Imagine a family vacation spent swimming in a huge aquarium where sea turtles, angelfish, triggerfish, morays, barracuda and sharks dive and dip all around you. Imagine sidling up alongside these amazing creatures and examining their gills, their bright colors, and their sleek movements.
That's exactly what I do as a scuba diving instructor on the island of Sipidan (see below) in Borneo, Southeast Asia. I take vacationing families on dive tours throughout the year.
I love taking children underwater. They're curious, easily fascinated, and eager to learn about life in the sea. I find that kids who dive are quick to develop a respect for other life forms, as well as for our own human limitations. They develop confidence in themselves and a sense of adventure.
Of course, there are dangers inherent in taking children diving, and scuba diving is not appropriate for all youngsters. Their readiness depends on a number of factors including their weight, their abilities to swim, understand and follow rules, their emotional maturity and their attention span.
Diving Best for Teens or Older Kids
I try not to take children under the age of 12 on open water dives. While PADI, the world's leading dive training organization, offers classes for children as young as 5, they train in pools until kids are at least 10 years old. Children must be 15 to qualify for full open water diving (without age-related restrictions) certification.
My philosophy is that when diving - which is, after all, a form of entertainment as well as an education - it's better to be safe than sorry. It's important to prepare children adequately and thoroughly for the many adventures scuba diving can offer. If that takes more time - in other words, if it means that kids need to be more mature before taking the plunge - all the better. The anticipation only serves to heighten the experience and the inherent rewards.
Preparation is Key
That said, there are many ways that parents and diving instructors can prepare their children for family scuba diving vacations, regardless of whether the kids don scuba tanks. First and foremost is to develop appropriate expectations among family members.
Diving is a serious sport, one that can be life-threatening if not performed with careful planning, awareness and knowledge. While we don't want to scare children unduly, we must make sure that they are aware of risks and that they understand that it requires a certain degree of maturity.
Children who are too young to dive should be told that the opportunity to go scuba diving is a privilege, granted upon reaching a certain level of maturity. In the meanwhile, when kids are on a family vacation - in Sipidan or elsewhere - they can develop swimming skills and learn about marine life through on-land teaching and wildlife encounters.
Even months before embarking on the family vacation, parents can prepare their children by describing what their trip will look like, what types of activities will be available, where the family will be staying and dining, and what kinds of life the oceans hold.
They can show children films about underwater creatures, read to them, and teach them about marine biology, without the promise that the children will see the wildlife they are learning about.
Getting Teens Excited about Diving
Pre-trip preparation is also critical for children who are old enough to go scuba diving. Whether they have learned to dive yet or not, youngsters need to be reminded that safety is a major concern. They must listen carefully to the dive instructor, abide by all diving rules, and apply recommended techniques. As with adults, teens should never dive alone.
If children are nervous or hesitant, parents should take note, calming the children appropriately or, if need be, suggesting that they take a break from diving.
It's equally important to get teens excited about the resident sea life, and to advise them of the possibilities - no guarantees - of swimming alongside sea turtles and sharks, or identifying corals, nudibranchs, gobies and grunts.
By encouraging them to read about the unique survival mechanisms and behaviors of local marine organisms, as well as their importance in the food chain and in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems, you will help them develop respect for the natural world, and an appreciation for the family vacation you've taken them on - one that grants them the privileges that scuba divers around the world live for.
Scuba Diving in Sipidan
Sipidan is a diver's delight, a center of marine diversity with more than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of corals. It is located in Sabah, Malaysia's eastern most state in the Celebes Sea, and is accessible to divers from several comfortable resorts on nearby islands. Sipidan is an oceanic island, formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone, and is covered with lush forest surrounded by white sand beaches. As a diving mecca, the island was made famous by underwater explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who declared it "An untouched piece of art." Diving pros still consider it among the top 10 diving spots in the world.
Jacob Mojiwat is passionate about the ocean and water sports. Currently he is sharing the wonders of diving in Malaysia with others. His website has comprehensive information about Asian dive locations such as Sipadan Island and the area to help diving enthusiasts plan unparalleled scuba diving vacations.