How do you pick a good dive shop? A shop to learn from, or go fun diving with? Most people start researching online, with Trip Advisor being probably the most well known. There are plenty of smaller, dedicated websites for scuba diving, but they are rarely comprehensive.
I want to help you pick the best dive shop, for you. There is no “one size fits all” for “best”. What is best for me may not be the best for you. I want to help you be able to pick what’s best for you.
Dive shop reviews
One of the problems about reading reviews of dive shops is that they’re usually written by people who know little of the industry, the process of becoming a diver, or what level of quality to expect.
A lot of reviews read, “best dive shop ever!”, when they have’t been to another dive shop to compare it to.
Some complaints about dive shops I’ve read online are about the students’ own inability to equalise, and they blame it on the instructor. Now while a good instructor can mitigate a lot of problems, and a good instructor can make a dive shop great – but reviews involving personal issues don’t help others.
Be wary of excessive mention of “fun” instructors. I’ve met people who have had a great time on their course – they loved it, and recommended their instructor to others. That’s all they talk about though – the fun. This sounds great, until I find out they don’t know how to dive. They have been certified, and are a liability to themselves and those around them. They can’t do a buddy check, let alone a self-check. They don’t know how to enter the water without their reg and mask flying off, and worst of all, they have no control of their buoyancy. It’s a tough course, and hand-waving the hard parts because the class is too big, or it’s just “too much work” puts people’s lives at risk.
Instructors – both good and bad – often change dive shops and move away. This means that many reviews become out of date as soon as they’re written, or ultimately, they aren’t a good representation of what the dive shop can offer. This article should help you pick your dive shop, and better prepare yourself for what’s to come.
Without using online reviews.
There are a lot of different agencies out there. PADI, SSI, NAUI, BSAC, CMAS and plenty more acronyms.
I want to dispel some misinformation straight away.
Which to certify with?
Get your PADI today!
Thanks to their advertising campaign, PADI have managed to convince some people that they’re the only way to become a diver. They’re not – there are plenty of options! PDA, SDI, SSI, BSAC, CMAS, GUE, and so, so many more.
For people wanting to become certified divers – it doesn’t matter which one. If you become a certified diver, you can dive with any dive shop anywhere. It may only be an issue if it becomes hard to confirm your certification, especially if you lose your card. The big agencies (PADI, SSI and such) have a good online presence making it easy.
Which to dive with?
Again, it doesn’t matter. The quality of their compressor is much more important than where their membership fees go.
What about PADI 5-star vs not?
I once met someone who chose a dive shop because it was “PADI 5-star”, and not the lesser one.
All that means is that they don’t teach any other agency certifications there. Some shops can be registered with PADI and SSI, and teach you either method – but then they can’t apply to be called “5 star”.
(For further training, 5 star might have other implications on options for you, but not for beginner divers).
By the way, there are no 1,2,3 or 4 star PADI centers – just “PADI Dive Center” and “PADI 5-star Dive Center”.
What are you after?
Broadly speaking, most of you will be either looking to learn to scuba dive for the first time, or are newly certified divers and are looking to go diving for fun.
Firstly, if you are looking to become certified, you should be aware of what the course is about, what to expect, and why getting certified is important to your safety.
Open Water Course
The Open Water Course is a big course with a lot of information. It teaches you everything you need to know to go scuba diving for the rest of your life – without a professional accompanying you. Think about it like getting your drivers licence. You have a written test, a practical test, and when you’re done, you can drive on the road all by yourself. This is the same thing.
I’m not expecting people to feel or actually be completely ready after a 3-4 day course. The PADI/SSI/etc. course is a minimal plan which sets the groundwork for a great diver in the future. To go from Open Water Diver to confident, comfortable diver can be a long road with a lot of work – but it is worth it.
Discover Scuba Diving
If you’re fairly sure you want to go for the full course, but you’re not sure how you will handle being underwater (maybe phobias, maybe sinus issues), there is another option.
A “try dive” or Discover Scuba Diving experience (the PADI name for it, but it’s all the same). It should be about a 2 to 3 hour program, where you learn the very basics, practice some entry skills and go for a short (usually 30 minute ) scuba dive with a hands-on instructor. It doesn’t certify you for anything, but it doesn’t lock you into a program with some big expenses. Some diveshops will even throw the Try Dive in for free if you decide to go on with the Open Water course! (And, if you can’t continue, no problem!)
I have a few opinions about Open Water courses:
- They are for life, not for a holiday. They should be fun, but taken seriously.
- No drinking during the course. This might be an unusual hard line, but this flows from the first point. This is the easiest way to forget everything you did that day. After the course? Give it a day. Let the memories seep in. So many divers get plastered the night after they certify, and then next go fun diving in a few weeks or months, and have forgotten everything they learned.
- You should go fun diving as soon as possible afterward – the next day or two is best, especially before your advanced course. Put that knowledge to use, have fun and get enthusiastic about diving! I tend to not be a big fan of back-to-back courses (even less so of Zero-to-Heroes, (Open Water to Divemaster)).
- Information should be accessible, book or otherwise. When divers throw their OW handbooks away because they’re backpacking, part of me cringes. Notes, digital books – everyone should have the option of self-refreshing any time. Dive shops without spare manuals floating around are a red flag for me.
The number one reason divers die? Basic skill failure.
For your first course, what should you be looking for in a dive shop?
An instructor you like
Having a good rapport with your teacher can make a huge difference to your memory retention and enjoyment.
In fact, you can almost forget everything else I’ve written before or after this. If you’ve found a good instructor, someone you can rely on during and – importantly – after the course, you’ll be better off than most other divers.
Small student to instructor ratios
I admit, it’s fairly common to have most dive shops I’ve been to these days proudly proclaim a maximum of 4 to 1 ratio (four divers or students per instructor).
PADI (and most other agencies) allow up to 8::1, or 12::1 with an assistant. If you find yourself in a class of 6 or more, you might consider leaving. You likely won’t get quality time with the instructor, or be able to refine skills thoroughly.
Refer to the first point, though. A good instructor will make a world of difference.
A dive shop with the right attitude
Good equipment, supportive staff, one that’s environmentally aware – one that will instill upon you good values for the rest of your diving life, and lives up to their word.
One that will push you to do better, and not simply hand-wave you through the skills.
One that cares.
For fun diving, what do you want out of a dive shop?
Koh Tao in Thailand is a great example for this topic. It’s an island that was famous for its diving, and so, over the last 30 years, over 100 dive centres have sprung up over it, and they now (collectively) train the second most number of divers per year in the world, (I believe Cozumel, Mexico has higher). You are faced with a lot of options. An intimidating amount of options.
When I first went to Koh Tao, I was warned against it. “A diver factory!” people cried. They weren’t wrong; but part of having so many dive shops in one place was that you were guaranteed to find a few great ones.
As a fun diver, it becomes harder to differentiate in some ways. I wanted:
Low diver::guide ratio
This was really easy on Koh Tao. Because there are so many students, there aren’t many fun divers! Also, there are a LOT of people doing their Divemaster training. Most of the time I had a private guide (1::1 ratio), with a trainee sometimes tagging along. This was also the case because as an Advanced Open Water diver, I wouldn’t be bundled with the Open Water divers.
Try to stick to a maximum of 4 to 1 for everything. With bad divers, you want fewer people kicking you in the face. With good divers, you’ll spend so long in queue looking at something someone found, that you might get frustrated.
Small groups are best.
To go diving
This was also really easy on Koh Tao, because a lot of them go diving 5 times a day! Perfect! I can get bored at shops that only dive two or three times a day.
Some locations are much further away from the dive sites. Coron (Philippines), Perth (Australia) and Koh Lanta (Thailand) are good examples. It takes about an hour to hour and a half to get to the dive sites by boat, meaning you only really have time to do two dives a day, maybe three (3 hours transit, plus 1 hour surface, plus two 1 hour dives is 6 hours on the boat… a long day).
Liveaboards mitigate this problem, but that is out of the scope of this article.
If the guides are all new, it’s possible the shop doesn’t pay well or look after their staff. A good shop will do what they can to keep Divemasters around a long time. If they only have new Divemasters, just out of their Divemaster Training, and no-one experienced around – you might want to reconsider. However, this also might not mean anything, and just be bad timing – locals might be on holiday with their families.
Meet them. If they’re enthusiastic, then that’s half the problem sorted, regardless of their experience.
If you don’t get along with your guide, it’s okay to switch. Talk with the dive centre manager, find someone more suitable.
When I go to a shop, I let them know I’m interested in little stuff and taking photos. Usually, the shop will know exactly who to recommend, based on my skills and interests.
Talk about what you like! They love it!
If a dive shop says 45-50 min for a dive, I get hesitant.
I want 60+ min dives. This can depend on how far away the sites are, how many guests per divemaster (if it’s a big group, it’s more likely that someone will run low on air early, thus ending the dive) and how deep the dives will be.
But if it’s a small group with a relaxed time table – 60+ minute dives are something I look for.
If you’re a new diver, still working on your air consumption, this is less of an issue. What becomes important here are small groups, so you can be put with divers of similar air consumption, dive a profile better suited to you and dive a reasonable length dive.
How else to differentiate shops?
If you’re not sure about the instructor (or haven’t met them yet), or divemaster, there are still a few criteria to judge a dive centre by.
Decent looking equipment can be an easy check, though as long as it’s maintained and works great, it doesn’t matter how bad it may look. Things can go grey in the sun, salt and chlorine pools a lot faster than you might expect. And they can do so without becoming immediately unsafe.
Avoid torn BCD pockets and torn fin foot pockets.
- Leaky masks can’t really be properly checked until the first dive, so ask for a spare.
- Regulators with a “wet pull” (a bit of water comes in when you breath in too hard) can be annoying – ask for a replacement, and remember to breath gently.
- Stiff hose connectors (making it harder to set your gear up), is only an issue for courses.
These are annoyances, but they aren’t dangerous in and of themselves. Sure, try to avoid them, and a place with newer looking equipment can show they care about the business (and that the business is doing well).
Remember the saying: “Small bubbles – no troubles.”
A small stream of bubbles from an LPI connector, or hose, or o-ring is fine. Mention it, see what the shop says about replacing it – but don’t stress about it.
If you have any special requests, such as larger tanks (15 litre), or nitrox (enriched air), make sure the shop can accommodate you, and check for surcharges upfront.
Some shops offer free or discounted accommodation. Free t-shirts. Free/discounted fun dives after your course. This can be nice, and make things easier. Fun diving after a course is very strongly recommended.
Some shops (like New Way on Koh Tao) pride themselves on being among the first boats in the water in the morning (it showed dedication to me!). They’re not alone in this, but it was one thing which made them stand out.
Avoid the crowds.
If there is a time-critical site, such as the thresher shark cleaning station of Malapascua, Philippines, you probably want a shop which is either early or late. Since everybody is going to the same place, at the same time, it can be crowded.
I tend to avoid any place known for it’s party atmosphere. It usually means the Divemasters are hung over in the morning and running on fumes. Your buddy probably can’t remember how to do a buddy check.
If you want to have a beer with the team after your course – that’s different, and great for bonding. If you want to have a bucket of booze – if you’re encouraged to – I recommend avoiding it.
I’d rather get up for a dawn dive anyway – that’s why I’m there; I can party anywhere, I’m there to dive.
Size – big or small?
Big shops will have lots of instructors to choose from, but you often won’t get to actually choose your instructor – it will be whoever is next on the roster. (Unless you’re language dependant). They can be noisier, and more difficult to study at. The social atmosphere can be a lot livelier and more fun, though. It can be easier to find a good dive buddy as well.
Small shops will have fewer instructors, tend to be “cozier” and be more flexible. However, it also means there’s fewer other guests to mingle and chat with, and can be more isolating.
I tend to recommend smaller dive shops, but this is more of a personal preference. Go where you feel comfortable.
It’s okay to walk away. If you don’t like your dive shop, your instructor, your guide. Walk away. If you’re already doing a course, get a referral. You won’t have to do the bits you’ve already done again. Talk with another instructor at the same shop, see if there’s a rapport. Maybe they can take you on instead.
Some guides specialise in finding little stuff. Some love going deep and looking for sharks. Find someone who matches your style.
My advice can only make it more likely you’ll be where you want to be, but nothing is guaranteed. I’ve met a few divers who have changed instructors mid-course, and they were much happier for it. Maybe because extra students were added to the course at the last minute. Talk with your instructor, guide or the shop manager. If a solution cannot be met, it’s okay to walk away.
Good luck, and happy bubbles!