Costa Rica Scuba Diving: PADI Certification in Coco Beach
When I was a child, my father used to tell me amazing stories of scuba diving in the Caribbean -- once, he even grabbed the back of an enormous sea turtle and took it for a spin (this was back in the old days, when touching wildlife wasn't necessarily frowned upon). Because of his memorable stories, I always imagined myself diving the deep blue seas. After all, it looked so easy. Surely, all I needed to do was suit-up and jump in.
As time passed, I realized that swimming with a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA, is not something you can just try on a whim. I would need to get certified.
However, as I traveled the world on dry land, my dream of diving became less and less pressing that is, until I snorkeled the crystalline waters off Costa Rica's Cano Island last April. Somewhere between swimming with rays, white tip reef sharks, and schools of impossibly large fish, I knew I wanted to stay in the underwater realm for much longer than my lungs could permit.
Step one was to find a reputable PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certified dive shop. After a quick online search, I found the Summer Salt Dive Center in Playas del Coco -- a company that some good friends of mine had personally recommended. I immediately signed up for their four-day open water course, which would provide me the skills to dive up to 60 feet in the open ocean. I then booked a room at the hillside Vista Azul Boutique Hotel and packed my bags.
Day one of the course consisted of four hours (which somehow felt like eight) of theory, videos, quizzes and bookwork. Afterward, I was finally ready for the fun stuff: Confined Dive #1 in a swimming pool.
I met my teacher, Will, who exuded both confidence and competence. A Colombian instructor with three years of diving experience, he had certified 153 people before me. It was comforting that, clearly, Will would never let me drown.
First, he taught me how to set up the equipment. Considering how complex the finished product looks, I was shocked to realize preparing for a dive is so quick and easy. After connecting a few hoses, fastening a bit of Velcro, and snapping some clips and weights into place, we were suited up and ready to jump in -- or so I thought.
I had to suffer through five minutes of above-water theory and instruction while wearing the 50 pound getup (plus a pair of clumsy flippers). Walking around was awkward, tiring, and uncomfortable -- and it left my body feeling quite sore.
The moment we finally jumped into the pool, all of the gear that was such a burden above water magically turned weightless. With my first underwater inhalation, I was surprised at how thin the air was -- and even more surprised, on a subconscious level, that water didn't rush into my lungs with each breath.
Interestingly, it takes more compressed air to fill the lungs underwater than it does on land; a tank that would last one hour on the surface typically lasts a mere 15 minutes or less under 90 feet of water. As my apprehension dissipated, I began to imagine angel fish, bull sharks, and other colorful sea creatures circling the chlorinated water of the swimming pool.
Will said it was time to "make a skill," so we practiced producing slow, deep and efficient Darth Vader breaths with the regulator. The regulator is the mouthpiece connecting the breathing tube to the oxygen tank, and it does a great job of protecting divers from certain underwater death. Dive vests are equipped with two of these in case one fails (or if another diver runs out of oxygen and needs to share a tank), but spares are rarely necessary.
Continuing on, I learned invaluable skills like how to clear my mask of debris or liquid while underwater; how to equalize the pressure in my ears, nose, and mask; and how to replace the regulator should it fall from my mouth. The tricky parts were not the skills themselves, but the mental discipline and awareness required to remain focused and calm.
After a few hours in the water, my head began to throb from nerves, inhaled compressed air, and from the fact that my mask was crushing my skull. Tomorrow, I would not wear it so tightly.
Returning to Hotel Vista Azul, I looked out over a gorgeous view of Playa del Coco's two islands -- which look exactly like a mother and baby sea turtle. I sat on the balcony and watched the sun set, trying not to entertain any uneasy thoughts about tomorrow's first open water ocean dive.