This is a short summary of how I got my PADI open water diver certification at the Jersey Shore, using the shore’s favorite scuba shop – Dosil’s in Middletown. There’s an underwater video lower on the page as well.
For some little background, I did one discovery dive this February in Curacao, and I loved it so much that even as I’m kinda scared of depths and underwater things, I was hooked and decided to get certified, so next time I vacation on a tropical island I can see a lot more. (many people prefer to get certified on vacation, but that takes 4-5 full days…)
I’m lucky to live very close to Dosil’s, which is considered one of the best places not only at the Jersey Shore, but in the whole state. The PADI program consists of the course work (online or classroom), 4 pool dives and 4 real dives (all the dives, confined or open, are centered on a specific set of skills). I opted for the online courses, which are more expensive, but you can do it at your own pace. It’s about 15 hours of videos, with graded quizzes after each section (4 sections)… many of them seem to be just filler so you can easily fast-forward. If you do the quizzes right-away, the questions are very easy, based on what you just saw. I only missed a few points on the final quiz, which covered the whole thing (so some questions were about things I learned 2-3 weeks ago).
The CW (confined water) portion consists of 4 sessions, which should be about 2 hours (if you already did the online course so you skip the classroom) and I did them on weekday evening (8-10pm on Tuesdays), so it was very flexible. Actually, since we were a very small group – 3 people, and 1 already had a lot of experience, just wanted to do it with his wife, we covered the whole curriculum in only 3 sessions. Dosil’s has a great pool for diving lessons. It’s small, but with a very deep end. I had a great instructor – Rob, former FBI diver – who patiently addressed every skill, answered all questions directly, and inserted fun stories from his interesting experience. In the pool, there was no pressure, he took his time going over everything and making sure we understand what we have to do, and do it correctly.
I did this in April and, as I was saying, just 2 months before I knew nothing about diving and wouldn’t have imagined me ever doing it. Looking back, the most basic skills which in the beginning sounded like major challenges, now feel like second nature. Clearing a flooded mask, exchanging air sources under water, sitting or hovering over the bottom, they all feel natural now and can do them without even thinking. Among the more difficult skills we did in the latter part of the lessons were: Taking off the mask, swimming a bit, and putting it back on (while clearing the water); Emergency ascent with no air – that can always freak you, even in the pool; Removing the scuba equipment and putting it back on at the bottom.
But really, nothing ended up being very hard, maybe also because of the way it was taught and explained. And I’m not sure if you can find many pools around so appropriate for diving training.
After completing this, I had to wait a long time (almost 4 months, till August) for the open water dives (because of several scheduling conflicts I had). There are additional costs for that (scuba equipment rental is included but you pay for extra stuff – weights, hood, gloves; also lake access, extra air fills, etc). Even if the course is listed at around $300, by the time you add up everything it ends up costing about $700.
So now, getting to the good part, the checkout dives were done at Dutch Springs, a quarry lake in Bethlehem, PA (about an hour and a half from the Jersey Shore area), which is considered one of the best diving places on the East Coast. The water is quite clear, and there are many sunken vehicles (trucks, buses, boats, planes, helicopters). I wouldn’t have done this whole thing without the option of the lake dive, since I never feel comfortable in a murky ocean with waves, currents, sharks and deadly jellyfish (which is what you get at the Jersey Shore). Therefore I’m happy we have this great diving alternative so close to New Jersey.
Saturday morning (first weekend of August), we met at Dutch Springs, where the instructor (a new guy for me – Joe, who I didn’t know, but proved to be very good) set up camp on the grass just above the student dock. There were four of us, myself (Chris), Dimitry, and a young couple -Luis and Christine. Beautiful weekend – lower 80’s, water around 75, and there was just a brief rain shower on the first day. After 4 months, I was afraid I won’t be able to put everything together anymore, but I got it right. I was quite annoyed I had to wear hood and gloves in this warm water, but apparently that’s the protocol… I got paired with Dimitry and we headed down the slope to the dock, did a weight trim check (had to wear 22lbs on my belt….), and then swam towards one of the buoys.
Dutch Springs has 3 wooden platforms at 30 feet for drills, and you can descend on a line. There are also lines connecting most of the underwater features, which are a big help. On the descent, I think I forgot to equalize as often as possible, so my ears started hurting and I had to stop and go up a few times, but eventually I made it down. This reminded me of the ear problems I had in Curacao, but like then, once I got down and the ears popped, everything felt great! On this first dive we did very simple skills, like partial mask clearing and regulator recovery. Nothing really hard. We went up slowly and started the surface interval, which turned out to be over 2 hours. It’s amazing how time almost dilates while diving, it felt like I barely did the debriefing, and got ready for the next dive, and every time that would take 2 hours or more.
By now, it was quite hot, and looking back a few days I think the hardest part weren’t necessarily the dives, but all the prep work. Imagine it’s 85 degrees, you’re in a full 7 mil wetsuit with hood and gloves, with 60lbs of equipment strapped to your body. Then you lift another 50 lbs to help your buddy get suited up. And then you walk 100 yards on a steep slope to a lake. If you never felt like you can’t even put a foot in front of the other to take a step anymore, that’s as close as it gets… Is there any wonder that I was so eager to get to the bottom where it feels cool and weightless that I was descending too fast?
So, 2nd dive we were supposed to go down a straight line from the dock. But I had big trouble equalizing this time. Same happened to Christine, so we stayed back with the divemaster. We could barely make it halfway down when we had to get back to the surface. We tried to go slower but it was painful and it took a very long time to get to the platform. By now, Joe was done with the other 2 students, and we were low on air, so we had to bail out. Failed 2nd dive and felt like crap. But… Joe was so incredibly great that he offered, if we were capable of doing it, to stay with us and attempt to do the second mandatory dive again. It wasn’t hard to decide for us, because it was this, or end the weekend and try it another time. This surface interval was probably even longer, had to get our bearings, refill the tanks, and pray that we won’t fail again. First weekend of diving, and getting ready for a third dive?? (I know, 2nd dive doesn’t count since we failed it, but I still went down and breathed through all the air in my tank).
But we finished getting ready in the late afternoon, barely made it to the water with my new diving buddy, and set off to the buoy for a more controlled descent. Joe had extreme patience, and guided us with our hands on the line, no more than 6-10″ at a time, stopping every time until we both confirmed we’re OK. Took us probably 10 minutes to get to the platform, but it was all good once there. Then we went through the list of skills… Complete mask removal, which always sounds scary, but after everything I went through felt like a breeze; Orally inflating the BCD for hovering (not scared of letting go of the regulator anymore); And the hardest: the out-of-air maneuver when you use your buddy’s octo, which is not hard in itself, but since we both had to do it, it meant one more descent from the surface (again, slow and patient). But Dive #2 was done and checked off, and kudos for Joe for staying till 4:30 with us to do it (we started at 7:30 in the morning).
I went home and I was in a daze. More tired than I can remember being after a marathon (those last just over 4 hours, not 9 hours, duuuh). Ears felt full of something (water?), head was hurting, I could barely focus on anything. Once at our chalet after a 40 minutes drive, I could drink 2 beers, eat a gyro and some snacks, watch some Olympic swimming and crashed. When I woke up the next morning (after not much sleep, due to stress) I was feeling horrible. Both ears muffled, a complete state of exhaustion, tired, I didn’t think I could even walk to the car. Honestly, I didn’t think I was able to complete any dive, and I told that to the instructor. He confirmed that in any case of pain or serious discomfort, I should just stop, and then do the remaining 2 dives on another weekend. It wasn’t just the physical pain, but mental as well, I was just depressed and stressed about it.
2nd day I got paired with Christine from the beginning, since we were the “problem people”. The divemaster was instructed to take it easy with us on the descent. This time it was just with a visual reference, but he allowed us to grab the line just to help adjust the rate of descent. And now the big surprise – this first descent, and all the subsequent ones (there were 5 total this day!!) I had absolutely zero equalizing issues. Christine seemed to be much better as well. Yes, we took longer than everyone else, but it was a steady descent and before I knew it I was on the platform.
Before diving, we actually practiced using the compass on land (towel over head, looking at the compass and expecting to get to our set destination point). Then we did the same on the surface (take heading to the buoy, put face in water and swim just looking at the compass).
Once down at the platform, we did some of the final drills which included the most “feared” one, the one noone wants to do it and hopes to never need it, the CESA (controlled emergency swimming ascent). The scenario is you’re out of air, your buddy is far away, and you need to get out immediately. But still, you can’t just pop out, or your lungs could explode. You have to maintain a controlled speed (about 1 foot / second) and continue blowing bubbles even as you’re out of air. And keep kicking, since no air means no BCD inflation. The course makes it easy, you’re allowed one full breathe before, but I stopped blowing bubbles for just a second, and the instructor made me go down and start over. This is the most important rule of diving, the most likely to get you seriously hurt if not done correctly: never hold your breathe, always breathe out. I was counting seconds while going up, knowing I need about 30, and there was a freak out as I was almost done exhaling with 10 seconds to go. But I knew if I take a breathe from the regulator, I’d have to start over, so I looked up, saw the surface, and just spit out the last mouthful of air before popping out and hyperventilating. With the hardest skill finally done, I had to go down again so everyone else could finish doing it, and by now my confidence was back because everything went OK and didn’t have any more equalization problems for the rest of the day.
Because of our slow descent, we missed on a final skill test – the underwater compass navigation, so we still had to do that on Dive #4 (which was mostly a recreational dive). It also required doing a full dive plan (which for me and Christine was a bit modified, as we had to do the navigation test first). So we went out, descended without any issues, and started the drill: Swim north with the compass while maintaining the same level. And we go, and go, and it gets really cold, and then we can’t see anything, and then BAM! we hit the bottom. We can barely see each other at 2 feet away and Joe’s hand grabs me first, then her, and we get to the surface. Joe starts yelling at our ineptitude, and inability to associate cold with the thermocline. Apparently we dropped about 15 feet to hit the silty bottom which created that muddy cloud so we couldn’t see anything. He’s asking us if we want to try again. Of course, we’re so close to finishing this… So back down we go, he makes sure we can hover properly, this time I decide to watch the buoyancy better. And to compensate for the previous failure when we dropped to the bottom. And I compensated so well that after 1 minute of heading North, guess what? We’re out on the surface. This time Joe goes ballistic, even with his sarcasm, but he’s asking if we’re conspiring to drive him nuts. Based on his earlier explanation, the dive should be over and we should go home, but he says he’ll let us try it one last time. I also show him that my rental “computer” doesn’t work, so it doesn’t show depth.
We agree that I’ll do the navigation and Christine will continuously check her computer to make sure we’re level (what an interesting concept!!). We head North, with Christine holding my tank and pushing me up or down, and this time we get to the stone wall at the North end of the lake. We turn around, me still following the compass, and a minute later, the platform is right in front of us, same level, maybe a foot off the point where we started. Yesss! Finally, the checkout dives are complete! We check our air and Joe signals we can still swim around a bit.
With the mandatory part of the certification dives out of the way, we suddenly relaxed. And we saw big fish for the first time (they might’ve been there before but I was too stressed out to notice them). A big brown trout just went inches from me, without being scared at all. Then we went to the end of the platforms, and from there we followed the line leading to a firetruck sitting on the bottom at less than 25 feet. Pretty cool vehicle, all open, and we played a bit around it. More fish came by, a largemouth bass and some small colorful fishes. We sat in the firetruck, pretended to drive it, tried to get it on the GoPro. I was only allowed to take the GoPro on this final dive, and made a big rookie mistake: I strapped it on the left wrist… but I use my left hand for all the BCD adjustments, to check the console, most of the maneuvers, so the video came out as a big bubbly mess. From an hour of video, I could cut a only a couple of minutes of stable, watchable video.
Once done with the firetruck, there was no air to get back, so we surfaced (with a safety stop – not required, but good to see what it is) and swam back to the dock. Wow, I really didn’t think in the morning that I’d be able to get through this, just grateful that Joe was such a patient instructor. A little more paperwork to fill up and I’m now a certified PADI open water diver!
The whole weekend must be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (physically). All the prep work in the heat, carrying the weight, the swimming, the stressful descents, all the skills, it took a huge toll. I’ve done a few half ironman triathlons, and I don’t think any of them left me so wasted. Monday my boss noticed I looked really sick and sent me home (wasn’t sick, just severely exhausted). And I have a side effect, middle ear barotrauma, which may sound scary, but it’s the most common beginner diver injury: Due to pressure buildup from improper equalization, some capillaries burst into the middle ear, which filled with fluids, and the result is a feeling of having a full ear, and no hearing in that ear (just muffled sounds, 10% volume). And no, I didn’t go to an ENT to learn that, since Dr. Google told me everything.
But now, looking back, I remember mostly the good things. Especially that awesome feeling at the bottom, engulfed in cool refreshing water, floating weightlessly, in almost complete silence except for the sounds of my deep breathing. And instead of just feeling content I got it over with, I’m dreaming of diving on a tropical vacation.
Finally, I can’t stress enough what a great training facility Dosil’s is, from the deep pool, flexible scheduling, nice employees, to the great instructors I worked with.
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