It’s something that will either fill you with excitement or fear, anticipation or dread. Being far under the surface of the water with a tank of air strapped to your back, venturing into the world of corals, octopi, sharks, rays, anemones, puffer fish, angel fish, more fish that one person could possibly count.
People are sometimes shocked when I tell them I’m only new at diving. “But you’re Australian, right?” they say. “You’ve got the Great Barrier Reef right there!” These people need to be reminded just how big Australia is. I’m from the alpine region (such as it is), inland and very far from the tropical corals off the shore of Queensland. From my home town to the southern edge of the reef is over 1800km. You can cross whole European countries in that distance, even the big ones. It’s further than the distance from Hamburg to Rome, or Paris to Krakow. So no, actually, I don’t just wander down to the Great Barrier Reef every other weekend, unfortunately.
But I’m not in Australia at the moment. I’m in Fiji.
And Fiji is a scuba diver’s paradise.
Fiji has some of the world’s best dive sites. Brightly coloured fish, intimidating sharks, soft corals that look like flowers with a gentle breeze sweeping across them – it’s a pretty stunning under water landscape. And after skimming the surface snorkelling and jealously listening to my friends exclaim about the wonder they’d found below the surface, I decided enough was enough, and it was past time for me to learn to dive and get my open water certificate. After all, I’m certainly in the right place for it! So it seemed to me like an excellent place to get my diving certificate and start exploring the reefs.
Let me tell you – snorkelling does not even come close to diving, and anyone who tells you so is either crazy or hasn’t been diving. It’s like someone who tells you a garden is as good as a rain forest, or a scone is the same as a black forest cake. There’s similarities, sure, but ultimately it just doesn’t even come close.
Where to learn to dive in Fiji
After a bit of research, I decided the place to get my certificate was the stunningly gorgeous Yasawa Islands in Fiji’s west, where the water is clear, the fish are plentiful, and the coral is stunning. It’s also the sort of place that’s totally free from crowds – there’s no class schedule to follow, things are much more relaxed than that. Signing up to a course in a place like this couldn’t be simpler. I walked over to the dive shop at Barefoot Island and announced, “I want to do my open water.” I was teamed up with the dive instructor Megan, a German girl about my age, and we were ready to get started.
Obviously I hardly count as an expert, but I would 100% recommend learning to dive in Fiji at a place like this. From what I understand, the usual way to learn to dive is in a class. There’s a group and an instructor, maybe an assistant. You start off in a pool and have to wait til everyone is ready before moving on. You learn as a group instead of one-on-one. That’s the sot of thing that I like to avoid if I can, and I certainly was able to at Barefoot. For no extra cost (and with no need to make special arrangements or anything), I had a private instructor who would go exactly at my pace, whether that was fast or slow (and it varied, depending on what we were learning). I got to join in with more advanced divers right away (though I’m sure we would have gone slower if I was less confident), and I learned my skills in the ocean rather than a swimming pool.
Seriously, who wants to dive in a swimming pool?? The most interesting thing you might see down there is a band-aid.
There are a few components to an open water certificate – theory, skills, and fun. The theory aspect involved reading a book and discussing ideas with my instructor. It’s 90% common sense – the only annoying part is having to read instead of make new friends while on holiday. But at least I had a beautiful place to do it in.
Skills were done in shallow water off the beach, and included learning to take my regulator (the bit you breathe out of) out and put it back in without drowning, taking off my mask and putting it back on without blinding myself in the salt water, and sharing air with my instructor without panicking, just in case of the worst case scenario. It’s all really simple. The dive shop actually had a sign up saying something like “Requirements for scuba diving: Can you breathe through your mouth? Great! Let’s get started.” The hardest bit is actually the mental twist required to remember to breathe underwater at first. It goes against your instincts, but it’s important not to hold your breath. You gt used to it very quickly though.
Getting into deep(ish) water
The site Megan chose for our first deep(ish) water experience was called Coral Orgasm. (Don’t you just love the name?) The boat captain expertly navigated us to a spot in the endlessly blue Pacific, somehow finding the hidden paradise from the surface using landmarks from nearby islands. With a couple of certified divers along too, we strapped ourselves in to our gear – BC, tank, mask, fins, weight belts – and awkwardly wriggled to the edge of the boat. This stuff is not easy to move around in above the water! Perching on the edge of the boat, we barrel rolled in, splashing into the cool depths. I inflated my BC to keep me on the surface for the moment, bobbing along like a buoy. The certified divers went ahead, leaving Megan and I on the surface. Then she gave me the signal, and we released the air from our BCs and gently descended into the blue depths.
I know it’s a cliche, but it really is another world down there. We know more about the moon than we know about the bottom of the ocean. We know more about the surface of Mars. Crazy, right?
How do you describe the feeling of scuba diving? You go from being one of the most awkward, ungainly creatures around, hardly able to walk in your fins, off-balance from the heavy tank strapped to your back, to feeling graceful beyond measure. You find that point in the water that divers call neutral buoyancy – you don’t float, you don’t sink, you’re there, suspended in the water. The fish aren’t shy. They know you’re not there to hurt them, and they just ignore you, swimming around you in numbers you can hardly fathom. Everything is quiet, and serene, and yet somehow full of energy at the same time.
The worst thing about diving is it’s always over too soon. There’s only so much air you can put in a tank. And it’s only healthy to stay down there for so long – you need to be careful about extra nitrogen dissolving into your blood, which happens at increased pressure.
You have to do four or five dives to qualify as an open water diver, over 2-3 days, demonstrating different skills on each. But the most important aspect of the dives is just experience, and enjoying the sights, sounds and incredible feel of scuba diving. And Megan, my instructor, never let me feel alone, always making sure I was in complete control. The following day’s dives, at Sunrise Beach and Teddy Bear Island, were just as amazing as Coral Orgasm. The difference was that I got to see marine conservation in action.
As part of the Vinaka Fiji program, Barefoot has a lot of marine conservation going on. Off Sunrise Beach, we saw a giant clam nursery, where they’re breeding clams for release into the wild, and a sea cucumber mating pen. (The cucumbers though don’t seem keen on staying in their mating pen, and many had escaped! I can’t say I blame them – forced mating doesn’t appeal to me either… haha)
At Teddy Bear, the certified divers with us were hunting for crown of thorns star fish, a menace to the reefs that causes widespread destruction. They carefully prise them from the rocks and put them in sacks, to be taken back to the island and buried. Just killing them usually causes them to spawn, making the problem even worse. I admit I felt slightly bad for the star fish – it’s not exactly their fault they’re a plague, they’re just doing what they do. But they’re killing so much of the reefs, it really is the only option.
And with that, I was certified! Back to the beach, and a fresh coconut off the tree to celebrate. I’m a diver!
Come at me, oceans!
Thinking of learning to dive in Fiji? Great! Here’s what you need to do.
- Pick somewhere you like the feel of. If you want to be the only student and get straight in the ocean, do what I did and pick somewhere a bit remote. If you’d rather try things out in a pool first with the safety net of other students around you, that’s fine too – plenty of the bigger resorts in places like the Coral Coast and Nadi offer dive courses like this. You can email the resort or dive school ahead of time to find out how they do things.
- An open water certificate will set you back something like $750 FJ. Head over to XE to check what that is in your local currency – it’s something like $400 AU or $350 US, which is I think about mid-range as far as international prices go. It’s not cheap. But it’s an amazing experience, and diving gets cheaper once you’re certified.
- The dive companies (PADI, SSI, etc) will rave about the benefits of getting your own set of equipment and learning in your own gear. That’s nonsense, it’s just about selling you gear. (And I’ve had that confirmed by one of PADI’s top instructors! Shhh…) Any reputable dive shop will lend you decent quality gear as part of the price of your course.
- Make sure you’re getting certified with an international organisation. PADI and SSI are the two biggest, and they more or less recognise each other’s qualifications. There are others, but just do a quick Google search if it’s not one of the big companies, just to ensure you’re not dealing with a dodgy rogue operator or something.
- If you’re going in winter (June-August), the water will be a little cool – yes, even in Fiji. The dive shop should give you a wetsuit if you need one. In summer, you probably won’t need a wetsuit unless you want one.
- Set aside a good few days if you can. You can technically do an open water course in two days, but you’ll feel rushed, and you won’t enjoy it as much. You’ll also be reading the theory book every spare second, and while the material is simple, there’s still a few hundred pages of it, and lots of other things you’ll want to be doing as well! Take your time. It’s Fiji – there’s no rush. (Also it’s a bad idea to fly within 24 hours of scuba diving due to the changes in pressure. Just another good reason to take your time about it.)
Want any more tips? Any questions, or thoughts? Let me know below! 🙂
All underwater photographs in this post were taken by my wonderful dive instructor Megan. Thank you!!