It's a fairly basic principle of self-preservation: Don't jump into deep water with heavy weights strapped to your body.
And yet, there I was, preparing to jump off the back of a dive boat into the Caribbean off the coast of Roatan, Honduras, staggering under the weight of a heavy tank attached to my back. Of course, that heavy tank was filled with oxygen, attached to a regulator in my mouth, and I was wearing a buoyancy vest that would pop me right up to the surface. Still, at that particular moment, the whole let's-try-scuba-diving project, from jumping off that boat, to pulling myself down a rope 40 feet below the surface to encounter who-knows-what living under there -- well, it just seemed the height of insanity.
And it was insane -- as in insanely fun. After a few moments of descent, I found myself kneeling on the white sand 40 feet below the surface. Accompanied at all times by a dive instructor, I pushed off into what seemed just like an aquarium, and was soon hovering above coral reef, swimming among schools of bright fish, and over a cliff of coral canyon, all through the water that was the bluest blue I had ever seen. It was like flying in slow motion. When I surfaced from my "discover scuba" experience after an hour, I knew I wanted to do it again.
Of course, I'm not alone. About 500,000 people get their scuba certification each year through the major certification body called PADI, and more receive certification through other scuba organizations. If scuba diving has always been on your to-do list, this is a great time to check it off: Many dive destinations offer great deals on dive packages through December.
Here's how it works: Before you venture into the depths, reputable dive operators will require you to be "open water certified," which means you have knowledge of basic diving equipment, safety and emergency procedures, how depth affects the body, and so on. This process can take anywhere from three days to a week, or longer if you choose. You can complete the classroom and swimming pool portions of the certification at home before you go, and finish up with open ocean testing on vacation, or you can complete your entire certification while on vacation.
If you're not sure whether you'll like diving, it's a good idea to check out the "discover scuba" experience similar to the one that I tried, which was at Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan. (Diving is certainly not for everyone. On the day I did my discovery dive, a few people returned to the boat and swapped scuba gear for snorkels.)
You start in the classroom, learn basic information about how water pressure affects your body and then proceed to shallow water, where you learn a few safety skills, such as how to clear your mask below the surface if water gets into it, how to find your regulator if it falls out of your mouth, how to equalize the pressure in your ears. If you decide to move on to open water certification, you'll find all of that information helpful.
The first task is to select where you'll go for your dive experiences. Here are some exotic, yet easy-to-dive destinations:
- The Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, offers high water visibility and a vast array of aquatic life. The Ari Atoll is considered one of the best dive sites in the Maldives. Access it when you stay at the Conrad Maldives.
- Curacao is the "C" in Veneuela's ABC islands, which include Aruba and Bonaire. The island is noted for a plethora of easy dives not far from the shore. The Marriott in Curacao offers several dive packages.
- Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with freshwater cenotes or sinkholes, offering an opportunity for cavern diving. (Once you have your open water certification, which you can get at any number of places along Mexico's Caribbean coast or Cozumel, you can dive in caverns with a certified cave-diving instructor.) Dive itineraries can be arranged by HAKI Cultural Expeditions.
- Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt is perhaps not the first place you'd think of for diving, but don't forget about the Red Sea. A long-time favorite of Europeans, the Red Sea's coral reefs are only just now starting to get attention from North American divers. The Four Seasons can arrange dive excursions.