Choosing the best dive center for your first underwater adventure or an Open Water Diver course might be a bit tricky if you have no idea what to take into account. Still, even if it’s your first time diving and you’re a bit stressed because you’re in a foreign country, you should know there’s no reason to worry – most dive shops are doing a great job. Some of them, however, are simply better than others, especially in places with high level of competition. There is always a possibility that some centers would focus more on lowering their prices and attracting clients than on the comfort and safety of the dive trip itself.
So how can you make sure that you’re choosing the right place?
- Do your research
Don’t just settle for the first dive center that pops up somewhere on a leaflet or in your guidebook. Do a quick research online, so you can find which dive shops are in a convenient location, cover the kind of trips/courses you’re interested in and have reasonable prices and good reviews.
You can also use the official PADI centers database to check which ones have a 5-star PADI rating – this usually indicates that they have pretty high quality and safety standards, but they don’t have to be your only choice.
- Visit the center or their website
Sometimes you can already tell by the first look if the place is a bit shabby. You can also check their gear or certifications and, most importantly, talk to the instructors or managers in person to ask all the questions (which you’ll probably have plenty of at the beginning). This way, you can also see their attitude towards new clients and find out if their knowledge of the language in which you’ll be taking your classes is good enough for a clear, comprehensive communication.
If you’re picking a center abroad and you have no way of visiting them, go through their website – see the pictures and reviews and read all the useful information you can find. You can also always e-mail them all your questions.
- Ask about the dive trips
How many people are allowed on one boat? How many people dive with one Dive Master? Is it a big boat, or a small one? Are the meals included? Is the gear rental included (and what does it cover)? How many dives are planned per day? What dive sites (and when) can you visit? Do you have to pay any additional fees? Certain protected dive sites might require an additional donation, so it’s also useful to know this beforehand and pay it directly in the dive shop, if possible.
It’s useful to ask these questions not only to know whether it will be crowded or if you should bring some snacks with you, but also to see that the people working there really are professionals. If their Dive Masters take more than 8 (already certified) people underwater (per one DM, not the whole boat), you should probably dismiss this company, as this might put divers in risk and isn’t legally allowed. For us, the safest and most comfortable option would be to dive in groups of no more than 4-6 people.
If it’s your first dive and you have no certificates, you should be diving with a professional dive instructor, ideally with no more than two / three other people learning with you. The safest option would be for you to have individual attention, but of course, realistically, this is not always possible. Also, learning with another person (especially your friend or partner) might give you much more confidence – and you can share your thoughts, concerns and highlights afterwards.
- Ask about the courses
If you’re interested in becoming an Open Water Diver, it’s good to ask about the course’s length and programme beforehand. A properly conducted OWD course should have at least one day for practicing the skills in a swimming pool and two days (4 dives) to practice the skills and diving confidence in the sea or a lake, depending on what is accessible. In addition to that, you should also have some classroom time to learn the necessary theory. After or during the classes, some centers might give you a printed manual, while others grant you online access to all the course materials on the official PADI website.
- First time diving? Try the 2-days Discover Scuba Diving course
Some dive centers take the first-timers on the boat and then make a very quick and brief introduction to diving and underwater safety right before the dive – that’s how Kasia’s first dive looked like 10 years ago. While this isn’t extremely hazardous, it’s also not that comfortable and professional. Instead of being thrown in at the deep end (pun intended), it’s better to choose a dive shop that offers a DSD course, which gives you the opportunity to try diving in the swimming pool with an instructor prior to your first dive. Not only will you be safer, but also more confident and focused on enjoying the big blue instead of feeling overwhelmed and worrying about the technicalities too much. This was the option that Manu chose this year for his first dives – and neither of us regrets doing it this way (so if you have any DSD-related questions – you know who to ask!).
Most of all, you should know that diving is an extremely enjoyable and rewarding (…even though expensive) hobby that takes you to places that look like straight out of an underwater BBC documentary. While it might seem scary or difficult at the very beginning, it’s far from that when you get used to it – and that usually happens in the middle of one of your first dives. And later on, who knows – maybe you’ll even find yourself diving with sharks or sea lions.