Written by: Matt Newkirk
Visited: July 2018
Choosing a dive company can really make or break your dive trip, especially for people that are new to scuba diving. Having quality instruction and an emphasis on safe practices are particularly important when looking for a shop to do your open water certification. Here are some tips that I have put together from my personal diving experience that hopefully will be helpful when you are choosing a company to dive with on your next vacation.
I often hear newcomers to the sport of scuba diving asking whether they should choose a PADI or SSI shop to do their certification. The truth is that in most cases it really doesn't matter. The foundations of scuba diving are exactly the same for both PADI and SSI. It is far more important that you choose a company that offers excellent instruction, and takes the time to make sure that their students learn the required skills to be a good diver.
Over the years I have been diving with both PADI and SSI shops, and I can honestly tell you that there are good and bad examples of both. That being said, if all of the dive shops in the area you are planning to dive are one or the other, you may want to choose accordingly.
I believe that SSI can be a bit cheaper on their online learning materials, but I would not use that as a determining factor. If you are trying to choose a dive shop to get your certification, go for an instructor that you are comfortable with, and a shop that has well maintained equipment and a good safety track record.
Safety should always be a prime consideration when choosing a scuba diving company. Especially in the beginning, when new divers are counting on the instructor and dive shop to make sure that they learn the skills to be safe divers themselves. You should always do research on any dive shop that you are planning to dive with. Reading reviews is always a good place to start. Don't hesitate to ask the dive shop about their safety record. Ask them about their equipment maintenance schedule, boat logs, if they carry emergency oxygen at dives, how they plan their dive sites for the day, etc.
Over the years, I have seen shops in Africa that scuba dive without depth gages, have been left behind because the boat in Thailand was so crowded that they didn’t even know who was supposed to be onboard, and had dive masters in Singapore endanger the entire dive group by not using common sense. At times it can feel like you are the one looking out for your dive guide, and not vice-versa. Ultimately every trained diver is responsible for their own safety.
My wife has been my dive buddy for my past 200+ dives, and we always take responsibility for our own safety with buddy checks and exercising good judgement. Despite a fair amount of diving experience, and taking every precaution, the dive shops that we select still play a huge role in our safety during the trip. Factors such as quality and maintenance of equipment, selection of dive site for the current conditions, and competent crew and dive masters can all have serious consequences if diving with a careless dive shop. It really is important that you feel out the conditions whenever diving with a new company, and don’t be afraid to speak up, or even skip a dive if you do not feel safe with the way that they are running the dives.
Quality of instruction should be one of your top considerations when choosing a shop to certify you. Whether you are going for your open water, advanced, or even dive master, it is important to remember that you are paying the dive shop for an education. Getting certified is not just about having the card that allows you to join dive trips, it is absolutely crucial that you learn the skills to be a safe and responsible diver. Make sure to read reviews and speak with a few different shops to see how they run the training. Having fewer students and more personal attention can really make a difference when it comes to learning the material.
I actually got my Open Water certification in Malaysia, with a pretty shoddy dive company. In fact, when I went to take the final exam, the answers had already been penciled in, because they were re-using the exams from the last student. Luckily I went for my Advanced Open Water soon afterwards, and got a real stickler of an instructor in California that made sure that I knew my skills inside and out before he would sign off on my advanced certification.
It is really important to take the training seriously. After all you are learning how to breathe underwater. If something goes wrong, and you do not know how to react, the consequences are pretty serious. I have had friends come visit me in Asia to get certified, and have been shocked to find out that they didn’t even bother to read the book or do the pre-work. They were somehow expecting that scuba certification is more of a formality, and that the instructors would do all of the work for them. This is not the case. Reading and understanding the materials before ever talking to the instructor will put you way ahead of the game. You will be in a much better position to benefit from the underwater skill drills if you already understand the theory behind diving before ever getting into the water.
Quality rental gear can really make or break the diving experience. Issues ranging from having an irritating squeak in your regulator, or a loose mouthpiece that causes your regulator to keep falling out of your mouth, all the way to dangerous problems, like a BCD that won’t inflate, or regulators that fail completely, can really ruin your day. It is important that you check out the state of your shop’s equipment before going diving. Most shops will want you to come in at least an hour early to try on gear and get everything set up on the day before your first dive trip. If a shop doesn’t do this, you should actually be concerned. Don’t be afraid to insist on gear that fits properly, ask questions, and point out issues with your gear. After all, you are trusting your life with this equipment.
Some people bring all of their own equipment with them when they dive. While I think that this can be a great idea, it is just too impractical for me. I prefer to travel light with just carryon luggage. There are a few things that I bring with me on every dive trip, such as a mask, fins, computer, surface marker buoy (SMB), a whistle, compass, and my camera gear. All of these things can be crammed into my carry-on baggage, and are manageable for light-weight travel.
It is always nice when a shop has shiny new equipment, but I can tell you firsthand that care and maintenance is way more important than age. I have rented plenty of seemingly brand new gear that was full of issues due to lack of proper maintenance, and have also used gear that was old and faded from the sun and salt that performed flawlessly because it was well cared for. Be sure to inflate your BCD, breathe through the regulator, watch the gauge pressurize, and inspect everything else thoroughly before diving.
Especially when traveling long distances to go diving, it is important that you check with the dive shop to make sure that they plan to visit the sites that you want to see while you are there. Usually, I have a few sites in mind when I go somewhere, and I make sure to choose a shop that will try to get me there. There is nothing worse than planning a trip to see schooling hammerhead sharks, only to find out that the dive shop won’t go to where they school unless you can find five other divers that want to come along. I don’t know about you, but I want to dive on my holiday, not stand in the streets trying to recruit divers for my dive company. Many dives are centered around spotting animals, but you should be wary of a shop that guarentees that you will see a particular species. In many cases this means that they will be feeding the fish which can be bad for both animals and divers. Also, if the conditions are too rough, it is important to be flexible. Maybe you will actually have a better dive in a site with clearer visibility or less current than the one that you read about before your trip. The majority of the time, the most famous dive site that you read about is just more crowded, not actually better anyway.
Personality can play a big factor when choosing a good dive company. After all, you will be hanging out with these people on your vacation. I have had trips where the dive company was perfectly safe, and the equipment was well maintained, but I still had a miserable time because the staff were burnt out, or have been partying too hard for several months in the evenings.
I dove with one company in the Maldives, that was impeccable with safety and maintenance of the gear, but I had to fill out 4-5 forms after every dive, and the dive masters were constantly following me around adjusting my straps and giving me “helpful” tips. This could be a good thing if filling out paperwork is your thing, but for my wife and I it got old pretty fast.
Dive masters have a tough job. Many of them have to dive even when they are sick, carry around heavy equipment all day, and have to be responsible for the lives of their guests. All of these factors can contribute to a pretty high burnout rate. I would always recommend talking to a few people at the shop before you make your decision on who to dive with. Find a shop where you “click” with the staff. This can really help you to have a good time, and can even improve instruction and safety if you get along with the shop crew.
Don’t forget about fun! After all, this is why most of us are going scuba diving anyway. Make sure you choose a shop that will help you have fun. There is nothing better than diving with a crew where everyone jives together, and the atmosphere is relaxed (without compromising safety). I remember going diving in Honduras, where the crew played Bob Marley on the boat as we went out, and made rum cocktails on the way back after the last dive. It really is the little things that can make it a memorable trip.