What do you have to learn in an SSI Open Water Diver course?

diving gestures

A school of bright fish pass over the luscious blue of the TV screen, two divers floating behind them. So far, the SSI Open Water Diver course at the ORCA Dive Club Soma Bay is easy and pleasant enough. The video then goes on to explain the history of diving, the equipment and how to use it. By lesson 3, we have learned about decompression sickness and enormous pressure changes in lungs and ears, inadvertently fingering our ears and swallowing nervously. Without transition the sugary voice goes on. “Diving is a wonderful experience!”. By now we have slight doubts, but are nevertheless still curious and full of positive anticipation.

Open Water Diving is a gear-intensive sport

The next step is to get the rental equipment. In the Open Water Diver beginners’ course you don’t have to have your own gear, although Natascha, being quite short-sighted, brought her own mask with optical glasses. Diving is a gear-intensive sport. So apart from mask, snorkel and fins we get a wetsuit, a buoyancy jacket, lead weights, a diving regulator, a dive computer and of course air cylinders for each dive. All of this weighs about 20 kg, and we don’t exactly feel like plunging into deep water bearing all this.

Our diving instructor Shady is an Egyptian with several thousand dives under his belt. “And then you make me a sign that you don’t have air, and take my second regulator”, he is explaining the first lesson. “You mean, underwater??!”. Shady had been planning to go straight into the lagoon for practice, but since we seem so shocked and there is a stiff breeze in the lagoon, we do our exercises in the pool. After all, it is winter and even the Red Sea is not really warm and comfy for diving.

Not so open water: Diving in the pool for the SSI Open Water Diver course

Isa underwater, as an unsteady diver
Isa’s first unsteady efforts at diving

In spite of the video preparation, we are surprised how diving actually works. You can breathe quite effortless underwater with the regulator, although the sound of those air bubbles is a bit nerve-racking. It rather reminds us of the life support machine in intensive care stations (knowledge from the movies…). Thanks to the mask you can see clearly, and despite the lead belt you can move. Admittedly, our movements are more hopping and bouncing than weightless floating. And the following afternoon lesson is out in the open water.

To qualify as an SSI open water diver, you have to go deeper than 6 meters and stay underwater for longer than 20 minutes, we learn. We stay for 29 minutes and get down as deep as 9.6 m! And we do get to see a good many fish – all on the first day! Again, apart from the bouncing around and a certain amount of nervousness due to too much water, it goes quite well.

Everyone seems to pity us when we have to go inside for more theory. But in fact we are glad to do something familiar such as looking at diagrams and taking some notes.

classroom for the SSI Open Water Diver course

You must not panic!

On the second day, we are more nervous, because the challenge of breathing underwater – and evenly so – now becomes more real rather than just a one-off experience. The difficulty is not so much the breathing itself but the knowledge that you may not panic under any circumstances. “Doesn’t that make you rather more prone to panicking?” Natascha worries.

Hesitantly, we jump into the lagoon. And yes, we pop up in spite of those 20 kilos because the jacket is filled with air like a lifejacket. Today, we are up for safety drills under water, dictated by the SSI Open Water Diver rules. Changing mouthpieces, getting water out of the mask, removing and replacing the mask completely … Then we have to take off the various pieces of equipment under water and on the surface, and fix them again. Next is buoyancy practice, dealing with muscle cramps underwater, and so on. Some of these exercises are ok, others more frightening. Later on shore, talking to other divers, we learn that most people have exercises they hate. We also hear of experienced divers who refuse to take off their mask.

Rationally, we agree that it’s better to practice these drills to be prepared if something does happen. Still we are not keen on doing them, as being underwater and breathing evenly through the regulator seems challenging enough.

Open water dives on day 3 of our SSI Open Water Diver course

On day 3, more safety drills follow. The next open water dive goes deeper in, along the coral reef. The sea is cold, and diving appears more like something to get through with than a pleasant hobby. Theory lessons have meanwhile arrived at responsible diving. That includes planning the schedule and length and depth of each dive, with brief mention of the various animals to be seen in the sea. But being able to identify certain fish and sea slugs is a matter of every diver’s personal priorities. It’s not important for the diving certificate. Natascha has meanwhile quit the course because the stress diving causes her is greater than her interest in fish and slugs. She admits, though, that at least underwater slugs are more colourful than their earthling counterparts.

Isa underwater, as an unsteady diver

The final day consists of only one dive with almost no exercises – the idea being to make you feel more relaxed in the water and keen to continue your new hobby. After three days of diving drills it feels indeed somewhat less frightening. Isa has also learned to move more controlled underwater so that she can enjoy the dive more than before. The theory part is ticked off with an easy multiple choice test comprising 50 questions mostly concerning security measures and procedures. And then Isa finally is a certified open water diver!

Why do an SSI Open Water Diver course?

The SSI Open Water Diver card authorises its holder to dive without further instruction. But for another 26 dives still accompanied by a dive guide certified to do this. The same applies to the equally popular PADI Open Water Diver programme. A very sensible requirement, we think. After all, the course with its 4 open water dives may prepare for easy dives in good conditions, but certainly not for any unusual or dangerous situation.

Although diving (as everything) gets easier with practice it might be helpful if you are a confident swimmer, even in the open sea. Also, if you don’t find the idea of being stuck under tons of water too disturbing. Even better if you are additionally interested in fish and underwater fauna. But then, this automatically comes with more dives, the other divers assured us. On the other hand, if you continue, you will meet nice and open-minded people around the world. Yes, we found divers to be a very uncomplicated and friendly bunch. And finally: you have an additional 70 % of the world to explore.

Our SSI Open Water Diver course was sponsored by Sarah and Bram Bredero from the Orca Dive Club Soma Bay. The base is situated next to the Breakers Lodge in Soma Bay, Safaga, Egypt. Soma Bay, in turn, is not far from the touristic centre of Egypt’s Red Sea coast, Hurghada.

NB: We had some sponsoring for our SSI Open Water Diver course from the Orca Dive Club at Soma Bay as we were researching for one of our Egypt guidebooks.

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  1. A great post for would be scuba divers. All my family are PADI divers ranging from Open Water to Divemaster, so we are familiar with the aquatic world. It is a fantastic sport and a qualification that can be used worldwide. For us, the Red Sea has been our best experience of seeing the best variety of fish and coral. It is a shame Natascha didn’t continue, but it is not for everyone.

    1. I guess it is not – but I sort of expected it before we started. I am not a very confident swimmer and water always makes me nervous. It was an experience anyway.

  2. I remember doing a diving course years ago on a trip to the Philippines. It was fun to begin with, but I just couldn’t relax when I had all the gear on! I realised then I was claustrophobic. So now I stick to snorkel! This is good information for others to know.

    1. So did you finish the course? I also think snorkeling is much more fun. I am also somewhat interested in free-diving without gear. It just seems more controlled and more natueral to me.

  3. I definitely think I would want to try that in a pool first. To be honest, I had a hard time adjusting to snorkeling. But who knows? I may add this to my bucket list.

  4. Open Water Diving is on my bucket list to try. However, I’m a little scared as it’s a challenging sport. It’s great to know that I don’t need my gear on the In the Open Water Diver beginners’ course. I like your tips, especially don’t panic. You had an amazing adventure, and your pictures are great.

  5. I’m a very passionate snorkeler, hence, I’ve been interested in diving, too. I’m sure you get to know the underwater world on a whole different level. However, I have trouble keeping this plastic part from the snorkel in my mouth for a longer period of time and need the opportunity to just lift my head above the water to take it out. Also, I have no sense of orientation – and I do panic…big time! So yes, I’m happy for everyone who does not face those issues and can happily dive – and get to know the underwater world on a whole different level.

    1. Dear Renata, with all the fears you describe it might be that you have a hard time diving too. But you will never know for sure until you try it…

  6. The SSI open water diver course seems quite helpful for inquisitive divers and the step by step rules to follow with all the gears like wetsuit, masks, diving regulator, buoyancy jacket, cylinders. It’s great that the course teaches how to stay underwater for more than 20 minutes and deeper than 6 feet and also practice drill exercises like removing and replacing masks and remove water from mask. And of course you get to see range of underwater colorful creatures as well. I would love to try once.

  7. This post took me right back to my early days scuba diving. David was a long time scuba diver and I picked it up late in life. I loved having him to help me with key concepts. It took me awhile to get properly weighted. And to push back on the instructor that did not want me to use weights for my floaty legs. But when he saw how neutrally buoyant it made me, he conceded that I was right. The 4 dives certainly do not fully prepare you to be on your own but provide the basics. I look forward to see where you go diving! It has been far too long since we were last underwater.

    1. Dear Linda, actually, I (Natascha) quit on the 3rd day. And I do not regret it at all. I have been diving another time (with a guide) after the beginners course and actually quite enjoyed it. But still, I love the mountains more and all this organizing of boats, oxygen tanks etc. is just something I do not want to be bothered with.

  8. You guys did GREAT! Thanks for bringing me back to when we got our PADI Open Water in Belize about 15 years ago. We have since taken over 200 dives and I can tell you it is one of the coolest skills you will ever have in your life!!!! It’s a whole other world down there…and each ocean is completely different.

    1. Dear Mike, thanks for stopping by. Actually we did not like diving very much. But it was an experience for sure – we will stick to the mountains in the future.

  9. Many of my friends started enrolling in diving lessons and honestly, I am tempted to do so. I am just so fascinated with their stories and the experience they had. Thank you for managing my expectations about enrolling in a dive course.

  10. This so amazing! I tried scuba years ago and it took me forever to get used to breathing under water. For some reason it was very challenging for me. But I would love to try again someday in a course like this. I love underwater life and snorkling.

  11. Being a SSI Divemaster myself, reading this brought back memories from the time when I did my Open Water Course, and how, that one dive was addictive enough to make me go all the way to becoming a DiveMaster.
    Having assisted on many courses, the only thing I convey to others, is to be calm and relax. And never stop breathing.
    It takes a couple of dives to get the hang of it, but once it does, theres no looking back.

  12. It seems intriguing to take an open-water diving course. However, prior to participating in this type of activity, one must possess a great deal of guts, mental toughness, and stamina. How I wish I could engage in this as well, if circumstances permit, because it appears to be very thrilling!

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