First-time scuba diving for under $100? Where in the world?

I’ve wanted to go scuba diving for as long as I can remember. To be able to inhale and exhale underwater while swimming near schools of brightly colored fish and jaw-dropping coral– how could that possibly not be a Top Ten Life Experience? My desire to go diving was only intensified on my recent trip to Mexico by the scores of other travelers who told me, “You must go scuba diving before you leave!”

“Believe me, I’d love to,” I always thought. Unfortunately, shelling out hundreds of dollars for a PADI-certification course, the multi-day training program wannabe scuba divers usually must enroll in before their first dive, was not in my meager budget.

So how did I get around this rather formidable financial obstacle? How did I go scuba diving for the first time for less than $100? Through a PADI-approved program called Discover Scuba Diving, an introductory course available at most dive shops throughout the world.

I enrolled in this $90-dollar course at Dreamtime Dive Resort, a well-run dive shop in the town of Mahahual, Mexico, located on the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Dreamtime’s owner, a French expat named Yama Saad-Zoi, is a former member of the French Special Forces and, in addition to being a divemaster, also used to work as a skydiving instructor. Despite his small frame, Yama appears to be a man who not only ignores fear but seeks it out just to spit in its face.He’s also one hell of a determined guy. When Hurricane Dean damaged Dream Time in August of 2007, Yama and his dedicated staff began shoveling the sand out of his shop only days after the storm hit. “There was about one meter of sand in here,” Yama told me during a brief tour of his clean, obsessively organized shop. “The hurricane threw scuba diving equipment everywhere. We were digging out and it was like, ‘Here’s a mask, here are fins… Oh, here’s a dead body,” he joked.

Yama and his crew got the shop up and running in October, 2007, only two months after the hurricane hit Mahahual. But just when Dreamtime was getting back on its feet, swine flu arrived in Mexico, scaring away millions of tourists and thousands of would-be scuba divers. Having heard about all the bad luck to hit this particular dive shop, I felt a little bit like my enrollment in this course was my “good deed” for the day. (Clearly I do not set the bar for what is a “good deed” very high.)

The Discover Scuba Diving course itself was brief and relatively simple. After my diving instructor Victor spent about an hour of “classroom” time explaining to me the physics and fundamentals of scuba diving, we hopped into the boat and began a pleasant fifteen-minute ride to a great diving spot called Caracol. I strapped on the fins, mask, air tank, and weight belt, and plunged backwards into the water as I had been shown just moments before. Victor and I spent several minutes in shallow water so that I could become accustomed to breathing into the regulator and practice some other basic scuba diving skills, like how to clear the mask of water. Despite having to absorb a lot of information in a short amount of time, I was more than ready to begin my first dive.

We swam to a depth of about twenty feet and I rose and sank in the water like the newbie scuba diver I was, while Victor attempted to pantomime some tips from a few feet away. The dive lasted about thirty minutes, which was plenty of time to see some amazing fish and beautiful coral formations in the clear Caribbean water.

“How was it?” Yama asked when I hopped back onto the boat. The only word I could think of was the only word I needed: “Wow. Just… wow.”

On the way back to shore, Yama, the divemaster and former skydiving instructor, told me, “There are two things every person should do in their lives– skydiving and scuba diving.”

“I guess I’m halfway there now, huh?” I said.

And halfway, I could have added, is far enough for me.

For more info about Discover Scuba Diving (including the fact that it will make your PADI course cheaper if you complete it within a year of your introductory dive), go here. For info about the professional, highly-recommended Dreamtime Dive Resort, check out their website