Imagine floating at the edge of an ocean canyon where the drop is a precipitous 1,000 feet. Or discovering artifacts from colonial America embedded in the sand below the water's surface. If these experiences sound too pedestrian, consider exploring the dark passages of a sunken World War II cargo ship loaded with 360,000 bombs.
Such is the life of a scuba diver — the opportunities for underwater adventure are innumerable when you've strapped on a tank of compressed air.
Expert diver Michelle Pugh has shared the water with tiger sharks, dolphins and humpback whales. She once dove off the coast of British Colombia to swim with killer whales and encountered a 25-foot orca that paused to stare at her.
"It made a noise that vibrated throughout my entire body," remembers Pugh. "It was the most incredible experience I've ever had."
She now tries to create memorable moments for those who visit her dive company in St. Croix. The region is known for its calmer currents, colorful reefs and marine life, and it is only one of the many destinations to which divers travel. They also frequent Hawaii, the Red Sea, the Philippines and the Carolinas.
Idyllic settings like these make it easy to commit to a diving schedule of swimming a few hours every day. The challenge is taking the time to get certified, but the reward of pairing a coastal getaway with underwater exploration makes it well worthwhile.
Novices who've decided at the last minute to try the sport while on vacation can take advantage of "scuba discovery," a one-time experience as a prelude to certification offered by many dive centers around the world.
After that, the center will ask you to take educational and practical lessons that can be crammed into one week. Beginners first learn about the basic physics and mechanics of diving, then graduate to practicing in a pool. The final hurdle is completing four open-water dives.
Theresa Gulledge, communications manager for the certification organization known as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, recommends starting training a month in advance of a diving trip. For an added convenience, PADI's classes on the basics of diving can be done online, but first-timers must travel to a certified dive center to practice in the water.
Through PADI, which has certified three out of every four divers in the world and has 5,300 centers worldwide, the online course is $120. Prices for the in-water training vary depending on the region, but average $200 to $300. Once certified, though, a diver remains so for life.
That's when divers begin making lists of must-sees, like 17th-century shipwrecks off the coast of South Carolina, the more than 600 species of fish that swim near the Maldives, or the manta rays that have made Kona, Hawaii, famous.
"It's kind of a lot like birding," says Brooke Morton, associate editor of Sport Diver magazine. "People keep a list of what they've seen and haven't seen, and try to knock off as many as possible."
There are a few ways divers can turn the hobby into a vacation. Certified resorts often have all-inclusive packages that provide instructors, gear and a chartered boat. That streamlines the trip, but those who don't want to be locked into an itinerary can purchase outings a la carte from local dive companies.
At Amanpulo, a luxurious resort on a private island in the Philippines, a five-night stay is bundled with daily dive trips in the turquoise water to explore a nearby coral reef. The price, which ranges from $4,850 to $5,760, includes accommodations and well as all the diving essentials, so you don’t have to lug your own equipment.
Alternatively, a company like Michelle Pugh's Dive Experience offers more flexibility. She charges $70 to $90 for individual dives and also offers multi-day packages for $240 to $500.
Those prices usually don't include a fuel surcharge, which charter operations have levied to counter the softening travel industry and rising price of diesel. Todd Dunbar, owner of the South Carolina-based dive company Columbia Scuba, says a service he charters regularly has recently doubled its one-day surcharge to $20.
Dunbar has actually seen his business double in the past few years, but his success is an exception in the industry. In May, the dive-services industry lost 18 percent of its revenue, compared with the previous year, according to the Leisure Trends Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based market research company. Industry experts say the faithful aren't abandoning the sport, but think the uninitiated may be less adventurous as Americans cut back on travel.
Trepidation may also be a factor. The foreign surroundings, isolation and perceived threat of danger from exotic animals can keep beginners out of the water. But Pugh says it's safe.
"There's a fear of the unknown," she says. "Once you realize that there's nothing down there to hurt you, it's a breeze."