Is Scuba Diving an Extreme Sport?

lauderdale by the sea

Some people get excited when they pop open an expensive champagne, others can only feel a thrill if they jump off a tall building or do something equally extreme. In this era, you can add another activity to that list of “extreme” activities: scuba diving.

You may have seen idyllic photos or videos of a tanned scuba diver leisurely swimming along a pristine coral reef. That doesn’t seem like much of an extreme activity, does it? If you are a recreational diver, then that may be the kind of experience you are accustomed to, but scuba diving is as extreme as you make it. For example, you can go wreck diving, cave diving, ice diving, drift diving, and much more. These are all activities that require extensive training and can be quite dangerous if you’ve never done it before.

Is scuba diving dangerous?

Just describing what scuba diving is like is a strong  argument for how extreme it is: you are in an environment that is slowly killing you each second unless you are wearing the appropriate gear; the water pressure can cause your eardrums to burst and your eyes to turn bloodshot; there may be dangerous aquatic life nearby with very sharp teeth or spines filled with deadly toxins; an underwater current can sweep you far away from the boat; you can get trapped in a cave or get tangled up in kelp or nets; your regulator or gas supply might malfunction, and if you surface quickly in a panic, you can permanently damage your spine, lungs, and brain, resulting in coma or death.  We can go on and on. That sounds pretty extreme, wouldn’t you agree?

Whether scuba diving ends up being a relaxing hobby where you can take some beautiful underwater photography to show family and friends, or an extreme hobby where you try to dive as deep as you can in the most dangerous environments possible is up to you. In this article, we’ll go over how scuba diving can be one of the most extreme sports in the world.

What does scuba diving entail?

dive with a buddy

Not everyone can go scuba diving. First, you need to be physically fit enough. Then, you need to get the proper certifications from a dive training agency such as PADI, SSI, or NAUI. By taking the Open Water Diver course, you will learn the basics to get you started including all of the basic diving theory and beginner level techniques.

One of the most important things you need to master if you want to advance to more extreme forms of diving is buoyancy control. In other words, you need to have competency in controlling when you want to ascend, descend, or stay completely stationary underwater. This will help you deal with minor incidents underwater so that they do not worsen to a major problem.

There is also a physical component to scuba diving. Ideally, you do not have any pre-existing medical conditions and you are physically fit. Effort is required to swim underwater and at the surface while carrying bulky scuba equipment. Swimming proficiency and finning technique goes hand-in-hand with buoyancy control when it comes to mastering your movement underwater.

All of this sounds well and good, but where is the competitive aspect? What makes it extreme? Well, the Open Water Diver certification is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many disciplines which branch out from that starting point. Take a look at the specialty courses PADI offers to see your next possible steps. Perhaps you want to do some wreck diving, night diving, drift diving, or solo diving. Perhaps you want to be bestowed the title of Divemaster in recognition of your diving prowess. If you are eligible to take those courses, then move up the tiers until you reach the top.

You can decide to improve existing skills or expand your diving knowledge so that you can do all types of diving. As your experiences and abilities as a scuba diver grows, you will gradually move from a humble recreational diver and enter more extreme territory.

What’s extreme about scuba diving?

What makes a sport extreme? After looking at various definitions, we can define an extreme sport as one that requires intense physical training using specialized gear with a high risk of danger or death. There will typically be an element that we cannot control such as the natural environment which is ever-changing and indifferent.

For example, when scuba diving it is difficult to predict the flow of the currents, the behavior of any aquatic life that is encountered, or the reliability of the SCUBA gear that can suddenly fail for one reason or another. It is also hard to predict how one’s body reacts to nitrogen narcosis at a deep enough depth. In other words, there are many variables that are out of the diver’s control that can lead to a fatal outcome.

That’s not even mentioning the various types of extreme diving that can be done such as shark diving, drift diving, night diving, wreck diving, technical diving, cave diving, ice diving, and solo diving. In the next section, we’ll cover some of the types of extreme scuba diving that you might want to consider trying out if you’re an adrenaline junkie.

Extreme scuba diving examples

Technical diving

technical diving

Technical diving is a broad term that refers to dives that go beyond the limitations of recreational diving in terms of standard depth, time, and training. The longer and deeper that you dive, the greater the chance of getting decompression sickness or nitrogen narcosis.

For instance, deep diving is a form of technical diving where divers exceed depths of 60 m (200 ft) which requires breathing a hypoxic gas mix to prevent oxygen toxicity. Furthermore, the greater the depth, the stronger the effect of nitrogen narcosis which will feel like you are getting progressively more drunk which can lead to performing fatal mistakes underwater.

While the standard single tank and regulator setup for recreational diving is simple to understand, technical diving is far more complicated due to the extra gear, variables, and potential risks to take into account.

On deeper dives, some limits must be adhered to, such as performing various decompression stops at planned depths to give your body time to off-gas. You must make sure not to exceed an ascent rate of 9 meters per minute. Failure to adhere to these series of stops will put you at risk of getting bent, the effects of which can be fatal.

Technical diving will require you to use some highly specialized and extremely expensive gear such as extra tanks, special gas mixes, or closed-circuit rebreathers. You will also need backups of essential equipment such as your dive computer, dive light, or air tanks in case of a hardware failure.

There are more risks to tec diving than regular diving, so you should take the appropriate courses to receive the training and understanding you need to safely perform this extreme activity.

Shark diving

shark diving

One of the most common questions non-divers ask their scuba diving friends is “have you ever swam with sharks?” Thanks to Spielberg’s Jaws and various other sensationalized films and media, the impression of sharks most people have is that they are ruthless killing machines that will mercilessly rip a diver to shreds or gobble them up whole.

Is this what sharks are really like? No! Each year, thousands of divers safely dived with sharks with no incidents. In fact, many extreme divers will relish the experience of swimming side-by-side with a shark and admire the sharks’ beauty up-close. The media like to portray them as killing machines, but sharks are some of the most majestic aquatic creatures on earth.

Drift diving

drift diving

Ever wanted to experience what it’s like to fly? We don’t mean to sit on an airplane, we mean feeling like you’re Superman and you’re gliding through the air. Well one way to get such a sensation is to go on a drift dive. Here, the goal is to go along with a fast moving underwater current and let it take you wherever it ends up going.

When done correctly, drift diving can be one of the most exciting and wildlife-packed experiences you can get in the sea. You can use specialized equipment called reef hooks to hold your position in the current and wait for various wildlife to swim by. Be careful where you hook because you can easily damage the corals. Once you’re ready, simply unhook and you’re “flying” again. Learn more about drift diving by taking the Drift Diver course.

Night diving

diving at night

You know the saying “the difference is like night and day?” Well that applies to night diving quite literally because it is absolutely a different experience compared to day diving.

When you dive at night, you will see countless creatures that only come out under the cover of night. You’ll see creatures that have finally awoken from their day slumber and are actively hunting for their first meal. When the whole world is shrouded in darkness, it gives a heightened sense of tension and a curiosity for what might be lurking in the depths.

In order to see at night, you need to use underwater torches. You should also learn special signals in order to communicate with divers at night, since the usual methods might not work in the dark. The dangers of night diving are that if your torch dies and you somehow get separated from your group, it can be a harrowing experience trying to regroup in total darkness. With that said, for many, night diving is the highlight of their holiday. Take the Night Diver course to learn more.

Cavern diving

cave diving

If you thought exploring caves on land is extreme enough, try doing it underwater. Cave diving is another type of technical diving. It requires Advanced Diver techniques, Cavern Diver training, extended dive times, and a heap of cautiousness due to the added risk factor of the overhead environment that makes it hard to quickly exit the cave in an emergency.

For the extensive training and planning needed to cave dive, the reward is an unforgettable experience where you can get some truly exclusive sights found on Earth (you and your dive buddy may be the only ones who’ve ever been there).

Underwater caves are the result of cave systems that have flooded over thousands of years as the water levels rise. They were once caves above sea level, these geological remains may have stunning fields of stalactites and stalagmites that can only be accessed underwater.

Sometimes cave divers find the remains of prehistoric animals or other historic artifacts of interest. You never know what you might find when you go cave diving, however it is one of the riskiest and extreme activities a scuba diver can do due to how unpredictable the cave systems are.

Wreck diving

wreck diving

Not all wreck diving is extreme, but some of them can provide a great challenge that can test your diving skills to the limit. You will first need to get certified before you have a hope of surmounting this obstacle.

Like cave diving, wreck diving can be very dangerous due to the overhead and claustrophobic environment. It is not always clear which way is out; it’s very easy for equipment to snag on debris or for divers to get trapped.

Another risk of wreck diving comes from the undisturbed silt that has accumulated in the wreck. Should you kick it up, you can create a “silt-out” where your visibility can drop to zero. You’ll need a powerful dive light to get you out of that mess.

These are just some of the risks involved with wreck diving and, if you make one mistake, can potentially cause you to get disoriented, pinned under debris, or stuck somewhere with no clear exit point and a gas supply that keeps on dwindling.

For these reasons, it is crucial that wreck dives are meticulously planned and approached with much caution. When you’re actually at a wreck site, it can provide the diver with a fascinating, yet humbling experience looking at the ill-fated vessel.

Many wreck divers don’t just visit these sites for the thrill of it. They will study up on the history and learn as much as possible about what the vessel was like before it sank, what caused it to sink, and if they can locate anything of note that was mentioned in books.

Ice diving

ice diving

Ice diving is perhaps the ultimate test of team diving and requires meticulous planning and coordination to safely pull off, putting it firmly in the extreme category of diving. To get started, you need to first get certified.

To even consider an ice diving attempt, you should have a minimum of 4 divers. Only one diver will be submerged at any time, and the other three should assist the submerged diver based on their various planned roles.

The currently submerged diver is securely clipped to a safety line at all times which is used as a communication method as well as a lifeline if something goes wrong.

You cannot ice dive using the traditional scuba diving gear because they will freeze and fail to keep you warm. Instead, divers must wear a drysuit and use a regulator rated for freezing conditions. Even with a drysuit on, dives should not exceed 30 minutes to decrease the chances of hypothermia setting in.

The other diving equipment you use, such as the dive hood, gloves, and fins must also be rated for ice diving. If not, then they will not keep you warm enough to safely dive in.

Below the ice, you will see unbelievably clear freshwater due to the low temperatures. Encounters with animals while ice diving, particularly mammals, are much more laidback and lengthier due to their lowered metabolic rate. And being underwater with ice overhead in all directions and freezing cold water surrounding you certainly causes an extreme thrill.

World Records

As an example of divers who have taken this sport to the limit, here are some world records in various categories to give you an idea of what has been accomplished in this field.

  • Deepest scuba dive ever: 332.35 meters (1090.39 feet). Made by Egyptian Ahmed Gabr on September 18, 2014, in Dahab, Egypt. It took 13 hours and 50 minutes, whereby 92 tanks of gas were consumed.
  • Longest scuba dive ever: There numerous records for different environments. In an enclosed environment it is 192 hours, for saltwater it is 142 hours, for freshwater it is 120 hours, and for cold water it is 30 hours.

Do you think you are extreme enough to set the next scuba diving world record? Perhaps we’ll be writing about you sometime in the future.

Parting words

As you can see from the examples of extreme diving we have provided in this article, scuba diving is not limited to just recreational diving. If you are adventurous enough, it can be as extreme as you want it. So we can confidently say: yes, scuba diving is indeed an extreme sport.

The next time you go on a holiday, you can decide if you want to have a relaxing time at a recreational depth, or if you want to literally ride the currents and move faster underwater than you’ve ever been before.

Perhaps you want to enjoy the thrills of a night dive, shark dive, or a simple wreck dive such as a crashed plane in shallow waters, or a vessel that is dozens of meters underwater. With the sufficient training and the right team, you can even look at setting a new diving record in the future.

Scuba diving is a rewarding hobby, yet it comes with various risks and challenges that you must factor into your dive plan. However, when all of your hard work comes to fruition and your dive plan comes together, it is possibly one of the most satisfying experiences in the world that recreational divers will never be able to feel.

Photo Credits: SCUBATOO (CC BY 2.0), Diving Inspiration