In 2016, I did something crazy. I signed up for scuba diving without knowing how to swim. But there I was, at a dive center on Koh Tao, filling out the application form. When I got to the question where they asked me if I was a confident swimmer, I quickly ticked ‘yes’. I lied because I feared they would turn me away if I told them the truth.
The truth was that I had only just had my first swimming lesson the week before. I was barely able to keep myself afloat in the shallow end of the swimming pool. But I was on Koh Tao, the diving capital of Thailand. There were diving schools everywhere you looked. So how could I possibly leave the island without being able to say that I had gone scuba diving there?
Keep reading to find out how I survived to tell this tale.
Can you be a certified diver if you can't swim?
The short answer is NO.
To get certified as a diver, first and foremost, you HAVE to pass a swimming test. There’s no other way around this. You need to demonstrate your ability to tread water for 10 minutes, and swim unaided for 200 meters, or with a mask, fins and snorkel for 300 meters. Only then will you be able to proceed with the rest of the 4-to-5-day course to get your PADI licence.
But what, really, is the purpose of knowing how to swim? Isn’t it to prevent drowning? How can you drown if you have a gas tank to aid your breathing? Besides, aren’t scuba divers equipped with the BCD (buoyancy control device), which technically acts as a life jacket to help divers float when they need to?
Then why is it so important for scuba divers to know how to swim?
Ease of movement. Well, obviously if you’re going to scuba dive, you need to know how to move underwater. The boat will take you out to sea, and then you’re going to dive and explore the sea bed, the coral reefs, the underwater caves, the shipwrecks or whatever else you may find, and then you will swim back to the boat. In other words, you will move around. Even if you plan to be the first diver in history who stays in one same spot the entire time, you still need to know how to swim back up to the surface.
Confidence. The first thing they teach you in a swimming class is to relax. So, if you’re not a swimmer, not only will you be unable to move underwater with ease, you are also likely to be scared. And things can easily go wrong when you panic underwater. You might forget how to use your scuba equipment. You might be so nervous that you vomit into your regulator. You might forget all about the decompression techniques you learnt and shoot straight to the surface, thereby putting your life in danger.
Emergencies. Once you become a certified diver, you’re not going to have an instructor to hold your hand anymore. You will most likely go with one diving partner, with whom you will share the responsibility of ensuring that both of you complete the dive safely. Therefore, you need to be able to rescue yourself and/or your diving buddy should anything go wrong. And to do this, it would be easier if you both know how to swim.
So, is there really no hope for non-swimmers?
Well, I’m glad that you’re still here reading this, so I’m going to give you some good news:
Yes, there is hope for non-swimmers.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a certified diver to experience scuba diving. That’s right, you can skip the swimming test and the multi-day course and still be able to scuba dive. How? Most schools now provide half-day or full-day programs called Discover Scuba Diving (DSD). While not a certification course, it’s a quick and easy way for people who want to try scuba diving but are not quite ready physically, or financially, to get certification.
Discover Scuba Diving (DSD)
How much does it cost?
It really depends on where you go. Even in the same country, prices can differ from one island to the next. In Thailand, for example, it can cost anywhere from THB2000 – THB3000 (around USD60 – USD95). The cheapest I found on Koh Tao in 2016 was THB2000 at Siam Scuba Dive Center.
What to Expect
The Wetsuit Fitting
On the day of the dive, you will be asked to come in the morning for a wetsuit fitting to get the correct sizes for your wetsuit, BCD, mask and fins.
Girls, if you’re going to a wetsuit fitting, make sure you’re wearing a decent-looking bikini under your clothes, because you’re going to have to strip to your underwear with all the other people in the same room. I had on an ugly pair of unmatching bra and panties. Luckily for me, no one was looking. So, unless you don’t mind being seen in your granny panties, make sure you’re wearing something presentable underneath.
After that, they will ask you to go and eat something while they prepare your gear. I used the time to buy myself a bikini.
The Theory Class
My class started at 11 a.m. Before class, I was introduced to my instructor and team members. There should be a maximum of four students per instructor. You will then be taught the basics of scuba diving, including the equipment and how to use them, the underwater sign language (like how to warn others that there’s a shark nearby!), and what to do in emergency situations, equipment malfunctions, etc. If you have any questions at all, this is the time to ask.
The Practical Session
Some schools let students practice in a swimming pool first, while others take you straight to the sea. So think about this when choosing a diving school. If you don’t feel confident enough to go to the sea right away, make sure you choose a school that has a swimming pool.
Since my team members and I were all ‘confident swimmers’ according to our application forms, they took us straight to the sea. We went to another island on a boat, to practice near its shore. However, because the boat was a big one, it couldn’t get close enough to the shore, so we had to swim the rest of the way. Fair enough.
But first, we had to jump out of the boat and into the water. I made quite a scene because I was too scared to jump. I was worried that the heavy tank on my back would make me sink to the bottom of the sea. It took the instructor quite some time to assure me that I would be fine, that all I had to do was take one giant step and let myself drop into the water. Well, easy for him to say.
No sooner had I got into the water than another problem arose. We had to swim on our backs. That wasn’t something I had learnt in my swimming lesson. And now I also had to figure out how the crap I was supposed to swim with those silly fins on. I kicked and kicked but didn’t seem to be moving an inch. So I pretended to be taking my time to enjoy the scenery. The instructor had to come back and pull me.
We swam until it was shallow enough for us to stand. There, we practiced what we had just learned in theory class. I had trouble breathing through the regulator at first. Instead of breathing normally, I gasped and gulped in air, which made me gag a few times. But I was told that the mouthpiece was designed in such a way that if you vomited, the vomit would automatically flow out into the water instead of remaining inside the mouthpiece. So, I guess it’s not so uncommon to vomit when diving after all.
Done with the practice, we swam back to the deeper water for the dive. Our one-day DCD program allowed us to go to a depth of 12 meters, but I couldn’t go any further than 1 because my ears hurt too much. I tried equalizing the pressure but it didn’t work, so the instructor told me to stay near the surface. These things happen, he said. So, in effect, I was just snorkeling, but with scuba gear.
After that, we went back to the boat. They took us to another spot where we could go for a second dive if we wanted to (with an additional fee), but I had had enough. I stayed on the boat with a few other people, including an Israeli guy who admitted that he didn’t find scuba diving fun — an opinion that I totally agreed with but didn’t want to say out loud.
What we did instead was finish off the food on the boat (they had cookies and tea).
So, can you scuba dive if you can’t swim? Yes, you can. You’re probably going to need a lot of help to move around in the water, and you can only go 12 meters deep, but it’s still scuba diving. It’s better than nothing.
Would I recommend it? Yes and no. Yes, it can be an amazing experience if you’re able to relax enough to enjoy the wonders of the underwater world. No, if you’re a nervous wreck like me who freaks out over every little thing.
Personally, I’m not much of a sea enthusiast. I don’t get it when people would go island hopping to see different diving/snorkeling spots. To me, they all look the same. Just more corals, and more sea creatures that either scare me or gross me out with their scaly/slimy skins. I guess I’m one of those people who say they like animals, but in reality only like animals that are huggable. And I don’t want to hug manta rays.
Have you done scuba diving as a non-swimmer? Are you planning to? Or are you a dive instructor who has helped non-swimmers try scuba diving? Share your experience in the comments below.