Thinking of learning to scuba dive? Read this!

Student dives in Maori Bay
Student dives in Maori Bay

This blog has been going for a while, and there’s some content that I’d like to revive – all in one place – as a handy guide for people who are considering learning to dive.

Once you’ve made the decision to learn to scuba dive, you may wonder how to shop for a dive course. If you’re doing it just on price, I think you’re doing it wrong. Scuba diving is a sport with inherent risks, like paragliding or rock climbing. Do you really want to base your decision purely on how much it costs…?

Should you go and buy yourself a full set of dive gear before you do your course (or worse – I made this mistake – as a package with your Open Water course)? Read about whether you should or shouldn’t buy gear, and if you do decide to go ahead, there are some tips on shopping for dive gear that might be helpful.

What’s the difference between the Scuba Diver and Open Water courses? There is a difference, and you should be aware of it!

Many people ask whether children can learn to scuba dive. The short answer is yes – from the age of eight, in the swimming pool, and from age 10 in the ocean. More information can be found in this post about scuba diving for kids.

We also have a bunch of other frequently asked questions, some of which might help you on your way:

Does one need to be a good swimmer in order to scuba dive?

Which certification agency (PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI, etc) is best?

Should one learn to dive before going on a dive trip, or on the trip itself?

Can one scuba dive in winter?

Isn’t it too cold to dive in Cape Town?



Directions to the Southern Suburbs swimming pool

If you learn to dive with Tony (which you should, if you haven’t already) you will do your confined water skills at our pool at our facility in Sun Valley. You might also do a Discover Scuba DivingBubblemakers (if you’re a kid), or Seal Team course at the pool.

We used to use 2 Military Hospital swimming pool on Wynberg Military Base. It’s indoor, and heated to about 24 degrees. The water quality varies wildly, with visibility from 3-25 metres.

The pool is on the corner of Buren and Scobel roads in Wynberg and is run by SwimLab. Once you’re inside the Military Base, just follow the signs for the hospital.

Here’s how to get there:

From central Cape Town (or anywhere north of Wynberg):

  1. Get onto the M3 towards Muizenberg.
  2. At the top of Wynberg Hill take Exit 12, to Trovato Link Road.
  3. Follow Trovato Link Road through a set of traffic lights.
  4. At the second traffic lights, turn right into St John’s Road.
  5. Where the road forks, take the left fork into Camp Road.
  6. Turn right into 51st Avenue.
  7. Take the first left into Brink Drive.
  8. Follow Brink Drive to the T junction with Buren road, and then turn right.
  9. Look for Scobel Road on your right – the pool is covered with a domed white plastic cover and will be on the corner.

From anywhere else:

  1. Get onto the Main Road heading towards Wynberg.
  2. Turn into Constantia Road from whatever direction you’re approaching from.
  3. Go through the traffic circle at the Engen garage, taking the second exit (so you’re still going in the same direction).
  4. When you can see the police barracks in front of you (large, unsightly blocks of flats), turn right up Bower Road.
  5. At the top of Bower Road, turn right at the traffic lights.
  6. At the next set of traffic lights turn left into St John’s Road.
  7. Follow the directions from point 5 above.
Inside the pool area
Inside the pool area

FAQ: How do I shop for a dive course?

Learning to dive is expensive, and for most people it simply cannot be a spur of the moment decision. Problem is, if you’ve never dived before, or hung out with divers, it’s kind of daunting to try and figure out what course to take, where to go, and what seems reasonable in terms of cost.


Some things to ask the dive centre or Instructor before you part with your hard-earned bucks:

  • What exactly does the course qualify me to do (how deep can I dive, accompanied by whom, and can I rent kit with my certification)?
  • Does the course fee include the registration fee with the certifying authority (PADI, NAUI, etc.)? If not, how much will that cost?
  • Does the course fee include full kit rental for the duration of the course? If not, how much extra will it cost to rent kit (including air fills)?
  • Does the course fee include extra costs like the MPA permits required for diving in Marine Protected Areas in South Africa?
  • If you’re doing a course such as Discover Scuba Diving or Scuba Diver, is there a discount if you decide that diving is the bomb, and want to upgrade to Open Water?
  • Is there an option to pay for the course in more than one installment? This isn’t at all common, but it’s actually quite safe for a dive operator to do this – legally they are allowed to withhold certification (so you won’t get your personal identification card and won’t be able to rent gear or dive anywhere else) if you don’t complete paying for the course.

Course presentation

Some more questions, not related to the financial aspect, but still important:

  • If I’m slow to catch on with the skills, can I have more than one or an extended confined water session, or is there going to be time pressure (direct or implied)?
  • How many other people will be doing the course with me? What happens if I fall behind, or if they fall behind?
  • I can only dive on weekends/Monday afternoons/whatever… Can you structure the course to suit my timetable?
  • Can you accommodate any specific medical issues I have that don’t make me unfit to dive but will mean I need a bit of special assistance now and then?

The Instructor

  • Will the same person teach me the entire course? (This isn’t important to everyone, but to some people it may be.)
  • Can I meet the Instructor before I sign up for the course?
  • Has the Instructor ever had any disciplinary proceedings against him or been the subject of a QA review?
  • Can I get the Instructor’s certification number so that I can check his teaching status with PADI Pro Chek (or the equivalent for other certifying authorities)?

The whole caboodle

I actually did this when I signed up for my Open Water course, but generally it’s NOT wise to take the package that many dive centres offer that includes a dive course plus full soft gear (wetsuit, booties, fins, mask, snorkel). There are a variety of reasons to hold back when this package is presented as an option:

  • As Tony has said repeatedly, you won’t have an idea of what kind of gear configuration suits you until you’ve done quite a few dives.
  • You may not even enjoy diving after you’ve tried it, and then you’ll be posting one of those “wetsuit worn once” advertisements!
  • You may end up with a lot of cheap junk instead of quality gear that will last you a long time.
  • It might not be cheaper than buying the gear piece by piece, yourself.

Certification agencies

This is a decision as to whether you’re going to do a PADI, SDINAUI, CMAS, SSI, IANTD or other course. It’s is a whole separate question but one which shouldn’t give you too much cause for concern… More to follow!

Hope this helps! As always, drop Tony an email if you have any more questions that need answering.

Scuba Diver vs Open Water

I’ve been bugging Tony to write this post because we often see advertisements related to this subject, to no avail, so I thought I’d just go ahead and do it. It’s about the distinction between two PADI courses – one of which is downright bizarre, if you ask me… but I guess suits some people otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

The course I think is bizarre is called Scuba Diver. The official PADI webpage for it is here. It qualifies you to do the following:

Dive under the direct supervision of a PADI Divemaster, Assistant Instructor or Instructor to a maximum depth of 12 metres

The other course, with which you are probably very familiar, is called Open Water. Here’s the PADI page about it. It involves a bit more theory and more sea dives than the Scuba Diver course, and qualifies you to do the following:

Dive independently (with a certified diving buddy) to a maximum depth of 18 metres

Here’s the catch: because the Scuba Diver course is a lesser qualification, and takes less time to teach, it costs less – often about half what an Open Water course costs. Of course, you can upgrade it to an Open Water course at any time, but that involves more theory, more skills and more dives. And of course, a small cash payment!

If you’re shopping for a dive course, be very sure that you understand what you’re getting and how it stacks up against what’s available. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the dive centre advertising that they’ll “turn you into a scuba diver” for a fraction of the price of the other operators is offering the same product… They’re probably not! The Scuba Diver course is great if you plan on doing lots of shallow dives with an Instructor by your side, but you may want to plan your own dives one day, and for most dive sites, 12 metres is going to limit your options!