Family Diving Made Easy | Scuba Diving

Family Diving Made Easy

Family Diving Made Easy

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The convertible has been replaced by an SUV. Your studio apartment became a three-bedroom house in the 'burbs. And Wednesday nickel beer nights have been replaced by PTA meetings.

Your family comes first these days and you wouldn't have it any other way. The one regret--somewhere between soccer practice and setting up junior's college fund, you lost time for diving.

Good news: "Family diving" is the hottest new trend in scuba. So instead of packing away your gear for good, pack up the spouse and the rugrats and head for the water. Certification agencies, gear manufacturers, dive destinations and resorts have all made family dive outings--from simple snorkel trips to full-fledged family dive vacations--easier than ever.

Top 10 Family-Friendly Dive Resorts

Based on 2001 Rodale's Reader Ratings

1. Reef Club Isla Cozumel, Cozumel. Tel: (800) 221-5333, (305) 599-2124, Fax: (305) 599-1946.

2. Presidente Intercontinental, Cozumel. Tel: (011) 52-987-20322, Fax: (011) 52-937-21360.

3. Ocean Pointe Resort, Tavernier, Fla. Tel: (800) 882-9464, (305) 853-3000, Fax: (305) 853-3007.

4. Costa Club (formerly Fiesta Inn), Cozumel. Tel: (877) 454-4355, (011) 52-987-22900, Fax: (011) 52-987-22154.

5. Allegro Resort, Cozumel. Tel: (800) 858-2258, (011) 52-987-23443, Fax: (011) 52-987-24508.

6. Morritt's Tortuga Club, Grand Cayman. Tel: (800) 447-0309, (345) 947-7449, Fax: (345) 947-7669.

7. Fiesta Americana, Cozumel. Tel: (011) 52-987-22622, Fax: (011) 52-987-22680.

8. Plaza Resort, Bonaire. Tel: (800) 766-6016, (781) 821-1012, Fax: (781) 821-1568.

9. Sunbreeze Hotel, San Pedro (Ambergris caye), Belize. Tel: (800) 688-019, (011) 501-26-2191, Fax: (011) 501-26-2346.

10. Iberostar, Cozumel. Tel: (011) 52-987-29900, Fax: (011) 52-987-29909.

Family Dive Destination Guide

Text by Nick Lucey

The Florida Keys

What makes it good for the family: What other world-class dive destination can you get to in your SUV? Gas up the family truckster, throw in gear, cooler and kids, and motor down to the capital of American drive-to tropical reef diving.

Diving options: There are more dive operators sprinkled along U.S. 1 than there are rest areas, so you can easily pull over at a moment's notice.

Diving conditions: Water temps peak in the low 80Fs in summer, and can drop to the low 70Fs in winter. Visibility is usually good, typically no less than 50 feet, and you'll see more fish life than you might expect.

The Cayman Islands

What makes it good for the family: The Cayman Islands are a perfect mix of soft adventure, tropical beaches, first-world infrastructure, excellent flight connections, great restaurants and big, comfortable resorts.

Diving options: From big boats to small, there's a dive boat for every skill level in the original Caribbean dive destination. When you accommodate a quarter-million visitors a year, you get good at what you do--service is top-notch at all the dive operations.

Diving conditions: Whatever the weather is doing, there's always a lee on Grand Cayman and in the Sister Islands. West side of Grand Cayman blown out? No problem, head south. Expect crystal-clear vis and temps in the high 70Fs and low 80Fs year-round.

Cozumel, Mexico

What makes it good for the family: Nine of the top 25 family resorts in the world are located in Cozumel. Plus, it's cheap. Most major domestic airlines fly to Cozumel, and Miami and Houston are closer to the island than they are to Chicago or New York. Did we mention it's cheap?

Diving options: There are more than 100 dive operators on Cozumel. When deciding who to dive with, you can always start by checking our Cozumel Reader Ratings in the June 2001 issue of RSD.

Diving conditions: Water temps range from 75F to 85F winter to summer, but you can count on visibility around 100 feet regardless of the season. Though the current can be fast here, it's not difficult to stay together as a family under water.

Belize

What makes it good for the family: Take the rugrats to Central America? You're thinking no way. But this is a stable, friendly nation, and there are more Discovery Channel-type adventures in the rain forest, Mayan ruins and wildlife preserves than you'd expect from 10 countries this small. By the way, Belize boasts the Western Hemisphere's largest reef system.

Diving options: You've got lots of choices for your ultimate destination, from the outer atolls, where the nightlife consists of counting stars, to Ambergris Caye, where golf carts rule the sandy streets.

Diving conditions: Warm, clear water in typical Caribbean temps--high 70Fs to low 80Fs.

Bonaire

What makes it good for the family: The parental units can play divemaster on Bonaire--just rent a jeep or truck and set out on your own family diving adventure. Plus there's the natural beauty of Washington-Slagbaai National Park, windsurfing in Lac Bay and mountain biking in the interior.

Diving options: The shore diving couldn't be easier here, but if you want to get some boat dives in on Klein Bonaire or are tired of lugging tanks, you've got plenty of operator options here, too. Excellent snorkeling also makes for something to do on your last day of offgassing.

Diving conditions: The water's as warm and calm as a bathtub--perfect for bringing beginners who want to fill that empty log book and build some experience. And the dive-'til-you-drop freedom of shore diving makes it very attractive for advanced divers who can't get enough nitrogen.

Hawaii

What makes it good for the family: For West Coasters, Hawaii is a safe bet. It's only a five-hour flight from L.A. and San Francisco, and you don't need a passport. There's plenty to do topside, from volcanoes to luaus, Honolulu and famed Waikiki beach, great diving with loads of endemic fish and the natural beauty that the islands are famous for.

Diving options: There are plenty of dive operators on the four major Hawaiian islands--the Big Island, Kauai, Maui and Oahu--and most dive sites are a short boat ride away. There's also good snorkeling on all the islands.

Diving conditions: With water temps in the low 80Fs in summer and mid-70Fs in winter, you can leave the dry suit at home. Visibility is often in the triple digits, and the water is quite calm, considering you're smack-dab in the center of the world's largest ocean.

Bahamas

What makes it good for the family: The islands are famous for their specialty dives--shark feedings, dolphin encounters, wrecks, rebreathers, underwater scooters--the choices are limitless. Plus, there are plenty of shallow sites for beginners and deep walls for advanced divers. The islands are close, starting 50 miles from Florida, and the resorts and infrastructure are top-notch.

Diving options: You've got plenty of choices, from standalone operators to the giant all-inclusive dive resorts, from beginner through advanced, and every kind of diving adventure you can imagine.

Diving conditions: The most you'll ever need is a 3mm wetsuit to brave the 70Fs water temps in winter and mid-80Fs in summer. Water clarity is excellent, typically in the triple digits.

Turks & Caicos

What makes it good for the family: If you're looking for top-notch diving without the crowds, consider taking the family to an unlikely location--the Turks & Caicos. Airline connections from the U.S. and Canada are improving all the time, there are plenty of choices for accommodations, from all-inclusive resorts to intimate inns, excellent sunny beaches, and more restaurant choices than you'd expect.

Diving options: Boat rides are longer on Providenciales, less so on Grand Turk, but all pay off with some of the best walls in the Caribbean region. There's also a range of operations that cater to large and small groups, so you're sure to find one you will be comfortable with.

Diving conditions: Eye-popping visibility normally hovers in the 100-foot range, and water temps range from the mid- to high 70Fs in winter to low 80Fs in summer.

What to Look For in a Family-Friendly Dive Resort

That's precious cargo you're towing along. According to "Portrait of Family Travel," a 1999 survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, these are the five most important traits of a truly family-friendly resort.

1. Extra security. 78% of respondents said they wanted a safe place for their kids.

2. Discounts. 68% expect discounts for any additional rooms needed for their family.

3. Free food. 65% want a restaurant where kids eat free.

4. More room. 60% look for larger rooms to accommodate children.

5. Kid food. 54% say they prefer restaurants with a kids' menu.

Teaching Kids to Snorkel

Text by Jennifer King

When and where should I begin teaching my kids?

  • Start early. Buy a mask and snorkel when your kids are two or three years old, and let them play with the equipment whenever you go swimming. They'll be experts by the time you go on your first resort trip.

  • Remember the key to every instructional endeavor with children: Make it fun. Don't get hung up on details. If your child wants to use the mask or snorkel alone or wants to carry the snorkel instead of mounting it on her mask, that's fine.

  • Take your turn first. Try each technique before teaching it to your child, especially if you're a diver rather than a snorkeler. Many divers have not been taught to snorkel or haven't done it in a long while. Parents should practice the pike dive and snorkel clearing techniques before teaching them to their children.

How do I introduce the mask?

  • Step 1: Clean the mask following the manufacturer's directions (usually with a mild abrasive like toothpaste) and rub in a good defogger--one look at someone spitting into a mask and your kid may opt for a more hygienic sport.

  • Step 2: While your child is standing on the pool's steps or in shallow water, position the mask over his face, ensuring that his eyes and nose are not pinched. Pull the strap over his head and, if necessary, adjust for proper tightness--enough to hold it in place, but no more. Remember: proper fit provides a good seal, not tightness. A too-tight mask can turn kids off faster than spit.

  • Step 3: Playtime! Show them some fun things under water--people's hairy legs, toys or coins you've put on the bottom. In the ocean, look for small fish, rocks, shells, possibly "pirate treasure" you've hidden. Nonswimming children can be towed on a boogie board or given a SASY unit that provides buoyancy without immobilizing or constricting their arms as do life jackets and arm floats.

How do I teach mask clearing?

  • For younger kids, demonstrate the "lift and dump" technique. Standing in the shallow end, bend over and fill your mask with water. After a warning about inhaling through the nose, simply lift the mask's bottom and drain.

  • Older kids can be taught to purge their mask using two hands on the top of the mask and exhaling though their nose. They will be quite proud of this accomplishment and can even practice it under water by kneeling on the bottom in the shallow end.

What about the snorkel?

  • Smaller children may be quite content with just the mask, and that's fine. Older children will appreciate the heads-down benefit of the snorkel, although be prepared for those who insist on holding it rather than attaching it to the mask. Whatever works for them.

  • As with the mask, begin in shallow water, first breathing on the snorkel while standing up, then with face in the water. Once she's comfortable with the snorkel, let her swim around with it and, if possible, convince her to let you attach it to her mask.

What are the best snorkel clearing techniques for children?

  • Once your child is comfortable breathing with a snorkel, it's time for some clearing techniques. Again, the easiest one is the "lift and dump"--taking the mouthpiece out and turning it down to drain.

  • The next step is to show kids how to blow water gently out the purge valve. Then comes the fun part--the blast method. Kids have a great time spraying each other with blasts, a fun way to gain proficiency.

  • Older kids who are performing breathhold dives can be taught the displacement method--exhaling a small bubble on ascent that expands and clears the snorkel of most water. With this method, children should also be taught to use their tongue as a splash guard for the first breath.

Do kids need fins?

  • Younger children may not want to bother with fins. That's fine, as they can have plenty of fun and mobility without them. Older kids will quickly become fin aficionados once they realize the ease and speed of movement that fins allow.

  • Start by showing your child how to don fins using the "figure four"--one leg crossed over the opposite knee--both standing and seated.

  • Using your arms, demonstrate the proper form for the flutter kick: keeping the legs straight as possible while you kick from the hips.

  • Then hold your child under the abdomen in shallow water while practicing the kick. Try to correct problems like bicycling or too much knee bending, but don't be overly concerned about form.

  • Once he enjoys his fins, show him variations--the back flutter kick and the scissors kick--so that he learns to work different muscle groups in case of fatigue.

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Top 5 Tips: Their First Beach Snorkel

1. Scout the site. First-timers need to be in shallow water where either they or you can stand. A good bet is the beach. You won't see as much, but conditions allow for a fun and safe first outing.

2. Bag it. Give each child a mesh bag to tote their gear and make them responsible for it. Bags can also be used for collecting, but be sure you know what is acceptable. Most dive destinations do not allow collecting marine life shells.

3. Know thy neighbors. Prepare children with videos or books to identify marine life and especially which plants and animals to avoid. Waterproof fish charts are great, as are underwater slates and markers to record what they see. Discuss the importance of not touching corals and sponges.

4. Avoid the burn. Provide each child a skin, wetsuit or T-shirt. Use sunscreen. Pale backs, tropical sun and shallow water can combine for a nasty burn. Full-body coverage also protects from marine cuts and stings.

5. Get your feet wet. On the beach, enter at the water's edge and don fins while seated in about 12 inches of water. Once beyond eelgrass, look for isolated boulders that attract life. Most kids will love this first experience and be psyched for more exploration.

Top 5 Tips: Their First Boat Snorkel

1. Keep it flat. Many tropical resorts take a snorkeling boat to a shallow reef 10 to 20 feet deep. Experienced beach snorkelers will love this, but make sure conditions are right: flat water and no currents. Acceptable conditions for divers aren't necessarily good for snorkelers, especially children.

2. Learn boat behavior. Because many resorts put divers and snorkelers on the same boat, discuss etiquette with your kids: working out of their gear bag, remaining seated when the boat is in motion, keeping out of others' way, letting divers in the water first, etc.

3. Adults go first. The parent should enter the water first and be prepared to assist the child. If available, hold onto a current line as you help the child adjust to the water and fine-tune any gear.

4. Maintain "soft" control. On a first trip it is especially important to stay in control of your child while still giving some freedom. Holding hands, gently encircling his waist with your arm, and towing him on a boogie board are all ways to stay close enough to deal with problems such as snorkel and mask flooding, disorientation and surface chop.

5. Preserve your memories. Documenting your child's first snorkel experience on film provides memories but can also help dispel anxiety by giving her something fun to focus on. Disposable underwater cameras let a child take her own pictures. She'll love being a photographer and will be less apt to focus on scary things.

Snorkel Gear for Kids

Text by John Francis

Shopping for a mask, snorkel, fins and shorty for your child? First, a couple of general suggestions:

  • Take your child with you when you shop. There's the obvious reason that proper fit matters as much when it's for children as for adults. Another reason is that often kids (as you may have noticed) care deeply how they look. Color and style may mean more to your child than they do to you. Also, if your child participates in the decision, he feels more strongly that the gear is his. He may want to use it more and take better care of it.

  • Buy all of it it together. At least buy the mask and snorkel at the same time. Your child will probably want the colors to match, and you can't fit the mask properly without the snorkel. But don't buy the mask and snorkel packaged together in a blister pack unless you can open the package and try them on.

  • Don't buy the cheapest. Cheap kids' gear, like cheap adult gear, compromises on performance and comfort. If the mask leaks, the snorkel hurts and the fins won't adjust easily, your kid may never want to snorkel again. So that drugstore special may not be a bargain if you hope your child will eventually share your passion for diving.

What to look for in a snorkel
Choose the snorkel first. That way, your kid can have the snorkel in his mouth when he tries on masks--the mouthpiece will affect the mask's seal. Look for:

  • Small mouthpiece. It's got to fit a small mouth. It's much better if your child can actually try the mouthpiece. Putting a mouthpiece in his mouth is a new experience for your child, and probably the most uncomfortable part of snorkeling at first. It's important that the snorkel is one he has picked out, not one forced on him. A store interested in selling to kids will have a way of sterilizing mouthpieces so they can be tried out.

  • Silicone mouthpiece. It is softer and more comfortable than PVC, the usual substitute.

  • Small bore. To match small lungs. Many little kids don't have enough lung volume to clear an adult snorkel, and water in his breathing equipment will be a major source of anxiety.

  • Purge valve. This reduces the amount of water retained in the bore, making it easier to clear with less breath.

What to look for in a mask
Buy the mask second, but at the same time you purchase the snorkel so your child will be happy with the combination. In any event, bring the snorkel with you when you try on masks. As with adults, the mouthpiece distorts the mouth, affecting how well the mask seals.

Test for fit as you would with an adult mask: Without the strap, while using the snorkel, a gentle suck of your child's breath should make it stick to his face for at least a few seconds. Look for:

  • Narrow skirt. Adult masks average 5 inches in width. Our tests of almost all masks on the market have identified 28 masks measuring 4.5 inches or less--our definition of small-face masks. Don't limit yourself to masks with kid-specific names. Many of those marketed for women will also fit kids.

  • Silicone skirt. It's softer than PVC so it will conform to the face better and will be more comfortable.

  • Easy strap adjustment. Kids often swap masks back and forth. Strap adjustment should be easy to understand and easy to perform.

  • Tempered glass lens. It will scratch less than plastic, yet will be almost unbreakable.

What to look for in fins
Full-foot or adjustable fins? There are pros and cons:

  • Full-foot. Well-fitting full-foot fins are less likely to come off accidentally, especially since kids often don't tighten adjustable fins enough. They are simple and easy to use. The disadvantage is that your child will outgrow a full-foot fin sooner. One option is to buy a little large, and wear socks with the fins the first year.

  • Adjustable straps. Adjustability means more years of use, assuming your child doesn't lose one of them. On the other hand, you will probably need to buy booties every year. Look for easy-to-adjust buckles.

  • Heel plate. If it's an adjustable type, look for a protective heel plate. Kids are less comfortable putting the fins on in the water and more likely to walk in them.

  • Flexible blades. Kids usually don't have the leg strength to power long, stiff blades.

What to look for in a wetsuit
Wetsuits are important not only for warmth but for sun and abrasion protection. And the extra flotation gives your child (and you too) more confidence without the indignity of having to wear a life vest. Look for:

  • Full length. For better coverage against sun, scrapes and jellyfish.

  • Medium weight. A 7mm suit (assuming you can find one) would probably feel too confining for your child's first wetsuit. Look for 3mm or less.

  • Good fit. You may be tempted to buy one too big so the child can grown into it. Don't. If water flushes through the suit freely and your child is cold, he may not want to even try it next year. Look for an exceptionally stretchy suit to accommodate growth.

Kids & Scuba

Text by John Francis

Scuba diving is a wonderful adventure to give your children and can be a great family bonding experience. But introducing children to the sport is a different proposition from introducing fellow adults.

Enough Birthdays?
First, there is the issue of age. All certifying agencies will give an adult open-water certification at age 15, and a junior open-water card at age 12. Junior open-water certification usually requires the child to dive with a certified adult. And three agencies, PADI, SSI and SDI, will give a junior card at age 10. They also offer introductory experiences starting at age 8: PADI's "Bubblemaker" and "Seal Team" programs, "Scuba Rangers," and SDI's "Future Buddies".

But there's more to it than just counting candles on the cake. Look for:

  • Physical maturity. A good indication of whether your child has the strength and coordination for scuba diving is his or her ability to play another sport. If your child isn't quite coordinated yet, wait six months. Kids often develop with amazing speed.

  • Emotional maturity. "Discipline," "focus," and "respect for authority" are other words for it. What counts is that your child will pay attention to the training, take it seriously, follow the safety rules and try to act like an adult. (Well, like the hypothetical adult we all aspire to be.) Consider how your child behaves in other semi-adult activities. Does he behave in school and do his homework? Will she wear a bicycle helmet? Though, of course, your child is perfect, try to be honest. Ask teachers and other adults who know your child for their opinion.

Finding the Right Instructor
What should you look for in an instructor for your child? Prior experience teaching kids is a big help, and there are some questions you can ask:

  • What special techniques do you use? "Oh, nothing special" is not a good answer. An experienced instructor will use creative games and hands-on demonstrations, for example, and less lecture.

  • What problems have you had, and how did you handle them? Rebellious kids, frightened kids, hyperactive kids--if the instructor has taught children before, he's had problems and has techniques for handling them. Expect immediate, specific answers.

  • How do you teach the physics? Boyle's law and the rest are necessary but hard enough for adults to follow. A teacher experienced with kids will use practical demonstrations, like taking a balloon under water.

  • What if my child needs extra help? An assistant instructor, extra session, and oral instead of written exams should be offered if needed.

Get the Right Gear
The key is getting gear that fits. Ill-fitting gear that is uncomfortable and hard to use will make learning difficult, possibly dangerous. A good instructor should be able to show you a variety of masks, fins, BCs, mouthpieces, tanks, etc. designed and sized for kids.

Keep It Fun
Remember that the point of all this is for your kids to enjoy sharing with you something that's fun. Don't push them into it if they aren't really interested or ready. Don't set deadlines, and offer plenty of praise.

Scuba Alternatives
Not sure your child is ready for scuba? Here are two ways to introduce them to the sport with fewer risks and hassles.

  • Start with snorkeling. Snorkeling with your child will tell you a lot about how comfortable they are in the water and how ready they are to try scuba.

Let your kids take the lead and set the pace. Make the experience fun. Explore. Splash. Play. This gives your child a chance to become comfortable floating on the surface while breathing through a snorkel. Additional sessions can introduce basic scuba skills like mask clearing and ear equalizing, and will build confidence in the water. Virtually all scuba instructors agree that strong snorkeling skills make the introduction to scuba much easier.

  • Try SASY. Consider SASY a safe "dress rehearsal" for the first time your child tries scuba. The SASY unit looks just like Mom and Dad's BC, tank and reg. In fact, the BC has foam flotation and no pockets for weights, so the kids can't get below the surface. However, the tank (a small size) and the reg are real, so they are introduced to scuba equipment. SASY stands for Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth and is available to kids as young as five.

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