Dive Deals column: The cost of learning to dive

Here’s the third article I wrote for the Dive Deals website. The first two are here and here.

The cost of learning to dive

Anyone starting out on the rewarding and life-changing path of becoming a regular diver will at some point ask ‘’what does it cost?’’.

Like any sport that is equipment-intense, there will be expenses related to getting started. These expenses can be managed and spread out depending on your own situation and the sales skills of your local dive centre.

As a starting point I want to focus on what many will say is the most popular of dive courses and that is Open Water diver.

Most dive training agencies stipulate the required standards and set the basic guidelines as to how their course must be structured and what the requirements for course content, learning materials and minimum standards are. This is not a variable part of the program.

There are variables, however: what brand and configuration of gear, time schedules and training periods are all variables provided they meet the minimum standard. These factors can all be interpreted quite widely – you could end up diving without a hoodie or gloves in a 3mm wetsuit in less than 20 degree water or perhaps you will have a 7mm wetsuit, with a shortie over it, a hoodie, 5mm gloves and so on.

Where no scope for interpretation exists, naturally will follow more expense.

Let’s break it down even more.

Any business irrespective of what it does, exists with the goal of making a profit. Huge turnover don’t always equate with huge profits and many smaller, efficiently run businesses make a tidy profit. So let’s imagine a dive centre with one employee, its main focus being on diver training.

Let’s take the non-variable items first.

You walk in the door and want to become a qualified diver. You don’t want to be conned into doing a seemingly cheap course that will only qualify you to dive to 12 metres while accompanied by an instructor – you want to be able to dive independently, to a reasonable depth. The PADI Open Water course and the NAUI Open Water 1 course, for example, fit the bill nicely. So this is what you will cost the dive operator:

  • A training pack with at least the minimum required manual, logbook and dive planner: R450
  •  Two sets of gear for three days, capitalised and depreciated over a year: R300
  • 10 air fills (1 student and 1 Instructor, pool and four dives): R400
  • Getting to and from the dive sites: R400
  • Wages for the owner/instructor: R850
  • Odds and ends such as electricity, pens and pencils, rent, telephone calls, lunch maybe? : R100

(These figures aren’t meant to be prescriptive or even highly accurate, but just give an idea of where expenses occur in running a dive course.)

So it’s not implausible that R2,500 of your course fee is eaten up before you even hit the water. You may look at some of the costs I’ve listed above and say to yourself, “He’s smoking socks – it doesn’t cost a dive centre anything to fill a cylinder! And what’s this about the gear costing R300 over the course days? Dive centres hardly pay anything for gear, and then they have it to use as they please!”

We’ll see next week how some of the “invisible” costs of learning to dive add up.

FAQ: Should I learn to dive with a dive centre or independent Instructor?

Potential students often ask the question, should I learn to dive at a dive centre or with an Independent Instructor? Which training agency is best? PADI, NAUI, CMAS, or SSI? To name but a few.

The goal of all the agencies is to turn you into a competent diver. The Instructor is instrumental in this and it makes no difference where they trained or where they work. They are either good at what they do or they are not.

The important issue is the quality of the training you receive and this is largely dependent on the calibre of the Instructor. Some dive centres have exceptional staff whilst others are worse than dodgy. Some dive centres will take shortcuts in the interest of profit margins and the same can be said for Independents. The Instructor you choose needs to be passionate about diving and if the Instructor sees diving as just another job then the quality of the training will be mediocre. If you do four 20 minutes dives for your Open Water dives you meet the standard for certification with regards to dive time but do you get enough experience from this? If you did four 40 minute dives you would have double the amount of water time. Given the steep learning curve diving has this makes a huge difference.

All certifying agencies have standards, (these being the minimum requirements for certification) and all Instructors are required to follow these standards without deviation. You can add to the number of times you have a student perform a task, or add several dives to the course if you feel the student requires this, but you cannot skip a step or do less than what the standards specify.

Preparing for confined water skills
Preparing for confined water skills

Dive centres will sometimes have Instructors on staff, always available and there when you sign up. Some however will rely on an army of freelance Instructors they can call upon when they need to. This often means you sign up, pay and have yet to meet the person you will be trained by. This also means you are on somewhat of a merry go round as there will need to be several calls and “I will get back to you” conversations before you have a time and date for diving and classroom usage.

It can also often result in you having several different Instructors during your training as the freelance Instructor you start with may not be available on the subsequent days. The downside to having several different instructors during your course is that anything you felt uncomfortable with on day one is not necessarily conveyed to the Instructor for day two or for day three and as such you can often be left feeling unsure of your ability and not as confident as you should be by the end of the course. Having the same Instructor for the duration of the course ensures that any weakness you may feel you have can be addressed and the skills redone until you are confident.

Having said this, it is possible to walk into a dive centre, find an Instructor behind the counter, who will sign you up talk you through the stages of the course and the program you will follow and sort out everything in a flash. You then leave happy in the knowledge that you have met your Instructor and had a chat and know what’s next.

I would encourage you to ask questions about who will be your Instructor(s) when you are shopping for a dive course. This is not a small decision and you can avoid being short-changed by being well informed.

FAQ: Which certification agency is best?

For those of you wondering which certification is better – PADI, SDI & TDINAUI, CMAS, SSI, IANTD, etc. – there are LOTS of them! – there are one or two things to bear in mind:

  • All the agencies teach you to dive. There may be minor differences in course duration and when you learn what skill, but at the end of the day you’re learning the same thing… So don’t stress about it too much!
  • The agency you learn to dive with must be a member of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). This body sets minimum standards for dive training, and if your agency is recognised by the WRSTC you can be assured that you’ll get a certain level of training including a particular set of skills. WRSTC membership also ensures your qualification will be accepted worldwide.
  • The quality of your instructor is far more important than the agency (s)he teaches for. All the flashy course accessories in the world won’t make a difference if you do four twenty minute dives for your Open Water course – it’s just a waste of time.
  • Some agencies are very cheap to get certified with – the manuals are photocopied, and you don’t get as many free bits and pieces (like carry cases, stickers, SMBs, etc.) when you sign up for a course. Check that the lower course price is related to the lack of flashy accessories included in the course price, rather than to the fact that you’ll be in a class with seven other divers, or that the class will only be held every third Tuesday at 4 a.m.! (You should probably read this post, too.)
  • Some of the certification agencies specialise in particular areas of diving. IANTD is an example – they will teach you to use a rebreather, for example, if that’s your thing. I would select a specialist technical agency such as IANTD or TDI, rather than a recreational agency that has branched out into Tec. if you plan to go into technical diving. They have a long history and quality record of this kind of training, and their instructors have a solid grounding in the sport.

Tony teaches SDI and PADI, which together issue over 75% of diving qualifications worldwide. This combination gives him flexibility to offer affordable and quality courses that include online theory or hard copy materials. All students have the opportunity to do boat dives off our boat, Seahorse, conditions permitting. He’ll be the first to admit that the end goal of any diving qualification is the same… Learning to dive!

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.