Learning to swim like a fish in Sodwana Bay: What you should know about doing your PADI certification

2019-09-26 06:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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Bobbing along the bottom of the sea has always looked like the most magical experience.

I've wanted to go dive among the fishies since I've been able to swim in the sea, and growing up with parents whose ideal holiday normally involves something coastal has given me quite a passionate love for the marine world.

WATCH: 10 cool Southern African dive spots that will make you want to take a deep breath

As life happens, I've never found the time or the money to do it, and last year I made it my mission to get my PADI Open Water certification. Although I lived in Cape Town with a big diving industry, doing my first dive in its icy waters was a little intimidating (besides the great whites), and I decided I want to make a holiday out of it - to the much warmer and more colourful waters of the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

South Africa is blessed with some of the best diving spots in the world, and I decided to opt for the popular Sodwana Bay. Luckily for me, I didn't have to do it alone, as one of my best friends was as excited as I was to explore the creatures of the deep.

A little online digging gave us Coral Divers to do our course at including accommodation - a proper diving lodge that's also a school for diving instructors who help as assistants - and our plans were made for a little road trip from Durban to iSimangaliso in a rental toy-car. 

And let me just say - doing your diving course is not a relaxing holiday activity. You are put through the ringer mentally and physically learning how not to die underwater and you're honestly too tired to do anything else.

But once you're far under the waves, floating above the coral cities as colourful clouds of yellow, blue and white flit past you, you'll find it very hard to return to the surface.

ALSO SEE: #SAHeritage: Dive into the Algoa Bay Hope Spot 

If you're itching to get your PADI certification, here are a few tips I picked up for first-time divers.

Get a doctor check-up beforehand

While it's not compulsory if you don't check any of the yes boxes on the medical form, it's just a good idea to ask the doctor to see if there's anything that might make it more difficult for you to dive, specifically in the ear and nose area. If there is a problem, it doesn't always necessarily mean you can't dive, it just means you might have to take some extra precautions.

Always check with your instructor if you're worried about anything.

Get your own mask and snorkel

The rest of the equipment you can easily rent until you feel like you want to invest more in diving, but rather buy your own mask and snorkel to take with you. There's few things as bad as wearing a leaking ill-fitting mask, and a proper dive shop will really take their time finding you one that fits.

As for the snorkel (which you do dive with), don't go completely cheap as a good snorkel is really useful when at the surface of the ocean where you'd want to save your oxygen.

SEE: The sublime fulfilment of diving Cape Town's kelp forests without a wetsuit 

It won't hurt to get a little more fit before the course

As I mentioned, a diving course will put you through the grinder physically, and a certain level of fitness is required for diving in general. The instructor made us do a gazillion laps in the pool to ensure that we're fit enough to swim, and I was heaving. 

Your muscles will also ache surprisingly, even it doesn't feel like you're using them that much while diving.

Breathing through an oxygen cylinder is pretty chilled

I don't have the best lungs in the world and was a little stressed about how it would feel breathing through an oxygen cylinder - but for those who have the same worries, it ended up being super easy. Your throat gets a little dry after a dive, but otherwise you're just practising your Darth Vader impression.

SEE: Dreaming of a scuba diving holiday? Start with this daily live dive streamed by WildEarth experts

You will do everything a hundred times

Don't be worried about not remembering anything afterwards - it's like riding a bike. They make you kit up and down so many times you'll be able to do it in your sleep.

You also learn real fast how heavy an oxygen cylinder is.

Diving equipment next to a pool

Setting up for skills training in the pool. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Take it seriously

Remember, these people are teaching you how not to die underwater. Pay close attention to everything, including the videos and exams, and ask all the questions you can think of.

Doing the course with a friend is also super helpful as you can test each other during your down-time.

SEE: Shark Cage Diving: Through the lens of a South African

There's a difference between diving instructor and dive master

Just in case you mix them up - the instructor is the one teaching you how to dive and will be doing skills with you in the pool and in the ocean on three of your four dives. The dive master is the person in charge of a specific dive and determines where you'll dive, for how long and making sure you don't get lost or in trouble on the dive.

If you're having problems equalising - don't rush going down

So my ears completely bailed on me during three of my four dives, where equalising felt like someone was repeatedly punching me on the inside of my nose. If this does happen to you, you'll get to the bottom eventually, you just have to go EXTREMELY slow and not try to keep pace with the lucky bastards who get to swim down like Aquaman.

WATCH: Dive down to this underwater wine cellar in Croatia 

Two women sitting in wetsuits

Waiting for the next dive. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Motion sickness tablets are your best friend

I am pretty sure we did our course on hard mode, as the sea was horribly choppy the whole time we were there, and while underwater you don't really feel it, on the surface it will take your insides onto a nightmarish merry-go-round.

After the first boat trip, we scavenged some over-priced anti-motion sickness tablets from the local shop (they're well acquainted with the desperation) and the next boat trip was a breeze. Just make sure you get ones for diving, as certain anti-motion medications will make you too drowsy to dive.

Naps will be your other best friend

Not even as a child did I nap as much as I did while on the course. You normally spend your morning doing skills and diving, and after lunch lying down for a quick second will turn into a three-hour nap.

The best is not to fight them - just embrace that groggy late afternoon feeling afterwards.

Give your instructors a nice review

We had an excellent instructor and two lovely assistants who were training to be instructors themselves - and the best way to show your love is to leave them a review or recommendation at the lodge or on their social media page, if they have one. 

You can also spread the love word-of-mouth if you know anyone wanting to do their own course.

ALSO SEE: #EcoTravels: New Thai incentive for divers to collect a bag of trash and help save the ocean

Group of divers posing for a photo

Our instructor and diving assistants. (Photo: Coral Divers)

Happy diving!

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