Choosing where to do your Open Water dive course

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Choosing where to do your Open Water dive course

So you’re thinking of completing your Open Water diver course? Likelihood is, you have been thinking about this for a while. Deciding on where to complete your course is the next major area for thought. With so many places to dive, schools to choose from, options available and prices to consider, selecting where to do your course may not be as simple as you thought.

Like so many people I know or meet, I learnt to dive on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. Since that time, I have completed my Advanced Open Water through to PADI Professional Diver levels in both temperate and tropical Australian waters. I have dived extensively throughout Australia, South East Asia and the Pacific Islands and have taught hundreds of people to dive in both Sydney and Cairns. That aside, I really do not believe that there is a “best place or location” to learn to dive. I do, however, believe that with some quality research, you will find the course and the location that suits you best and ensure a fantastic grounding for your future diving adventures.

So before you take the plunge into your underwater training, consider the following points to help you select the dive school for you.

Learn to dive in the tropics or at home?

There is certainly a belief that learning to dive in tropical waters is easier. With less thermal protection required and therefore less weight needed, mastering buoyancy, the key skill of diving, is generally easier. That aside, if you do learn to dive in non-tropical waters, there is an argument that when you do experience tropical diving, it will be a breeze and you will be a much better diver for it.  Whenever I have taught courses in less than perfect conditions, I always tell my students, “if you can dive in this, you can dive in anything!”

Consider where you will be doing most of your diving in the future. If you do not live in the tropics, and think that most of your future diving will be local to you, then completing a dive course locally or somewhere with similar conditions makes sense. Even if, like I once thought, I’ll only be diving when I’m on holiday, bear in mind that diving is seriously addictive and the likelihood is you will be exploring what’s on your doorstep soon!

Becoming comfortable in the water and gaining sound experience is all about spending time in the water. In tropical waters, time in the water should be limited by the air consumption of your group only. In colder waters, air consumption may be one of several factors limiting your experience. I have met newly certified divers from Northern Europe who have literally completed four 20 minute dives to get certified due to water temperature. Similarly, however, I know of instructors in the tropics who “teabag” their students, a “get them in, get them out” mentality. So even in the tropics, asking some pertinent questions to your potential dive school / instructor regarding dive times is worthwhile.

Am I fit enough to learn how to dive?

Depending on where you choose to learn to dive will also determine your requirements for a dive medical. Without doubt, Australian Standards for safety and training rank as world class. Certainly in Queensland, the level of governance for recreational diving as mandated within a Queensland specific “Code of Practice” under which operators must adhere to, makes Queensland one of the safest places on the planet to learn to dive. This certainly provides some food for thought.

Specifically for dive medicals, the requirement for entry-level divers can be confusing to say the least. In Queensland, for example, it is a legal requirement to have completed a dive medical in accordance with Australian Standard AS4005.1 and been assessed as “Fit to Dive” by a Dive Doctor within 3 months of commencing your course. For the rest of Australia, and indeed the rest of the world, generally speaking, you will be required to complete a standard diving medical statement (“statement”). Essentially, the statement asks a series of medical questions which, if you answer yes to, you will then be required to complete a dive medical (under AS 4005.1 if in Australia). Some operators will require you to complete a dive medical under certain other circumstances, for example if you are under 18 or over 45 years of age.

Whilst the dive medical does add on an additional cost to your course (which may or may not be included in your course fee), I believe that even if not necessarily required, it is certainly recommended. After all, we are playing with our lives here, paying a little extra to get some peace of mind that you are medically fit to dive is worth considering.

Aside from medical fitness to dive, you will need to have a base level of physical fitness. Wherever you choose to complete your course, you will be required to complete a 200m swim (or 300m snorkel) and a 10-minute tread water.

Good quality dive gear

Quite frankly, dive gear is life support equipment and as a result needs to be of good quality, in good condition and well maintained. As a new diver, you will not be expected to have all your own stuff, so make sure that the gear you use is appropriate to fulfill its vital life support role. I have had some quite dreadful experiences with poor quality rental equipment over the years, so beware. Having good quality and comfortable gear will ensure that you are ready to learn, rather than simply pre-occupied by your poor quality equipment.

It is worth asking what gear you will use on your course and how often is it serviced and replaced. In Queensland, it is law that all divers must dive with a computer. In other locations, a computer is not mandatory but certainly desirable, if only to familiarise yourself with this key equipment for the future.

Boat diving vs shore diving

Think about what dives you will be completing on your course. You will be required to complete 4 training dives in open water for your certification but these may be shore dives or boat dives or indeed a combination of both. Some operators will also package in additional dives with your course including gaining exposure to different types of diving, such as night diving, which is well worth considering.

The Open Water course is an entry-level qualification and completing additional dives straight after your course is worthwhile in order to cement your learning. Liveaboard dive operators that offer learn to dive courses can be an excellent option here, depending on your budget and time constraints, as they will ensure that you gain some valuable experience in a short timescale. If, however, you get seasick, a shore-based course may be a better option for you.

It is worth asking your potential operator what sort of dives you will be doing on your course and to what depth. Whilst it is not a requirement to dive to 18m as part of your training, following your course, you will be qualified to dive to that depth. With this in mind, I believe that having gained experience to that depth as part of your package is certainly worthwhile.

Confined Open Water training in a pool or not?

As part of your Open Water course, you will initially be required to complete “confined water training” prior to going on to complete your four open water training dives. Confined water training can either be carried out in a swimming pool or in an area that exhibits “swimming pool like conditions” such as a shallow, protected bay where conditions allow you to stand up.

I have taught confined water training in both pools and the ocean and believe that for your initial experience, a pool is certainly preferable. Breathing underwater for the first time is certainly an unusual experience and the more relaxed and better the conditions are, the easier it will be for you. Some pools, however, leave much to be desired, so worth checking further on the pool; is it heated, what is the visibility, where is it located and so on are valid questions. A pool within the training facility where there is immediate access to gear if anything breaks, and additional instructors if there are any problems within your group, is preferable to a pool which is not on site and therefore does not have such luxuries. Pool depth is also relevant, a pool that has been purpose built for diving is likely to be deeper than a normal pool and will allow you to really practice your skills at depth and give you more confidence prior to the real thing.

Saving money on your Open Water course is not always wise

There is certainly a perception that completing a dive course somewhere such as Thailand is cheaper than a first world country such as Australia. Any quick web search on prices between such locations will quickly dispel this myth.

If you are concerned about price, ensure that you are comparing like with like. For example, what additional costs will I incur or is the price fully inclusive? Certainly, if you are completing a PADI course, it is a requirement for you to have your own PADI Open Water Diver Manual and a Recreational Dive Planner (RDP). For some reason, in places such as Thailand, this is generally an additional cost to your course fee. Marine Park fees, dive medicals, gear rental, accommodation and so on may also be charged in addition to your course fee so be sure you include all costs when comparing.

Also ensure that what you get is comparable. Certainly you can expect to pay more for a course that includes boat diving rather than a shore based dive course and more again for a liveaboard that includes accommodation and all meals for the duration.

As a word of caution, diving is a serious sport, which, although very safe, can be potentially fatal if the rules are not adhered to. With this in mind, going for the cheapest option may not be the best answer for you. After all, what price can you put on your safety and life? Ask your potential operator questions about safety and research their professionalism in order to form your view.

Open Water Course ratios and group size

When it comes to learning to dive, the small group sizes offered at smaller operators might not always be the best choice. After all, diving is a team sport and learning as part of a team is not only more fun but it also often fosters better learning. Learning from other people’s mistakes is, after all, a great way to learn.

In your Open Water training, I personally believe that a ratio of 6 students per instructor is the ideal. Whilst a higher ratio of 8:1 is allowed, providing that the group and conditions are good, a ratio of 6:1 ensures that skills can be completed relatively quickly to allow some valuable diving experience to be gained. This ratio also allows the students to spread out a little, relax and focus on their style and technique and retain eye contact with their instructor without getting kicked in the face by other divers fins.

Protecting the underwater world

As a potential diver, you are no doubt interested in the underwater world. No doubt, following the completion of your course, you will be blown away by the underwater world and want to protect and conserve it for the future. With this in mind, you may want to consider the operators credibility regarding marine conservation, protection, sustainability and so on.

Does the operator use renewable energy, what are the practices for disposal of waste from their dive boats, does the operator communicate responsible passive interactions with wildlife appropriately, what are their environmental policies, does the operator use eco-certified cleaning products, are all valid questions to ask.

Open Water Instructors

Without doubt, your instructor will make the biggest difference to your course over any other factor. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to meet with your instructor prior to your course. For me, however, first impressions really count. Your instructor should look the part: look professional, be smart and well groomed, confident, a great communicator, passionate, patient and be a good role model for you. If your instructor does not care about personal hygiene, grooming, openly smokes and does not convey a professional image, how can you be sure that this persona does not carry over into slap dash teaching methods and poor standards at work? Certainly the culture at different operators does vary immensely and this is often reflected in the instructors that they attract.

Word of mouth and research is certainly the go here.

Above all, proper research is the key to ensuring you get the best course and the best experience for you. If possible, visit the operator prior to signing up for your course to check out the gear, facilities, boat, instructors and so on. Armed with the knowledge in what you now need to consider, get researching and get certified, then you really will get the DiveBuzz!

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