There's an alphabet soup of dive training agencies out there, how do you choose which one to learn with?
One of the most common questions that turns up on internet discussion forums – and which usually results in the most heated debates – is: ‘which agency should I learn to dive with?’ As soon as those words appear in a post, a whole world of opinionated, vitriolic drivel will be unleashed.
So – here is my opinion. For basic, easy, recreational diving, it really does not matter.
You can find an exhaustive list of scuba training agencies in this Wikipedia article, but some of the more commonly encountered names in recreational diving would be (in alphabetical order) BSAC, CMAS, NASE, NAUI, PADI, PDIC, SEI, SDI, and SSI.
If you’re on holiday in a tropical resort somewhere then PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International) are two of the agencies most commonly encountered.
BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) and ScotSAC, north of the border, are UK-based agencies and CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques ) is a European ‘Umbrella’ agency which standardises training amongst a broad range of subsidiary members.
Although NAUI (North American Underwater Instructors) and NASE (North American Scuba Educators) have international outlets, they are primarily American, as are PDIC (Professional Diving Instructors Corporation).
SEI (Scuba Educators International) is a continuation of the now defunct YMCA diving program, and SDI (Scuba Diving International) focuses on recreational training as a precursor to technical diving.
"As you may have noticed, the term ‘Alphabet Soup’ is well deserved. Which one you choose, however, is often going to be down to local availability, your own timescale, and perhaps your personal budget."
There are certain philosophical differences between the agencies and, without going into them all, PADI would be considered as a ‘training agency’, whereas BSAC considers itself to be more of a ‘club’.
All the entry level programs on offer, regardless of training agency, are comprised of the same components - that is: theory, confined water practice and open water training. There are small differences between the agencies in terms of their entry-level course content, with the addition or removal of one or two skills, the minimum age (10-12 years old), the number of open water dives (4 or 5) and the maximum depth to which the diver is certified (18 – 20m)
Although this series of articles is focused solely on entry-level training, there are much wider differences between the agencies as they progress through towards more advanced certifications. It is worth noting, therefore, that you are not limited to the agency with which you first learn to dive, and can easily ‘cross over’ to another to further your training.
In terms of timescale, agency programs are targeted at holidaymakers and are therefore aimed to be completed within three to five consecutive days. All training programs are modular in nature, however, meaning that the course can be spread over several weeks of evenings and weekends, for those who are not learning to dive on holiday. ‘Club’ programs are often promoted in exactly that format.
With regards to the safety of each programme on offer, agencies are keen to promote the fact that your resultant certification allows you to dive in similar conditions to the location in which you trained. If, therefore, you learn to dive in warm, clear, calm, tropical water then it would be foolish to jump into cold, murky water prone to harsh currents without first gaining some experience, some form of orientation from a local guide, or perhaps further training, such as the use of a drysuit, if necessary.
There are internationally recognised safety standards behind most, if not all, of the available certification programs. The WRSTC (World Recreational Scuba Training Council), for example, is an organisation comprised of representatives from several of the major training agencies, whose aim is to provide a minimum level of safety standards across each program, worldwide.
Not all agencies subscribe to the WRSTC, but more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that all the major training bodies are required to comply with International (ISO) safety standards, and European (EN) standards where applicable, in order to operate in those locations.
It is fair to say that safety standards regarding things outside the remit of the course content – for example, boats, transportation, pools and other logistical aspects – are going to vary widely around the world, but the standards under which the programs must be conducted remain the same.
During my career as an instructor and guide, I have seen good and bad divers certified by all of the top training bodies. I have dived with people fresh out of their holiday training program who are superior underwater in almost every respect when compared to divers who have undergone more ‘extensive’ training.
It is therefore why I do not consider any particular entry-level training program to be better than another. The problems most commonly encountered with poor training are not based in the course content, rather the manner in which those courses are conducted. There are, unfortunately, poor diving instructors in the same way that there are poor teachers, doctors and other professionals, and often the performance of these instructors is due to the pressure under which they are forced to work by sub-standard dive operators.
In the next article, we’ll have a look at some of the ways you can make certain that you are trained safely and competently by a good instructor, and how to look out for dive centres that may be cutting corners for profit.