I Became a Certified Scuba Diver on Vacation — Here's How

Getting a PADI certification on my vacation changed the course of my future trips forever — in the best possible way.

Two people underwater scuba diving in Belize
Photo: Dan Koday

At approximately 7:30 a.m. on the third day of our vacation in San Pedro, Belize, I shook my best friend awake. "Get up, I've changed my mind," I said. "We're getting our PADI certification. They're expecting us at the dive shop in the next hour."

Up until that moment, I had been ping-ponging with the suggestion from my best friend, Brando, about getting our scuba-diving certification during a vacation at Alaia Belize, Autograph Collection, the newly opened resort in the dreamy Caribbean paradise that is Ambergris Caye.

Alaia Belize's Oceanfront suite and pro dive center
Courtesy of Alaia Belize

On one hand, I was excited and intrigued to start exploring a new part of the world — the roughly 71% of Earth that's covered in ocean. On the other hand, I was crippled by the fear of the unknown.

In the past, Brando and I had discussed getting our scuba-diving certification together the way friends who travel together often do.

But upon arriving at Alaia, a fateful stop by the dive shop started up the conversation again. We were, after all, in one of the most coveted scuba-diving spots in the world. That night, I went on an agony-filled ride as to whether or not I was truly ready to take the plunge, playing out every scenario in my head. My mind raced: I'll do it another time. It'll ruin our vacation. I haven't mentally prepare for this. I'm just here to enjoy and relax.

Alaia Belize's Oceanfront suite and pro dive center
Courtesy of Alaia Belize

On the morning I shook my friend awake, I watched the sun come up over the Caribbean Sea from our balcony while listening to Bethenny Frankel's podcast. The theme was focused on facing your fears and realizing your potential. The special guest was Howie Mandel, who in one sentence, would spring me into action.

"If you say no, you get nothing," he warned. Thanks for that, Howie.

Within a few minutes, I was on line with Alaia's on-site dive shop and had officially signed us up for an open-water scuba-diving course.

Coupled with my now-anecdotal knowledge and conversations with longtime divers and experts in the field, here's what I learned along the way and everything I wish I had known before getting certified as a recreational diver.

Understand the type of scuba-diving certification you're getting and what it means for the future.

Getting certified as a scuba diver is like getting a license for a car — you're essentially learning and practicing the steps to keep yourself and others safe.

The most widely accepted way to get that "license" is with a PADI certification. PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors, is a trusted name and logo you'll come to find all over the world once you start diving. There's also the highly accredited SSI, or Scuba Schools International, as well as many other recognized scuba-diving certification programs.

Having a PADI dive certification allows you to rent dive gear and explore the underwater world with the adequate training necessary to be safe, Emeliano Rivero, owner and operator of the Belize Pro Dive Center, told me. The Belize Pro Dive Center, which partners with Alaia, is located at the resort and where my friend and I would eventually complete our certification.

Getting a PADI certification has its advantages, as it's the largest dive training organization in the world. In other words, you'll likely find a PADI dive center wherever you go, according to Bas Noij, a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) and owner of VIP Diving in Bonaire. "A well-streamlined method of teaching ensures consistency when it comes to safety and training standards," he said.

You'll need a minimum of three days to get your scuba-diving certification if you're doing it on vacation.

Planning to get certified on a long weekend trip? You might want to rethink that. During our vacation, we had seven full days planned at Alaia, and having this amount of time offered us the flexibility to both get the course work, skills, and open-water dives in without feeling a time crunch to also enjoy the property's rooftop, pools, and beautiful beach bar.

That's because it's generally accepted that the PADI Open Water Diver certification can take three days, but possibly more if you fail certain parts and need to retake an exam or demonstrate a required skill to your instructor.

"It's an intense course, but should be relaxing and not add stress," said Noij. And I'd agree with that.

The first part of the PADI certification requires you to complete reading and course work related to the theory of scuba diving, which helps you understand how it's possible, what your gear does, how to communicate underwater, and how to avoid some of the potential risks.

Shark swims below the surface in Belize
Dan Koday

After passing an exam on your new knowledge, you'll start to learn and practice skills for your open-water dive in a pool. This is called a confined dive, and it's meant to get you comfortable with using the scuba gear and your communication skills.

Your last step is the open-water dive in which an instructor tests you on your skills in the ocean. During this time, your instructor is there to make sure your skills are up to par to keep yourself safe. Much of it is focused on practicing what happens in emergency situations, like losing your air supply or mask and needing to return to the surface quickly.

The first couple minutes of my open-water dive were particularly terrifying, especially when it set in that swimming to the surface of the pool to communicate — as I had done a few times on my confined dives — wouldn't be a possibility any longer. I was quickly able to recover and calm down once I remembered the first and most important rule of scuba diving, which had been drilled into my brain at that point by the course work and my instructor.

"Breathe," I told myself. "Breathe continuously and never hold your breath."

You could need medical clearance to start your scuba-diving certification.

Both Brando and I are in our mid-30s and fairly physically active. I'm a pretty good swimmer, so the need to tread or float in water as a requirement to pass the scuba-diving certification did not worry me. While scuba diving itself never physically exhausted me, it did take a lot of energy, so I can see how being in good shape is paramount, regardless of age.

Before you start dive training, it's important to make sure you are physically fit. A good place to start assessing that is by looking at PADI's medical questionnaire, Noij advised. "If the form indicates that you need a medical clearance, make sure to get that before signing up for a course," he said.

Brando and Dan scuba dive in Belize, becoming certified.
Dan Koday

Diving isn't scary, but it may scare you at first.

There are many advantages to becoming a diver. It was truly a life-changing experience, giving me a new sense of confidence as an adult. After all, you're learning a new skill, and after feeling cooped up at home amid the pandemic, it reminded me just how much I'm capable of.

Of course, there's an inherent fear that'll creep up on you if and when you decide to get your scuba-diving certification: What will I do in an emergency? How will I be able to take my mask off underwater, clear it, and still see out of it? Could I really get attacked by a shark? Will I muck it all up and drown? Know that these feelings are natural.

Breathing and communicating underwater might not feel natural, but you have to learn to trust the process, technology, and training, and accept that all that is first and foremost designed to keep you safe.

If you're still apprehensive, start with a Discover Scuba Diving course, though it's important to note that these do not count toward your certification. "This is an introduction course with a little instruction on dive gear, buoyancy, and pressure. [It also includes] a swim on the surface and eventually breathing underwater. Finally, an underwater swim takes place in confined water before doing a shallow dive. This experience helps to overcome fear, as it covers how easy and safe scuba gear and scuba diving is," Rivero told me.

Read the reviews and find a dive shop you can trust.

Regardless of where you are in the world, PADI's website is a good place to find a trusted dive center. "Amongst PADI dive centers, there are different ratings, with five stars being the highest rating," Noij told me. I didn't know it at the time, but the Belize Pro Dive Center was one of those five-star facilities, and it was just pure luck that it was some 200 feet from our hotel room.

Finding a quality dive center is important because it will mean you're working with a team that has lots of experience in diving, and knows the local sites and conditions. But most importantly, the center will have a great safety record. Your safety in the water depends on being provided good dive equipment that has been properly maintained and checked over time — something you're taught to double check yourself as a diver, even when diving with the most respectable of centers.

Following my instincts and advice Noij would later share, I scoured the reviews to see what guests had to say about the dive center before committing, and I recommend that you do the same. "Last but not least, when you arrive, have a look around. Ask questions. Ask to see the equipment. And you'll get a good idea of the quality of the business," Noij added.

This rang true for Belize Pro Dive Center — beyond well-kept facilities, we were greeted with friendly, smiling faces, lots of thorough answers to any and all of our questions, and a general patience for newbies. Our instructor, Izzo, would become like a friend to us, and this relationship is important because you're trusting them with your life.

Prepare for some homework.

As pandemic travel restrictions began to ease, Brando and I had agreed that our long-overdue vacation would be centered around getting some sun, relaxing and recharging, eating, and polishing off a good book. Little did we know the actual amount of reading we would be doing on this trip.

That's because there's a lot of coursework to complete before you can finish your open-water dives and get officially certified. And no, there's no shortcut or way around it. Reading took about eight hours over the course of three days, which can definitely cut into the amount of frozen drinks you plan on enjoying, even, if like us, you decide to do it poolside.

PADI's five-section coursework, which we completed online, is split into multiple chapters, along with review quizzes to test your knowledge retention. Finally, there's an open-water diver exam, and you must score at least 75%.

If I could do it again, I would complete the coursework and exam itself before leaving for the airport for vacation. I would also spread out the reading over a week rather than three days, so I can retain it at a pace I felt more comfortable with.

Plan your open-water dives at a site you actually want to visit.

Belize is home to the world's second-largest barrier reef and the Great Blue Hole, so upon deciding to do our PADI certification, we knew we'd also be experiencing some of the best scuba diving around the globe.

"In Belize, training dives can be fun...The ocean is warm, at an average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit; visibility is excellent, at 60 feet; and dives are done in the ocean where the second-largest living barrier reef is located. Your training immediately puts you in amazing conditions with lots of marine life," Rivero said.

Because the reef is home to thousands of species of coral, fish, and sea creatures, I'd recommend learning in and around San Pedro, at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Mermaid Layer, and Esmeralda Canyon. These were particularly great dive sites for first-timers, but there are many other popular destinations where you can get certified, too, including Maui, Cancun, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica.

Not a big fan of boats? Some destinations, like Bonaire, make it so that you won't even need to step on board to complete a dive. "Bonaire is the shore dive paradise of the world," Noij said. "The island is surrounded by a fringing coral reef that's just feet from the shore and enables you to dive pretty much anywhere right from the beach."

While it may seem obvious, I'd recommend doing a lot of research and choosing a great dive site because you'll not only have access to enthusiasts of the sport, but it'll quickly make you fall in love with scuba diving and drive you toward returning to the recreational sport over and over again.

Do your research ahead of time, especially because costs can vary widely.

I had done some research prior to our trip to see what it would cost to get certified in New York City. The airfare to New York alone can be expensive, and unsurprisingly, getting certified in the Big Apple costs more, too. In Manhattan, that price is $600 without the coursework fee ($130 for e-learning, nonrefundable) or charge for the separate (but necessary) open-water dive.

Different countries — and continents — have varying price levels for PADI certification, Noij advised. "In Asia, courses tend to be cheaper," he said.

At Alaia's on-site dive center, our price was $516.25 per person, which included the e-learning coursework, taxes, the dive site park entrance fee, and all rental gear, making it a great solution for folks just getting into the sport.

Becoming a certified scuba diver will change the way you think about travel.

There's a big payoff for getting certified. Remember that part about exploring 71% of the planet that is underwater? Nowadays, I can't even consider traveling somewhere new and not at least searching whether there's a great dive site in that destination.

During my open-water dives and subsequently afterward, it felt like a whole new world had opened up — forget the fact that "Under the Sea" from "The Little Mermaid" was practically playing itself out right in front of me.

I've witnessed colorful, striped, and spotted fish swim in schools; a turtle graze for food at the bottom of the ocean floor; and eels poke their little heads out of a coral reef where they're hiding. There were a few moments of overcoming fear, too, like when a family of sharks came to check out my dive buddies and me.

But beyond that, learning to scuba dive has also been a great way to meet new people, join a new community, celebrate something truly spectacular, and see firsthand why the ocean is so worthy of our protection.

Getting a PADI certification on vacation changed the course of my trips forever — in the best possible way. I now have something to look forward to anywhere I go in the world, whether that's a beach destination or a cold-weather spot like Iceland, where, with some advanced dry suit certification, you can even dive in frigid water and touch two continents at the same time. I know what's next on my list.

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