What to Expect on Your First Dive

The capstone to an open water diver course is the checkout dives. These vary by agency, but typically include four or five dives. They might better be called “application dives.” You are going into a real dive environment and will be asked to apply everything you’ve learned in the class and the pool. The water might be warm and clear, or it might be cold and less clear (more on that in a moment), but the principle behind checkout dives is to allow your instructor to evaluate your ability, and to give you a chance to begin to integrate your skills, feel what it’s like to truly dive, and gain the confidence you need to want to dive more.

It’s natural to feel some tension or apprehension. After all, you’ve never done an open water dive before. What will happen, what will your instructor throw at you, will you get lost or make an obvious mistake?

First off, there will be no surprises. When we train recreational divers we are not allowed to harass or stress them. By now you should be comfortable clearing your mask, retrieving your regulator, communicating with a buddy, and so on. If you’ve brought everything you need, this should be a pleasant experience.

The instructor will give a detailed briefing at the site before each dive. You should understand the dive’s limits (depth, time, remaining gas), what skills you will be asked to perform, and something of the route you’ll take underwater. A really thorough briefing will give you some idea of what the underwater topography is like, and what you might expect to encounter down there.

Remember that these dives are conducted to increase your comfort and ability. Feel free to ask questions. I like getting pre-dive questions from my students, because it usually points out something I’ve missed in my briefing. The best time to address and defuse tension is before the dive.

The checkout dives may include learning new things, such as how to use a compass to navigate underwater, how to tow an exhausted buddy back to shore, or how to track and record your gas consumption. In good conditions (warm on the surface, not too cold underwater) we can spend time on the surface discussing these things and filling out our divelog pages. In more extreme conditions the dive logging might take place after the dives, in the local dive shop. Whichever is the case, recording the details of your checkout dives is important. This is your opportunity to develop good dive logging skills. Dive operations around the world are increasingly asking to see logs of recent dives, so this is one habit you really want to develop.

Usually we assemble and test our gear first, then don our exposure suits. Conditions vary (boat dive, shore dive, cold water versus warm) but the principle of first getting your gear together and then suiting up is a good one. Depending on class size, you might be one of eight or more in the water or it might just be you and the instructor. Regardless, you want to pace your own equipment assembly and suit-up so you and your buddy (or your group) are progressing at the same rate. In cold water it’s especially important not to enter the water until everyone is ready to do the same.

Speaking of cold water, if you’re wearing a wetsuit and you’ve brought a watch to use to time your dives, you might find the wristband won’t work around the suit. No problem: just fasten the watch to a ring on your BC.

Okay, let’s assume we’re in the water and starting the dive. What can you expect? First, remember your pool sessions. Equalize your ears at the surface and while descending. Add air to your BC as you feel yourself becoming more negatively buoyant.

You should know that you’ve learned to dive in a pool at fairly shallow depths. As you descend below twenty feet and the pressure increases, a small change in buoyancy (for instance, full versus empty lungs) is less of an issue because its effect is a smaller percentage of the surround pressure. So buoyancy control becomes easier the deeper you go.

But please remember this: as you go deeper, and the increased pressure compresses you and your exposure suit, you will be adding air to your BC. When you start to ascend, you will need to be venting air from the BC much sooner than you’re used to.

Buoyancy control is perhaps the primary skill you’ll be working on in your open water checkout dives. It’s all about situational awareness, where you are versus the bottom and the top. This is one of the primary things to work on in checkouts. If you get light and start to go up, figure out how to dump air most efficiently. If your BC has multiple dump points, know which of them to use in different trim positions (head up, head down, etc.).

As you progress as a diver, your situational awareness will expand to include where the boat or shore is, how your buddy’s doing (position, breathing rate, comfort level), and your vitals (depth, time, gas pressure). As you gain comfort and confidence, you will relax. The first outward sign of that will be motionless arms. A diver sculling with hands is trying to stay off the bottom with too little air in the BC. A diver with hands tucked in the belt or held out calmly in front has found the neutral buoyancy point and is content to kick and glide.

Please don’t expect yourself to perform perfectly. After all, if you already knew how to dive you wouldn’t need the course. Just be willing to note problems as they arise and address them. Many students will yo-yo up and down during checkouts; this happens. The key is to notice what’s happening and to address it calmly.

The last part of any dive is the debrief. A good instructor will not only give you feedback but will ask for it from the students. Right after the dive is a great time to talk about what went right, what went wrong, what you didn’t understand. And of course you will want to log the dive. Start a habit of writing something, anything, about the dive (in my log pages that’s on the back of the sheet). You might be surprised, years later, when you have a hundred or more dives, to revisit the experiences of your first dives. I certainly was.