Eight years ago I took an overnight bus to Mexico City, and then got on a TACA flight that connected me through San Salvador and San Pedro Sula before dropping me in La Ceiba, Honduras. I spent the night in La Ceiba (where I used an internet cafe guarded by a teenager with a semi-automatic rifle) and then headed over to the island of Roatan, where I learned to scuba dive.
I took my Open Water scuba course through Coconut Tree Divers, and found it to be a transformative life experience. For the first time in many years, I struggled to learn something. I’ve never been very mechanically-minded, so I couldn’t understand why we clipped this tube here and turned that knob there, and once we got under the water, where I couldn’t ask any questions, I was 20,000 leagues out of my comfort zone. To make matters worse, there were four boys in the class with me and they all seemed to master everything within seconds. I completed the course, and then spent the rest of my time in Roatan snorkeling around the shallow waters near my hotel.
Unfortunately, there are things you just don’t see when you’re snorkeling. As the years passed I felt more and more regret about not pursuing scuba diving any further, so I decided to go back to Roatan, and back to Coconut Tree, to give scuba diving a second chance. I started with a morning refresher class, where I worked one-on-one with a divemaster to practice setting up my gear (which was always the most stressful part for me) and to feel confident under the water (that was never a problem for me, I’ll choose being in the water over being on land any day!). Then I moved on to some boat dives with other relatively-new divers, where we took our time ensuring our gear was ready and made sure everyone gave the okay signal before we descended beneath the water. By the end of the week I was feeling a lot more confident… but I also started to notice a strange trend. On many of the dives I went on I was the only female, and the rest of the time the women were accompanying their male partners. There were lots of single guys and groups of guys out diving, but I was the only girl on her own. Where were all the girls scuba diving?
Last month I decided to take another scuba diving trip, this time to Cozumel. I chose a shop that had great reviews, but also that implied it expected a certain level of independence from its divers. I decided to begin my trip by taking the Advanced Open Water course, where I worked one-on-one with an instructor to learn Underwater Navigation (still not an area of strength for me!), Peak Performance Buoyancy, Deep Diving, Drift Diving and Night Diving. I then spent the next five days diving confidently in all sorts of scenarios, and even helping other divers get into the routines of our boat. However, I kept looking around at all the men on my boats and wondering, “Where are the women?”
When I thought about the shops I’d dived with, I noticed that women usually worked behind the reception desks, while men were out on the boats as captains, instructors and divemasters. In the twenty-five or so dives I’ve completed, only one had another solo female on board, while the rest were exclusively men or included a man and woman diving together. Could it be that scuba diving is the last frontier for solo female travelers? Obviously I’m no expert, but I thought I could answer some questions that women considering diving might want answered.
What do I need to pack?
New divers can rent everything from the shop they dive with. There’s no need to waste valuable space in your suitcase or backpack when you can borrow it from the shop for a reasonable price. Most shops are happy to lend you a mask and fins if you want to snorkel before or after your dive, too. If diving becomes a passion that you want to pursue, you can build your collection of scuba gear over time.
What should I wear?
In the water, it depends on the water temperature and your personal comfort level. In Roatan I wore a bikini under a half wetsuit, while in Cozumel I wore a bikini under a full-length wetsuit. One-piece suits are fine too. The shop should have rental suits available. To and from the dive shop, and on board the boat, I recommend a pair of board shorts and a tank top, or a “long and loose” tank that you can wear like a dress over your bikini. As it can be slippery getting on and off the boat I prefer proper water sandals over flip-flops.
What about my long hair?
There is no easy answer to this one! While it’s tempting to slather a deep conditioner all over in hopes of fighting tangles, you don’t want your beauty products washing out into the water and ultimately harming the reef. You can try a braid or stick with a simple ponytail, and make sure you’ve got a wide-tooth comb back at the hotel to deal with the aftermath!
I’m obsessed with sunscreen, but I’m also obsessed with preserving the beautiful underwater world. Because most of my dives had an early start I went with sunscreen just on my face, and then tried to get into my full-body wetsuit before the sun got too strong. If I took off my wetsuit during surface intervals (the break between dives if you’re doing two dives during the same boat trip) I would just try to stay in the shade. If you’re not comfortable with this, look for an eco-friendly sunscreen that will be less harmful to the sea life.
What if I have my period?
I am proud to say that I am living proof that sharks don’t care if you have your period or not! I had a few heavy flow days on my most recent trip, including during my night dive, and everything went fine. I used Tampax Ultra tampons during all of my dives and changed them during the surface interval on the days when I was bleeding most heavily. Our boat stopped at a dock that had public bathrooms so I was able to change my tampon in relative comfort, but I had a ziplock bag and toilet paper on hand in case I had to change on the beach (behind a palm tree?) or at the back of the boat (turn away please!). If that sounds horrifying to you, look for shops that offer one-tank dives that will get you back to a bathroom in less time!
What if I have to pee?
Basic manners says that you shouldn’t pee in a rental wetsuit. However, it’s totally fine to get back on the boat, take off your gear, and hop back into the water to pee (just tell the captain first!). You can hold onto the ladder or the rope that runs along the side of the boat. If you own your own wetsuit, pee away!
Will the guys be nice to me?
In general, I think most men are happy to see a girl scuba diving on her own. I found that more experienced divers tended to be the most welcoming, while occasionally it was the captains and divemasters who might make a sexist joke here or there. I recommend striking a balance between trying your best to do things on your own and asking for help when it matters (like, when it comes to safety). If you’re out of practice then take a refresher class rather than relying on the other people on the boat to do things for you. In my own experience, the more confident I became the more I was accepted by the male divers on the boat. You can also look for female divemaster (like Blanca at Blue Project in Cozumel) if that would make you more comfortable.
Do you have any other questions about scuba diving for girls? Ask below and I’ll do my best to answer (again, from the perspective of a new diver!).