Is Scuba Diving Hard and Dangerous? A Beginner’s Guide

Scuba diving can be both an awe-inspiring and relaxing experience. To be able to explore the ocean and make great discoveries is an experience you can share for years to come. It is well worth the training and time. But here’s the real question:

Is scuba diving hard and dangerous? Once you have had the proper training, scuba diving is just as safe and easy as any other hobby you might choose to take up. As long as you follow the safety guidelines and swim with a buddy, you will be absolutely fine. 

Having this experience can be just the thing you need to bring some excitement into your life. It is a fun, safe, and healthy activity for you to do with your friends, family, and significant other. In order for it to be fun and safe though, you need to ask the important questions and be aware of the answers. This doesn’t have to take the fun out of it, it will just make you aware of any risks you might face. 

Is Scuba Diving Dangerous?

Like any activity you might partake in, there are potential dangers to scuba diving. Injuries can happen in any way, whether it be from an accident or improper safety protocol, but scuba diving is no more dangerous than driving your car to work every day. It’s safer than that actually. As long as the safety guidelines are followed and you remember your training, scuba diving is perfectly safe. But for you to be safe, you need to get proper training and certification, and know the potential injuries you need to avoid. 

Barotrauma

Barotrauma is an injury caused by pressure in the middle ear. When diving, pressure build in the ears. In order to release that pressure, you can swallow or chew, or blow out your nose while pinching it. This injury is usually caused by the diver not releasing the pressure during the decent or descending too quickly to even have the possibility to release the pressure.

Barotrauma to the lungs occurs when ascending too quickly. Gas inhaled at depth under higher pressure expands quickly as you rise, and this expansion can rupture small sacules (alveoli ) in the lungs or collapse the entire lung. This is called a pneumothorax, and it can be an emergency.

Drowning

Out of all of the possibilities of fatalities while scuba diving, this is the most likely one. Drowning while scuba diving usually has to do with a preexisting condition or the diver panicked and lost consciousness while diving. It’s easy to panic while diving. Most diver panic is due to being underwater during a situation or emergency, such as seeing a sea creature that might terrify you or something even more serious. 

To combat diver panic there is a simple technique that always seems to work. Getting the training you need and having a buddy with you at all times during the dive is the key. Something about it reassures divers that everything is safe and will be alright. If you can avoid diver panic than you can avoid drowning. 

Nitrogen Narcosis

This one is indirectly dangerous to the diver because it doesn’t cause any direct injuries. Nitrogen narcosis is the feeling of being drunk if you dive 80 to 100 feet or deeper in saltwater. This feeling of drunkenness can encourage irrational decision making and cause accidents that can cause injuries such as decompression sickness. It is because of this illness that you must get extra certification and training to dive deeper than 60 feet.

Decompression Sickness

Decompression sickness, or DCS, is an injury that can occur during a dive if safety precautions aren’t followed or if you don’t have a clean bill of health. DCS is when you breathe in too much nitrogen from the compressed air while you dive. If this happens, the nitrogen that your body absorbed from the compressed are will cause nitrogen bubbles in your tissue when you come up to the surface of the water. 

This sickness can cause pain, nerve and tissue damage, and death. Some other factors that may cause this are stress, dehydration, and alcohol or drug use. In order to avoid this unpleasant injury is by following the dive tables and computers, move slowly as you descend deeper, and stop at the safety spot as you are advised to do. This injury will not heal itself you will need treatment by a professional to cure it. 

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is when gas develops in the blood vessels to the lungs, blocking blood flow through them. As a result, the body is deprived of oxygen normally absorbed by blood vessels as they pass through the lungs. As you dive deeper into the water, the gas you breathe becomes dense. As you ascend, bubbles can form in your veins. As these return to the heart and flow into the lungs, they can cause injury to the lungs and decrease oxygen supply to the rest of the body. To avoid this, breathing normally and a slow ascent is absolutely essential. 

Arterial Air Embolism

This is a particularly unpleasant injury that is, thankfully, relatively rare. An arterial air embolism is an air blockage in an artery that keeps the blood from flowing. This can happen during your ascension to the surface if you are holding your breath or from pulmonary barotrauma. The damage this causes is to your lungs and often leads to death. To avoid this, following safety regulations and getting the proper diving training is essential. 

This can also affect the brain, causing stroke. If bubbles form in vessels exiting the heart, they can end up anywhere in the vascular system of the body. Some tissues can tolerate this with little affect. But the brain cannot tolerate decreased or blocked blood flow, and tissue begins dying quickly. This results in a stroke. It can vary from very mild symptoms to full paralysis and death. Similar effects can occur if blood vessels to the spinal cord become blocked. Paralysis of the body controlled by the damaged cells can occur.

Oxygen Toxicity

This is an injury caused by the extra oxygen your body might absorb in depths 135 feet or deeper. As you descend deeper into the water, the pressure increases and your body begins to absorb oxygen. If you descend too deep the oxygen becomes toxic and causes oxygen toxicity. 

The good thing about this illness is that it doesn’t happen too often due to the extreme lack of people diving that deeply. If you do find yourself diving deeper than 135 feet and you begin to experience tunnel vision, nausea, seizures, twitching, or you pass out, your safest bet is to get to the surface quickly, but safely. As I mentioned before, to dive below 60 feet you will need extra training and certification. 

Defective Equipment

If you are renting scuba gear for a dive, you will want to be sure to check to see if anything appears to be broken or defective. Though it doesn’t happen often, it can happen. So, to make sure your equipment is in working order, this step is important. This is why divers practice in a pool over and over to learn what to do if equipment fails. And it does. I’ve had leaky tanks, inexperienced divers knock my mask off out of nowhere, had regulators stuck open (free flowing), faulty depth and air pressure gauges and other failures.

Sea Life

One of the reasons people dive is to see the sea life. Though it is extremely rare for an attack to happen, it is important to remember that you will be in their home and these are wild animals. This requires respect toward the animals which means no touching the sea life. Though most sea animals don’t act aggressively towards divers, they might fear you and react in defense. In some cases, they’re poisonous. To protect both you and the sea life, it is important to respect them. 

Tips to Scuba Dive Safely

There are a few things that you need to keep in mind in order to have a safe dive. As I mentioned before, you don’t want to touch anything while you’re diving and there are some rules that you will want to follow to keep yourself and everyone else safe.  

Don’t Hold Your Breath and Move Slowly

Not holding your breath while diving is probably one of the most important rules to remember. It can be easy to forget to breathe with such overwhelming awe during a dive, and it might feel strange to breathe underwater. It is extremely important to breathe normally though because if you don’t you can cause yourself an injury that could take your life. 

Stay with Your Guide

It’s important to stay with your guide and any buddy you might have because it’s easy to lose your orientation underwater. The world looks completely different and you could get lost. If you see something off in the distance that you want to go look at, signal your guide that you want to go over there. If you do get separated while underwater, try to return to the last place you were together. If you have a specific dive path and plan, wait in one spot or continue to the next designated area.

If all seems lost, slowly ascend to the surface to see if they are looking for you. If they aren’t there, wait for them, they won’t leave you. Or you can signal the boat to pick you up. In shallow dives, you can redescend and head to the boat. Swimming underwater is easier than surface swimming.

Equalize While You Descend 

The pressure that builds while you descend can be uncomfortable. In order to relieve some of that pressure, equalize by pinching your nose and exhaling with your mouth closed. If you forget to do this while you swim deeper, you can cause yourself an injury inside of your ear. You will have some warning before any damage is done. There is pain associated with the pressure that causes injury. As soon as you experience pain, ascend 5-10 feet and equalize. Then try to descend again. If this doesn’t work after 3-4 attempts, consider aborting the dive.

I ruptured my left eardrum several years ago off Providenciales Turks and Caicos, and my hearing took about 4 weeks to return. Not everyone is that lucky. Permanent damage can occur.

Equalize often to prevent ear pain and injury
Equalizing your ears prevents pain and injury

Follow Your Dive Computer

This is only for those that will be wearing a dive computer. If you are, follow the indicated time it says that you have at each depth level as you descend. The dive computer will tell you when you hit 130 feet deep, and it’s important to stop here. Any deeper is not considered recreational diving and you could get in serious trouble or severely injured. If you aren’t wearing a computer, follow your guide. They will help you and lead the way as you descend. 

Watch Your Air Gauge

It’s important to know how much air you have at all times. The last thing you want to happen is to run out of air in the middle of a dive. Remember that the air that you used was to descend, so you will need just as much air to ascend. Give yourself some time so you don’t feel rushed to get to the surface. Rushing will only cause you harm, even if you are running low on air. 

Keep an Eye on How You Feel After the Dive and Don’t Fly for 24 Hours After a Dive

After the dive, check yourself over and gage how you are feeling. If you are feeling odd or unlike yourself, you will want to get checked out by a health professional. It’s normal to feel tired after a dive, so don’t be alarmed if you do. But anything else, like lightheadedness or nausea, should be taken seriously. Tell your guild if you feel odd and they will direct you to your next step. 

Flying is important to avoid after a dive even if you are feeling okay. The nitrogen that your body absorbed during the dive is slowly dissipating, but if you fly within 24 hours of a dive the pressure can cause decompression sickness even if you weren’t feeling symptoms before. 

Is Scuba Diving Hard?

Once you know all the tricks of the trade, scuba diving isn’t a difficult sport to comprehend. It can, however, be physically demanding for those that aren’t usually active. It might look easy but diving with things like all the added weight from the gear and the current underwater can get exhausting. If you are planning a vacation for a scuba diving adventure, it might be a good idea to start exercising to build your endurance up. 

The better shape you are in before the dive, the longer the dive can last for you. There is no shame in cutting a dive short because your body can’t handle it anymore. It’s like any activity or exercise, you will need a break after a while. But the more endurance you have, the longer your oxygen lasts, and your body will be able to handle the swim much longer. 

Keep in mind that surface scuba diving and shallow dives are different than wreck explorations and diving in enriched areas. Dives like these require a bit more training and some experience under your belt because they offer more dangers.

Tips to Make Your First Dive Easier

When you begin diving, it might feel uncomfortable to open your eyes underwater. When you take your training classes, you will be required to dive into a pool for a minute without your mask. So, the quicker you feel comfortable opening your eyes underwater, the quicker you will be diving over coral reefs and sea life. 

Renting diving gear is perfectly fine for your first few dives. Even if you dive every year on holiday, it’s perfectly acceptable to rent your diving gear. Buying your own gear can get expensive and might not pay for itself if you don’t dive too regularly. If you want to buy your own mask and boots, that is all well and good. But spending your money on things like a dive computer and air regulators might not be worth it for you. Flying with tanks and BCD’s can be a pain.

There is also the option to try diving before you go away on a diving holiday. Dive centers offer a “try dive” which will allow you to get the experience and feeling of a dive without spending all the money of a plane ticket and hotel. If it is something you enjoy then buying a plane ticket and booking your hotel room will be worth it, if not you might just save yourself thousands of dollars. 

Most importantly, while you train for your dive and during your dive, you will want to listen to your instructors and guides. These people are experienced, knowledgeable, and trained in diving. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because they have probably heard it all already. When they give you advice and suggestions, it is important to listen because they only have your best interest in mind. 

The Kind of Equipment You’ll Need

If you are only going a surface dive, the amount of gear you will wear is much less than the amount you will wear for a deep dive. No matter what kind of dive you do, you will have gear and you will want to know what that gear does and how you are supposed to use it. 

Wetsuit

Your wetsuit is meant to keep your warm in the icy temperatures of the ocean and protect your skin from injury if the environment requires one. They are skintight and warm while you are out of the water but are perfectly comfortable to wear while diving. They are a few versions such as a short wetsuit or a long wetsuit.  

Buoyancy Control Vest

A buoyancy control device is important to have during your dive because it will keep your buoyancy neutral. They are also handy to clip tools to such as an underwater flashlight or cutting tool for sticky situations you might find yourself in. Some might even have pockets for weights, so you don’t have to wear a waist belt as well. 

Weight Belts

If you don’t have a buoyancy control device that can incorporate your weights into it, you will need a weight belt. These are to help keep your buoyancy neutral, so you don’t either float to the surface of the water or sink to the bottom. 

Pressure Gauges and Dive Computers

Scuba diving requires some more technical equipment such as pressure gauges and dive computers as well. The pressure gauges will allow you to see how much air you have left, thus letting you know when you need to start your ascension. A dive computer will let you know how deep you are and how long you should stay at the depths that you are in before moving on. These are both extremely important devices and will be needed whether you rent or buy one yourself.

Regulators

Regulators are important in any dive so that you can breathe underwater and come in stages. The first stage is used to attach the primary second stage to the valve to make your pressure breathable. Primary second stage is the regulator you can put in your mouth so that you can breathe during your dive. Alternate second stage is for emergencies if you need to share your air with someone else on the dive.

Your Snorkel, Mask, and Fins

These are the iconic and most acknowledged gadgets for diving. They are generally pretty affordable compared to the other equipment you might need and can be used by anyone. The mask will protect your eyes from the saltwater during your dive. The snorkel is meant to save your air before and after your dive. It allows you to breathe in more shallow water without using your tank. The fins will help you control your movement and increase your speed during a dive.

The Best Spots to Go Scuba Diving

Whether it be night dives or rare sea creatures, every diving spot has something unique. You can visit them all or find the one the works best for you, but no matter where you decide to go you won’t regret the choice and you will have an amazing experience. 

Night Dive for Manta Rays in Kailua Kona, Hawaii

This dive spot is known for its night-time manta ray spottings. So much so, that you can get up close and personal to these amazing creatures as they eat the plankton off of the ocean floor. The ocean current can sometimes be strong, but if you plan accordingly you will have the opportunity of a lifetime. 

The Kona Manta Dive has been our best diving experience to date

Cape Kri in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Cape Kri in Raja Ampat, Indonesia has wondrous coral reefs and huge sea creatures like manta rays, sharks, giant trevallies, and barracudas. If you are looking for the thrill of a lifetime, this is where you will find it. You will have the opportunity to see up to 374 different fish species and 

Liberty Wreck in Bali, Indonesia

Liberty Wreck in Bali, Indonesia is the site of a US cargo ship used in both World Wars that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in January of 1942. The ship sat for over 20 years before it was sunk by earthquakes caused by Mount Agung, a volcano that had been dormant for 120 years.

This is the perfect site to dive at for any level of diver because the ship only sits between a 9 to 30 meter deep. Not only is it an easy dive, but the sea life in and around the ship is just as abundant as its history. 

The Big Brother Islands, Shark and Yolanda Reef, and Thistlegorm in the Egyptian Red Sea

The Egyptian Red Sea has many ideal diving spots. The Big Brother Islands in Egypt are a tough spot to dive at and require more than 50 dives of experience, but the dive is to explore a volcanic cone and to interact with the local sharks. The currents in this area can be dangerous though, so the experience is necessary. 

Shark and Yolanda Reef in Egypt is an all-for dive. It has three coral reefs included in one dive, the sharks are abundant in the area, and there is a drop-off and a shipwreck that you will be able to see. The amount you get from one dive easily makes this a diving community favorite. 

Thistlegorm is a shipwreck site that dates all the way back to 1941. It was a cargo ship that was sunk by two German bombers and is filled with motorbikes, trucks, and train carriages. The wreckage makes it a perfect spot to see sea life during a night dive and there are reports of divers encountering giant moray eels. A dive here won’t exceed 29 meters. 

Barracuda Point in Sipadan Island, Malaysia

There is a place called Barracuda Point in Sipadan Island, Malaysia that is world-renowned. This dive spot has all sorts of sea life like buffalo fish, coconut crab, and sea turtles. It has an 800-meter drop-off and occasionally has strong currents. This is a site that calls for those lazy divers that want to see ocean life without having to go on difficult dives. 

The Yongala in Queensland, Australia

The Yongala is a shipwreck site in Queensland, Australia with a sad beginning. The Yongala was built in England in 1903 as a luxury passenger ship. In March of 1911, it set sail to Townsville after making a quick drop off of cargo at MacKay. 

There were around 122 people on that ship and it never made it to land. A cyclone storm raged over the waters and took the ship as one of its many victims. No survivors were found, and the ship wasn’t discovered for more than 40 years after the storm.

This site has a great deal of respect from Australia as it is protected by the Historical Shipwrecks Act, not allowing any divers to enter or explore its remains. Able to view it from the outside, divers will not only get to see this massive beauty, but they will be able to see an array of sea life including manta rays, turtles, tiger sharks, and bull sharks. 

Blue Corner in Palau, Micronesia

Blue Corner in Palau, Micronesia is for the more experienced divers as the currents are strong and challenging to manage. There are three different dive locations you can choose to go to, and it is an experience for both first-time divers as well as experienced divers. Experienced divers have the opportunity to go on a free dive, which is essentially holding your breath during the dive instead of using full scuba gear.

The Great Blue Hole in Belize

There is a spot in Belize called the Great Blue Hole. This dive site is a deep hole lined with coral reef and completely visible in the clear waters. The hole measures at about 143 meters deep and is filled with sharks. This site is one of the top dive sites because it is such a unique experience that many don’t have the opportunity to partake in. 


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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