Nicaragua, Part Four: Advanced Open Water Certification on Little Corn Island

Diving is addictive. Ever since I got the initial PADI open water certification, I knew that an advanced open water course was in my future. You see, the open water class only provides so much knowledge. You learn about diving gear, protocol, and how to handle problems as they arise. In other words, they arm you with the basics. But you don’t learn much more. And there is so much more to diving than learning how to clear your mask.

Although I considered getting more dive experience under my belt before going to the next level, ultimately I decided that more education would be a faster way to get ready for better dives. You can’t just get your open water certification and decide to dive a wreck, for example. PADI, the international dive organization that certified me, maintains guidelines that ideally match a diver’s skill level with appropriate conditions. Technically, OW divers should max out at 60 feet of depth. With a PADI advanced open water certification, you could reach 100 feet. The course also offers additional dive skills that help maximize underwater experiences. Take buoyancy, for example. Achieving weightlessness underwater is a delicate balance of equipment (weights, wet suits, a buoyancy control device) and learning how to control your breath. The advanced course offers a chance to practice this in depth. My course also consisted of a night dive, a navigation dive, a deep dive, and an underwater photography dive. There’s a lot of argument about the validity of the PADI course, but when all was said and done, I felt the advanced course gave me more varied experience and that leads to confidence in the water. Confidence leads to relaxation, and a relaxed diver is a successful diver.

And let’s be honest: I can’t wait to dive a wreck!

So what was my advanced open water course with Dolphin Dive like?

Well, first, we received books. Before each course dive, we studied a corresponding section in the book and answered a set of written questions to ensure that we understood the information. Next, we met with our instructor, Brendan, and the rest of the class to discuss what we’d learned. This is what our classroom looked like.

The "classroom" at Dolphin Dive
The “classroom” at Dolphin Dive

(Let me just tell you: when I took my open water course in Gainesville, GA? The classroom was a windowless room looking out over a tiny indoor pool. Which meant it reeked of chlorine and was constantly humid. This was infinitely better).

Better yet was when we took our skills underwater to practice. Unlike the open water certification, which had somewhat boring checkout dives, these skills allowed us to explore our limits.

We started with the peak performance buoyancy dive. It was more like an underwater obstacle course! practiced hovering with different weights in our hands, learning to use our breath and BCD to stay put. Next, we practiced swimming through hoops and squares, using our breath and balance to float backwards and do all sorts of twists. This part of the dive took about 20 minutes, and we spent the rest of the time exploring. That was the best part of the advanced course! The skills we demonstrated were quick and easy, so much of our time underwater was spent actually diving the reef.

The next morning, we went for Blowing Rock. You can read a little bit more about Blowing Rock here. What I didn’t mention in my last post is that the two dives we did there were for my advanced course! It was a perfect combination.

First was our deep dive, where we sank about 90 feet beneath the surface. Although many deep dives will descend to 120 feet, it’s hard to find anywhere that deep in the Corn Island reefs. This was my first time going this far, and I was excited for the challenge. Brendan brought an empty plastic Coke bottle with us so we could see how it compressed under the pressure. On that same note, the air in my regulator felt thicker; breaths were more difficult to pull in. A diver will deplete an air supply much more quickly at those depths, since the air is so much denser at that depth. We also saw how the red label appeared brown at that depth, since different wavelengths of light are filtered out by the blue water. While the experience was interesting, I think I prefer the relative ease of shallower dives!

After our deep dive, we came up for a surface interval on the boat. Brendan passed out biscuits – Chikys, to be specific. They are little shortbread biscuits dipped in chocolate. Xavier fell in love with those treats, and they were definitely a welcome snack! We chatted and prepared for our next dive. All of the students in our class had opted to take an underwater photography dive. For me, it was a no-brainer. We would be in such an incredible dive site, the best that Nicaragua has to offer. Why not snap some photos to have as memories, all in the name of education?

We learned how to take photos pointing up towards the surface, since that’s where the light comes from. And then we were off. Unfortunately, my pictures didn’t turn out very well. It’s a good thing I was diving with Xavier, who managed to take gorgeous shots the whole time!

Practicing my buoyancy
Practicing my buoyancy
A fish in Blowing Rock
A fish in Blowing Rock
Photographing an angelfish
Photographing an angelfish
A barracuda
A barracuda

After we returned, we had a few hours to relax before our night dive. Exhausted from a long morning on the boat and deep underwater, we explored the island, napped for a little bit, and then chowed down on  delicious chicken quesadillas from Tranquilo Cafe. I was nervous for my first time going underwater in darkness, and I can’t say I was too excited about it.

When you start diving, everyone you meet with diving experience promotes the night dive. “It’s awesome!” they’ll tell you. “You have to try it!”

I never felt the enthusiasm. It was almost like how I felt about skydiving. Sure, I’d try it, but that didn’t mean I was excited. Resigned would be a better word. And hopeful, because of course I wanted the experience to be worth our time.

One of the other girls on the dive trip was equally nervous. We tried to calm each other down on the boat, as we sped out to the site under the darkening sky. “I heard this is amazing,” she said. “I only signed up because someone else told me how awesome it was.”

I hoped so.

We geared up and slipped underwater just as the sun was setting. Within minutes, the water was dark and we had to use our handheld dive lights to navigate. The skills portion of the dive just had students swim 20 kick cycles from the group, then return using our lights. The rest of the dive was pure adventure. There were more jellyfish than I’ve ever seen in my life. Fortunately, they were the non-stinging kind. We floated through clouds of jellyfish, using our lights to admire other nocturnal sea creatures. I saw quite a few lobsters, and four octopi! Those were truly awesome.

My favorite part of the dive, though, was when our group turned off all of the lights. Although we swam through complete darkness, we could follow the diver ahead thanks to bioluminescence. Each kick set off a flurry of glowing green sparkles. It was incredibly surreal and beautiful.

All in all, the night dive was a success.

Our final course dive was to practice underwater navigation. On land, we used compasses to walk in squares and follow a course. Once underwater, we learned to count kick cycles to estimate the distance we’d traveled. We also busted out those compasses to swim in a square. I had a hard time with this one. We were swimming over a gorgeous reef, complete with a huge one-eyed puffer fish and a few barracuda. I was so intrigued by the surroundings that I almost forgot to navigate.

All in all, the advanced diving course was a success. Before our trip, we had debated: should we “waste” a fun diving vacation by turning it into a course? But after the fact, we were so grateful that we had. The study and classroom time wasn’t too demanding, and we easily completed it during the time we weren’t diving. And the skills portion of the dives was minimal, but interesting enough that it was fun rather than tedious. We had plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings. If you’re traveling to Little Corn Island, Nicaragua and considering an advanced open water class with Dolphin Dive, I’d strongly recommend it.

At the surface of Blowing Rock
At the surface of Blowing Rock
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3 thoughts on “Nicaragua, Part Four: Advanced Open Water Certification on Little Corn Island

    1. Thanks, Andi! Well, I think it’s definitely time to get your advanced cert 🙂 It’s so much more fun than open water. And thanks for the kind words about the photos. The good underwater ones are Xavier’s. The blurry ones were allll me. I was so excited to dive with a camera that I overlooked our instructor’s memo to “take photos looking up, where the light comes from.”

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