BECAUSE I HAVE WRITTEN so much over the years about diving – and because so many people know my book Neutral Buoyancy – people assume that my children learned to dive shortly after they could walk.
It is true that the first time my son swam in the sea he came face to face with a shark that was longer than he was.
I was apprehensive, knowing that he was a cautious child (aged four) and that the only thing he knew about sharks was that they could “eat people”.
In fact, before he would jump off the boat into my arms he paused and asked me shyly if there might be any sharks in the sea.
I told him that it was very unlikely and that we would be very lucky to see a shark.
I didn’t expect to see any sharks, even though we were swimming about a mile offshore on a shallow reef in the Caribbean. But if I had told him that there were definitely no sharks, he would never have trusted me again.
And I didn’t want to lie and tell him that sharks never ate people. I explained that it was true that sharks sometimes bit people, but rare, and that most people never see a shark in their entire life.
Luckily, he was not eaten, and I reinforced the experience by telling him that he was a very lucky little boy to meet a shark on his first swim in the sea.
Since then, he has loved every chance he has had to swim, snorkel and dive. And, being a typical boy, he is convinced that he is highly skilled at all of these activities.
My daughter, who is a superb swimmer and a child who has always been at ease with every form of wildlife, is much more cautious. However, she dives with ease, and is calm and unhurried under water and has been methodical about learning how to use the equipment.
But I didn’t let my son try scuba equipment until he was 10, and my daughter until she was 14. The opportunity came with trips to Maldives and Seychelles, but just because a diving centre tells you that children can learn to dive does not mean that they should.

AS READERS OF DIVER well know, the PADI system is the most commonly encountered method of learning to dive and allows children to do a basic certification (with restrictions) from the age of 10.
Children from the age of eight are called Bubblemakers, and are allowed to familiarise themselves with scuba under supervision in a pool.
From 10 they can dive in open water down to a maximum of 12m but only when accompanied by a PADI professional or a certified parent or guardian. After the age of 12 they can dive to 21m accompanied by a certified adult.
I believe in encouraging people to try scuba-diving. And I always say that sharing the experience of being under water and seeing the endlessly fascinating and unusual underwater life is an experience best shared with someone you love.
But I would never tell an adult that they “must learn to dive”, and I am even more cautious about encouraging children to dive.
Diving is statistically a very safe activity, but there are inherent risks in breathing under water, and when something goes wrong, it can easily be fatal.
Children rarely have the emotional maturity to consider those risks in the same way that we their parents do. As a parent it is you who take on that risk. Even if a child is a confident swimmer, you need to think about how they could react to an underwater emergency. If something unexpected happened, would they panic
It could be something as simple as losing a fin under water, or their mask filling with water. Decompression sickness is probably a low risk with children’s diving (given the depth and the level of supervision under water) but what about embolism or lung-expansion injury
Bolting for the surface is a natural reaction under stress, and few 12-year-olds will remember being told not to do it if they lose their mask.
I don’t say this to put people off diving as a family – but parents need to be aware of what they are undertaking.
However, if you are going to take your kids diving then I think it’s sensible to draw up some rules. Only you can judge how ready you think your child is to try diving. Your first responsibility is to be a confident and experienced diver yourself, but the first practical step is to get them into a swimming pool with an instructor so that they can try it out.
This is not a crash-course in diving. It should be an exploratory experience to see how they handle the equipment, and how controlled they are when they swim around.
Being comfortable in the water also contributes to safety. I would advise buying your child his or her own mask, because there’s nothing worse than an ill-fitting mask that keeps filling with water.
Make sure they know how to prevent it fogging up, and that they know how to clear it of water while under water. It’s a skill that the instructor will teach, but it’s the one that can make all the difference between a good dive and a bad one.

ALSO, REMEMBER THAT water conducts heat away from your body much faster than air – even tropical waters can make you feel chilly after several minutes.
Children generally have less body fat than adults, so will feel the cold sooner – it’s worth considering buying them a well-fitting wetsuit. They can always wear it when swimming to protect from stings and sunburn.
There is another physiological condition that people can overlook. Children often have narrow Eustachian tubes – the passage connecting the ear to the throat – and this may never give them problems until they try clearing their ears under water.
My son struggled to equalise his ears but he would persist in descending even in pain rather than admit that he had a problem. He was desperate not to be left out – but he was too young to understand that he was risking a burst eardrum.
And don’t forget, you’ll be asked to certify the kids’ medical questionnaire.
A good diving school will take the responsibility of teaching children seriously, but you should make sure that your child feels comfortable with the instructor they are assigned.
My daughter’s first experience was with an extremely stern woman, who barked orders and became irritable when she took a while to master putting on her BC.
I asked for a different instructor.
There is no hurry. I would always rather a new diver – whether they are an adult or a child – took their time and was absolutely happy about going into the sea than pushed themselves and risked being put off diving for life.
Finally, think about where you could go diving. It’s not essential that children see a whale shark or a mimic octopus on their first dives.
Consider whether you want the hassle and expense of a long-haul flight and whether the destination poses other challenges for children – malaria, for example
Also, do some careful research about the weather at your destination. Hot sunny days may be accompanied by a prevailing wind that makes the sea rough, or it may be the time of year when there is plankton in the water and visibility is limited.
You may want to be on a liveaboard, but will the whole family enjoy that experience
As the comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said: “Fun for all the family is a very rare thing.”
Clear, calm, warm water makes beginners happy. They can brave the North Sea when they’re older.

TIM SUGGESTS…
Check ahead on resort diving centres’ entry-level training charge, as it’s usually cheaper for beginners to learn before they leave – or at least to do the classroom and basic pool skills in the UK. I can recommend the following destinations and operators:

THE MALDIVES has prolific fish life and conditions suitable for beginners. Non-stop flights can be taken from London and there are no serious health concerns.
Original Diving offers seven nights’ accommodation at Soneva Fushi in Maldives for a family of four for £7900, including flights, seven nights’ half-board and seaplane transfers, www.originaldiving.com

MALTA has long been a favourite with British divers. It’s one of the cheapest options for a diving holiday, with generally good vis and many sites accessible from shore.
Dive Worldwide offers seven nights including flights, transfers, self-catering accommodation at the Sands Holiday Apartments and 10 dives from £775 per adult, £425 per child (up to 12), www.diveworldwide.com

BONAIRE in the Caribbean has a protected reef system and easily accessible shore-diving. The resorts are experienced at handling family groups. Buddy Dive Resort is family-friendly and offers opportunities and education programmes for children taking their first look at the marine world, mainly through its Buddy Rangers operation.
Dive Worldwide offers seven nights in a two-bedroom apartment with breakfast, unlimited diving and six days’ car rental from £2740 (excluding international flights). www.diveworldwide.com

EGYPT and the Red Sea offers the best warmwater diving easily accessible from Europe at the keenest prices. Bear in mind that winter temperatures on land and under water will be considerably cooler than in spring and summer.
Regaldive offers seven nights’ half-board at Breakers Diving & Surfing Lodge at Soma Bay from £732pp including flights, transfers and a pool-view room. Diving costs from £57 for three dives on the house reef. A PADI Open Water course typically costs £263pp, www.regal-diving.co.uk


Tim Ecott is a qualified Divemaster and has worked as a dive leader all over the world. He is author of Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World (Penguin, £9.99). More information on diving courses for children can be found at www.padi.com, www.divessi.com and www.bsac.com. A version of this article originally appeared in Family Traveller magazines May-June 2014 edition. For more, visit www.familytraveller.com