My name is Alexandra Baackes, and I’m addicted to the ocean. When I’m not in the water, I’m daydreaming about how to get there. As a PADI AmbassaDiver, one of my favorite ways to explore the water is on scuba, eye to eye with the magical creatures and landscapes of the deep. However, my recent reader survey revealed that 75% of you don’t share my passion for getting parallel with plankton (there’s more coming out of that reader survey soon, I promise!)
Since I’m that friend always trying to get everyone to play mermaid with me – also known as “going scuba diving,” in some circles – I thought I’d do my best to banish some of the misinformation that might be keeping you, my friends, out of the water. From talking to readers, pals, and curious-yet-anxious looking people loitering around dive shops, I know all too well how prevalent some of these dive myths can be. Let’s dive in and dispel!
Myth: Diving is just for old white dudes
Fact: One of most harmful diving myths is the idea that diving is only for a certain group of people.
Let’s talk age. I get where this stereotype comes from. When I attend dive shows in North America, I’m usually one of the youngest people in the hall by a few decades. Yet there are young, vibrant, international dive communities all over the world that show diving is a sport for both the young and the young at heart. While PADI reports that the worldwide median age for certification is 27 for women and 30 for men, I was 19 when I did my Open Water course – and I’ve shared dive boats with several generations of scuba enthusiasts over the years.
Let’s talk gender. Technically, women make up just over a third of certified PADI divers, but it’s a number that’s increasing every year – and the lady divers of the world are waiting for their new dive sisters with open arms!
Is sexism alive in the dive industry? I won’t deny it — but I will say my own life is full of amazing women who are absolutely dominating the diving field. If you need inspiration, just look to groups like the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame, which highlights an influential community of pioneers in diving, underwater art, marine sciences, and beyond – many of whom have become mentors to me.
And finally let’s talk race. While I wasn’t able to find any statistics on this topic, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that diving is predominantly taken up by Caucasians. Yet groups like the National Association of Black Scuba Divers work to make sure everyone feels welcome on dive boats. The association has a lot to be proud of – they’ve certified over 2,000 divers and taught over 5,000 people to swim free of charge. I feel confident in saying that it does not matter what box you tick on the census, there is a diving community out there for you.
Bottom line? The world’s oceans, lakes and rivers belong to all all of us. Diving is for all of us (including old white dudes — they make the best dad jokes, after all.)
Myth: Diving is an unaffordable adventure
Fact: If it’s your dream to dive, you can make it happen even on a budget. I fall back to one of my favorite motivational phrases: find a way or make one.
In 2007 I paid $280 for my Open Water Course in Koh Tao, Thailand, one of the cheapest places in the world to be certified. At the time I was working at a clothing store in Brooklyn and making $10 an hour folding sweaters, and I can assure you that it was the most rewarding twenty-eight hours of sweater folding I have ever done in my life.
Once I was hooked, I found unconventional ways to continue my education. The next year, I moved to Grand Cayman to spend the summer filming tourists at Stingray City as part of an apprenticeship for a photographer and underwater videographer. It seemed every person I knew on that island was a dive instructor, and one of them taught me my Advanced Open Water on our mutual days off, while the dive school I filmed for had a Rescue Diver course starting and invited me to join the class for free.
I also started collecting gear. I was gifted a nice mask and snorkel set left in lost and found by some cruise shippers, and the same week I found a broken down BCD that was being thrown out by a dive shop. A friend who was a certified ScubaPro tech fixed it up for me, and I went on to use it for years before it finally went to BCD heaven. Yes, I went dumpster diving for dive gear.
Later, after graduation from college and leaving New York, I found myself back on Koh Tao working as an underwater videographer. While considering becoming a divemaster, I applied for and won a Women Diver’s Hall of Fame continuing education grant. It paid $500 towards my course fees as well as $500 towards equipment, plus the shop I chose in Indonesia also extended a 10% discount to me for the gear I had, which saved me $100.
In the end I went from zero to Divemaster spending less than $1,300 on courses and $900 on dive gear, with not a single media discount or perk. It wasn’t a traditional path and it’s not one that would be easily replicated, either.
But there’s no need to – there are a million new paths out there waiting to be forged. Check your local YMCA or community college for scuba certification classes. Check flights to The Bay Islands or Southeast Asia where certification is the cheapest on the planet. Check out scholarship organizations like the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame, Beneath the Sea Foundation, and World Underwater Scholarship Society.
Once you’re certified, the real fun beings! A fun dive somewhere like Utila, Honduras or Nha Trang, Vietnam can cost less than movie tickets, soda and a popcorn back home. And even pricey destinations like the Caribbean islands have the occasional bargain, like a $1,000 for an entire week at sea in the Bahamas including diving, food, alcohol and land excursions. And in more expensive destinations, sacrifices can be made. My friend Heather and I slept in our car on the Big Island of Hawaii after draining our daily budget on a pricey dream night dive with manta rays. Our grogginess wore off after a hit of caffeine, but those memories will last a lifetime.
When it comes to gear, consider simply renting, or buying used gear at reputable locations like Leisure Pro. Also, if you do choose to invest in new gear (like, um, most sane people) you can rest assured that with proper care it will last until you hang up for your fins.
Myth: Diving is dangerous
Fact: Frankly, I think those that overhype the dangers of diving get off on feeling like badasses. While the potential risks and hazards of diving feel mysterious and terrifying when you’re unfamiliar with them, throughout dive training you learn how rare events of that caliber are – and you’ll train to handle them, regardless.
While certain dives do consist of extreme stunts worthy of a red bull campaign – swimming with schooling hammerheads, navigating complex cave systems, exploring deep, eerie wrecks — the vast majority consist of what I call “underwater sightseeing.” It’s pretty chill down there, guys.
As with most adventure activities from hiking to whitewater rafting, your safety depends primarily on your good judgment, sensible planning, depth of knowledge and background of training. The numbers don’t lie. Statistically, driving to the pier is likely to be the most dangerous moments of your dive.
Myth: Dive theory is way over my head
Fact: What was that, a direct quote of something I have said many times in my past? Yes indeed it is. The truth is that as someone who recoils at the mere mention of physics, I often feel woefully inadequate when it comes to dive theory, or it’s more official term, “science-y stuff.”
When I first started my dive education, I kind of reverted to the “dumb blonde self-deprecation” and made jokes to hide my discomfort with this part of the curriculum. As time went on, I felt the desire to be taken more seriously and quickly realized that when I focused, asked my instructors not to let me off the hook, and really made an effort to wrap my mind around dive theory, it was within my grasp. And I believe it’s within yours too.
Recently, I went back to the classroom to take courses like Self Reliant Diver, Sidemount, and Enriched Air. I may have taken a little longer than some students to understand some of the concepts, but in the end who cares? When I signed off on those certifications, I felt like the baddest b (not bad enough to curse on my blog though, duh) on the islands.
Fact: Okay, this isn’t a myth – it isn’t even a sentence fragment. It’s just a word. But it’s a word so terrifying it keeps people out of the water every single day – once upon a time, I was one of them! I used to believe deep down in my soul that are sharks in not just oceans but also lakes pools and bath tubs, and they eat people for breakfast lunch dinner and midnight snack – Sharknado proved it. This was my personal biggest hurdle in signing up for my Open Water Diving certification.
Confession – seven years later, I still have that primal fear of sharks. I’ve read the statistics, I’ve seen the documentaries, I know the facts. But I still find myself hesitant to embrace surfing, and I’m easily spooked while swimming laps in a lagoon without a companion. Bottom line? I get being terrified of sharks.
But these days I also marvel at them. And I never feel less afraid of sharks than I do when I’m down at their level on a dive. The truth is sharks are calm, cool, collected predators and humans are flailing, bubble blowing losers. If you get a glance of one, you should consider yourself lucky they made time for you because sharks are sleek AF and they don’t have time for you and your lumpy neoprene.
The numbers back me up on this – sharks are not down with the bubbles scuba divers blow, or how large their tank, fins and other equipment make them appear to be. Divers just aren’t on the menu – sharks prefer to feed at the surface, on seals, which is why surfers, snorkelers and swimmers are so much more vulnerable to exploratory bites and cases of mistaken identities.
Did you know Peter Benchley originally wrote the book Jaws as a dark comedy? He later dedicated his life to advocating for sharks and for oceanic conservation, and eventually claimed regret over inspiring a movie that instilled terror in so many generations. I dream of the day we can relegate all shark movies to the genre where they belong – comedy and camp. (Thanks for nothing, Blake Lively!)
Myth: You have to be an epic swimmer
Fact: There’s no need to out-swim Phelps to get your certification. You do need to know how to swim – the Open Water course includes an endurance swim of 200 yards, but you can take as long as you need, and there are no points for style.
That said, water safety is an important skill in so many aspects of life. If your lack of comfort in the water is keeping you from diving, I highly recommend checking out an adult swimming or water safety class.
I may run like an ostrich that accidentally took a sleeping pill and bike like a manatee taking its first spin class, but I am a damn good swimmer, and that has brought me great comfort in many sketchy travel situations. From the time I had to tow in a fellow backpacker who jumped into a ravine on a hostel tour without knowing how to swim to the many times I’ve been on a boat that I wasn’t full confident would make it all the way to shore, I’m regularly grateful for all the hours I clocked in swim team as a kid.
Myth: You’ll feel claustrophobic
This is one of the top explanations I hear from friends for why they haven’t yet tried diving. Yet overwhelmingly, if someone with that fear does give it a try, they enthusiastically share the same conclusion – there’s never been a more freeing feeling than being underwater! At neutral buoyancy, you can move in ways you never could at the surface. And there’s never been a more spacious playground than the ocean.
Getting in and out of wetsuits is the one exception – I think it can genuinely stir up feelings of serious claustrophobia. So if this is what’s keeping you from diving, I recommend giving it a try somewhere you can hop in in a bikini, like Southeast Asia or the Caribbean.
Myth: I can’t dive because I have (insert medical condition here)
Fact: Some doctors are also moonlight as the Fun Police. Just joking! Because, um, medicine is serious business. But doctors do tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to their patients, and few are familiar with the intricacies of scuba diving. The conversation is always evolving. Ten years ago, asthma and diabetes were firm no-gos for prospective divers. Today, some with those conditions are able to enjoy diving, safely and comfortably.
If you dream of diving but a diagnosis is holding you back, it never hurts to get a second opinion. The medical experts at Divers Alert Network and at your local hyperbaric chamber are highly knowledgeable in the specialized field of dive medicine – don’t be shy about reaching out to discuss your specific situation.
The bottom line? Diving is a choose-your-own-adventure novel in which the ending is basically always epic. Everyone’s scuba story is different, and yours will be too.
As a perpetual student of life, the ocean, and of course, PADI, I’m always humbled by how much more I have to learn – but I’m also more than happy to share what I’ve picked up so far along the way. Is there something holding you back from diving in with diving? Let me know in the comments, and we can talk it out.
See you blowing bubbles!
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative.