If the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only a page, then those who don’t scuba dive are getting only one angle on some of the world’s most wondrous views.
When you pull a scuba mask over your eyes, pop a regulator into your mouth to breathe and descend to eye level with marine life and corals, the ocean simply looks different.
“It’s easier to become a diver than you think — and far more rewarding,” says Julie Andersen, senior director of global brand for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the largest scuba training organization in the world. “Not only will you be able to access amazing adventures in the blue, but you’ll also connect with a new community of ocean lovers.”
About 10 percent of PADI’s certifications in 2022 were for adults 50 and older, the group reports. And since the pandemic, there has been a 49 percent increase in certifications for those 50-plus.
All dive courses — whether through PADI or another certifying agency, such as the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) or Scuba Schools International (SSI) — involve coursework, most of which can be done by eLearning.
Andersen recommends doing your coursework at home and then choosing a dream destination to complete your certification with pool dives (if you didn’t do those through a local shop) and open-water dives.
SSI similarly offers a digital learning application, available in more than 30 languages, that allows coursework to be done both online and offline, says Rachael Steidley, marketing coordinator for SSI.
Anyone taking an open-water course with PADI or SSI is required to complete a medical form that asks about basic health and preexisting conditions, to ensure you’re a good candidate to dive. After age 45, PADI requires a signed doctor’s note that says you’re healthy enough for scuba diving.
There’s no age cutoff when it comes to diving, says Jim Chimiak, M.D., chief medical officer for the Divers Alert Network (DAN), a diver safety organization. Chimiak, 66, recommends considering your strength and fitness prior to becoming a diver. They’re two separate things, he explains.
Strength is being able to handle the rigors of diving, and fitness is being able to perform the things you’re going to be asked to do in and out of the water, he says. Among those things are carrying your gear, potentially swimming in a current, and using a ladder to get back into the boat after a dive, if you plan to be a fully qualified diver.
While lacking the strength and fitness to do the above and more doesn’t mean you can’t dive, Chimiak says, it does mean you’ll need a dedicated team to assist you with gear and other logistics in and out of the water.
Engaging in regular physical activity and maintaining flexibility are good ways to enhance your diving experience, says Cliff Richardson, executive director and CEO of NAUI Worldwide. “Many older divers find yoga and swimming to be excellent preparatory activities,” he says.
Divers of all ages need to seriously consider any health conditions. Potential contraindications for diving include seizure disorders, severe cardiac disease, history of stroke, severe musculoskeletal or neurological conditions, asthma, COPD, and middle or inner ear conditions.
For people 65 and older, Chimiak advises having your physician review the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society’s Diver Medical Physician’s Evaluation Form. “Generally, primary care doctors are not divers and may not be all that familiar with the activity,” he says. However, they can still help make sure someone is fit to dive. Doctors also can call DAN’s medical staff for help interpreting the form.
Once you’ve made sure you’re fit to dive, “it’s something very doable, it’s rewarding,” Chimiak says. Like anything else, it’s about understanding the activity and being prepared for it.
Ready to dive in?
Consider these warmwater destinations in the U.S. and Caribbean that are ideal for beginners looking to complete their dive certification on their next vacation.
This tiny Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela (it’s the B in the Caribbean’s so-called ABC islands; Aruba and Curaçao complete the chain) is famous for being one of the best places in the world for shore diving, which means you can enter the water right from the beach, no boat ride required.
Ringed by a coral reef for nearly its entirety, Bonaire’s underwater sights can be enjoyed in waters often shallower than 60 feet (the suggested depth limit for beginner divers). You might even be tempted to try a night dive here to see the tarpon that make frequent appearances or the monthly bioluminescent spectacle of tiny crustaceans called ostracods that light up in the waters two to five days after the full moon.
Many of the dive resorts on Bonaire have “house reefs,” or reefs in their front yards, including Buddy Dive Bonaire, Captain Don’s Habitat, and Plaza Beach & Dive Resort Bonaire, making it easy to swim out and explore with a snorkel or tank.
“Some of the best reef is just off the beach, so you can dive directly from the shore,” says JoAnn Haack, 49, an SSI instructor trainer. “Avoiding the boat ride is great if you get seasick.”
2. Turks and Caicos
For a multigenerational vacation where you can finish your certification between hanging out with your kids and grandkids, Andersen recommends Beaches Turks & Caicos, which has a PADI dive shop. The all-inclusive resort includes scuba diving in its rates as well as a great kids club, all your food and drink, and the use of water equipment such as kayaks and Hobie Cats. Other dive resorts to consider for a stay in Turks and Caicos include the Osprey Beach Hotel and Ocean Club Resorts.
3. Florida Keys
Stephen Frink, 74, an acclaimed underwater photographer and the publisher of DAN’s Alert Diver magazine, suggests the Florida Keys as a terrific learn-to-dive destination. He notes there is “deep infrastructure for scuba instruction" throughout the major islands, from Key Largo to Key West.
Accommodations in the Florida Keys range from resorts with complete onsite dive centers and boats, such as the Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key and Looe Key Reef Resort on Ramrod Key, to intimate bed-and-breakfasts in Key West where you can mix more turf with the surf.
Coral reefs in the Keys are often shallow, usually between 15 and 30 feet deep, with abundant fish life, colorful sponges and spur-and-groove formations that are fun to practice navigating with your new skills. Frink says to be aware of “weather exposure” during the winter months that can cause rougher seas in the Florida Keys.
4. Roatán, Honduras
A port of call on many a cruise ship itinerary, the Caribbean island of Roatán, off the northern coast of Honduras, offers vibrant coral reefs along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef system). It also offers lee-side diving, sheltered from the prevailing winds, where new divers won’t have to worry about fighting rough seas as they hone their skills, Frink says.
Anthony’s Key Resort makes it easy to pack in several dives a day and gain confidence over the course of a week. Its all-inclusive dive packages include three daily dives as well as night dives and shore diving on the resort’s house reef out front.
Other Roatán resorts that have partnered with local dive centers and offer PADI training include Barefoot Cay Boutique Resort & Marina and Paradise Beach Hotel.
5. Grand Cayman
For getting your underwater bearings as a new diver, Grand Cayman is another favorite Caribbean dive destination, with tons of marine life, healthy reefs, lee-side diving and even a shallow shipwreck, the USS Kittiwake, whose upper deck can be dived in around 20 feet of water.
There are a range of options for staying on Grand Cayman too. For a dedicated scuba diving resort, consider Sunset House, which has a house reef and six dive boats ready to ferry you to sites. If you prefer a more conventional resort, Marriott or Hilton properties are options.
“Grand Cayman is a fantastic place to do your first dives,” says SSI’s Haack. “The water is incredibly clear, with short boat rides to some amazing reefs. I have seen more turtles and the beautiful queen angelfish in Grand Cayman than anywhere in the Caribbean.”
Whatever you do, make time to toast your newly learned skill at dive day’s end with something frosty and festive (virgin or fortified). After all, learning something new is what keeps us feeling young at heart.