Being a BSAC Dive Leader in a small scuba club in Borneo, we were fortunate to participate in hundreds of incredible tropical dives. Under the club system, we had taken many students on their first dives. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, I had lost the magic – until I re-experienced the wonders of the world below the surface through the eyes of our 12 year old daughter. This is our journey ...
There are many articles written by industry professionals who are both in favour of, and against the principle of, minors being trained in the sport of scuba diving; referencing these articles did not help our decision. I'm sure all parents can relate to the anguish of decision making when it concerns their kids - when, how often, how far, if at all.
As involved and perhaps slightly paranoid parents, we try to weigh up the consequences of all our decisions, as after all, they affect the most precious beings in our universe. Knowing that there is a potential risk every time we put our kids in a vehicle, we make sure that they wear seatbelts or are in a car seat if appropriate and we purchase vehicles with a 5 star NCAP safety rating; you get the picture. We apply this system of risk mitigation with every aspect of their lives, and as they grow we have to factor in their changing interests, strengths and weaknesses. Naturally we also used this approach when faced with the question of when to allow our kids to dive.
The Recreational Scuba Training Council dropped its minimum age requirement for junior certification in 1999 from 12 years to 10 years of age. Diving organisations set different minimum requirements - PADI's entry level course is the 'Bubblemaker' which requires a minimum age of 8 and sets a maximum depth of 2m. Naui requires students to be a minimum of 10 years to participate in their Junior Scuba Diver qualification which has a limitation of 12m for students, and BSAC's minimum age is 12 years for their Ocean Diver course.
See more details on the PADI diving programmes available for children.
As parents, you know that there are big differences between kids of 10–12 years old, both physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as between kids of the same age. With the variance in requirements by the professional diving organisations, how do we make the decision for our own children?
Despite age guidelines specified by organisations, parents know their children better than any other adult, and they should honestly consider the following questions (as proposed by PADI In Children and Scuba Diving: A Resource Guide for Instructors and Parents) when assessing if their child is ready to dive:
The above assessment focuses on the student's ability to participate in a course, presuming that the student will be 'taken care of' by the instructor during the course. What about after the course? For us, it was equally important to ascertain if she was mature enough to cope with an underwater incident such as loosing her mask or air failure. In addition, there is the question of whether she would cope physically and emotionally if her buddy needed assistance.
Aside from our daughter being mentally and emotionally prepared to participate in the sport and us all accepting the possibility of a diving related injury, we also had to consider the matter of whether diving at a young age could impact her growth or mental development. In short, we still do not know the answer to this.
There are no empirical studies (for obvious ethical reasons) on long term physiological or mental changes to minors due to scuba diving and it remains unclear what combination of frequency, depth or duration can have a negative effect on their development. We do have a body of evidence detailing how depth and duration affect adults as well as information on the development of minors. Based on supposition, the following have been highlighted as areas of concern and should be taken into consideration during the decision making process:-
Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO): While in the womb, all infants' hearts have a passageway that allows blood to bypass the lungs. After birth, this hole gradually closes as the child matures. Young or slowly developing children may still have a partially open PFO by the age of 10. Research is on-going, but initial findings suggest that PFO's may increase the risk of decompression illness.
Equalisation issues: A scuba diver must add air to his middle ear via the eustachian tube to equalise the air pressure as he/she descends. Most adults can easily equalise their ears. However the physiology of a child's ears can make equalisation difficult or impossible. Young children have flattened, small eustachian tubes that may not allow air to flow to the middle ear effectively. For many children under the age of 12 (and some older ones) it is physically impossible to equalise the ears because the eustachian tubes are not sufficiently developed. Failure to equalise the ears can lead to sever pain and ruptured eardrums.
Unknown physiological affects of diving: The effects of increased pressure and nitrogen on developing bones, tissues and brains is unknown. A lack of concrete evidence about the effects of pressure and nitrogen on developing bodies does not mean the effects are bad, however pregnant women are discouraged from diving for the same reason... the effects of diving on foetuses is unknown. Pregnancy is a temporary condition, so women are discouraged from diving while they are pregnant. Childhood and adolescence are (in most cases) a temporary condition, so the same argument can be made against children diving.
Once the initial decision has been made, an organisation/company needs to be selected to introduce your precious bundle into a recreational activity which is considered 'high risk' (Recreational diving ranks below hang gliding and parachuting but above most sports as regards the risk of a fatal accident). Again, there are many different options to choose from.
Having been through the rigorous training of BSAC, we were concerned about the short duration of many introductory courses offered nowadays; especially as one of the leading attributors to scuba incidents is lack of experience (DAN statistics have shown that divers with fewer than 20 dives, or who have been diving for less than 2 years, accounted for 40% of the DCI cases reported in 1997).
As we were no longer part of a dive club, how could we mitigate our concerns regarding the short course duration? We did so by choosing a company whom we are familiar with, had dived with, and who were prepared to let me hang around in the water during her skills training and first open water dives. Understandably there are not many companies who would agree to have a parent present, and I had to agree to not interfere with the training process. Being present gave me insight into what she was comfortable with and what she still needed to work on. Fortunately and in no small measure due to her great instructors, she received the top mark in the group for theory and passed her practical with flying colours.
Interestingly, many dive instructors prefer to train kids due to their boundless enthusiasm and curiosity, some kids have better study habits than adults and study many of the principles that apply to scuba diving, such as mathematical problem-solving, and the laws that apply to buoyancy and gravity and are used to following instructions from another adult.
The magic returned to me on her first dive. Her face was pure joy, excitement and wonder with each new creature she encountered on the reef. From seeing a turtle on her first dive to enjoying tallying up the various nudibranchs she could spot. I felt privileged to be able to witness her journey into this new world. Well, privileged and mildly apprehensive.
Her first underwater forays reminded me of when she learnt to walk, when I was perpetually on guard for any potential hazards. Her first marine hazard came in the form of a lionfish. Teenagers talk incessantly, as it turns out both above and below the surface, and while they are mastering their buoyancy they should not be 'talking' underwater – she was so excited to show me a blue spotted lagoon ray, she forgot about her buoyancy and almost planted her bottom on a lionfish!
While we were ecstatic with her introduction into a world that we have loved for so long, we wondered how fellow divers felt about having a young diver on their trip? Probably about the same as a couple feels when there's a youngster in an upscale restaurant while they are having a romantic meal. It depends on the behaviour of the child.
It turns out, a well-mannered, considerate and happy teenager is a joy to have on-board and one that can dive competently and safely is even more welcome – anything less is unfair to other members of the dive party who participate in this relatively expensive sport. When booking a diving holiday, be sure to inform the resort or liveaboard that you have a qualified minor diver in your party as there may be certain restrictions on age/minimum qualification etc. applicable to join dives or indeed certain trips.
It has been a great joy to witness our daughter become a confident, accomplished diver and we look forward to introducing our second little fish into the realms of diving. Not everyone will agree with our choices, but if you are of the mind-set that this is something for your family, we highly recommend that you take the journey together.