Learning to Scuba Dive (by Overcoming My Fears)

April 2, 2019

Learning to scuba dive was never something I thought I’d do. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., away from the coast, and went on vacations to the mountains. I had never even snorkeled until a year ago! So last summer, when Jeremy suggested we learn how to scuba dive while in Borneo, I was hesitant. That’s probably an understatement. More like anxious… nervous… terrified. But, I rarely back away from a challenge, so I agreed. This is my story of how I overcame my fears to get my PADI Open Water Diver Certification. Hopefully I can inspire others who are uncertain about learning to scuba dive to give it a try!


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My Diving Fears

First, let me say that I love being in the water. As a Pisces, when I'm near a clean, swimmable body of water, I want to be in it. Not laying on the beach working on a tan or lounging under an umbrella - but out in the water.  When I was a child, I even pretended to be the Little Mermaid (still hearing about it to this day too). Plus, I love going to aquariums and seeing all the fish. 

Boat in turquoise water in Kudat, Borneo

So, why was I so afraid to scuba dive? A few reasons –

  • I’m not in the best shape and being fitted with all the gear seemed kind of overwhelming. I like swimming around in the water without having to put on a bunch of equipment. Even snorkeling, the flippers made my feet cramp, so I swam without them. Plus, scuba gear is heavy (~50 lbs/23 kg)!
  • I was worried I’d accidentally kill myself by over expanding my lungs. Though I didn’t know a lot about scuba diving, I knew that the pressure was a factor. I was afraid I’d do something stupid and panic which would lead to injury (or death).
  • Sharks. Ever since seeing Jaws as a child, I’m terrified of them. Before agreeing to learn to scuba, I read a lot about shark attacks and how rare they are to educate myself. I realize that even if I do see one, it probably won’t attack me. But I'll always be worried.
  • Running out of air or drowning. Enough said, right? Just don't want it to happen.

Despite all these reasons, I realize that living in Hong Kong gives me the opportunity to travel to many tropical locations with amazing dive sites. So, I figured I should try to learn. After all, I found out that I love snorkeling last year. I didn’t want to wait and find out years from now that I'd missed out on something else! 

Overview - PADI Open Water Diver Course

To get scuba diving certified, the place to start is the PADI Open Water Diver course. In this course, you learn the basics – like how to use the equipment, how to descend/ascend, what to do in emergencies, etc. This course is the foundation for more advanced or specialized courses.

The Open Water Diver course consists of 3 main phases:

  • Knowledge Development or coursework
  • Confined Water Dives (5) for learning basic scuba skills
  • Open Water Dives (4) to practice diving skills and start exploring

I've heard of some resorts offering basic scuba diving experiences without PADI certification. If you’re serious about diving, though it’s best to go through PADI and get certified. This way, you learn all the safety requirements and emergency procedures. I can't imagine going into the water with the equipment and doing the dive without having completed the coursework first.

My PADI Open Water Diver Course

Choosing the Dive Resort and Timing

We decided that we would learn how to scuba dive as part of our Borneo vacation. Many dive resorts around the world offer the PADI courses though so it's just a matter of choosing where you want to go!

Thinking of a Borneo vacation? Check out my post '11-Day Itinerary in Sabah, Borneo'.

North Borneo Biostation Resort

We chose the North Borneo Biostation Resort in Kudat - an affordable dive resort which had excellent reviews for their PADI Open Water Diver course. Because of our trip itinerary, we had limited time in Kudat – only 3 full days.

As far as its accommodations, the wooden bungalows at the North Borneo Biostation are simple and surrounded by lush, green palm trees which provide a quiet, natural environment in which to relax after completing each day's dives. 

North Borneo Biostation bungalow

Pro Tip:  Although 3 days is enough time to complete the course, I would recommend at least 4 full days to space out the confined water dives. You could also opt to do the confined water dives in a pool at a PADI Dive Center near you before reaching your dive resort.

Knowledge Development (Coursework)

How It Works

The first phase - the Knowledge Development part of the PADI Open Water Diver Course - we completed through online coursework.

We received a username and password to sign up for the PADI App and downloaded the materials - a manual and several videos - from the website or the app. Since I read through manual on a computer, I read each section fully, then watched the summary video through the app.

If you're using the touch version on the app, the videos are integrated into the manual. At the end of each section, we took quizzes to test our knowledge.

PADI scuba diving coursework on light orange background

Although we chose to complete our coursework online before arriving at the resort, we could have chosen to wait. If we'd gotten our materials when we arrived at the resort, we would have had to complete the courses day-by-day as we went through our dives.

Why I Recommend Completing Knowledge Development before Trip

It was slightly more expensive for the option to complete the PADI Knowledge Development materials ahead of time, but I’m so glad we did. I was able to take my time reading through the materials. I could also watch and re-watch the videos as necessary.

Not only did this help me to feel comfortable with the information and skills, but it was nice to review the information at the resort instead of learning it for the first time.

Also, I think I would have been too exhausted after the dives to do the coursework at the resort – they were long days!

Introductory Briefing and Equipment Selection

We arrived at the North Borneo Biostation dive resort on Monday mid-afternoon. After checking in and getting settled in our chalet, we met our instructor Giovanni for a briefing. He went over our dive lesson schedule, gave us our Dive Logs, as well as tested us on a couple basics from our coursework.

PADI Dive Log on blue background

Since we were going to be starting early the next morning with lessons, we went down to choose our equipment that evening. We tried on wet suits and picked our masks, snorkels, and flippers. This way, everything was ready for us the next day.

Confined Water Dives

As part of the course, you must complete five confined water dives. They are “confined” because they are in a pool or shallow water.

How We Did our Confined Water Dives

Since the North Borneo Biostation Resort does not have a pool, we had to complete our confined water dives in shallow water (~12ft/4m deep) off the coast of the resort. 

Because of our itinerary constraints, we completed all five confined water dives in one day. Our schedule was 3 confined water dives in the morning, then a lunch break, then 2 dives in the afternoon. I would not recommend this method. 

Pro Tip:  Spacing out these confined water dives into 2 days would be better. It would give you more time to absorb the material and rest between dives. This is how Giovanni recommended we do it, but we didn't have enough days in our itinerary. 

What Happens on Confined Water Dives

On each confined water dive, you must perform certain skills to show that you’re able to do them.

Examples of the exercises include: clearing face masks, practicing running out of air, sharing air with our partner, ascending in an emergency, etc. Our dive instructor, Giovanni, would explain each exercise at the top before we descended to make sure we understood what we would be expected to do at the bottom.

My Experience with the Confined Water Dives

Before most exercises, especially those where I would lose access to air, even momentarily, I was extremely anxious. As a result, I mentally checked myself before each exercise, got a handle on my breathing, and really thought about the steps. This helped me not to panic once I started the skill.

Throughout all of the exercises, the main lesson I learned was to take my time and do things slowly. Sometimes when someone is watching me, I have a tendency to rush and that doesn't help when you're scuba diving. As I completed each test successfully, the achievement (and relief) I felt kept getting me through the next one.

Lessons Learned from the Confined Water Dives

The most difficult parts of the confined water dives for me could have been avoided if we’d done them in a pool instead of the sea. If I could do it again, I think I'd choose a place with a pool or at least somewhere with a calmer, clearer body of water.

My main issues included:

  • Swimming to/from the dive location with all the gear on. It probably wasn’t a long swim, but with the heavy gear and the weights, it felt so far. Plus, we had to do it twice in one day because we came in for lunch.   
  • Water current. Even in shallow waters the current kept moving me around as I tried to stay still to perform the exercise. I think I used up more energy than I realized just trying to stay in one place throughout our time under water.
  • Water clarity. A couple times, I was trying to see Giovanni, but there were a lot of particles in the water which made it harder. Also, for a couple of the exercises, you take the mask off and open your eyes. I didn't want to do that in salt water so I did the exercise blind. 

Overall, the day we did our confined water dives almost broke me. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I could barely eat dinner and thought maybe I was sick.

North Borneo Biostation bungalows

The thought crossed my mind that I could quit and not do the open water dives. I could just sit on the beach the next two days instead. I passed out by 7pm.

But, I awoke the next morning refreshed and determined not to give up.

Open Water Dives

To finish the PADI Open Water Diver Course, you must complete four open water dives. I quickly learned that this was the fun part of diving!

For the next two days, we headed out in a small boat for the dive sites, ~30 minutes from our resort. These are like regular dives, except you perform a couple of the scuba diving skills you learned in the confined water dives again.

My Experience with the Open Water Dives

Thankfully, I completed most of the skills easily. However, I learned that I’m worse navigating under water than above. Reading a compass is not my thing.

Becky and Jeremy on boat in Kudat Borneo

On the boat, heading to our dive site

Once I got down further in the water and was surrounded by all the fish – it was amazing! We saw so many colorful fish, beautiful corals, even a couple eels.

Suddenly all of the mental anguish from the day before paid off! I also found that I was much more comfortable as we got down to ~15 ft/ 5 m and below than in shallower water. I tend to float well in shallow water (thank you, body fat). As a result, it was hard to keep myself down and control my buoyancy.  

Bluegreen water in Kudat Borneo

We had two full days of open water dives with one dive in the morning, one in the afternoon.

Diving Lunches are so Picturesque!

Between our dives each day, we had lunch on a beautiful beach either on a remote island or a beach on the northern tip of Borneo.

Island in Sabah Borneo

A beautiful place to eat lunch - don't you think?

This was not only a great time to stuff our faces with delicious meals made by the North Borneo Biostation restaurant chef, but also to take in the spectacular scenery.

Island in Kudat Borneo

Achieving PADI Open Water Diver Certification

After completing the four Open Water Dives, I’m now a certified PADI Open Water Diver!

Reflections on Learning to Scuba Dive

Getting my PADI Open Water Diver certification is one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my adult life. Not only because the physical aspect was exhausting, because let's face it, so are some of my hikes.

The reason I say it was challenging is due to the mental aspect. Fighting the anxiety I felt each time we had to descend/ascend, remembering all the things to check as we were under water, controlling buoyancy - it's a lot.

But, facing my fears and anxieties and getting the certification was also one of the most rewarding and exhilarating things I’ve done. I’m beyond glad that I did it. Like with anything, I know it will get easier the more times I dive. By open water dive #4 on our last day, I finally felt like I had my stuff together!

two people in black scuba equipment on boat making the okay sign with hands

All geared up and ready to dive!

Final Thoughts

I highly encourage anyone with a love of or curiosity about marine life to consider learning to scuba dive. I didn’t think I could do it up until I did. I still haven’t seen a shark (and still don’t want to), but if I do, I’m hopeful I could overcome that fear as well! 

Next diving destination – Malapascua, Philippines in 2 weeks (April 2019)! Although I still have some anxieties about diving, I know I can do it. And, once I descend into the aquatic world, I'll be glad I'm there. Can’t wait to see what I’ll find this time!

Would you like to learn to scuba dive? Or do you already have your certification? How was your experience learning to scuba dive? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy diving!

Curious about my trip to Malapascua? Check out my post 'Malapascua Island Diving Holiday'. SPOILER ALERT - there were sharks!

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