So you’ve decided that you want to become a scuba diver. Congratulations! You’re about to enter a very exciting world. But not a world without any risk. Your instructor will obviously have a huge influence on the experience you’ll have during the course, but also long after that.
Not only will you literally put your life in his/her hands, he/she is responsible for teaching you how to be a safe and responsible diver for the rest of your life. But how do you choose your dive instructor?
Choosing the right instructor is a big deal!
Needless to say that choosing the right instructor (and dive center) is a big deal! But it’s easier said than done, especially if you will be doing your training abroad. As you’re not a diver just yet, it’s very likely that you have no idea what to look for and which questions to ask. Not even to mention the huge variety of options out there. Here’s a guide that will hopefully point you in the right direction and help you choose the right dive instructor.
Most people who are interested in diving will have heard of PADI. It’s arguably the most well known training organization for scuba diving, but it’s certainly not the only one. There are many others out there, like RAID, SSI, SDI, CMAS, and many many others. While some people may say that one organization is better than the other (‘agency bashing’ is a widespread phenomenon in the dive world), in my personal opinion most agencies are extremely similar when it comes to their entry level courses.
That’s because all these organizations fall under the World Recreational Scuba Training Council. They basically decide the minimum standards that all organizations must follow. One thing that agencies do differentiate in is price. PADI is certainly not the cheapest, but most people end up choosing PADI because it’s the most well known brand with the highest market presence. But if you’re on a tight budget, it’s good to know that there are cheaper options out there that offer comparable training.
Choosing an instructor is more important than choosing an agency
When it comes to the quality of the training you will receive, your instructor is far more important than the agency. A good instructor will teach you how to be a good diver, no matter how ‘bad’ his agency. A bad instructor will be careless and put your life in danger, no matter how strict his agency.
Most dive centers only offer courses of one (or sometimes two) training agencies. So if you insist on doing your course with one particular agency, start there and search their website for affiliated dive centers.
This is a simple, but very valuable one. Just search ‘scuba diving + location’ and you’ll get a list of all the dive centers. Make sure you go through the reviews of the past year. Very often people who have done a course will name the instructor and what they liked/didn’t like in their review. So if you see the same name pop up a lot, then he/she might also be a good option for you.
Do not go for the cheapest option
I cannot stress this enough. Especially if your doing your training in a third world country where rules and regulations are easily overlooked. I can’t look into your bank account, but this is your life we’re talking about. You don’t necessarily need to choose the most expensive option either, but please PLEASE don’t go for heavily discounted offers like ‘50% off if you book today!’ That huge discount is coming from somewhere, and it’s usually not from the dive center owner’s profit. I can guarantee you that cuts will be made somewhere to offer these extremely competitive prices, and they will most likely compromise your safety.
Visit the dive center before you commit to anything
Or even better, visit a few so you can compare. Are you doing your dive training abroad while traveling? Consider fitting in an extra day in your schedule just for this purpose. You will thank yourself later! It has happened to me before that I booked some fun dives with a dive center that had excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. But when I got there, they turned out to be super unprofessional and rude, and I just hated my experience there. Had I visited them before booking, I most definitely would not have spent my money there.
Meet your instructor
You may expect a reputable dive center to only work with good instructors, but there’s also such a thing as a personal click. And since you will be spending multiple very intensive days with this person, I’d say it’s a big deal. Do you feel more comfortable with a female/male instructor? Do not be shy to ask for this, it’s very understandable since there will be close personal contact.
Ask your instructor about his/her experience, but don’t let it blind you. There are brand new instructors that will go out of their way to give you the best training possible. And there are very experienced instructors that are tired with their life and bored to do yet another Open Water Course. Experience isn’t always everything, attitude is just as important.
Open your eyes
Walk around the dive center and take a look. Is it well maintained? Do the staff look happy? Especially in popular holiday destinations, the dive industry can be notorious for exploiting its staff. First of all, I wouldn’t want to spend my money in a business like that. But more importantly, it’s probably not contributing to your safety if your instructor is chronically exhausted, underpaid and overworked.
Finally, make sure you check out the dive equipment. Is it well maintained and clean? You will spend days in a rental wetsuit and with a rental mouthpiece in your mouth, so some level of hygiene may be expected. Furthermore, your dive gear is life supporting equipment when you’re underwater, so broken or severely damaged gear is a no go.
Questions to ask when choosing your dive instructor
Besides finding out if you have a personal click with your instructor and the people in the dive center, it’s important to ask certain questions before you choose your dive instructor and dive center:
How big will the group be?
More likely than not, you will be put in a group together with other students. As an instructor I would not be comfortable with more than 4 students at the same time, without the help of a certified assistant (Divemaster or Assistant Instructor). Following PADI standards, groups are allowed to be as large as 8 students per instructor, so this is actually not uncommon. But personally I don’t think an instructor can guarantee everyone’s safety when taking care of 8 people at the same time. Besides that, the bigger the group, the less personal attention you will get when you struggle with something.
Will I have the same instructor throughout the whole course?
Sometimes when dive centers get extremely busy, they need to shift instructors around a little bit. Not necessarily a bad thing: it could actually work to your advantage to learn from two different people. But for some students it might be a big deal after they’ve gotten comfortable with one instructor. Better ask to make it clear what you can expect.
What happens if I need longer than planned to finish the course?
When you take a scuba course, it’s important to remember that you pay for the course, and NOT for the certification. Meaning that if you don’t meet the requirements, your instructor has the right to not certify you – and you will most likely not get your money back. Having said that, if you have the time, your instructor should be willing to jump in the water with you for an extra session if needed. Depending on the circumstances, the dive center might or might not charge you extra for this. Either way, it’s nice to know beforehand to manage expectations.
What happens if I can’t finish the course at all?
There can be various reasons for someone not being able to finish a scuba course, but the most common reason is ear problems. If you can’t equalize (for whatever reason), you can’t dive – period. In most cases your dive center will not charge you for the whole course, but only for the parts that you’ve actually finished. Besides that, they should give you a referral form that states which parts of the course you’ve already completed. You can take this referral form to any dive center within the same training organization (such as PADI, RAID, SSI, etc.) and continue where you left off. Cross-organizational referrals are also possible, but you should always check this beforehand.
Where will the training take place?
Apart from the theory sessions, your training will take place in confined water (a pool) and open water (the ocean). Confined water sessions may also be done in the ocean, but then the conditions need to be ‘pool like’. Meaning shallow water, good visibility and no current.
For your open water sessions, ask which dive sites you will go to. Some dive centers have the habit of doing all open water dives on the same dive site. That doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but might lead to disappointment if not discussed beforehand.
What makes a good instructor?
Because it can be hard for a novice diver to recognize a good or a bad instructor, I’ve made a list of things you can look out for.
A good dive instructor:
- Makes your safety his/her highest priority
- But also makes the course fun
- Does not let you pass if you haven’t mastered all the skills
- Does not rush you to do things you’re extremely uncomfortable with
- But must push you sometimes to break your boundaries
- Will not take you diving in conditions beyond your training (strong currents, exceeding depth limits, etc.)
- Stays close to you at all times when in the water
- Gives you a pep talk when you are close to giving up
- Does not touch any marine life and encourages you to follow that example
- Is happy to answer all of your questions – before, during and after the course
- Is also a human being! We all make mistakes sometimes at work, and that is totally ok – as long as your safety is never compromised!
Hopefully these tips will help you choose a dive instructor and dive center that you will feel comfortable with – and have fun with! But in the unfortunate event where you end up with someone that’s not a good match for you, do not be afraid to speak up! Any business where you spend your money should be willing to receive your feedback, and the dive industry is no different. And as I’ve said before: you put your life in the hands of a stranger, so you have the right to be picky.
I was lucky enough to have an awesome dive instructor for my Open Water Course. Had it not been for him, I don’t think I would have even completed the course. Instead, I became completely obsessed with scuba diving!
What are the questions you’ve asked (or would ask) a dive center? And what do you think makes a good instructor? Leave a comment or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know your thoughts!