In 1979 during my sophomore year in high school, for my birthday my parents purchased for me a scuba certification course. I had always been intrigued with the idea, mostly from watching Jacques Cousteau on TV. Scuba, short for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, allows you to take a tank of air underwater and breathe. There is no connection to the surface, unlike hard-hat diving which uses a hose connecting you to a surface-supplied air source.

With scuba you are free to swim about, a true aqua-naut with an aqua-lung! First invented by Emile Gagnon and Jacques Cousteau in the 1940s, this concept and technology liberated you like nothing else as to what could be done underwater. It quickly became its own sport, profession and industry.

Aspects of scuba, incorporating newer technology and training or instruction, took time to mature. By the 1970s, it was still developing, actually it still is. Back then, early scuba courses were usually taught by former Navy guys, tough as nails. The physical and classroom activities were meant to be challenging. Certification was not just a class to get through, but a belief in and acceptance of proper procedures and preparation to ensure your safety. Learning this process required quite an actual commitment from any would-be diver.

The scuba industry has since streamlined much of its training time and procedures for certification, mostly to accommodate new technology but also for financial reasons. Too long or too tough courses or training might scare away potential divers. Of course this offers fertile ground for debate as to whether today’s certification courses adequately and safely prepare or train divers. One can amass quite a few levels of certification by taking courses, yet still have very few actual dives for experience. It really is a good debate. I personally think it depends on you the diver, your specific instructor and the attitudes and tone each of you take towards the course.

By late 1970s, scuba was still considered a new kind of experience, its technology still fairly rough. Suits were just thick constrictive layers of neoprene with beaver-tail attachment flaps. Masks were big and bulky, requiring lots of air to clear leakage that invariably happened. Tanks had J-valves for your reserve air, when you took a breath and nothing came, you knew it was time to engage the reserve mechanism. Divers were considered cutting-edge if they had any kind of pressure or depth gauge instruments. Flotation devices were basically a horse-collar air bladder with an emergency CO2 cartridge, which you pulled to inflate to bring you to the surface, if needed.

My scuba instructor was also my high school biology teacher. He helped with search and rescue for the local fire department, and back then, that’s where we would fill our tanks. He was a no nonsense type of guy and I knew the course would be rigorous and thorough, just like his biology class. And it was.

In 1979, my basic YMCA scuba certification course was six weeks of classroom and pool instruction and then two open water check-out dives in a local quarry. Most certification courses today can be completed through online video e-learning and then some pool-time instruction. Result is more divers getting certified sooner. One can see why the industry would like that.

I couldn’t wait to get started. The class was Tuesday and Thursday evenings for three hours. I would walk over to the school parking lot and ride with my teacher and two other students to the nearest pool, about 45 minutes away. They had a room we used for classroom instruction and then we’d hit the pool. Those were fun but wicked long, tiring evenings. I remember dragging myself home exhausted and into bed pretty late…but I was totally hooked.

For classroom instruction we dove into all applicable physics laws, such as Charles’ Law and Boyle’s Law, pertaining to compressed air, how it affects your lungs at depth, as well as the timing of nitrogen build up in your bloodstream and how to "off-gas" it out of you before resurfacing. Another challenge to me was learning dive tables, laminated cards which mathematically helped you design your dives as to how deep you would go and for how long, as well as how long your surface interval had to be between multiple dives, all to avoid decompression sickness.

Of course, this was before dive computers, which now pretty much do all that work for you and just beep or flash when you approach decompression limits. This was also before much use of video, so instruction was the old fashioned way, with plenty of interaction between instructor and students, maybe some slides from an old projector.

Pool sessions were pretty rigorous. For the first two weeks, we did not touch any scuba gear. Instead we just swam around with mask, fins and snorkel, showing the instructors we could be comfortable in the water. For one drill, they dumped dozens of golf balls into the deep end as we lined the shallow end. In one breath, we then swam the length of the pool underwater to the deep end and tried to gather as many golf balls as possible before we had to surface.

What I learned from that drill was to calm down with my swimming underwater the length of the pool, to conserve my air, then calmly go about collecting golf balls, all the time working on convincing myself that I was fine and did not yet need to break for the surface. It helped me think that maybe I could get one more golf ball, or maybe one more after that. This really helped develop air discipline.

We also did the float test, where you just float in the water without touching anything for 30 minutes. Might sound easy, but try it some time. Again, it helped teach you to stay calm and conserve energy, since flailing around tires you out and burns air, whether at surface or underwater. This is why you see experienced scuba divers breathing calmly and puttering along usually with arms folded in front of them. I am glad to see they still do that drill, it taught me air management.

The buddy breathing drill is now a thing of the past, since today’s divers have an "octo" or spare regulator to breathe from, if there is a problem with their primary regulator. So if you have an out-of-air emergency (OOA), you approach your buddy and use their octo, and they expect to do the same. When I certified, there were no such things as octos; you had your one regulator…so we would practice with a buddy up and down the pool passing a regulator back and forth between us. Gave me new perspective to the concept of dive buddy!

Another drill no longer used is when we took all our gear into our arms and jumped into the deep end. You sink to the bottom, organize yourself, assemble the gear and put it on, then swim back up. On the bottom, your first task was to get your air going, get the regulator into your mouth then find your mask to put on and clear. You were then in business and could properly put on everything else in a methodical way. This taught me to know my gear, sometimes just by feel. More on no visibility diving later!

Towards the end of my course, we would swim along a predetermined route in the pool while the instructor and assistants would swim around us purposely knocking our masks ajar or completely off, which obviously flooded them. We would then stop, calmly get the mask set right, clear it of water then continue on our way. They would also sneak up behind you and turn your air off, which suddenly caught us short of air flow. Again, we would stop, calmly reach behind and turn the knob back on and continue breathing. Taught us not to jump right into panic mode and break for the surface if something went amiss.

In fact, the entire course was designed to teach you to deal with things that probably might never happen, but to be mentally prepared for something if it did. In a cold local quarry that spring, we repeated a lot of those skill drills for our open check-out dives. We then chased turtles and fish around and had a great time. Receiving my YMCA Scuba Diver certification was pretty cool and started me on a great phase of my life. It also came with a patch!

Scuba diving is incredibly safe, but you need to be smart about it and prepared for it, like keeping your gear in good working condition. Or gauging dive conditions like water and weather, as well as your own limitations. The key is to be comfortable in the water. Mottos like "plan your dive and dive your plan" or "don’t hold your breath" or "the ocean will always be there" keep you focused, flexible and accountable. Proper training and attitude are important, whether it takes a six-week course or not. It is how you approach it. The result is an extremely enjoyable sport that opens up a new world filled with life, history, science and much more.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through