17 Essential Tips Before Your First Dive

Coral reef overhang

Anybody with experience underwater can spot a new diver from miles away. Now that I’m on the other side of my Divemaster internship, I have repeatedly seen most of the tell-tale signs.

The newbies hold a special place in my heart. Nothing puts a smile on my face like watching a new diver having an amazing time after working through some initial jitters. I have learned a lot about the industry in a short period of time, and it honestly hasn’t been all that long from when I was in their shoes.

If I can help even one person with what to expect on their first dive, then I will have succeeded. These are some of the things that would have helped me before my first dive.

Be sure to check out my guide to the open water diver course to help you with your logistical planning. You can also see my beginner equipment post to aid you in your purchase planning.

1. A confined water dive goes a long way.

I was an idiot when I looked into Discover Scuba Dive programs. I didn’t want to “waste my time” in a pool because I just wanted to see what was out there in the ocean. This was a big mistake, and I’d advise you not to repeat it.

The probability of being able to complete your first dive goes down significantly if you aren’t able to spend some time in a controlled setting. The reason: you have this pesky ‘survival instinct’ thing that urges you to breathe from the surface. Confined water allows you to retrain this instinct while becoming familiar with the pull of the regulator.

2. You should master each skill, not just try it out.

If your training feels rushed, please speak up. Instructors should be making sure that you can properly demonstrate each skill. Trying it out, making mistakes, and moving on will do nobody any good in an open water setting.

3. Listen to all instructions and briefings.

This should go without saying, but I’ve seen plenty of people ask a question about something that had already been discussed at length. My least favorite issue is when people repeatedly don’t know the hand signal for checking air. If we’re on the page, listening helps me help you. And it helps you help yourself.

A green turtle in Honduras

4. Nerves are normal!

You are not weird for being nervous! I was insanely anxious for my first dive, my open water course, my first deep dive, my first solo safety stop, my first dive as lead… you get the point. Nerves are natural when you’re at the edge of your comfort zone, but they diminish as you know what to expect.

5. But so is motion sickness.

It’s unfortunate but true. I have been seasick once on a particularly rough day and couldn’t have felt more embarrassed. Little did I know that it’s actually rather common. Some people just have an unlucky draw in the cards when it comes to this, and others are triggered by the perfect storm. That includes nerves, dehydration, salt water, and boat fumes, all of which have the potential to amplify your nausea.

Take motion sickness medication as needed, or bring some ginger root with you on the boat. Stare the horizon as much as possible, as this helps your mind reconcile where you are with respect to everything else. The good thing about motion sickness is that it clears rather quickly after you’ve been stabilized, whether that means on the dive or back on land.

6. Your risk for decompression illness is low (but do not discredit the existence of risk).

I’ve found that most new divers worry about decompression illness, a broader term that encompasses decompression sickness (the bends) and lung over expansion injuries. Technically, yes, any diver carries a risk. However, this risk reduces to almost nothing with an extremely conservative dive plan. Your instructor will help you follow this plan.

As for a lung over expansion injury, you can virtually eliminate your risk in a couple of ways: always breathe and do not use your BCD as an elevator button to the surface. Inflating your BCD when swimming upwards puts you at risk for an uncontrolled ascent.

It may be tough to control your concerns, but all you really need to do is listen to your instructor and stay close to them underwater.

Steve on the boat pre-dive

7. Leave the GoPro for the last half of your dives.

I feel like a monster for suggesting this one. But trust me, I still want you to get some underwater footage! My reasoning is simple: there’s already enough going on during the first dive. You want to save your attention for breathing easily, establishing buoyancy, getting comfortable, and paying attention to your instructor. Imagine doing all of that, on top of figuring out how to work your camera underwater.

If you’re only doing two dives through a discovery experience, take the GoPro on the second dive. If you’re doing four dives as part of your certification, you can whip out the camera on the last two dives.

8. Your breath controls your reactions.

There are plenty of physiological studies to support this. Breathing has an established relationship with the activity in your brain. Deep breathing has been known to calm you, while rapid breathing can cause you to panic. If you encounter something that makes you anxious, practice becoming aware of your breath. You can use it to help you control your reaction.

9. Boat entries are anti-climactic.

I have to roll backwards, or step off of that blind ledge? It feels like your instructor is asking a lot of you when it’s time to hop into the water, but these entries aren’t as scary as they look. Once you experience them each for the first time, you’ll see that it’s a lot of hype for nothing.

Back roll technique into open water

10. The surface is more uncomfortable than underwater.

If you happen to go out on a choppy day, activity at the surface can be more cumbersome than what happens underwater. Choppy conditions make it difficult to move around the boat, and can cause seasickness (see #5). Diving gear is also particularly uncomfortable outside of the water. The boat crew and your instructor are aware of this, and they will help you exit the boat safely. Once in the water, keep the regulator in your mouth in case you encounter a few waves.

If you are overwhelmed, remember that everything gets better once you start the dive. You leave the choppiness behind, your seasickness goes away, and the gear feels lighter on your back. As long as you can establish comfort breathing underwater, most new divers (and all experienced divers) find the deep blue more comfortable than the surface.

11. Equalization gets easier with time.

There’s nothing that can ruin a dive more than an inability to equalize (or, add air to your ears). It’s a more frequent problem with newer divers; equalization becomes easier as you gain more experience. You have more opportunities to refine your technique and control your descent rate, which comes with improved comfort and buoyancy. Equalizing also accustoms your ears to diving – it actually tunes your inner ear muscles.

12. Seriously, be mindful of the coral and marine life.

You may hear your instructor harp on “respect for the underwater environment”. It’s easy to assume that they may just be giving this spiel to satisfy some local law, but it goes a lot further than that.

Newer divers do not yet have command of their buoyancy. If the group swims too close to the reefs, a newer or incautious diver can lose control of their movements and may break the coral. With enough damage, the reef systems begin to die off before they can repair themselves. These ecosystems take hundreds of years to reform, on top of already being taxed by the rising ocean temperatures.

The same concepts apply to the marine life. Besides the obvious Darwinism implications, these are not animals at a zoo, nor are they pets. I’m still astounded by the number of people that put their GoPro in the face of something that stings or bites. If you wouldn’t touch a bear, then don’t touch a sea turtle.

A yellow arrow crab on the reef

13. The bubbles from your tank valve are OK.

I’m definitely guilty of this one when I started diving. Seeing any bubbles made me think that I was going to run out of air unexpectedly. Unless you are losing an audible stream of air (which would be hard to miss), you don’t have anything to worry about. With enough use, the O-ring in the tank valve begins to warp. This causes an imperfect seal between the tank and the first stage of your regulator. The concern may not be immediate, but it’s good practice to replace these O-rings within the next few fill cycles.

14. Water in your mask is uncomfortable but completely safe.

This revelation helped me with my aversion to water in my mask. Once I realized that my discomfort did not mean any hazard to my safety, I was able to stay calm, accept the discomfort, and solve the problem without issue. It helps to remember that the majority of all dive problems happen at the surface, rather than underwater.

15. Your air consumption will get better.

After your first dive, you discover that your instructor has more than a half a tank of air left. Before convincing yourself that they’re a mer-person, consider the following: you weren’t used to the pull of the regulator, you were anxious, and you were using more energy than your comparatively still instructor. You’re burning more energy, which will convert to a faster air consumption rate.

Your instructor knows what to expect with this. I personally check other people’s air 15 minutes into the dive, then every 10 minutes after that. Even this is excessive, because you can usually forecast a divers air consumption from the initial check. As a new diver, you just need to make sure that you can catch your instructor’s eye when they try to check your air.

Underwater selfie

16. If you can’t do your dive, don’t be afraid to try it again.

In my opinion, this is the most important piece of advice on this list. If I hadn’t listened to this, I wouldn’t have become a diver. Confession time: I did not complete my first open water dive. We went with a shop that did not start discovery students with a confined water session. Although not required, this turned out to be crucial for my comfort and success in the water. I managed to complete the second dive on the two-tank trip, but not without holding the instructor’s hand. Yep, I’m guilty of that too!

After a lot of reflection, I decided to go for my open water certification on my next vacation. I had a completely different experience. I felt comfortable in the water from the start, and even went on to do my advanced open water course on the same trip. Diving is now a huge part of my life, and it’s crazy to think that it almost didn’t have a chance.

17. If you can do your dive, find ways to improve on your next one.

Congratulations! Completing your first dive is an awesome personal feat. If you decide that you want to do this again, listen to your instructor on what can be improved for your next trip. If they don’t offer anything up, don’t be afraid to ask. You are always a student in scuba, even folks with thousands of dives under their belts still find ways to improve.

A school of blue striped grunt


Disclaimer: This post reflects my experiences and opinions. Do not use this advice to replace any required training.

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  1. Jenn and Ed Coleman July 11, 2017 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Really good list. I have just finished my rescue diver course and I am starting DM in August. Love the advise on the confined water dive. If you are only diving at a resort every other year, you should be staying close to your dm anyway so discover scuba becomes a reasonable long term solution. I like the idea of practicing skills. Like, when was the last time you actually dropped your weights? I am going through all the open water skills again and some of them were a little rusty. I kept passing my regulator upside down. I would make sure to add being positively bouyant on the surface to this list as a prime saftey item and neutral bouyancy as a prime skill. Great post.
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted…Chilling in Chattanooga- The Guide to Good TimesMy Profile

    • Katie Fitton July 18, 2017 at 7:15 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the feedback! Congrats on finishing the rescue course, I found it to be fun but challenging. Excited for the start of your DM! I do plan to write some posts about that, but they may come in after your start time. If you do have questions though, feel free to let me know!

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