There are so many dive centres to choose from - how do you find the right place for you?
Once you’ve decided that you want to learn to dive – or at least want to give diving a try – then it’s time to find the right place in which to learn. It has to be said that in some locations there is very little choice, and there are plenty of people who will just wander in to the nearest available dive centre and sign up. But not every dive centre is perfect, and many potential students wish to – quite sensibly – reassure themselves that they are going to be learning to dive with an outfit and instructor that will look after them.
Whether you’re learning to dive at home on the weekends, or in a tropical resort destination, the most important thing is to ask lots of questions and expect a lot of answers in return. Whether that is on site or over the Internet prior to visiting, it’s wise to address as many concerns as you have before you part with your money. As a follow on from that, if you feel that you are not getting the answers you need from a particular outfit, then do not be afraid to walk away, or contact a different dive centre or instructor. As somebody who has also worked at a small island dive centre, I would also like to say that it’s not always possible to reply to communications instantly, but any reasonable outfit will endeavour to get back to you within 24 hours.
A little background research can go a long way prior to making contact. If you were to do an internet search for dive operators in a particular location then have a look through all their websites and determine if there are any with outstanding features that might apply to you, such as catering to children, for example.
Remember operators at the top of the search results are not necessarily the biggest or the best, they just have the most savvy web developers, so have a good look around. Look at price lists, agency affiliations, dive site descriptions, temperature information, details of the operation, and their photo ablums. Many have 'guestbooks' which will contain glowing reviews, but then most dive centres won’t post poor reviews to their own website, and I do know one or two get their friends to write them.
I tend to take review sites such as Tripadvisor with a pinch of salt but it’s definitely worthwhile having a look and operating on the law of percentages. If a centre has mostly 4 and 5 star reviews and only one or two negative, it’s a reasonably safe bet that the negative reviews were left by negative people. People will complain about anything – I’ve had one person complain that the sun set too early….
Word of mouth can be very important if you know somebody who has already visited, but Internet forums and social media can assist with the gathering of information. Ask sensible questions, but beware of the Trolls.
To get the ball rolling, here are some of the most frequently asked questions and some generalised answers that most people who make enquiries might ask. I’ve focused on the typical holiday-resort style programmes as there is a lot more uncertainty in remote locations.
How much does it cost?
Broadly speaking, the same program in the same location will be offered at a similar price by the local operators. Note that there is some variation between the courses. For example, an SSI Open Water course will cost less than the PADI Open Water course as SSI do not require divers to purchase a copy of the training material, whereas PADI do.
There may be some difference in price for logistical reasons – one operator may use a boat, for example, which might make their program more expensive than another centre which conducts the entire program from the beach.
If you were to take an example average of €400 for an Open Water course in a particular location, it would not be unreasonable to expect a range of €350 – €450 for the programme. Anything wildly different should be approached with caution, especially if it’s significantly cheaper. There are still some dive centres out there that are cutting corners to offer cheap courses , but there also may be a genuine reason for the low cost (out of season special offers, for example), but you need to ask what that is.
Some centres offer the course price, training material cost and certification fees as separate items – if it’s not clearly stated on the website then it’s sometimes worth checking what the all-inclusive cost of the course might be.
How long does it take?
Assuming that you’re learning to dive on holiday, between three and five days depending on agency and local logisitics. See the ‘what’s involved’ article for more on the course content.
What happens if the course runs over?
If the course is delayed for unexpected reasons such as weather conditions or – ahem – ‘tummy trouble’, most dive centres will accommodate this and not charge extra. The best centres will extend the course by a day (at no charge) should a student require a little bit of extra training, but they will start to charge extra if it’s perceived that lack of progress is down to a poor level of participation from the student.
What happens if I can’t complete the course?
If you are unable to complete the programme before your holiday ends, your instructor should be able to ‘refer’ you so that you can complete the course at a different dive centre at a later date, usually to be completed within 12 months. Depending on the dive centre’s pricing policy and how much of the course you’ve completed, you should get a partial refund.
Can you cater for young children?
Not all instructors are comfortable teaching kids, but some are specialists in the subject, and dive centres that are happy to cater specifically to children may advertise as such on the website. It may not be an issue for many parents, but if you feel that a specialist children’s instructor is required then it’s worth asking the question.
I have a medical condition, can I undertake dive training?
We will cover this in more detail in the next article but suffice it to say that it’s sometimes a complex topic. You can get a good idea by having a look at the RSTC medical form and the dive centre can help with further information, but if you have any doubts then you may need to obtain medical clearance before you leave your country of origin
Can you cater for people with disabilities?
Again, we’ll cover specific disability diving in a forthcoming article, but it often becomes a concern on a more general level, such as not having disabled access to toilets, boats or even the dive centre itself. Not all countries worldwide have the same regulations as we do in Europe.
I have specific dietary requirements…
Make sure you ask and inform in advance. There are still places in some parts of the world that advertise fish and chicken as vegetarian options (yes, really!), and other dietary requirements based on gluten and nut allergies are not necessarily well understood or catered for.
I’m a bit nervous...
Good. I repeat this often – I prefer to dive with people who own up to their fears rather than people who have no fear at all. Any decent dive centre will go out of their way to assuage your concerns, whether that’s general nerves (don’t worry, our experienced instructors will aid you), sharks (no sharks here), currents (we don’t go to those sites for training) and so on.
I had a bad experience once...
It is often the case that people who are really interested in learning to dive have been put off by a poorly conducted programme – often a ‘try dive’ – and have been scarred for life by the experience. Bring it up in conversation and a good instructor or dive centre will be able to give you the reassurance you seek.
The short version of this article is just: ‘ask questions, expect answers’.
Dive centres and instructors need divers to like them and trust them, and welcome them back as friends and not just customers. Repeat business is the lifeblood of a good dive centre, and building a relationship from day one is hugely important on both sides of the equation. And like all relationships, if you feel that the other side is not as committed to the process as you are then – well – it’s time to move on.