Learning to dive as an Older Diver is cool!
Why I was waiting until I was an “older diver”? I love the water, love to snorkel. But I have never had the guts to learn to scuba dive. I was thinking it is for the fit, for those with regular access to tropical waters and simply, a different kind of people than me. Sporty people, people with money. And the small matter of work, building a career, and money. So I waited, and finally began to scuba dive at an age that Divers Alert Network describes as “older diver”. But, did I learn to dive? Yes, and here is a post on what I learned along the way.
I finally got round to learning to scuba dive shortly before my 50th birthday. Nope, not as a milestone thing, although come menopause, it is said many women rediscover their creative talents or change jobs. Well, why depend on hormonal changes to do something you love?
Table of Contents
I am an older diver now
Here, it happened out of necessity when I started looking for a job that balances out the clinic work a bit and combines my love of travel with my knowledge of medicine. Pretty swiftly, I found myself working for an assistance service that serves travellers but mostly, divers, entered the crash course in diving medicine, and then thought… I’d be a pretty rubbish advisor if I don’t have at least a bit of practical diving expertise.
And let me say straight away, there are no absolute age limits for diving. You should be reasonably fit, have a medical exam prior to diving, and comfortable in the water. There are some smaller limitations that can be helped by adapting the environment, like having a “granny table” to make putting heavy tanks, easier entry into the water, corrective lenses, more conservative diving style… any half decent dive shop should be able to adapt. And to be fait, in my short time as a
Fast forward three months, and I find myself at the southern tip of Sardinia, in a small town with enough of interest for my husband, walking to the dive shop in the blazing sun, my mouth already dry and sweat running, in somewhat nervous anticipation of my first dive lessen. Having blazed through the theory by online learning, it’s straight into the (shallow) sea for my first lesson.
Just so you know… since I was learning to dive, and had to deal with pressure gauge, a spare regulator hanging somewhere off my BCD, a computer, a mask that leaked water, and various coral and sea grass in front of my face, I felt it would be inappropriate to try and take a camera with me on my dives, so I have no actual diving pictures from that first course in my article. A few came courtesy of my teacher of Petra Divers, the others are from dry land!
Learning to scuba dive as an older diver
Obviously, being a certain ages brings some issues, usually on the health front. At the same time, an “older and wiser” person is calmer and acts in a more measured manner. This article from Divers Alert network which highlights some medical issues, but do not let any one tell you you are generally too old to dive! Age is a number, individual health and fitness are far more important.
Vision is not as good as it used to be, with many of us becoming more far-sighted as we move on, with close objects being not as sharp. So, you may need corrective lense sin order to see properly under water.
Waistlines expand, especially around the menopause for us ladies. Flexibility reduces. Risks of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes become higher, and incidence rises with advancing age. Definitely all risks to be considered, which is why a general health check up is absolutely essential, and a certification of fitness to dive is highly recommended. And with the check clear, there is absolutely no reason to think “I am too old to start this now”. For me, it would have been possible but highly impractical to learn diving at a younger age – I had worked a lot, often weekends, and was paying off a mortgage. Yes, it would have been possible to dive, but my low confidence with any kind of sports and exercise, limited time availability and lack of financial resources would have not made a successful diver.
Why I waited so long
While diving was always something I would have liked to do, my final impulse was work! I had just started a new freelance job in a travel assistance company with many diver clients, and to fully understand some of the medical issues that can arise at diving, I wanted to learn and become at least an Open Water Diver. Hate to say it, for so many things, that work made me do it!
I would say, health-wise, I am somewhere “in the middle” so I had my building sites checked out before embarking on my diving journey. I am also not very fit due to lack of exercise, but a reasonably strong swimmer, easily swimming 2km in our local lake even without training. In the end, my biggest challenge was hauling my gear down steps and walking hundreds of metres in shallow water with sand underfoot with all my gear on, plus getting into my boots! I ended up asking for help, and underwater, I was generally fine.
So, the bottom line is… consider the health issues, have them checked out, but age is not an contraindication to diving! Be a healthy and wise older diver.
PADI or SSI or what else is there?
I looked up holiday destinations first, then worried about which organisation the school is affiliated with. That happened to be Scuba Schools International (SSI). Several diving people assured me it doesn’t matter at beginner level which organisation I go with, but that PADI and SSI are the internationally recognized ones with a standardized syllabus. Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) is the largest commercial diving training provider, followed by SSI. Both are based in the United States
Another organisation I have come across is National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) which is not for profit and provides a standard for professional divers especially in the USA and the Far East. Then there is the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) which offers a somewhat more thorough basic diving qualification but is compatible with most other organisations.
Anyway, my school was SSI, so I stuck with that and my experience is for a SSI course. For the novice diver, it doesn’t matter much. Go with a nice, safe and convenient school.. The curriculum and the brevets are very similar and compatible up to the level of Dive Master. Just to confuse newbies, the brevet stages after the Open Water Diver have slightly different names but are compatible with each other, so you can start with SSI and continue with PADI or vice versa. I would pick the school by how well they communicate, personal recommendations and quality of teaching rather than affiliation.
SSI and PADI use different apps to deliver the syllabus and to log dives. I found the dive logging a little confusing, so I bought a separate diving logbook especially since some of my future courses might be with PADI.
Getting ready to dive
In middle age, medical issues come creeping up and while Scuba diving is one of the safest sports as its so regulated, I highly recommend a fitness to dive exam by a diving medic to any one, but especially to those aged from 35 onwards and any one with pre-existing conditions
Depending on your resident countries standards, it should at least include a (stress) electrocardiogram, lung function test and an ear examination. Yes, even if you are healthy. If you are seriously thinking about diving, your own dive computer is also a good buy, and if you can, try and get fitted for a dive mask.
I also bought some soft single-use contact lenses as I am quite short sighted. Turns out I felt more comfortable in the water without them, but I definitely recommend single use contacts just in case. Another option would be finding a well-fitting diving mask, then have it fitted with corrective lenses if your prescription is stable.
Scuba Diving Theory
After a small prepayment, I got registered, downloaded the SSI App and started my online course, This was great, as I could spare myself spending my sunny holidays in a classroom and learn at home and on my train commute. With some knowledge from work and a good student, I breezed through the theory. It was the right way to learn for me, but most diving schools still do old school classroom theory at the dive base.
As soon as I got too comfy at the dive base on my very first day, my teacher offered me a theory review, to which I somewhat nonchalantly answered “nah, lets do the test then go diving”, and she presented me with 50 questions. Keen to go diving, I blazed through them, not without mistakes, but my score was enough to pass, so on to the next… wetsuit fitting!
Scuba Diving gear
My diving school provided all equipment. From torch via mask to the diving computer… and everything was great quality and well looked after. They used equipment from Cressi and Mares, two reputable European companies. Very reassuring. So, to dive, you will need to wear…
A wetsuit. Mine was 7mm full suit with a hood despite the balmy 30C air and 25C water temperature in Sardinia. It was fun to pull it on… especially with the uninitiated, it felt more like stuffing a sausage at times. I requested a bigger wetsuit the next day, which made a few folds here and there but was definitely more comfy round my neck. Also, the suit will feel a lot looser once in the water.
Boots and fins
Boots and fins. Mine were fun! I have a hip problem which does not impede on my mobility generally but I have trouble reaching my heels. I had to ask for help, then figured out filling them with water made putting them on a lot easier, as did folding the boot in half at the heel. The fins go over the boots and only go on in the water or on the boat.
I have so far only used boots and separate fins with heel strap to wear over boots. They are the best if you do a lot of shire diving. You can walk into the water with some decent soled diving boots and put the fins on in the water.
I also seen some boots on the internet now, which have a heel zip. They are by Poseidon. I will certainly look for them and try them on.
Masks and snorkel
The mask can make or break a dive. It should fit well but not compress your head that it gives you a headache. Mine had water coming in, meaning I had to clear it all the time, and while it only bothered me slightly, the mask would be the first thing I would buy in person from a good dive shop. You only need a snorkel if you do a lot of surface swimming (as not to use up air), but as they are fairly cheap, makes sense to buy one together with a mask.
Buoyancy control device (BCD)
Basically, a big inflatable harness, cut a bit like a padded waistcoat, with a base plate for the cylinder at the back, and contraptions to hold regulator, flags, knifes, lead and a few other bits and bobs.
Or “lung machine”, the device that connects to the breathing gas cylinder to deliver breathing gas. Without wanting to get too technical here, when you are a beginner, you will most likely use a single hose, open circuit system with a spare second stage and a pressure gauge, called an “octopus”
Not to worry much about it, I was given one by my school for the boat dives, and I didn’t do much with it except look for the depth and non-decompression time I could safely stay underwater.
Very simplistic, and very heavy, this was provided by my diving school. As a beginner, I was loaded with an additional 12kg and well, these got heavy.
Breathing gas cylinder
For the new diver, the gas cylinders AKA scuba tanks always filled with pressurized air, often colour coded to differentiate first-dive from second-dive cylinders when diving off a boat. As a learner, you would always start with a single cylinder which is heavy enough to be honest. a typical adult cylinder takes about 15l wit ir pressurized at 200-300bar and weighs 15-20kg.
Surprise, surprise, you will have a good 20-30 kilogram on you with all that stuff on, encumbered by a bulky harness, the lead dragging you down and the full cylinder pulling you back. Now walk with that and try not to fall. I would say apart from taking various bits of equipment off under water, this was my biggest challenge, and there are ways to overcome that. Enter a nice gallant diving teacher on my second course.
What to buy and what to hire
There is absolutely no shame in going for a try dive and hiring absolutely everything. This is what I did. If you are even considering the odd fair weather dive or swim and snorkel regularly, I would invest in a base kit of good quality gear. Buy cheap, buy twice. I also asked the owner of my local dive shop what I should buy and he said “always buy ABC” which means a diving mask, a snorkel and fins.
Nope, not “airway-breathing circulation” but the absolute essentials of diving gears. I started with a mask in said shop. You really have to try a few to see which fits comfortably. Most masks nowadays are made from silicone and tempered glass, which keeps forever, so a mask is a good long term investment.
A simple test is to hold the mask to your face, breathe in through your nose and suck the mask to your face. If it stays, it is a decent fit.
Some are very low volume, making it easier to clear them of water, but best is not to let water in in the first place, one or two lens, bigger or narrower field of vision… impossible to list all the nuances here. A mask is certainly not something you want to buy online for the first time. In the end, I bought a Cressi “big eye” mask, which, as the name says, has a huge field of view, raked lenses, and will accept a corrective lens retrofitting, for just over 50Euros.
I haven’t got the snorkel because I never needed one, but I will probably pick one up before my next trip.
Which I feel fins are a bit tricky to haul on a diving trip on an airplane, especially when travelling with hand luggage only, my next buy will definitely be diving boots. They can be very inexpensive, from 20 Euro upwards. However… after putting on my hire diving boots became such a struggle and I had to walk in them with all my gear on, I will try to buy some quality boots – from my local dive shop. And then there is the issue of hygiene, fungus etc. I was amazed how many people fall and injure themselves before they even make it in the water, it easily accounts for 1/3 “diving accidents” I assist, so well-fitting decent grip boots for me.
And last not least, I would get a decent swimsuit or bikini to wear under the diving suit. Personally, I would go for a two-piece suit. I have an ancient Speedo Endurance suit which has last the longest of all my swimsuits, they cost like 20Euros and are super comfy. So I will probably return to Speedo for the next one.
A decent dive shop will help you to advise and fit equipment.
Try Dive or “Discover Scuba”
A low threshold, fun way to get to know scuba diving, I would really recommend this one to see if you and scuba are a good fit. I really contemplated it on my last trip to Jordan, but then was worried I would not see underwater, and I was flying the next day, so cutting it a bit thin. I went to Wadi Rum instead… but now, I kinda need to have some scuba diving experience for work, so I dove straight in with the Open Water Course.
In a Discover Scuba, someone literally takes you by the hand, explains the gear, helps you put in on and puts in into action in a pool or shallow water. Personally, a lot of holiday destinations offer shallow water try dives, always a lot more interesting than the pool.
Open Water Diver (OWD) Certification – the Drills
Now, after my test, we got the gear ready, tested and checked. I found this part easy, as I am a good observer, and a lot of my work used to be protocols and checklists and I have some basic knowledge where pressurized air can be dangerous. And off to the beach we went, with our gear in a handcart pulling hard in our wetsuits and diving boots. I was pretty drenched by the time we got to the beach, which is where the real fun begun. Putting on and securing the BCD, taking the find and staggering down some wobbly concrete steps, over stones and into the shallow water, still struggling to walk steadily until I was wait-deep in water after 100m or so. As I began to swim, the tank or “bomba” as they affectionately call it in Italian, was shifting on my back until I was ready to dive.
And then, trying to kneel in 2m depth next to some seagrass, the fun continued. I tumbled over like a poorly balanced doll, breathing laboriously, while my diving mask filled with water. When instructed to sit still, I flailed a lot and tumbled off into the seagrass , trying to avoid doing any damage but finning up a fair bit of sand. Honestly, after the first couple session I felt ready to quit, I found it that hard. However, at the end of each lesson we went on a little “walk” in about3m depth, just above the seagrass, seeing a fish here, a crab there, and I found that incredibly relaxing.
I am sorry to say the following dives were even harder for me, as we had some current, in which I was expected to take off my BCD, put it on again and do some other fun games under water. Taking the mask off, what people fear most, strangely was no problem for me, but messing with the lead belt and BCD was hard.
However… I was considered safe or the “open water” although I never saw a pool on this course and all our lessons were in shallow open water so one day, a few experienced day divers and I boarded a zodiac and headed out of the quaint Carloforte Harbour at full blast, to a dive site at the south of San Pietro Island. As I listened to the dive guide doing his briefing the “labirinto” gave me the fears already, but my instructor said, calm, let everyone go down, and I stay with you all the time.
Open Water Diver (OWD) Certification – the Open Water Dives
So, for the Open Water Diver, you need to complete four Open Water Dives. They can be shore-based, but certainly go to greater depths than what I had experienced off the gently sloping beach, so boat diving it was. According to the weather, the wind and sea conditions and the bookings from other guests, we arranged a couple two-dive in a half day diving trips, in a basic but ultimately perfectly adequate Zodiac.
As the other divers geared up, I waited until it was my time, and I got a lot of help from the dive guides on the boat, being told just to concentrate on the underwater time. The back roll entry is the standard way to get in the water, but a ladder entry would have been possible had I insisted. Anyway, I am a fine swimmer, in I went, then I released air and went underwater trying to follow my instructor as quickly as possible, only to be feeling a searing pain in my ear at 3m.
I think the most important lesson was to take my time. Knowing that barotrauma can screw up your diving trip well and good, I inflated a little, stayed up, equalized, then slowly descended. That is something I would need to be careful with in the future, and I had considered this to be a stumbling block in my diving, but I had discussed it with the instructor, and of course she was waiting at 10m with a quizzical look on her face.
And finally, it all clicked
But the first ten metres are where the pressure changes the most, doubling from one bar to two bar, and where barotrauma occurs. Anything deeper than 10 metres, I felt hardly any difficulty. In fact, as soon as I was well under water and had figured out the BCD better, I felt better every minute. I felt totally comfortable under water, my hips and knees now being no restriction in anything whatsoever, and I moved along confidently with my huge fins, suddenly forgetting to flair. Everything fell into place beautifully. I admired the coral, swam past lots and lots of pretty fish and was even shown a moray eel resting in a crevice, but no need to get close, thanks. According to my instructor, there isn’t anything living in the Mediterranean than can seriously kill you, but better, look but don’t touch.
Once I had signalled my instructor that all was well, she went ahead with her torch to seek out interesting marine life. On this dive, I was told not to bother with a computer, knives, torches etc and just to concentrate on diving, as I would be staying close to the instructor. On subsequent dives, I took a computer and a torch but did not really use them.
After 40 minutes of gentle diving around, and not a panic attack in sight, we came back up. I was reminded of my bad hips when trying to get back in the boat, but half the seniors on the boat had similar issues, and a rope guide helped us get back in. We had tea and bisquits, then headed to a shallower dive sport for another dive. To repeat the same thing the next day, and with each dive I became more confident. On the very last dive, while we were sitting out the 5m safety stop, I had to repeat a few more drills like mask off and sharing air, but thankfully no weight belt and BCD messing again. I passed and was issued my certificate… of course, it is important for instructors to certify people successfully, but I felt my instructor was extremely thorough, and I have certainly heard people not passing the OWD first time.
Diving in Sardinia
Well, Sardinia is probably not one of the worlds top sports for diving. Does it matter for learning? Absolutely not.
In fact, the Mediterranean Sea is fine for scuba diving, especially in the clearer waters round Sicily, Malta and, also Sardinia. Is it cheap? No, but it isn’t prohibitively expensive either. I paid 480 EURO as I was the only student at the time, so it was basically a private course and I felt extremely well looked after, sometimes too well looked after! But given it as just a short hop from Carcassonne and our in-laws house, and a cheap Easyjet flight back home, with a lovely Bed And Breakfast for 70 Euro at the end of the tourist season, the price of the course weighted less heavy because we had our heart set on Sardinia for a holiday.
Would I recommend learning to dive in Sardinia?
My diving school was Isla Diving, and I wholeheartedly recommend them for learning and diving.
Diving guests were primarily Italian, with a few French people and very social, ranging between 25 to 70s in age. Most were experienced or intermediate divers with a lot of experience in the Med, . Also, I felt good in the knowledge should anything happen, I was in a country where I speak the language a bit, with decent medical care and a decompression chamber nearby and daylight evacuation by helicopter. Not that I would hope to ever need it.
The school staff were super vigilant, and the ratio of diving professionals to guests was like 1:2. They also were very observant of keeping marine life intact, taught no touching techniques, and goes without saying that every piece of rubbish was taken back to base and there was absolutely no rubbish on the beach or underwater.
In September, the water was a balmy 22C on the surface, and the visibility was good at around 12 metres, even with the Mistral winds causing a fair bit of drift – in the summer months visibility is usually 40 metres or more. We only got to experience two dive spots due to the Mistral, but to the uninitiated who had just done a bit of snorkelling in the Red Sea, there was enough of interest – underwater basalt formations, corals, a healthy environment with Posidonia seagrass meadows and clean water.
Is Sardinia Diving suitable for solo females?
The diving school in Carloforte where I did my Open Water certification is female owned and run. So, I would say definitely suitable for solo female divers. They certainly appear to encourage men and women learning together and have both male and female dive guides. My course was private but there were other guests on the dive – from late 20’2 to 60’s, mostly Italian and French. So, wile some of them spoke English, it helps to have a little knowledge of Italian or French for the social aspect of it.
While I was diving on my own, I did travel with my husband. Carloforte is definitely a family destination and at the same time a small laidback island town, with lots of cafes and restaurants but no real nightlife.
What about Diving at home?
I decided to learn to dive on holiday, because I am never free when I work. Obviously, learning to dive at home has the advantage of knowing the conditions and available medical care and diving in a well-known environment in a language you are familiar with. I could have done this course for about 100 Euro less at home, although I would have needed to buy more equipment right away or hired at extra expense, so… its equal in terms of cost. But that would have meant the first lessons in a chlorinated pool, which I hate, then off into a cold murky lake, I swim often enough to know visibility in our local lakes it 2-3metres at best, and seeing nothing can easily freak out novice divers.
However, I have become quite friendly with my local dive shop and will buy my equipment there and I will certainly go on a local dive and admire pike and perch when I am a bit more experienced.
The Small Print
I learned diving in Italy in September 2022 and followed up with an PADI Advanced Open Water Certification in Jordan four months later. I am a novice diver still. I appreciate everyone’s learning curve is different, and this post reflects my personal experiences. Maybe it encourages you to learn if you have been a “closet diver” like me. I paid the full price for the course, and was certainly not asked to write a review. There are no affiliate links in this post.