On March 25, 2017 the only Indian couple on Caye Caulker walked back to their hotel with smiles on their faces. They felt a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment having just completed dives number 10 and 11. This walk marked the end of their week of scuba diving in Belize. They were divers now.
The Hindu priest who married Bhumi and me told us that I would be the practical one and she the dreamer. We weren’t surprised as it was Bhumi who brought up sky diving first, and my practical self had already determined how it would work well for engagement proposal: you go up and come down on a designated landing area which makes for a perfect situation to sit and wait for the surprise, and you already have the option to have the whole thing captured on video. And so that led to this:
When the discussion for what we really wanted to do next came up last year, Bhumi decided to continue on the Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara adventure package and said “I’ve always wanted to go scuba diving” – pretty much out of nowhere. I had never considered it. I’m pretty sure I assumed it would be too expensive and honestly I thought it was a dangerous (and a little scary) undertaking. Those types of things don’t seem to bother Bhumi until well after the idea has already taken a hold in her head. Still unsure about how practical this idea of scuba diving was, I figured I’d give it a chance with a Groupon for a Discover Scuba course.
Discovering Scuba Diving and Its Costs
After 2 hours in a pool with Learn Scuba Chicago dive instructors, I was in. Just floating around 6 to 12 feet under water in the diving pool imagining doing the same with fish all around helped me envision what this scuba thing could be like. Bhumi on the other had was just now beginning to think about the potential dangers. Just the fact that everyone dives with 2 breathing hoses attached to their air tanks in case their dive buddy runs out of air illustrates how serious things can get. Diving is a serious undertaking, and it was now Bhumi’s turn to ask, “do we really want to do this?”
Thankfully, the scuba diving world understands the value of experiential learning and has certification courses to help you prepare you. You have to pass a multiple-choice test after learning about things like your buoyancy in salt water vs fresh water, how depth affects pressure and breathing, how long it’s safe for your body to remain under the sea. Then you practice hands-on skills in a diving pool including assembling and disassembling your equipment, clearing your mask in case it floods with water, and sharing your buddy’s regulator (breathing device that goes in your mouth).
Unfortunately, it’s not very cheap. The ideal way to get your PADI Open Water certification is to do your classroom/online learning and pool sessions (3 to 4 days) at home (assuming you don’t already live in a dive-friendly location), and then completing your 4 open water dives at the tropical destination of your choosing. We chose Belize. It was $300 each for the Chicago-based coursework, and another $400 each for the Belize-based coursework including rental equipment. We also spent about $250 each on masks, fins, boots, and other odds and ends like lights, knives, bags, etc. That got us to certified. Then to continue diving for 3 additional days to see the variety of sites Belize has to offer it would add another $600 each bringing our total scuba diving investment to about $3,000.
Making Dollars and Sense of the Investment
Now here’s where our practical approach helps make this work. We were lucky enough to have 100,000 points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card this year. We were also lucky that Southwest started flying to the Caribbean recently because we can transfer our Chase points to Southwest (where bags also fly free!). After researching a bit on the best diving sites in the Caribbean, lining up dates with Bhumi’s spring break, and finding a hotel that would fit in our points budget, we landed on Caye (pronounced “key”) Caulker – a small Belizean island that’s a 40 minute ferry ride off the coast of Belize City. Not paying anything for the flight and hotel made the scuba expense a lot more feasible. It also enabled us to go with Belize Diving Services, the best (and most expensive) dive shop in the area. It was worth paying extra to feel secure during our first diving experience – and I would highly, highly, highly recommend this shop! Ilya was an awesome instructor, and the entire crew was a fun, attentive and thoughtful bunch (special shout out to Walter for ensuring we saw an eagle ray on our last dive!). They also had larger boats than others (important for the 1 to 2 hours rides out to the reefs), great equipment, and a very professional approach to everything.
We focused on investing in the experience of diving, and the rest didn’t matter. I would take the same approach if I were to do it again. The diving was magical. And being on an island with nothing planned and nothing really available to do was a pleasant break from the real world.
Do Your Open Water Certification Dives in the Ocean
The reason you want to do the open water certification dives on site (especially if you’re from somewhere in-land like us) is because you get to spend the 45 minutes in the ocean for each dive, where all the fish and sea creatures are instead of a local quarry where there is nothing to see. After spending the first 25 – 30 minutes practicing specific skills, you get to spend the last 10 – 15 minutes practicing your “trim” aka swimming around efficiently instead of flapping around like a fish out of water. It is during this time when you get to enjoy the sights and really start appreciating your new ability as perfectly described by a colleague of mine: the ability to fly on an entirely new planet (aka 71% of earth).
Our first open water dive was in the Turneffe Reef about an hour off the coast. The group of 15 people on the boat went from relaxed boaters to wet-suited divers in a flurry when the captain announced we were approaching the site. Everyone started putting on their equipment, checking their gauges, soaping their masks (so it won’t fog up), and getting their GoPros ready all at once. Then, we waddled to the edge of the boat with our fins already on our feet and with a long-stride off the boat we were in the ocean. We had to inflate the buoyancy control device (BCD) right away so we’re still floating on top of the water and then signal OK to the boat. This is it. We’re about to dive in the ocean!
After our instructor joined us in the water, we all descended to the sandy ocean floor about 35 feet below the boat using the rope attached to the anchor as a guide. The water was so clear, you could see straight to the bottom and see 100 feet out in all directions. I remember just watching all these little fish swimming around us that first time, just taking in the experience. We were inside a giant aquarium tank, and we were just getting started.
Besides getting to swim with all the coral and fish, we were actually spoiled by seeing a loggerhead turtle and a giant spotted eagle ray on our very first dive. Fortunately we would see several more rays during our stay in Belize, but this one was the largest by far. We were just in awe as it soared by us. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to bring your camera on your certification dives so we couldn’t capture that moment, but here is another one from later in the trip:
Over the course of the 4 open water dives we got to see 2 different reefs, reached a depth of 60 feet, met lots of fish, nurse sharks, a few more turtles, as well as eels, crab, lobster, and more. Had we skimped on the certification part and just done those dives in Chicago, we would have seen nothing.
Why Dive Belize? Because it’s Unbelizable!
Want to know why you should dive in Belize? This was my face after:
Bhumi and I got to dive 11 times in 5 days out of the 7 that we were in Belize (can’t dive the day after or before flying). We saw 4 different reef sites (San Pedro, Spanish Bay, Turneffe, Lighthouse) and the Great Blue Hole where we reached our max depth of ~85 feet. During those dives we went from apprehensive but excited land-folk to just plain happy mouth-breathers. I’m sitting here thinking about the experience 2 months later and thinking about how I felt, and there’s no better way to describe it. We were happy.
I can keep telling you about this experience, but I can’t do it justice. I will just describe the moment of elation after which everything in the world was grand and I began doing corkscrews under the water out of glee. Then you can get a better feel for the diving through our videos at the bottom of this post.
I still remember when our guide put his open-palm hand perpendicular to his forehead and pointed over my left shoulder about half-way through dive number 7. I turned my head immediately and saw it. My body followed my head as my heart started beating a little faster. And without even thinking about it I was kicking. Kicking in the direction of the shark.
The thing about sharks is, they’re not really interested in you – and don’t even like how you taste. There isn’t a real reason to fear them (besides great whites), but having grown up watching Jaws and being conditioned to fear them, you’re naturally a little scared because of what they can do to you if they were interested in you (which they’re not). Either way, they are beautiful creatures that own their spot at the top of the oceanic food chain with their intimidatingly sharp, missile-like bodies gliding though the water.
Would I have hit my ceiling of joy if I hadn’t seen the 2 reef sharks during the trip – I honestly don’t think so. But the sharks were just a couple minutes of the 7+ hours we spent under the water that week. And the entire experience in total is what gave us the feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment and happiness.
We are divers now, and we hope sharing our story, pictures and videos will inspire you to pursue diving someday. It is one of the most incredible experiences we’ve had in our lives, and we are so grateful for it.
Pathik and Bhumi’s Belize Scuba Diving Videos
PS – These were filmed with a GoPro 4 Sliver at 1080p 60fps