Below the surface of the earth’s oceans lies another whole world, just waiting to be discovered. From blooming coral reefs and jewel toned fish, to forgotten wrecks and swirling plants, the floors of the sea are full of surprises for anyone willing to venture just a little bit out of their comfort zone. The ticket to these vistas is an open water scuba diver certification, something that is offered all over the world, in cities both coastal and inland.
We recently undertook an open water course with Divetek, Johannesburg, South Africa, a company that we would highly recommend. The classes definitely got me out of my comfort zone, since I’m not a strong swimmer, was hopelessly unfit after a long and lazy winter, and I usually don’t get into water unless my feet can feel the ground below. But the instructors were amazing and the skills learnt in the pool are just as straightforward in the ocean. By the end of my first dive, I was confident and so excited to explore this whole new world that was now accessible to me!
Open Water Certification
Consisting of lectures three evenings a week, five pool sessions, and a weekend to Sodwana Bay spread out over three weeks, the course is rather hectic and requires a serious time commitment. For those in a hurry, there are shorter courses offered by various companies, usually using DVD/online lectures and fewer practical sessions to compress it to a weekend, while still issuing attendees with internationally recognised certifications, although we can’t vouch for this version of training.
Once you have received your open water diver certification, you will be licensed to dive, but it is highly recommended to follow that with an advanced diver training and possibly a nitrox course, to ensure that you are a proficient diver in all conditions.
There are numerous certifying bodies that are recognised worldwide, an important factor to keep in mind if you plan on taking your skills to countries other than the one you receive your certification in. Your licence is usually required when booking trips or hiring equipment, so it is important make sure your certification is done with a reputable company. The two most popular certifications recognised worldwide are PADI and NAUI. The training for both is quite similar, both requiring four qualifying open water dives in either the ocean or a lake, and both with similar pricing. The main difference is that PADI certifies you to depths of 18m while NAUI certifies you to 30m.
In terms of the Divetek course, the lectures are fun and interactive, covering the physiology of your body while diving, important considerations and potential risks, emergency procedures, and entails learning how the equipment works. The pool sessions start with a swim test, making sure that all participants can swim 200 metres, float for 10 minutes, and do a 10 metre underwater swim. It is exactly as hard as it sounds if you’re unfit, and muscles I didn’t know existed were still aching three days later!
The rest of the sessions are spent learning and practicing skills, including removing your mask underwater, sharing air with others and rescuing your buddy. The last session entails an assessment of skills learnt and is followed by five open water dives in Sodwana Bay. The course fees (R4999 per person as of November 2018) cover all lessons, hire of all equipment, and the dives and accommodation at Sodwana Bay.
The travel and food for the weekend are at your own cost, with Sodwana Bay situated approximately 650km (an 8-hour drive) away from Johannesburg. A normal car is more than capable of doing the drive, as long as you stick to the highways and avoid the gravel road which is about a hundred kilometres shorter, but only saves you about 20 minutes of travel time.
The accommodation varies depending on the group size and availability. We stayed at the Sodwana Bay Lodge, which was extremely comfortable. We had our own bedroom and en-suite bathroom with a bath and shower, but depending on the chalet, you may have to share bathrooms with other occupants. There is a fully furnished kitchen, including a deep freezer, oven, and gas stove. No fires were allowed since the houses were all wooden, but a gas braai is provided and the large patio makes a lovely setting for a braai.
The town itself is sparsely populated, with a few spaza shops selling basics, roadside stalls selling fruit and sweets, and a couple of small restaurants. We suggest bringing your own food and meat with since there are very few options in town, and nothing halaal for miles.
The dives are all done in iSimangaliso Wetland Park on a series of reefs, named for their distance from the bay; 2 mile, 5 mile, 7 mile, or 9 mile reef, depending on local conditions. Note that you should get a scuba licence since it is a national park (although no one asked to see ours, so I guess it all works on an honour system!), which can be obtained from any Post Office for about R94 per year. There is also a daily entrance fee of about R58 per car, and R42 per person in the car. If you’re already certified, there are companies and lodges in the area that will take you diving at quite reasonable rates.
For certification, the first 2 dives are done on a Friday, and are usually spent acclimatising to the ocean and enjoying all the scenery, followed by 2 dives on Saturday that begin with skills tests, and a final dive on Sunday, after which you receive your certification card, if you pass.
Before each dive, a dive master briefs the group on the route to be followed, as well as what to look out for during the dive. Since communicating underwater is one of the biggest challenges, he would show us hand signals that he would later use to alert us to the different creatures as he spotted them. I’m not an expert in identifying fish, and usually referred to them by their ‘Finding Nemo names,’ but it was still an amazing experience to see so many different species up close and in their natural habitat.
The reef itself is beautiful, with schools of fish and slithering eels, colourful coral and even the occasional elusive shark, if you’re lucky. One of the highlights of the trip was courtesy of our skipper, Digger, who has the best eye for spotting wildlife. We caught a glimpse of a fluttering manta ray, were awed by the sight of huge whales, and finally had the honour of snorkelling with a school of playful dolphins. All in all, it was a breath-taking experience, and we cannot wait to dive in new places to see what other wonders lie below…
- A GoPro or action camera is a must if you want to document your trip. Don’t forget to purchase a dive housing that’s suitable for the depths you’ll encounter; the deepest we reached was 24metres. A red filter is also a great accessory- we underestimated how much colour you loseas you descend and now have to spend hours in post-processing since all our photos came out green. A selfie stick also helps to get the camera into position, especially for the first few dives where you’re still getting your buoyancy balance right.
- A dive torch is also nice to have, since it brings back colours and helps to see into dark crevices where all manner of little creatures may be hiding. Make sure you know how to use your equipment before your trip so that you can focus more on diving and less on figuring out how everything works!
- Try out different kinds of gear and get the advice of your instructor or another professional before splurging on equipment that might not be the most suitable for you. It’s a rather expensive hobby and you’d be better off saving your money wherever possible.
- Practice different ways of equalising your ears! I had no issues in the pool but suffered a lot and picked up an ear infection during the dives. However, others who had issues in the pool that were forced to practice more were perfectly fine in the ocean.
- You will be using a lot of components, and scuba gear is bulky and heavy! A plastic crate helps to keep everything together and carry it around, reducing the risk of leaving things behind.
- If you are prone to motion sickness, Stugeron and Valoid (taken the night before and then again before the dive) come highly recommended as the little boat gets quite bumpy, and more than one person in the group spent a considerable amount of time throwing up their breakfast over the side of the boat. Not so fun for them, but it does attract the fish so everyone else didn’t mind so much! Seabands are also available, although people had quite mixed opinions as to whether or not they actually work. Please consult your doctor before taking any medication.