Thomas Rhodes fins along under water in scuba gear without his mask on for the required distance of 50 feet. He stops, replaces the mask, and then while under water, clears the mask of water.
I give him a big OK sign and then a high-five. He has just performed one of the scuba skills required for certification. Many students find removing and replacing a dive mask under water and then blowing through their nose to clear the mask of water one of the more difficult skills when learning to dive.
I am a proud grandpa. I am working on certifying my second generation of family members. Thomas is only 11 years old. The same age his older sister was when I certified her a few years ago, and about the same age his uncle (my son) was when I certified him over a generation ago and took him and his 14-year-old brother (my other son) diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
About 15 years ago, the World Recreational Scuba Training Council dropped the age limit for its junior certification from 12 to 10 years old. Most of the major dive associations adopted these rules.
But there is still some controversy as to how old a child should be to get certified as a scuba diver.
Not every child is ready — or wants — to learn to dive at a young age. Children mature at different ages.
Several factors determine when a child is ready to learn scuba, including size, learning ability, attention span, impulse control, dexterity and comfort in the open water. In reality, some folks, no matter their age, do not want to learn to dive.
Just because a parent thinks scuba is a great idea, the child might not think so and could be just as happy swimming in a pool or snorkeling in a controlled environment.
More important, waiting a few years could avoid an unpleasant experience or perception of failure for the child. It might be better to wait a few years and let the child happily learn a lifelong hobby.
I have been forced to tell some parents that their child wasn’t ready to safely scuba dive — sometimes getting strong negative reactions — even after the parents have seen me work with the child for hours in a pool.
I ended up with some angry parents but went home knowing I made the right decision to keep their children safe.
The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, like the other certifying agencies, has rules for the certification of young divers.
Divers who are younger than 15 may earn a “Junior Diver” certification. All course requirements, including learning requirements for academics and water skills, are the same as for adult certification. This needs to be repeated — all course requirements for scuba certification, including academics and water skills, are the same for kids and adults.
Even if they don’t get certified, young kids can have a lot of fun in a pool by safely trying scuba under close professional supervision.
Children as young as 8 can enroll in a “Bubblemaker” or “Seal Team” program, enabling them to dive in confined water (pool-like conditions) to a maximum depth of 12 feet.
Before young children can participate in the Bubble Maker experience, parents or guardians are required to complete special administrative paperwork.
Before a 10- to 11-year-old can start a PADI scuba certification course, a parent or guardian is required to watch a “Youth Risk Management DVD,” or review the “Youth Diving: Responsibility and Risks Flipchart” and read and sign a “Youth Diving: Responsibility and Risks Acknowledgment” form.
After certification as junior open-water divers, 10- to 11-year-olds are restricted to diving with a parent, guardian or certified and insured divemaster or instructor to a maximum of 40 feet deep.
Children ages 12 to 14 who are certified as junior open-water divers are restricted to a depth limit of 70 feet and must dive with an adult certified diver.
All potential divers, including adults, must also complete health questionnaires and sign diving responsibility and liability release forms.
Diving is a great activity. It can lead to a lifelong hobby, avocation or even vocation that provides extensive opportunities for learning, meeting new friends and exploring the underwater world all over the globe. It can give a person of any age the opportunity to learn about the wonders of the sea — firsthand.
So, if your child wants to learn to dive, and is ready, great!
Just be sure to pick a dive store and instructors and assistants who are suited for and enthusiastic about teaching young children. There are some questions you need answered.
Ask about the instructor’s experience in teaching younger divers. Does the dive center rent or sell the smaller gear needed by children? Is the dive shop or instructor willing to take the extra time needed to properly teach scuba to children? Is the instructor patient? Can he or she relate to young people, use language they understand and encourage but not tease or criticize?
A good, experienced and thoughtful scuba instructor will have a lasting effect on your child’s desire to be a responsible diver and to continue diving after the course. Be careful in choosing one.
OK, let’s get back to Thomas.
After successfully completing his academic requirements and learning his scuba skills in the pool, we went on to “real dives” The first two were in the lagoon at Jules Undersea Lodge, famous for the record-breaking 73-day stay underwater by Roane State biology professor Bruce Cantrell and instructor Jessica Fain.
For the final dives, we went on two reefs off Islamorada. Thomas is a natural in water. That was obvious watching him do somersaults and barrel rolls like a jet fighter plane.
It was exciting to be able to show him southern stingrays, lionfish, angelfish and a host of other critters.
I asked Thomas how he likes diving.
“I really liked seeing the stingrays and grunts,” he said. “Scuba is like flying or floating in air, and a time away from the hustle-bustle of everyday life.”
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.