by Theodora Sutcliffe
Diving is one of the most amazing marine activities there is, and the fun doesn’t have to stop when you have kids – children can begin exploring scuba-diving from as young as 8 with a PADI Bubblemaker fun day or an SSI Scuba Ranger activity, if they are comfortable in the water and good swimmers. Under-10s are not allowed to a depth below 3m and can dive only with a diver certified to Instructor level.
Snorkelling is a great preparation for diving (as well as a great thing altogether) as it gets children used to breathing with their face underwater and accustoms them to the size distortions that masks and water produce – which should stop them fleeing to shore at the first sight of a magnified sea urchin. If your kids have a history of ear problems, sinus trouble, breathing problems (including asthma) or any serious health issues, see your GP or a specialist diving doctor to discuss their suitability, and get written confirmation that they are able to dive.
There are two internationally recognized diver qualifying systems, SSI and PADI. Children can qualify as a Junior Open Water Diver from age 10 in both systems, which will allow them to dive to a maximum depth of 12m when accompanied by an adult diver qualified to the level of Dive Master or above, or a qualified parent. Kids aged 15+ can qualify as adults. The requirements for children to qualify are the same as for an adult: they need to be able to swim 200m in open water and strong enough to tow an adult diver in full kit 25m through open water. They will also need to be able to cope with the theory elements of the course, which even some adults find tough. If a child is keen to qualify, it is well worth getting a headstart on the theory learning.
How and Where to Dive with Kids
Choose a dive school with a 5* rating and check that they have suitably sized gear. It is generally worth investing in a mask that works for your child’s features – a small nose pocket makes equalizing easier for little fingers and little noses.
Look for small class sizes – optimally no more than two students in the water at one time. And talk to the instructor who will be teaching your children to find out how they deal with juniors.
Safely qualified? What do you need to bear in mind? The first element is depth. Though children can qualify as Junior Advanced Open Water Divers aged 12, allowing them to a maximum depth of 21m, there has been limited research into the effects of pressure on developing bodies. Make sure that there are sites with interesting things to see at 12m or shallower without too much current, surge or (when diving from shore) surf, and good visibility. Some of the most exhilarating dive locations, such as the Galapagos Islands, are deep, with strong and often dangerous currents making them unsuitable for young divers. And some of the most popular, such as Koh Tao in Thailand, are such a magnet for learner divers that the safe, shallow sites are chockablock.
Because children dehydrate and chill more easily than adults, they should dive less frequently, so liveaboard boats offering unlimited daily dives may not be the best option for families with younger children.
Where to go? For many divers, coral reef is where it’s at, and this can be found all over the tropics. Top picks are the ‘coral triangle’ of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, which contains much of the world’s best reef, and the Raja Ampat islands off Indonesian Papua, considered the single-most diverse marine environment on Earth.
More accessibly, the Red Sea offers rich reef life, fantastic visibility and relatively easy diving, with interesting sites for both adults and young divers. Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean also has plenty of sites suitable for young divers.
See also our feature Diving with Kids.