Charlotte Burns is 13 years old and the youngest and first ever PADI AmbassaDiver. She started SCUBA diving at just 10 years old and in 3 years has completed 26 PADI dive certifications and over 140 dives (not including many extra hours in the pool helping other kids). She qualified at age 12 as the youngest ever junior master diver and she is also a British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) Sports Diver, trained in Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET), Sea Survival, VHF Radio trained and a qualified skipper to drive power boats. She has SCUBA dived in shipwrecks in Cyprus, photographed sea creatures in the south of France and even dived under an aircraft carrier searching for Improvised Explosive Devices. She tells suitcases&strollers why she loves to dive and why it’s a fun family holiday activity to introduce SCUBA diving to kids.
When did you first start diving?
In May of 2012 I completed my PADI Junior Open Water Course. I was inspired to start diving by my brother because he had a photo on his bedroom wall of him being handed a certificate by Jean-Michel Cousteau for being the world’s most qualified junior master scuba diver when he was 14. He is 15 years older than me.
What do you like about SCUBA diving that you don't get from other sports or activities?
SCUBA diving is an indescribable experience; it’s like being an astronaut as well as simply being a fish. To be able to breath under water is not natural and against everything your body is telling you, but once you have the confidence in your equipment and see how easy it is then you go into another world.
I have gained great confidence with my diving as it teaches you so many things useful in life from looking after a buddy to looking after equipment to first aid. Also my public speaking skills have increased dramatically; these may come in handy in my PADI AmbassaDiver role.
Where some of the places you have SCUBA dived?
I think that getting as much experience as possible makes you a better diver. This includes diving from hard boats, inflatable boats and from the shore. Also different temperatures and different kit. I have been lucky enough to dive in different countries in different conditions. I have dived in -4 degrees in Scotland in a drysuit to tropical waters in a shortie wetsuit. I have dived in lakes and the coast of the UK including Scotland, the USA, the south of France and the Alps in Switzerland where I trained in altitude diving. Also Italy, Cyprus, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.
How often do you dive?
I am limited with my diving as I am at school and I always put my school work first, but generally I try and dive every other weekend. Diving is a big part of my life but I try and balance it with school work which is very important and with other hobbies as well such as photography, kayaking, wind surfing, sailing and power boating.
When I am on holiday I enjoy doing more than I usually would at the weekend. In a two week holiday [I might dive] around 10 dives or more. It depends on the distance to the dive site; for example on holiday in the Caribbean you can do two dives in a morning where some places maybe just one or two in a whole day.
What is your role with PADI?
I have recently been made a PADI brand ambassador for their new AmbassaDiver program which is a real privilege. I hope to be able to engage with and show more children how exciting diving can be. I want to inspire them and demonstrate why they should give it a try, be it by doing a single try dive, completing their PADI Junior Open Water Course or, if already a diver, doing further training to improve their skills.
I also want to get more families diving. In most diving adverts you see adults but barely any children in the pictures. I want to bring a more family friendly atmosphere to the diving world.
I have found out that you can be inspired in different ways and I hope from the inspiration I had that I can now inspire others. Because if I can do it, then they can do it. I’m not special, just a normal girl.
My dad, in particular, has been an amazing help and if it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would have tried so hard. He has had an illness and can’t dive now but uses his skills to help me and together we have managed my diving so I have become a more experienced and safe diver.
My mum was scared of diving but after my dad was ill and couldn’t dive I inspired my mum to dive. She overcame her fear and has now done over 80 dives and is my dive buddy whenever possible. We even have secret hand signals if we see a cute fish! It is so cool to dive with a parent and it makes you closer.
What is the deepest SCUBA dive you've ever done?
Due to PADI rules I can only go to 21 metres [because of] my age. The depth has been set for a reason so I always dive within my limits. I have found that you see the most amazing sea life in the first 10 to 15 metres so I am happy with my limits.
What is the most memorable SCUBA dive you've ever done?
My most memorable dive was when I was lucky enough to be invited to dive under the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier in San Diego in California, USA. I trained with the elite Harbour Police divers who trained me in searching for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). We then carried out an exercise diving under the USS Midway which is massive. Due to its size there are strict safety rules because if you have a problem you just can’t just pop back up with all of that metal over the top of you. It’s also easy to get disorientated due to the darkness and size, so great care has to be taken.
After the diving I received a special certificate from the Chief of Police. The certificate is now on my bedroom wall; maybe that will inspire my younger sister aged 6 to dive when she is old enough!
What's the most unusual thing you've seen on a SCUBA dive?
Whilst diving in the south of France in the Mediterranean, I saw a small purple nudibranch. It was a very small slug-like creature with tentacles on its back. It looked like a tiny anemone and when we got back on the boat I looked it up and it was from a family called Flabellines in French.
I have also seen amazing fish, sea urchins, turtles and lot of octopus. It’s like another world, so beautiful and silent. But it’s important that you don’t touch, just look!
I have also dived in a tank full of live sharks at an aquarium in the UK called The Blue Planet. That was absolutely awesome and kept me very alert. I dived there to raise money for a charity for injured servicemen.
Are there any SCUBA dives that you've ever done that you didn't like?
On one dive in Oban, Scotland I was diving with a surface temperature of -4 degress when I had a free flow which meant that my regulator which I breath from was stuck open and just streaming air out. This meant my oxygen cylinder would empty quickly. I tried to correct it but the diaphragm was stuck open so I had to do an emergency ascent.
I did this but my buddy hadn’t seen me as I had no time to spare. I had to ascend. As I gasped for air I reached the surface and went into a panic attack. Luckily I remembered my first aid training. I told myself to keep calm and to relax and control my breathing. After a few minutes this worked and I began to calm down, just in time for my buddy who had surfaced looking for me.
This has been a great lesson. Not only do I now know that you should put your regulators in the water you are diving in for maybe up to 15 minutes before you dive to acclimatise in cold conditions, but also [I’m now more experienced in] having to make an emergency ascent. It shows that every bit of training has a reason so you must listen carefully to your instructors; it is to keep you safe.
So it's important to take safety when SCUBA diving very seriously.
Safety is the most important thing in any diving I do; it takes a brave person to say they don’t want to dive if things are not right, whether equipment or weather, than to just jump in and risk your own life or (worse still) the lives of others who depend on you as a buddy.
What is your favourite thing to look out for when you SCUBA dive?
I love to look at all of the underwater world. Every dive is different from lakes in the UK with half a metre visibility to the Caribbean with 40 metres visibility. From coral to fish to different types of grasses and sea creatures, it’s an amazing world of adventure.
Where is the best place to SCUBA dive with kids in the world?
It depends on what you want to see. Cold diving in Scotland and in the greener oceans is very different to the warm blue waters of the Caribbean. I have to wear a lot of heavy equipment for cold water diving but that in itself can be strangely exciting as you have more to think about.
In the Caribbean it is almost like naked diving with a shortie wetsuit on; you feel more free especially for me when I am used to wearing a drysuit, hood and thick gloves!
In Barbados there are some shallow wrecks which are great for younger people and the water is warm. The Dominican Republic has some great dive sites which are near to the shore especially at Bayahibe. I dived there and loved it. There is a coral conservation project very near the shore called Fundemar that is run by Rita Sellares. She has been planting coral and it is amazing watching it grow and how they manage it.
You also have the Zenobia wreck in Cyprus which is a huge cargo ship that sank. It really is awesome to see.
Where is the one place in the world you want to go to SCUBA dive that you haven't been yet?
I would love to go SCUBA diving in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, near Chile, as I am intrigued by their importance in Charles Darwin’s discoveries.
I also find the wildlife there amazing and have heard great things about the sea life there. But it’s a long way to go and I think I will need to get a job before I can afford to go there!
What do you think kids get out of SCUBA diving that they don't get from other experiences?
I know diving makes you a better person. My dad is an ex-commando and feels it is good for children to face some controlled danger. He says that is how you learn to look after yourself and others. I now know what he means and he is right; I am now a stronger person and see things that other people who are not divers don’t see, whether it be dangers or other things.
Diving makes you more alert plus you learn a lot of science which I love.
Parents should be encouraging children to start diving in a controlled place like a pool to see how they get on. I think some parents will be amazed at what their children can do if given a chance. They will see them become more confident and aware of things they hadn’t seen before. Plus it’s different to the normal sports and is interesting to talk to friends about.
I have had some amazing experiences with SCUBA diving. When I look at the ocean I see a whole different world as I have seen what is below the surface. I just want to go and explore even more.
Now with underwater cameras like the Nikon COOLPIX AW130 you can bring your experiences to the surface to share with others and with the wi-fi in this camera you can send pictures through your smart phone immediately.
SCUBA diving doesn’t need to be expensive. You can rent all the kit you need. I bought an ex-rental Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) for £60 and used it for 2 years. Look out for schools selling ex-rental kit or, of course, you can buy new. Get advice on sizing to make sure you get the most out of it if the kids are growing.
What are your top pieces of advice for kids SCUBA diving for the first time?
1. The correct training is VERY important. Listen to your instructor and always do as you are told because it is for your well being and safety. Diving is a dangerous sport but safe if you have the correct training and equipment.
If you ever forget anything, don’t be afraid to ask. People respect others that ask and know their limits.
2. Look after your equipment because it looks after you. It isn’t natural for human beings to be able to breathe underwater so if something breaks when you are at 10 metres or more you could be in trouble. With good training you are taught what to do and be safe.
Look after your equipment by not leaving it lying around to be trodden on and also making sure you don’t throw around your equipment. The regulator is delicate and you must respect it. Don’t drag it around on the floor; it keeps you alive!
3. Look at the wonders around you when you dive. It is fun when you surface to find out what you have seen from researching and making notes.
Have as many experiences as you can because they are the things that build your reputation as a safe and experienced SCUBA diver.
I am diving in France at the moment but feel free to have a look at my website www.charlotte-burns.com. I will be updating it when I get back to the UK with lots of exciting things I have done, including diving in an underwater garden.
4. Most importantly, have fun! What’s the point of SCUBA diving when you don’t enjoy it? Don’t rush things, take your time until YOU feel right and comfortable.