First time SCUBA Diving? The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Your first time scuba diving is both a nerve wracking and exciting experience.  What should you expect?  Is that first time scuba diving scary?    Is scuba diving hard?   Are you going to remember your training and how to scuba dive?    You’re taking your first breath underwater which is exhilarating, but also terrifying.

We had no idea what to expect when scuba diving for the first time.   We knew we wanted to see experience it and to see coral reefs, fish, and wildlife, but scuba itself?  Not a clue.  If you’ve stumbled upon this blog you’re in luck as this post will cover all of the scuba diving information for beginners that you’re looking for.

First Time Scuba Diving
First Time Scuba Diving in Zanzibar
A beautiful place to learn to Scuba Dive!

There are three types of entry level dives and courses you can do as a beginner scuba diver:

Scuba Diving for Beginners

Discover Scuba Diving:

This gives you no certification, but gets you in the water.  First you’ll go over the equipment that’s used for scuba diving and do a test dive in shallow water.  After completing the shallow water dive you’ll likely go over a discover scuba diving briefing document (ie how to not die) and then do your dive!  The discover scuba diving depth limit is 12 metres / 39 feet so there will be plenty to see.  Throughout the program you will be supervised by a dive master just in case anything goes wrong or you panic.

Scuba Diver Certification:

This is the entry level certification to get you set up for scuba diving and is actually a subset of the full Open Water program.  It’s typically run as a 2-3 day course with 2-3 pool dives and 2 open water dives in the ocean (or whatever body of water you’re completing the program near).   The program is divided in to reading, videos, tests, pool sessions, and ultimately, demonstrating those skills in the ocean.    As a Scuba Diver you will be certified to dive to a maximum depth of 12 metres / 40 feet, under the direct supervision of a PADI Professional.

Scuba Diving

Open Water Certification:

The Open Water certification, as the full scuba diving certification is what most first time divers start with provided they have the time.  It certifies you to 30m 100 feet, and builds on the Scuba Diver certification with 5 confined water practice sessions (pool dives) and 4 ocean/lake dives.  It continues on from the Scuba Diver certification, typically run over 4 days with 4-5 pool dives and 4 open water dives.

Because the course is aimed to certify you to dive on your own with a buddy there’s some extra knowledge that really isn’t used in real life until you get a lot more dives under your belt.  You’re probably still going to be diving with a guide after you’ve completed your open water certification unless you’re crazy.

An example of this is that during the theory portion you’re tested on the use of dive planning tables to account for residual nitrogen and to plan your dives.  Your dive master will likely be planning the dive and realistically you’ll never use dive tables in real life because everybody uses dive computers.  There’s a whole lot of new information to take in when you scuba dive for the first time and in our opinion, the course should be a bit more focused on how to dive so that it doesn’t overwhelm new students.  But really, it’s your only choice if you want to get scuba diving and it’s worth it!

Admiring a school of fish while scuba diving

If you decide to certify as a Scuba Diver or Open Water Diver you will have to buy the Padi Open Water Manual to complete either certification and most dive shops don’t let you share or use an old one.  If you buy it ahead of time on Amazon you’ll save a few bucks.

Our Padi Scuba Diver Course

So after doing some research we signed up to do the PADI Scuba Diver certification through Divine Diving & Yoga in Zanzibar.  We had about a week in Zanzibar before heading off our next destination, Uganda, for a month so our diving time was a little bit limited and we didn’t have time to complete a full Open Water program.  We knew that we wanted to get a couple days in the water and that first exposure to scuba diving so the Scuba Diver certification seemed like the perfect fit!


The theory and videos that you have to watch are pretty dull and look like they were filmed about 30 years ago but we made it through, read the appropriate chapters, completing our quizzes, and managing not to doze off during the videos so that we could move on to the pool and take our first breathes underwater.

Scuba diving with a school of fish
Scuba Diving is so much cooler than reading PADI manuals

Confined Water Dives

Early one morning in Zanzibar we donned our gear and jumped into the pool for our confined water dives.  There we took our first breath underwater and started to learn some of the basic skills in a safe environment where you could stand up if something went wrong.  In these first confined water dives we quickly went through training to get comfortable with the equipment and how to do things underwater.  In these first pool sessions you cover things like clearing your regulator, switching to your alternate regulator, buoyancy, and clearing water from your mask

Scuba Diving
Confined Water is in a Pool, not in a scary dark place like this!

It feels amazing to breath underwater, but also pretty claustrophobic, and when it came to demonstrating the skills I felt like I had only lucked into doing them right in front of the instructor the first time.

Different PADI outfitters are allowed to customize the order and number of dives based on the resources in their area.  For instance, in Zanzibar, the pool time was limited to the morning as the resort didn’t want scuba divers playing around in their pool during the day.  So rather than completing three confined water dives, we did them all in one go and it sounds like this is a pretty common experience.

This was a bit unfortunate as it meant we had to rush through our skills training and didn’t have as much time as one may have wanted to get completely comfortable with the skills that we would have to demonstrate in the ocean the next day.

So on that note, when you start scuba diving for the first time make sure you are comfortable with the skills because you will have to demonstrate them underwater.  It seems some dive operators can be in a rush to get through the pool dive and all the exercises but if you have questions make sure you ask.  If you’re not completely comfortable the first time practice more than once.  The next time you’ll be demonstrating these skills will be in the ocean and won’t be able to surface for a breath of air easily.

Sea Turtle
But hopefully you’ll see one of these guys!

Open Water Dives 1 & 2

The next day, we jumped on the boat, eager to do our real scuba dives in the open ocean.  The plan (which is typical) was to complete two ocean dives in the day.  The first would be a normal dive with our group and divemasters just to get comfortable in the ocean.  On the second we would demonstrate the same skills that we had done in the pool.

The first dive felt like it was over in no time (and actually after looking at our dive logs, at half an hour, it kind of was over quickly…new scuba divers typically burn up their oxygen quickly!  We surfaced, all excited about the fish and corral that we had seen.  Smiles beamed on the entire group’s faces as we ate a quick lunch on the boat.

As we prepared for our second dive the divemaster explained that we would need to demonstrate the same skills that we had done in the pool.  This included demonstrating basic control of buoyancy, recovering a lost regulator, and letting water into our masks and clearing it.

It seems lots of people have stories of freaking out while scuba diving, especially during those open water dives.  So don’t worry that’s normal.

For us it was filling your mask and clearing it.  The first drills?  A little stressful, but no huge problem.  Neither one of us really remembered what we were supposed to be doing to clear our masks which goes back to the limited time in the pool.  In fact, I kind of cleared it by fluke the first time in the pool.

Looking at it afterwards, this seems to be the skill most struggle with as breathing when water is coming up your nose is a very foreign and strange feeling.  You CAN breath through it (through your mouth!) but the first instinct is that you can’t.    So when you have your time in the pool make sure that you’re comfortable with each skill and fully understand them while in the pool.

Since this is the most common skill to struggle with I thought I’d include a video, which demonstrates how to properly clear your mask.  Worth watching a few times and getting comfortable with if you’re planning your first scuba dive.

The Open Water Scuba Diver Course

Knowledge and Testing

After we completed our Scuba Diving certifications we didn’t go again for years.  Not because we were scared, but there’s just not much diving going on in landlocked Alberta.  Thea went again in Cuba, but that was it.  When we booked a dive trip to Cozumel (link) we started looking into operators and it seemed most went beyond the 12 metre / 40 feet depth allowed for a Scuba Diver.  We also hadn’t dived in a long time so we decided to refresh our skills and finish off the Open Water designation.

Confined Water Dives

So we headed to the pool again to do some more confined water diving but this time we had a better idea of what we were getting in to.  We did some more theory and course work (SO fun!) and this time had to complete a full on test.  To complete the knowledge component we also had to demonstrate our understanding of the residual nitrogen table as mentioned earlier….good thing dive computers are a thing!  This all took about half a morning, plus reading through the entire open water manual the week before.

Knowledge successful demonstrated, we went to the pool to show off our skills in more confined water dives.  We took our time and demonstrated the required skills with confidence.  (for the most part)

Cozumel Arrivals Sign
Cozumel Arrivals for our Open Water Scuba Designation

Open Water Dives 3 and 4

We then flew to Cozumel where we had arranged to finish off Open Water dives 3 and 4.  This time we were diving with Alex Scuba.  They knew our situation and we were paired up with an instructor that would take us on the two more required dives for our open water designation

The most challenging skill in Open Water Dive 3 and 4 is building on the mask clear that you have to demonstrate in dive 2 of the Scuba Diver Certification.  This time you have to take your mask completely off your face, wait a minute, then put it back on, and then clear it.  Yikes!

Remember, you can breath with your mask off, it just feels strange to have water going up your nose.  Once you put it on, you clear your mask in the same manner – simply press down on the top of your mask, tilt your head back, and breath out through your nose, allowing the air to push the water out.  It may take a couple breathes to fully clear your mask but that’s all there is too it!  It helps some people to close their eyes during this process if the salt water is irritating them.

Once you’ve completed the Open Water course the underwater world is open to you!  Well, sort….now you can dive to a depth of 18 metres / 60 feet.  If you want to go deeper or learn more you can take even more scuba diving courses.  The next natural step is Advanced Open Water, which allows you to dive to a depth of 30 metres / 100 feet  Of course you have to buy another official manuals from Padi for that.  But that’s a minor annoyance; Scuba Diving is amazing and so worth it!

Coral Reef

Tips for your first time scuba diving

OK, so now that you know what to expect from a Discovery Dive, Scuba Diver Certification, and the Open Water Designation, how about some practical tips for scuba diving your first time?

  • Ask lots of questions
  • Find a good instructor
  • Take the time to be comfortable with the required skills
  • Look, but don’t touch
  • Use reefsafe sunscreen
  • It’s ok to be nervous
  • Try to minimize extra movements
  • Relax, if anything goes wrong the dive masters have got your back, so relax!
  • If something does go wrong, drop your weights
  • Keep Breathing – Never, ever, hold your breath.  And if you have a problem, stop, take a second, take a deep breath.  Approach your problem slowly.
Scuba Diving with a sea lion
This photo isn’t mine, but we got to Scuba Dive with Sea Lions in the Galapagos and you can too!

What are your tips for first time scuba divers?  Do you have a good story about your first experience?  We want to hear it so tell us all about it in the comments!




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3 Replies to “First time SCUBA Diving? The Trick is to Keep Breathing”

  1. It’s interesting to know that a scuba diver certification will run as a 2-3 day course with 2 open water dives in the ocean. My husband’s friend invited us to a scuba diving trip, and we are looking for advice. I will let him know about your recommendations to make the most out of our scuba diving trip.

  2. Very informative, and some great tips for new divers! I have been a scuba diving instructor for a few years and unfortunately, due to Covid, we all were made redundant… So, I started a diving blog with free scuba tips, dive destination guides, and interviews with diving experts. Please take a look and let me know if there is a topic you would like to learn more about!

    Happy Bubbles!

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