This is the DeeperBlue.com Beginners Guide to Scuba Diving.  We’ve put this guide together to help budding Scuba Divers understand what is required to get started.  Part 6 of this series takes a look at Certification While on Vacation.

Certification While on Vacation, Should I Start at Home?

The majority of the world’s population lives within a two hours drive of a coast or major waterway. However, that does not mean that they have access to someplace suitable for scuba diving year round. While many a diver will dive in cold water, even under the ice, the majority of divers prefer warm water diving. Learning to dive in a tropical paradise adds to the excitement of someone planning on learning to dive. Going diving is an integral part of most scuba diver’s vacation plans, even if it is not the primary focus.

Should I wait until I get there?

While planning a vacation that includes learning to dive, the time available to become certified needs to be considered. Most people work hard and look forward to their vacations. Americans seem to have a greater intensity to them, trying to get the most out of it while still finding time to relax. In most European countries workers enjoy four weeks of vacation or more each year, the weary American worker is lucky to get two weeks a year. So they need to use them wisely. One question that needs to be decided is where to learn. Unless you live near a coast or other body of water that is available for diving year round, traveling to learn in tropical waters is by far the option most used. Cairns in Queensland Australia certifies more divers each year than anywhere else. Considered by many as the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef, it attracts more divers than anywhere else on the continent of Australia. The small Thai island of Koh Tao, which means “Turtle Island”, has the distinction of being the destination behind Cairns for the largest number of certifications. Koh Tao is a simple place and is best suited for backpackers. It certifies more divers each year than it has residents.

Americans and some Europeans flock to the Caribbean Sea for its diving. More Europeans will travel to the Red Sea for diving. Each of these warm water locations provide instructions and certifications, representing different certification agencies and courses.

Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water
Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water

Is a Referral the best option?

Arriving at a tropical island ready to go diving is the perfect way to start a vacation for any diver. However, for those wanting to learn, it might not be possible if local diving is not available. Also, many divers will opt for having the first open water dives in crystal clear warm waters as opposed to a murky quarry that may be available at home or not want to wait until warm weather. To be realistic, a quarry dive as your first dive might just turn you off diving. You could plan to do a complete certification on vacation, however, you do have other options. Years ago in an effort to make learning to dive more attractive and to expand the potential market, the dive industry establish the referral system. The concept is simple, you take the knowledge portion and the confined water sessions with an instructor near your home. When those portions of your training are complete, the instructor will give you a referral form that is good for a year. You can than take the form to a dive center in a tropical location and with them complete your open water dives. Using this method, you only have to use two and a half to three days of your vacation time learning to dive. The additional days can be used for fun diving or other activities.

Dive instructors each have their own view point which is better. If you break it down into hours, you will spend between 40 and 50 hours to become an open water diver. If you just walk into a dive center on your vacation, you will spend about 5 days learning to dive. Three days will be your knowledge and confined water and two the open water sessions. Your evenings, at least a few nights, will be studying. If you had prepared yourself with the e-learning option, you will still be spending three or four days. However, many students will feel rushed and unsure of themselves with such a short time schedule. You will learn in your training that you need a break of 24 hours after your last dive before flying. If you have a day or two of bad weather, you might not have time to complete the course. If you do a referral program, you will likely still spend three days to learn, however, you will start with a better understanding of the basic skills.

In addition to the vacation time element, there are a few other things that may make a referral better choice for you. As with any type of instruction, a program of learning is only as good as the teacher. I am certain that there is at least one teacher you remember from high school that stood out as the worst teacher in the world and most likely there is one that stands out as the best. With the best teacher, you likely learned more and maybe even started to like a previous hated subject. The worst teacher had the opposite effect. The confined water portion of the open water diver training is the least glamours section of training. It is the one you will forget about after that first dive in open water. The confined water sessions are the most important, they are the ones that will help shape you the most becoming a diver.

Instructor and students during scuba diving lessons
Instructor and students during scuba diving lessons

While online reviews will help you find a good resort, it may not be helpful finding the best teacher. If you decide to do your training as a referral, you will have an opportunity to meet your first instructor before committing to starting a course. Your local area may have a number of instructors offering you a choice of whom to dive with. Dive stores may even have more than one instructor that either works for them or are affiliated with them. If you have friends that are divers, ask them about instructors they may know as well as what is the best dive store.

Having your knowledge instruction and confined water before your vacation also allows you to have a better base of training. While resort training is typically crammed into a few days, local training is done at a more leisurely pace, allowing you more time to study and absorb the material. The most common timing would be alternate knowledge and pool sessions, spread over several weeks. During this time a connection will develop between you and the instructor and with others in your class. The training becomes more personal. Some dive centers in resorts, even some areas, have a reputation for just doing the minimum on an almost an assembly line fashion. The few days may not build any type of connection between the diver and the instructor.

Completing a referral

While in the planning stages of your vacation, consider what diving centers you may want to dive with. You will want to make sure that the dive center, you are most likely to use, is within a reasonable travel distance and time from your accommodation. Look at online reviews for the dive centers. Get a general feel for the professionalism of the facilities. Do not let a few reviews overly effect your judgment. An outstanding review in the mist of many bad reviews might be the owner’s friend. While a bad review might be someone who has taken something minor and try to make it a major problem or even making things up. Send a few emails asking about their center and their training. Some countries require a medical exam, so be certain you ask if one is needed. Also, verify with the accreditation agency’s website the status of the center and if possible the instructor.

When you arrive at the dive center to complete your training, the center will use the information on your form and verify it. The first step after filling out the normal waivers is a short quiz on the knowledge element of your training. You will have a confine water session to refresh you on your skills and insure you are up to the standards the instructor expects. You are then ready to complete your four open water dives and become an Open Water Diver.

Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water
Two scuba divers are silhouetted in blue water

Your Personal Choice

Everyone has a lifestyle that is solely their own. That will influence which way you decide to be trained. The referral program does not get as much attention as the full training at a resort does. The training agencies and the dive resorts have a broader reach than a local instructor. While you are considering your vacation, reach out to the local divers and the local instructors and get their input. I see the referral programs as the best of both worlds. Here are some key points:

  • It allows you to select the instructor that will be doing your core training. One that you are comfortable with.
  • The pace of the training is more easily adjusted to your ability to learn.
  • You generally have better access to a local instructor if you have questions.
  • When you get to the resort for the open water dives, a different instructor will evaluate you. This will help assure you that the training you received was proper, and to fine tune anything that needs to be.
  • Starting a referral program to be completed on vacation changes learning to dive from a wish to a goal.
  • Having completed the referral portion, the anticipation of becoming a certified diver creates an event to look forward to.

There are also a few key points in favor of doing the entire course on vacation:

  • Many peoples lifestyles at home are too hectic to commit to a schedule to be trained in evenings or weekends over a number of weeks.
  • The confined water training may be in shallow open water or at a pool overlooking the ocean giving you an heighten sense of the reality of diving.
  • Social interaction with other students may be higher at a resort. After-dive get togethers are very common. Allowing you to meet new people in a place you likely know only those you are traveling with. When you are doing a referral you might be joining a group that has already been together for a few days.

Unless you have an overwhelming reason why a referral is not for you, search for a few local instructors and discuss the local dive scene and the options for referral lessons. It could very well be the best move and allow you a balanced vacation with a number of fun dives beyond your certification. Soon your favorite saying may be, “Life is a Beach and Then You Dive.”

Continue reading more from the DeeperBlue.com Beginners Guide to Scuba Diving.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article fully presenting the pros and cons of each approach to certification. Nice to mention the “unglamorous” first couple of “home-based” dives so that learners can look forward to the “better” dives ahead as learning progresses. In hindsight, I’d go with the ‘more training at home before you vacation’ approach—I’d weigh the pluses of having knowledge BEFORE resort training begins (and the comfort level diving with that training) as a bigger plus that outweighs the downside of ‘dropping in’ on a tropic class that’s already ‘bonded’ for a few sessions. But also recognize everyone’s different. Again, well-rounded, informative presentation of ‘both sides.’
    Plus, recognize that many people get ‘spoiled’ by the experience that tropical WARM WATER diving offers and may happily chose to be only tropic divers and NOT dive,say, Maine or Vancouver during the rest of the year!?

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