At just 8 & 9-years-old, the kids had their first taster of breathing underwater. On the protected pristine reef of a remote island in Indonesia, they completed their Bubblemaker PADI SCUBA diving course (see this post). From turtles, sea snakes, brightly coloured fish wherever you looked, to an array of different types of corals and sponges, it’s unsurprising they fell in love with this world! Now older, the children were keen to learn how to SCUBA dive properly. This post looks at some of the many adventures we had along the way.
They had their heart set on completing the full PADI Junior Open Water qualification. This would allow them to dive to a maximum depth of 18m! So just the depth of a six-storey building then! Not that this mummy was worried at all…
When it came to planning our holiday this year, they were very keen for us to choose a location that would allow them to fulfil their underwater ambitions. St Lucia seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
There are a few places that the children could learn to SCUBA dive on the island, but after researching the various operations, I felt Action Adventure Divers had the best safety record. And, based off the beach in Soufriere, it was close to some of the best reefs on the island.
On their website, the owner, Chester, is described as having “a laid-back, “irie”, Caribbean, “island-time” approach.” Underlying this casual charm is an exceptional diver and instructor. He was completely flexible with timings, allowing the children to learn to SCUBA dive course in just three days.
Chester suggested the kids do the theory elements of the PADI Open Water course online. This I would highly recommend. It meant we didn’t need to spend days of our holiday in front of a screen learning, rather than being out enjoying the beautiful sunshine.
To do this, you need to purchase the Open Water elearning from the PADI site. It’s not cheap but is a fundamental and significant part of the course. All the practical elements are then completed with your instructor and are charged for separately. Once these are signed off by your instructor, your official card will appear in your account. You are then able to dive anywhere in the world!
Furthermore, once they turn 15, this qualification automatically updates to the full Open Water certification.
Do make sure you leave enough time to do the theory. It took the kids a good couple of days to watch all the videos, read the scenarios and complete the quizzes and tests.
There are very real dangers with diving. So as the children learn to SCUBA dive, it’s important they fully understand the risks and how to prevent them to dive safely. It’s a balance though. My two were a little scared by the risks presented in the course. As I’d dived before I was able to reassure them that the course had to discuss worst case scenarios, but in reality, diving is a very safe and relaxing experience.
Nevertheless, although I tried to hide it from the kids, I was quite anxious! My fears dissipated though once I’d met Chester and we were underwater for the first time. So don’t let the dangers put you off. It is truly an exceptional experience to swim underwater, right alongside the beautiful fish, who seem just as curious about you as you are about them!
Is a Dive Computer Really Needed?
Throughout the PADI theory, the instructors espoused the benefits of having your own dive computer. Worn on your wrist, the computer records your depth and time information. It uses this information to build an accurate picture of the current nitrogen levels in your body and thus how much longer you can safely stay down on the dive. However, at a starting price of £250, I was reticent to purchase three of these for us all. If it turned out they didn’t like diving, this would be a serious waste of money!
I called PADI who advised me that for the Open Water course, dive computers were not required. The depth and time spent on the dives of the course are well within the safety levels. The standard equipment used on dives includes a depth gauge and normally a watch too, to track your time underwater. Furthermore, your dive instructor will have his own dive computer to be ultra careful. Or sometimes the dive centre will have spares to loan you. And finally, back in the 90s when I learned to dive, we didn’t have dive computers. Using dive tables alone to assess our nitrogen levels, I safely completed over 100 dives…
So, save your money. If they become addicted and dive regularly, it is definitely worth investing in a good one. But for learning to dive, they are not an essential piece of your kit.
So, What is Essential?
Most dive centres will have wetsuits, masks and snorkels to hire. But, for maximum comfort, I would highly recommend investing in your own.
A new 3mm wetsuit is so much warmer than one that has been worn many times by various people. And although St Lucia was very hot and the water temperature a comfortable 26 degrees, both Rosie and I felt cold at times. We were in the water for a long time practising the skills in the shallows and doing the dives themselves. So, I’d recommend investing in your own 3mm (or higher if you’re diving somewhere colder) wetsuit to keep you nice and toasty!
The same applies to your own mask and snorkel. A badly fitting leaky mask can ruin a dive. Spend some time finding one that fits you well and test it out ahead of time. As I normally wear glasses or contacts, I’ve invested in my own prescription mask. This means I don’t need to worry about contact lenses being washed out if water gets into my mask and makes for a more relaxing dive.
Lots of people have their own fins, but these take up a lot of room in the suitcase! We borrowed some from the dive centre which were totally fine. They even had some to fit Harry’s giant size 12 feet!
The Children Learn to SCUBA dive!
As I hadn’t dived for many years, I decided to do a PADI open water reactivate course. This meant I could do all the dives alongside the children (and be an extra pair of hands if needed) and practise the skills too. Together, we completed all the practical elements of the course within three days.
Finally, after all the theory and excited anticipation, the children could learn to SCUBA dive. I think Chester could sense our nerves. So, for this first dive, he assembled our kit for us, talked us through the pre-dive checks and underwater signals, and we were off. Straight into the sea from the shore. No messing around!
This no-nonsense approach continued in the water. We practised a couple of fundamental skills in the shallows. For example, we had to remove our masks and then refit, clearing the water out. And then, one by one, we took out and threw away our regulators, breathing out continuously until we could recover and replace them.
But once this was complete, Chester simply headed off along the gently sloping ridge towards the reef, indicating for us to follow. There was much more for us to learn, but with the basics in place, he was keen for them to first experience the sheer joy of diving. For Harry, concerned about the safety elements, this was the perfect approach.
The Reef – Hummingbird Wall
Very soon, floating amongst schools of brightly coloured fish, we reached the reef. Here, even through the masks, I could see the fascination in their faces, as they peered into dazzling-yellow sponges, peeked under ridges to see the waving antennae of a cheeky lobster, or watched as a snake eel slithered past. Rosie was entranced by the beautiful Christmas tree worms. When you get your finger too close, they retract into their hole, in a blink of an eye!
The sense of weightlessness you feel as you hang in front of a reef wall, its bright treasures towering above you and descending deep into the depths below, is almost indescribable. You feel like a giant bird, flying along next to the reef, inspecting its gems.
To the fish, you’re just one of them, only a bigger version. Often their curiosity gets the better of them and they swim up to you to investigate this marine giant! In essence, for that short period, you become part of that underwater world.
And it’s so quiet and calm down there, with only the sound of your breathing. In this meditative state, where you’re so completely focused on the present moment, time flies by!
On surfacing, I received a barrage of joy and excitement from the kids. They both professed that this was their new favourite sport!! “Really Harry, above cricket?” I queried. “Well, no, but it’s definitely second!”
Rosie’s comments were interesting. “The theory makes it sound like diving is really complicated. But all you really need to do is go down and keep breathing!” Obviously, there is slightly more to it than this. But for many dives, once you can control your buoyancy, this is pretty much all you have to do. That and enjoy the ride!
Day two and we were headed out on the boat this time to an amazing spot known as the Devil’s Hole… After trying out the backward roll from the boat, we practised some more of the key skills at the surface, such as orally inflating the BCD (buoyancy control device). And then we descended once more.
This was another incredibly special site. Unfortunately, I’d failed to bring a protective case for my Go Pro. As we were going to depths which could damage it, I sadly didn’t capture the beauty of the place.
But there was so much to see as we glided through the intricate maze of channels, surrounded by towering boulders enveloped in a profusion of corals, sea fans and feather dusters.
Fish were in such an abundance, it felt as if we were swimming in a tropical fish tank. Amongst others, we spotted file fish, lionfish, yellow-tailed snapper and the awesomely shaped trumpet fish. I was thrilled with a discovery of a flounder, with its oddly positioned eyes, and a deadly stone fish, both of which were cleverly camouflaged against their surroundings. Harry was particularly excited about the latter, as it meant he could try out the PADI underwater signal for this dangerous animal.
All too quickly, my air levels were getting towards the red zone, so we were forced to make our ascent from this wondrous world.
More Shore Skills Practice and an Iridescent Surprise…
On shore, we swapped over our tanks and had a briefing with Chester before heading straight back out for some more practical skills.
This formed the bulk of our practical skills training. On the surface, Chester demonstrated how to help a diver with cramp. He also taught us the various towing techniques. We then put these skills straight into practice, with the children taking on the role of “tired diver” with gusto! I felt a little sorry for Rosie having to tow me though!
Once underwater, it was time for the more difficult skills, such as taking all our equipment off and putting it back on again. Easier than it sounds underwater whilst keeping your balance. Chester also turned our air tanks off whilst 5m under the surface. He wanted us to understand what it felt like as we got to the end of our oxygen supply. This was less frightening that it sounds.
We also practised dropping our weight belts, ascending using an alternate air source from our buddy (little did we appreciate how essential this skill was to become) and a CESA (a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent). In this last skill, you have to ascend from 5m without any air, breathing out a constant stream of bubbles, whilst at the same time trying not to go up too quickly. No burst lungs for us, thank you!
After the earlier dive, these skills were tiring and probably the most difficult part of the course.
But luckily, we were rewarded for our efforts with the sighting of one of the most fantastical marine creatures I have ever seen. The flying gurnard. Almost completely camouflaged in its resting state, once provoked to move, it opens up the most stunning of iridescent wing-like pectoral fins. A truly magical sighting!
Chester had an excellent way of teaching them how disassemble and assemble their equipment. Normally, you’re shown once and then expected to manage your own kit each time afresh. Chester on the other hand, after showing the kids how it was done, had them disassemble and then reassemble their equipment four times in a row! By the end they could have achieved the task with their eyes closed and I doubt they’ll ever forget how it’s done.
This was all performed under the baking St Lucian sun, so a regular hosing down with cool water was very much required!
Finally, after an exhausting day, we headed home for so much needed lazing around the pool!
Day three and our final day of diving, we joined up with a group of qualified divers, keen to experience the joys of the St. Lucian submarine domain. It was a great experience for the children to learn to SCUBA dive alongside these professionals, all of whom were still totally addicted to the sport!
The boat took us around the bay to the reef nestled under the Petit Piton. Together we descended to the steep slope encrusted with vivid corals and giant barrel sponges. Again, there was a profusion of life down below the surface, from flamingo tongues – brightly coloured sea snails, to lobsters aplenty to parrotfish, with their extraordinary beak-like teeth.
A new first was achieved on this dive for the children: diving to a depth of 18m. Taking a peek upwards from this depth was a stark reminder of just how far we’d come!
Later that afternoon, the boat took us out to the Keyhole Pinnacles, for a truly stunning diving experience. Described thus: “four spectacular volcanic peaks rise dramatically from the depth to within a few feet of the surface,” it was, by far, the most exciting of the dives. Navigating through gaps between the peaks, along narrow channels with rich coral life either side of us, was truly exhilarating. A touch terrifying but thrilling, nonetheless.
Moray eels were everywhere! Not just sheltered in their cave homes, but out and baring their teeth! Rosie was about to inadvertently swim oh so close to a particularly aggressive looking one (she hadn’t noticed it) before my tiger mother instinct kicked in and I dragged her up and out of its jaws!
To this point, Rosie had been extremely economical with her air, arriving at the surface each time with by far the most oxygen remaining. But she was struggling with her buoyancy on this dive. This meant she spent most of the dive exploring the fishy world at 21m or lower! And so, she used up her air supply much faster than normal.
She’d pointed this out to Chester, who according to Harry, had signalled for me and the children to ascend. Somehow, I missed this underwater instruction, instead thinking that he wanted us to follow him. But then I understood. By this juncture, her air was very low. So as a threesome, up we went, trying to be calm and not rush up too quickly. At 5m, we had to do our scheduled safety stop for 3 minutes.
This was quite a stressful time. As you ascend, your buoyancy increases. I struggled to hold the two kids down at 5m for our allotted safety stop, essential to remove the excess nitrogen from our blood. A problem which could cause a condition known as the Bends. Not something I wanted to experience.
I kept checking Rosie’s air. It was dangerously low, and seemed to be flipping between 500 bar and 0… I wasn’t prepared to take any chances, so I offered her my alternate air source. Having just practised this the day before, she knew exactly how to do it. And fortunately, I still had plenty of oxygen remaining. Harry, ever safety conscious, held the two of us close together so that she would be able to hold my extra regulator safely in her mouth.
Finally, the time came when we could safely ascend. And say a prayer of thanks that we survived that hairy experience!
On the boat journey home, Chester informed them that they were now fully qualified Open Water PADI divers!! There were cheers all round from our fellow divers!
And two very happy children 😊
Despite the adventure-filled and potentially risky last dive, the children were so happy to learn to SCUBA dive. They are completely hooked and have asked if they can do more next holiday! So maybe I will need to invest in those dive computers after all…