Summer is a great time for families of all kinds to have fun on Maui. Among the many adventures on the island, scuba diving is an excellent activity that groups of different ages and abilities can enjoy together, sharing underwater adventures. For those new to diving, it could be the highlight of their Maui vacation. As you plan a trip, you may be wondering what is a good age to introduce scuba diving to the younger members of your group.
According to PADI (the Professional Association of Dive Instructors), kids can be certified as Junior Open Water Divers as early as the age of 10. However, whether this age is appropriate for all children is a subject of debate within the dive community. Take into consideration that children develop physically and mentally at different rates, making it difficult to define an age at which all children can safely dive. A child’s maturity, reasoning skills, and physical limitations should be assessed when determining if he or she is ready to begin scuba diving.
In this article, we review some really great reasons to start kids scuba diving, but also point out some youth specific risks, how to help adults assess when kids are ready to dive, and why you will find some charters have higher age limits.
Positive reasons for kids to start scuba diving
The younger people are when they begin scuba diving, the more comfortable they are likely to be with it. Adults can introduce kids to wading and swimming much earlier than diving, developing a comfort around the water. It is also a good safety practice for kids to learn to swim, whether they end up diving or not.
See if there is a facility offering a PADI Bubblemaker program near your home. This gives kids 8 and older the chance to try on scuba gear and swim around in a pool or confined water. The max depth is six feet. The PADI Seal Team program is a more extensive pool program for kids ages 8+ that combines basic scuba diving skills with fun activities such as taking underwater photos, practicing buoyancy and learning environmental awareness. Both of these programs are good precursors to the Jr. Diver Certification, which can be completed at age 10.
Discover Scuba divers or certified Jr. Divers can join in the family sport of diving and going on scuba holidays. More bonding time is created within the confines of the charter because you all depart and return together. There is usually little or no screen time, since salt water and phones don’t mix. In addition, diving is great physical exercise
Scuba diving is an ongoing learning experience. Courses take abstract concepts from physics, math, and natural science and apply them to the real world.
Along the same lines, diving encourages students to care about conservation of the natural environment. Things like learning coral is a living animal, and why we should not stand on it or grab onto it, will help young divers become responsible participants as they continue to dive.
Although diving is risky, most activities in life have some risk. Teaching a child or teenager to responsibly manage the risks of diving can help them to learn personal responsibility.
Consider the risks for young divers
Scientists have not exposed young children to risks that would result in decompression illness or other dive related injuries. To do so would be unethical. It also means there is no data on many areas to prove diving is safe or dangerous for children.
However, there are some risks associated with how children’s bodies develop that we do know about.
There is some research that shows children may be at a greater risk of decompression sickness. In the womb, infants have a passageway, called a patent foramen ovale (PFO), that allows blood to bypass the lungs. After birth, this hole gradually closes as the child matures. Young or slowly developing children may still have a partially open PFO by the age of 10.
Another developmental issue is regarding the middle ear via the eustachian tube. A diver adds air to this tube when making a decent to equalize pressure. This is usually no problem for an adult. For many children under the age of 12 (and some older ones), it is physically impossible to equalize the ears because the eustachian tubes are not sufficiently developed. Failure to equalize the ears can lead to severe pain and ruptured ear drums.
Jr. divers, age 10 and 11 are restricted to depths of 40’ to minimize the risk of decompression sickness, ease equalization and act as a safeguard against other potential health risks.
Is your child psychologically ready to dive?
Children use concrete thinking, enabling them to repeat back diving safety rules. Their reasoning is based literally on what they observe around them. Generally, kids move out of concrete thinking into more abstract thinking modes around age 11, allowing them to interpret and apply logic and appropriately react to an unfamiliar situation. Before abstract thinking starts to develop, concrete thinking may prevent a younger child from reacting appropriately in an emergency. Again, each child develops at a different pace, and it is not unusual for a child to not have good problem solving skills by age 12.
Maturity is also a major factor. Young children all the way through teenagers may not have the discipline required to be a safe diver. If your child is nonchalant or ignores diving safety, it may be best to keep him or her out of the water. Keep in mind that on a charter there will be others in the dive group to consider.
The flip side to kids being more adaptable is that some have a higher level of fear and get frustrated easier. Unfortunately, if there is a problem, a youth diver cannot just give up and leave during a dive. They must be able to maintain control of themselves during a slow emergency ascent.
Parents or guardians have to make these assessments based on the child, not the desire to have the child be able to dive with the family. If there is strong hesitancy, don’t push it. Diving involves risk at all ages, so assessing your child’s emotional maturity, reasoning and abstract thinking skills are just as important as health considerations.
Helpful Guidelines from PADI to Determine If a Child Is Ready for a Scuba Certification
PADI published a book, “Children and Scuba Diving: A Resource Guide for Instructors and Parents.” In it, PADI suggests that a child may be ready to enroll in a scuba course if the following questions can be answered in the affirmative.
- Does the child want to learn to dive? (This should not be the merely desire of his parents and friends.)
- Is the child medically fit to dive? All student divers are required to complete a medical questionnaire in order to participate.
- Is the child comfortable in the water, and can he or she swim? He or she will need to pass a swimming test.
- Does the child have a sufficient attention span to listen to and learn from class discussions, pool and open water briefings and debriefings and other interactions with an instructor?
- Can the child learn, remember and apply multiple safety rules and principles?
- Are the child’s reading skills sufficient to learn from adult-level material (allowing for extra reading time, and the child may request help)?
- Can the child feel comfortable telling an unfamiliar adult (instructor or divemaster) about any discomfort or not understanding something?
- Does the child have reasonable self-control and the ability to respond to a problem by following rules and asking for help rather than by acting impulsively?
- Does the child have the ability to understand and discuss hypothetical situations and basic abstract concepts like space and time?
The underwater experience
The most important part of scuba diving as a family activity is the experiences people have together underwater and that will create lifelong memories. Often referred to as the “ocean’s rainforest,” Hawaii’s underwater realm is home to more than 7,000 aquatic species, with more than 1250 found nowhere else in the world. Swimming alongside a green sea turtle, observing brightly colored tropical fish, or even spotting a shark is a shared bonding experience that will not soon be forgotten.
In addition to the points mentioned in this article, you will find some age restrictions among charter operations due to site depth and conditions. Lahaina Divers states the minimum age for divers and snorkelers, the certified diver parent or guardian accompanying a Jr. Diver should consider the above information when determining if the youth is prepared to dive.
Our Turtle Reef charter is suitable for beginner divers ages 10+, including those not yet certified doing a Discover Scuba dive. At 30-35 feet, older divers may find this easier, relatively shallow dive quite comfortable too. But make no mistake, it is a wonderful dive for even the most experienced scuba professional, with a partially submerged wharf creating habitat for a myriad of marine life. One can often observe a “cleaning station” where turtles line up for their turn for wrasse and other fish to remove parasites. White tip reef sharks commonly hang out in the caverns created by the wreckage. You might spot a delicate Harlequin shrimp or camouflaged Frog fish.
Our Molokini Crater charter is open to certified divers 10 and over. However, Junior Open Water divers must be accompanied by certified adult parent or guardian and maintain a maximum depth of 40 feet. Divers must be 12+ for our Lanai charter due to overhead obstructions in caves and swim throughs, and 15+ for the Carthaginian wreck dive due to deep depth. For our advanced drift dives, divers must be 15+, have a minimum number of dives completed, have good buoyancy control, and be able to enter and exit the boat unassisted in potentially rough seas or current. Advanced dives include 3 Tank Lanai, Hammerhead and Molokini Backwall.
Scuba diving is an active, exciting activity that multiple generations can share and remember. In addition to rules and charter guidelines, adults should assess the youth in their care, understand the benefits and the risks. When approached safely, there is no substitute for sharing a unique, underwater experience in nature with a new generation of scuba divers.