Open Water Scuba Certification With SSI & Sea Stallion

  • Updated: November 17, 2018
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

As anyone reading this site probably knows I'm a guy that likes to be outdoors. Usually it's backpacking or mountaineering, sometimes just hiking, sometimes rock climbing, occasionally caving, and when I can swing it paddling or cycling.

Scuba diving has been one of those things I've always wanted to do but every time I would consider it I was put off by the cost. Then finally a few months back Kristen decided to take a New Years trip to Thailand which included an opportunity to scuba dive and she pushed me to join her getting certified.

Kristen did a fair amount of research and we settled on a dive shop I've probably driven by a few thousand times over the years called Sea Stallion Scuba Outfitters. Conveniently they had a Groupon available making the SSI Open Water Cert class only about $180.

Of course that didn't include the few hundred dollars in basic gear we needed to buy (since we came in with nothing) but to their credit the store was very up upfront about everything we'd need to buy.

Kristen and I ended up spending another $370 on fins, water booties, a mask and snorkel, a surface marker buoy, and gloves. Also while the intial $180 had included the 4 required ocean dives from a beach there was another option to go out on a boat to Catalina for about $160 a person for three dives with all meals provided. After looking up reviews we decided we couldn't pass that up.

Our main instructors were Tony Delia and Jules Wright who are wonderful people just brimming with enthusiasm for the sport. And they both displayed admirable patience as Kristen and I ran around asking all sorts of questions and trying to fit the Open Water classes and dives into our slightly hectic schedule.

The first part of the class was online coursework to be complete before the first class. It's straightforward web-based training that's a mix of videos, reading, and quizzes.

Then we spent two days split between 4 hours of classroom learning followed by 4 hours geared up and working in a local pool.

Kristen and I both had way to much fun during the pool sessions. Once we got a handle on how to use all the gear it was a blast just being underwater and swimming around for extended periods of time. As a kid I used to bring rocks in the pool and hold my breath for as long as possible since I just loved being underwater so you can imagine how amazing it felt to be able to breath down there for 30 minutes.

Sunday night came much too quickly bringing the end of the classroom portion and meaning it was time to get out in the ocean and dive! Sadly due to the Thanksgiving holiday and Advanced Mountaineering Program commitments we couldn't start our actual dives for two weeks.

So we did the only logical thing and dropped a ton of money on buying our own diving gear and jumped into the classroom portions for the next certification level called Advanced Open Water. Once again Jules was very understanding of my occasionally excessive levels of enthusiasm as we tried to fit anything we could in as quickly as we could.

So our Tuesday nights became classroom time with occasional instances of wandering around the parking lot with blankets over our heads navigating by compass.

And then finally it was time to get out and dive!

Open Water Cert Dives 1-3 

Catalina Island, Big Geiger & Lulu Reed
December 8th, 2018

This was a bit of a splurge since we could have done our required dives off a beach for no extra cost but all the reviews spoke really highly of the Catalina trips Sea Stallion runs. And also I've been on somewhat of a high about the island ever since backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail back in March.

Our tickets included the option to stay on the boat Friday night but we decided our own beds sounded better than a crowded bunk area and drove out early Saturday morning.

Since we now owned brank spanking new dive gear (except for the tanks and weights) a big part of this trip was just figuring out how to move things, where they needed to go, and when we needed to do things.

We had a good 2.5 hour ride out to the island which I thought was going to drag but as it turned out there was a full breakfast, unlimited coffee (which has the added benefit of making you need to pee during the dive which warms the water around you significantly) and a bunch of new people to chat with. And we even saw a few whales along the way.

So after what felt like a surprisingly short time we were out to Catalina and moored a short distance off the shore from Parsons Landing (which if you're not aware is the greatest campsite on Catalina and well worth paying the money to spend a night or two assuming you can get in)

Conditions weren't ideal and the boat relocated a bit further to the south to Big Geiger Cove. And finally it was time to dive!

Picture thanks to Mike Slavinsky

Sadly (and unusually for me) I didn't have a camera while in the water since they really want you paying attention to your buoyancy and air for the first three dives. So the only ones I have are either from the boat or like the one below taken by someone else on the boat.

The first dive had a fair amount of surge meaning the water kept pushing us back and forth as we were 30 ft down working on skills like removing, replacing, and clearing our masks. It was also a bit on the chilly side (62 degrees according to my dive computer) but that bothered Kristen more than it did me.

In between dives the crew fed us and we chatted with others on the boat. By the last dive we were rushing to get in the water while it was still light and a few people decided to stay on the boat and rest. Personally I would have been up for another dive or two if the rules didn't say we could only do three a day during training.

The dives themselves went pretty smoothly though Kristen had a bit of an issue with sinus squeeze during dives 2 and 3. The big lesson learned there is that the hoods can sometimes trap air and pulling them aside to let in a little water can sometimes help with equalization.

All told we did 3 dives (plus a surface skills / get you fins wet activity) and made it down to 56 ft. We saw garabaldi, moray eels, lobster, and these really cool small fish called catalina gobies which seemed to hand around the sea urchins.

The ride back was filled with more socializing and the occasional drinking based initiation card game.

We were home by 9 pm and feeling a bit tired but energized and excited to do more. The initial plan had been to do a beach dive the next morning completing our Open Water certification and opening up options for more dives the following weekend.

Sadly a major rainstorm had hit and a few days ago and so Sea Stallion canceled the beach dive as a precaution since a storm like that causes runoff and high bacteria levels in the ocean.

That left us with the fallback option of doing our final dive the following Saturday...but that would mean losing out on the chance to go do something ourselves that day. And considering I really wanted to get in as many dives as I could before the New Years dive trip to Florida we elected to take a half day off work Friday and pay a bit extra to get an instructor to take us out.

Open Water Cert Dive 4 

Beach Dive Cresent Bay
December 14th, 2018

So that's how we ended up leaving work to meet the Gene at Sea Stallion at 8 am. He's a neat guy who has been diving since the 60s and is one of those people who talks to the crowds from inside the tanks at Aquarium of the Pacific. After introductions, we picked up our tanks and weights and then drove down to Laguna Beach.

This dive also marked the point where I was officially / theoretically trustworthy enough to bring a camera along. So we're GoPro'ing it from here on out!

We parked along Circle Way (accessed from Cliff Dr across the street from the Shell station on PCH) It's a small residential street with a few parking spaces scattered around. When we got there we met two other divers just coming out and then we had the place to ourselves.

After scoping out the beach we talked over our plan and then walked back up to the cars to gear up. As someone who carries loaded backpacks quite often I'll say the scuba gear is manageable but certainly heavy particularly where stairs are involved.

Back down at the beach we entered the water on the north end of the cove.

We had a few decent sized waves coming in as we walked into the surf but with Gene's excellent directions and a bit of newcomers luck we made it out and got our fins on without incident.

And dove!

First off we ran through the now familar mask clearing and regulator recovery exercises and then we swam to the north to check out the reef.

Sadly it was at this point that my GoPro started flashing that the SD card was full and being in the middle of the dive I didn't have time to figure out what was going on. (Later I figured out I'd used a card that was filled with video game saves hence running out of space. Oops!)

The visibility 15 ft at times and other times less but we still had a great dive seeing lobster, garabaldi, california sheephead, and a bunch of other fish species I'm going to have to get better at identifying.

Sadly Kristen had to rush back to work leaving me to head back to the store with Gene and get all the paperwork signed.

Meaning I was officially official!

So what's next? Well no sooner had Jules handed me my certificate than I turned around rented tanks so we could drive out to La Jolla and do some private dives on Saturday. Then Sunday morning conditions allowing we're meeting another boat down in San Diego for a three dive trip to visit a wreck and work on navigation.

Also as I mentioned above I've been working on the SSD Advanced Open Water classes going for the Navigation, Wreck Diving, Deep Diving, and Night Diving specialties with the first dives scheduled for Sunday.

And of course there's the big New Years trip this year. After spending Christmas with my parents in Colorado Jen Blackie and I are flying down to Florida to spend a few days running amok and doing a variety of dives down there. So as always, more to come!

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