--to feel right at home under the sea. Scuba diving is an activity that almost anyone can learn, says Gary Conner, owner of Woodlands Dive Center. The time spent learning to scuba opens up a whole new world. “You never know when you’re going to see something you’ve never seen in your life.”
Especially appealing to those who enjoy tropical climates and resort vacationing, scuba is a pastime that’s grown in popularity over the last few decades. The ability to explore the grandeur beneath the water’s surface draws people from all walks of life and of all ages.
“It was odd. I never thought that I’d want to do it. It wasn’t on my radar at all,” says Carol Knott Tefft, a local real estate agent and proud grandmother, who happened into scuba diving after making the winning bid at a charity auction for a trip to Roatán, Honduras. Several months before the trip, Carol’s son and his girlfriend invited Carol and her husband to take scuba diving lessons so that the family could dive while in Roatán. Her husband and her son’s girlfriend ended up backing out, but Carol moved forward, along with her son. “I loved it, absolutely!” she says.
Taking the Plunge
Obviously, you need to know how to swim in order to take up scuba diving, and you need to be in good health. But contrary to popular belief, scuba diving does not require strenuous exertion, says Gary. You don’t have to be an athlete in order to dive.
Diving schools offer classes through affiliation with certifying agencies such as SSI (Scuba Schools International), which is recognized worldwide. Certification can be completed in as little as a week, says Gary. “Sign up, and we fit you with gear—a mask, snorkel, fins, booties. There will be a couple of hours of homework, then we set up your class schedule for the weekend. “We have a pool onsite, so we train here.”
Students are introduced to the basic principles, says Gary, such as planning a dive, choosing the correct gear, underwater signals, and diving procedures. They practice “confined water dives” in the pool, where they can experience the decision-making process and situational awareness necessary for a dive. Things such as getting water out of your mask, buoyancy control, basic underwater navigation and safety are covered. “The first thing that people have to get used to is breathing correctly. You’re excited when you get under the water and you’re seeing everything for the first time, and you need to be able to maintain calm breathing.” But, says Gary, that comes about quickly as students relax and acclimate to the underwater environment.
After that, students are ready to take their skills on the road. The Dive Shop take a field trip to Blue Lagoon--two spring-fed former limestone quarries near Huntsville, where they perform their “checkout dive” and apply the skills they’ve learned. After that, students are ready for their own adventures. “You’ll have a certification card good for anywhere in the world. You’ll be able to check into your hotel, and the next day go diving,” says Gary.
What about the scuba training provided by resorts? Programs that are done on-site are very limited, says Gary. “You’re only certified for that day. It’s still done in a classroom. You’ll only be able to dive to a depth of about 30 feet, and you’ll be with the instructor the whole time. A real certification means that you’ll be autonomous, freer to explore,” he says. “I am not the kind of person who would take a quickie dive course on the boat before going in,” says Carol.
Choosing Your Dive Destination
There is no shortage of great travel destinations in which to dive, says Gary. Recreational diving has become a special tourism niche. Scuba divers can explore the underwater landscape in numerous parts of the world, and equipment rentals are easier than ever to find while traveling. “I have my own mask and fins. I do rent my BCD [buoyancy compensator device], my regulator, and my tanks. When you go for a dive in Mexico off a boat, they are usually very well equipped with what you need,” says Carol.
Gary says that some people enjoy exploring wreckage, or drop-offs and walls. Most divers, especially those new to the sport, want to reef dive, to see life “inside the aquarium,” he says.
Off the coast of Venezuela, in the southern Caribbean, is an ideal place to start. There, the island of Bonaire offers a multitude of reef-diving sites in warm, shallow waters--spots that are easy to get to and that offer up-close views of underwater flora and fauna. “It’s hard to explain the calming effect of the waters of the Caribbean,” says Gary, “and the amazing underwater scenery. In the Caribbean, you dive around the islands, usually going out with a dive operation around 400 or 500 yards, to a spot you’ve pre-selected. It’s like diving into a clear glass.”
Another excellent place for beginners is Roatán, Honduras. The world’s second-largest barrier reef system is located just off Honduras Island, with optimal diving conditions year-round—shallow, great visibility and warm waters. It’s where Carol took her first real dive. “We get in the water,” she recalls, “and the first thing I see is a school of fish, then a stingray, and I’m crying. I am in God’s aquarium, I’m not in a doctor’s office watching these things, and I’m doing it with my son. What could be better than this? I had to blow out my mask, not from leaking, but from crying so much!”
Gary says other great destinations in the Caribbean include the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Belize, and the Guadeloupe Islands. Some of Gary’s most memorable dives have been in the Mediterranean–Turkey, Italy, and Malta. “My favorite is the Red Sea,” he says, an inlet of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Asia.
If you want to stay inside the U.S., Gary says Florida’s Jenny Springs provides an ideal freshwater diving experience. Or you can find great spots along the coast down by the Keys. Closer to home, he says divers love to explore the sunken Texas Clipper off the coast of South Padre Island. For the truly adventurous, there’s Dive Valhala, a decommissioned nuclear missile silo near Abilene that over time has filled with groundwater and is now a destination for adventurous divers.
Interacting With the Deep
“Underwater, it’s so diverse,” says Carol. “From a tiny shrimp to a lobster hiding under a rock, to stingrays, to sharks that really don’t bother you.” She says that wherever the sun comes through, the light creates a rainbow of color in the landscape down below. “It’s just amazing.”
And what about those sharks, you may wonder? Unfriendly encounters are quite rare, says Gary. His favorite creatures to observe are dolphins, but he loves watching the sharks and the manta rays glide through the water too.
There are a few rules to remember when interacting with the deep. Don’t swim too close to a reef and never touch, break off, or pick up a piece of coral. In fact, don’t take anything back with you as a memento. And don’t leave anything behind. “You look at everything. You touch nothing. You leave nothing,” says Gary.
Finding New Treasures
When COVID hit, Carol had to put her plans on hold, but she’s hoping to have another family diving vacation underway soon. Taking that first dip into the water was the beginning of a hobby that she hopes will take her to exotic places for years to come. She advises others to go for it, just as she did. “Take your training seriously, but don’t be afraid,” says Carol. “The adventures to come are well worth it.“
The Dive Center offers scuba expeditions to Roatan every year, and Gary would also love to take a “liveaboard” dive trip to the Philippines, inviting 15 people or so to live onboard a yacht for several days and see everything there is to see in some of the most biodiverse waters on the planet.
For those who’ve never experienced the underwater world, it may be difficult to understand just how strong the desire is to continue to explore once you’ve been into the deep. “You need to realize that it’s a unique experience of God’s beauty, a world you don’t know until you’re down there,” says Carol.
If 71% of the earth’s surface is water, there’s a lot of diving left to do.