Kicking hard to catch up with my daughter as she swam confidently away through the warm tropical water, I realised my diving days may never be the same again. For the next few years at least, it wouldn’t just be my safety I had to think about every time I slipped under the surface and descended down to the ocean floor. From now on I also had an enthusiastic but potentially distracted child to also keep an eye on. Sighing, I followed her as she finned her way over to yet another rock to peer under. This was certainly going to be different from the relaxed and tranquil dives I was used to.
Later, though, back on the surface and listening to my daughter burbling happily about the turtle she’d seen, I knew we had done the right thing. Even though Emma was only eleven years old, and eyebrows were raised about letting her learn so young, we were confident (being divers ourselves) that she was mature enough to cope.
But the decision to let a pre-teen take on such a responsibility isn’t necessarily a straightforward one. Although PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors – the world’s largest dive training organization) now allows children as young as 10 on their Junior Open-Water course, not every child is ready. And with diving having the potential to be a very dangerous sport if rules are ignored, it is crucial that parents understand what to look for before booking their child on a course.
Dave Wakely is a dive instructor who specializes in working with children as well as a consultant in emergency and hyperbaric medicine at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in Bermuda. In his opinion, the first thing to check is that children have developed what he calls “concrete thinking”: the ability to solve logical problems that apply to actual events. In other words, they must have the maturity to think for themselves.
“Look at a simple “low on air” situation,” he said.
“Prior to “concrete thinking”, the child would simply dive, not even think about looking at their air gauge – even though they had been told 100 times to do so. They would be surprised when suddenly they run out of air, and wouldn’t know what to do next.
“With concrete thinking, they will have learned that they should look at their air gauge regularly and be able to understand why. They will tell their buddy when they get into the red zone, and know the procedures to follow if they do get low on air.”
So parents need to know enough about their child’s problem-solving skills and, if necessary, test them before they let them loose under the sea. You could, for example, get them to take their mask off and put it on again while underwater at your local swimming pool. And if they seem to cope well with that, you could try getting them to do it with their eyes shut. Look for the child to remain calm and not panic if they can’t do it immediately.
Emma had already done a “try-dive” in Mauritius and proved she could think for herself by, for example, adjusting her mask and emptying it without panicking when it started to fill with water. So we were confident that she was ready to learn to dive properly. But we still decided that at this stage one of us would always buddy with her. It is instinctive to look out for our own children, so we knew she would always be our priority. However, Dave believes that unless a parent has additional training, it is still safer to also have a trained Divemaster with you. In his view, the biggest red flag when it comes to children and diving is the adults who are responsible for them: “Children are naturally impulsive, inquisitive, and distractible,” he said.
“An adult buddy who does not pay absolute attention to their child buddy is a danger to that child. Parental pressure to learn to dive, and parents who believe that their child is an expert independent diver, are big risks.
As well as cognitive skills, there are also physical reasons why the lowest age PADI allows a child to learn to dive is 10 (for BSAC – the British Sub-Aqua Club – it is 12). According to Dave, this includes changes that occur around this age in the shape and function of the Eustachian tubes, middle ear and lungs. So even if you had a very mature 9-year-old, it’s safer to wait for them to develop physically before you let them learn.
Our daughter Emma trained with local operator Gecko Divers, where we live in Pretoria, South Africa. I asked Gecko owner and course director Dawie Schlebusch what it was like to teach children and how different it was to working with adults.
“Because children are better at doing what they’re told and don’t question everything we tell them, they are much easier to teach,” he said.
“Adults try to alter everything we tell them, but children will simply follow instructions.”
Dawie confirmed what I had experienced diving with my daughter: children’s attention spans are short and they have a tendency to go swimming off. For this reason, he agreed with Dave that it is important to have not just their parents with them but a Divemaster as well.
“They’re not yet used to being responsible for themselves,” he said. “I liken it to keeping an eye on the petrol gauge in a car.”
“We as adults are used to this, but at this stage a child doesn’t yet have that ‘fear factor’.”
Emma has now completed around 10 dives since qualifying, but until she is 16 the recommendation from Gecko Divers is that she shouldn’t dive without either one of us or a Divemaster. At 15, she can upgrade her Junior Open Water certificate for a normal, adult one.
With every dive she has done, her confidence has increased. As I watched her return from the boat with my husband following her last dive, just after Christmas this year, I noticed how she sparkled. Being an 11-year-old, just on the cusp of teenager-hood, can be a difficult and confusing time. So if we have found something to help her cope with these years at the same time as learn about the underwater world and spend time with the rest of the family then I, for one, am very happy. I have a feeling that she is too.
For more information about diving safely – including with children – please go to the DAN (Diver Alert Network) website.