Overcome your top fears about Advanced Open Water Diving

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

Once you’ve completed the PADI Open Water Diver certification course, you are eligible to take the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course. Even though you technically could take the course immediately after your Open Water certification, I’d suggest getting in some dives before jumping right into the advanced class. Before I took the course, I had about 25-30 dives under my belt, and for me this was the perfect amount of practice to have before taking the plunge into the depths of more advanced diving!

While there are some other skills you must complete and learn in the Advanced Open Water course (such as navigation) the main event in this course is the deep dive. Recreational divers are only allowed to dive to a maximum of 120 feet and the PADI courses will generally certify divers up to 100 feet, which is exactly what I did.

Because the focal point of the course is the deep dive and that is what brings about the most anxiety and fear for divers, I am going to focus the most on the deep dive in this post. Getting your advanced certification is 50% (or more!) about controlling your mind and the other 50% about working on the skills you already learned in your Open Water course and becoming more confident in the water.

So What Exactly Is There to Be Fearful About?

Most of the fears you’ll encounter are probably the same fears you had when you were doing your beginner certification. The same things can go wrong at 100 feet as can go wrong at 20 feet, 40 feet or 60 feet, but there’s an extra element of anxiety added when you are that much further below the surface. I’m here to address some of those fears and to alleviate them as best I can, so read on below!

Fear #1: Am I Skilled Enough to Dive Deep?

The idea of an “advanced” diving course might sound intimidating, especially if you’ve only just recently been certified. You’ll probably wonder to yourself (like I did) if you are really ready to dive to 100 feet. Do you have the necessary skills? Will it be the same down there as what you've seen before? It’s normal to feel anxious or a little scared when you are pushing yourself to a new limit. The type of “scared” I’m talking about here is not a fear of the creatures of the deep (they are fascinating!), but rather a fear about what might happen to you if something were to go wrong so far from the surface.

How to Overcome This Fear:

The best way to combat this anxiety is to practice, practice, practice. One challenge many people face in learning to scuba dive is that it can be hard to practice. Each dive is expensive, so when you are diving you usually don’t want to "waste" time in shallow water or a pool practicing your skills when there are incredible things to see below.

Sometimes practicing is not really an option when you are taken out on a boat in the middle of the ocean and told to jump right in. But there are ways to practice, on any dive. My best tip for overcoming your fear about your lack of skills is to practice any skills you might not be confident in during your first two dives of every new trip.

After a typical dive, once you have completed your three-minute safety stop at about 15 feet, you are ready to go up to the surface and end the dive. But instead of ending the dive, this is a great place to practice your skills because you are basically at the surface and could reach it, without doing any harm whatsoever, in seconds if you wanted to. This is the perfect time to practice mask removal, mask clearing, regulator purging or air sharing with a buddy.

During your advanced course, try practicing these skills at the end of your first and second dives (which are likely going to be easier dives such as navigation or fish identification), so that when your deep dive rolls around, you’ll be confident in your skills no matter what the depth is.

Proper use of hand signals is a key safety element as is diving with a reliable buddy.

Fear #2: What If My Equipment Malfunctions?

Before a dive, you can be as diligent as possible, checking and re-checking your equipment and your buddy’s equipment, but things can still malfunction, through your own error or simply through a malfunction of the equipment. You could lose a mask or a fin; your BCD might retain too much air in one of its pockets; or any number of things could happen.

The anxiety-producing element when it comes to equipment malfunction is that when you are 100 feet deep, the surface is that much further away. You don’t have the safety net of being able to look up and (usually) see the surface when you are that deep, so what can you do to alleviate this anxiety over an equipment malfunction?

How to Overcome This Fear:

I have two main tips for alleviating this anxiety. This first is to have the right equipment for you. Whether this means purchasing your own mask that fits your face perfectly and is less likely to fog or fall off, a wetsuit that is just the right thickness so you don't get cold, or even a small dive knife that you tuck away to have in the rare instance you might need it. Anything that gives you peace of mind and lets you focus on the important skills needed to dive, by all means, bring it. The more comfortable you are with your equipment (how to wear it, how it works, etc.), the less likely you’ll encounter a malfunction.

My second tip is to get very good at your hand signals and communication with your buddy so that if something does happen, you can easily communicate the situation to your buddy without panicking and without confusing him or her. It's best to go over your signals on land or boat before you jump in the water because people might have different signals for the same things, depending on where they learned to dive. When you are on the same page as your buddy, almost any equipment situation can either be fixed underwater or the two of you can end the dive together safely.

Fear #3: Decompression Sickness or Oxygen Toxicity (if diving on Nitrox) Is Terrifying! Isn’t Diving This Deep Dangerous?

Decompression sickness (DCS) becomes a real thing the deeper you dive. If you are diving on Nitrox (which contains a higher percentage of oxygen than regular air), the levels of residual nitrogen in your body will be lower after your dive than if you were diving on air (and thus, your risk of DCS is likely lower). However, you have another thing to worry about – more oxygen in your system. Too much oxygen at too much pressure (depth) can result in another illness – oxygen toxicity.

Your course book will probably scare you when they describe these illnesses in detail. And it should scare you a bit so that you take it seriously, because both DCS and oxygen toxicity are serious illnesses. However, you also should keep things in perspective, as these illnesses are rare, especially for safe divers.

How to Overcome This Fear:

The best way to get a handle on this fear is to really master the math and science behind diving and learn how to use your dive computer. Learning your dive tables and the math behind oxygen pressure limits will ease your mind way more than having a person tell you not to worry about anything and that these sicknesses are rare.

Learning the math also makes diving more fun, as you can take ownership over your dives. I couldn’t recommend getting your own dive computer enough. At first I thought it was a cool gadget, but not one I needed as a recreational diver. After using it and really learning its functions, I came to realize that a dive computer is pretty essential to a safe dive, especially if you plan to dive more often and deeper.

Personally, the possibility of DCS or oxygen toxicity were my biggest fears when it came to the advanced course. And because I expressed this fear to my instructor right away, we focused on the math during the course, going into some more advanced topics because I was very interested in it. This put my mind at ease so much, and I’m so glad I spoke up.

4. Fear #4: What If I Get Separated from My Buddy or the Boat?

Again, while getting separated from your buddy or the boat can happen no matter what depth you are diving at, the fear might be stronger when you are venturing to new depths. When you are 30 feet down, you can easily swim up to the surface and do a “boat check” to see if you’ve drifted too far away, but because of decompression sickness risks, you cannot simply pop up to the surface when you are at 100 feet. You must ascend slowly and make sure you do your safety stop.

Chances are, if you dive enough, you eventually will get separated from your buddy on a dive. Or from your buddy and the boat. So what can you do if you are scared of the possibility of separation?

How to Overcome This Fear:

If this is a fear of yours, there are two things I’d suggest doing to alleviate the fear. The first is to bring the right tools with you, such as an inflatable bright orange buoy that you can deploy to the surface. The boat can easily find you and come pick you up and you'll also be more noticeable on the surface to other passing boats.

My second tip is to come up with a detailed dive plan with your buddy. In addition to learning signals and mapping out how long you will be at each depth, this also includes confirming what your procedure will be if you two are separated. For instance, you might plan that you are only going to look for each other for one minute before you both surface. This way, you will never be separated for very long and you can both confidently know that the other one is safely ending his or her dive too and that you can reunite shortly at the surface.

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