There are some who say that all Open Water courses are basically the same. The fact is that they are not. There are major differences in a number of programs. You need to be honest with yourself and decide just how knowledgeable and skilled you wish to be at the end of your first class. If you want to be led around by a DM or Guide and not take responsibility for yourself there are a number of classes where you would be taught just enough to do this. These classes are quick, allow you to do mostly self study, or be taught by a program on a computer. You will have minimal face time with an instructor and receive just enough skills to survive under water. If you wish to do more than just be led around then you need to find a class that provides more than simple survival skills.
If you want to learn to dive my recommendation is to find a class that will give you all the skills to safely plan, execute, and return from a dive with a buddy of equal skill and training and no professional in the water. You would be able to do this in conditions equal to or better than that in which you have been trained. It should give you the skills to assist another diver should something go wrong and help you develop your sense of responsibility to yourself and your buddy. Finally it should give you the confidence and judgment to know when a dive is beyond your skill, training, and experience and to call the dive should those conditions arise. The photo below shows conditions where the new OW diver would be better off calling the dive!
The class should contain all the elements that will fulfill these requirements. The class should begin with making sure you are comfortable in the water and most importantly can swim! This sounds obvious but there are some classes that allow divers to complete swim requirements wearing mask, snorkel, and fins. This is not swimming. Some say divers don’t need to know how to swim because they will have all that gear on. I find that a very dangerous attitude to take regarding swimming skills. Anyone who is going to be in, or for that matter, around water should know how to swim.
The class should include instruction in skin diving and snorkeling. It should cover kicks, mask clearing, snorkel clearing, and at least two types of skin dives. It should allow for practice time using these techniques. During this time it should also include instruction in and the use of proper buddy procedures. This is done by pairing students up and insisting they remain together during every exercise to reinforce the idea that when one is diving with a buddy they need to stay with them.
The classroom associated with this should introduce the student to basic diving history, the equipment used in snorkeling and skin diving, and a discussion about basic physics and physiology. Following this an introduction to the equipment of SCUBA should take place.
The next session in the pool is when they are introduced to SCUBA. It should start by first determining how much weight they need in whatever exposure suit they are wearing. The instructor should not be over-weighting students as that will decrease bottom time and buoyancy control. Next the student should be introduced to breathing through the regulator on the surface. From this point on all skills are built upon each other. The pool session should focus on diver safety and comfort. This is done by taking basic skills and reinforcing them through practice and by adding to them. Increased task loading builds comfort and confidence while at the same time adding to the safety of the diver and of their buddy.
The classroom is where dive theory is passed on and explained. In my opinion this necessitates face to face discussion. Having a student take a book home, read it, and answer a few questions only to spend a few minutes reviewing them is not education. It is memorization and parroting what was in the book. The student may or may not get all the info but if not and they miss a detail that is not covered at a later time it could come back to hurt them later. When I have a student in front of me and am able to see their face and their eyes I get immediate feedback. I know if they are getting the material. I see the lights come and by the same token can see when they dim and I know that we need to slow down, stop, or review the material. Self study material should reinforce the material taught and prepare the student for the next session. It should not replace actual lectures and face to face discussions.
Many times students do not meet the instructor until the actual start of the class. Other classes may have more than one instructor teaching different portions of the course. If the instructors are not effectively communicating for any reason, content can be duplicated or even omitted. This is even more of an issue when it comes to pool training, especially during the first few sessions. Every instructor has their own style and methods for teaching the exact same skill. To start off one way and then have to switch to a different way is not a problem for students who are completely comfortable in the water and with the skill. For the student who has any kind of issue with basic skills this could prove to be a serious problem. My own experience tells me that the same successful approach to a skill for five people may not work with the sixth one. Often it has been necessary to modify the approach and even spend one on one time with a student in a private. In my classes one of the most important skills that I have seen students need this is in mask clearing.
Some OW instructors are satisfied when a student is able to perform this skill successfully one time. Not all new open water students are expected to perform the skill once and move on to something else. Some classes have students repeat skills over and over every session. They also add other tasks to be performed while doing the basic skill. This has the effect of getting a student comfortable with the skill in a number of different situations. My own class has students clearing and removing and replacing the mask at least 20 times before we get to open water. And this not the only skill this is done with. By the time students get to open water they should be able to perform all basic skills at any time during the checkout dives. And they should be able to do this while swimming, hovering, and not breaking trim.
This is the kind of training that makes SCUBA diving a much more enjoyable venture for everyone. When looking for a training course there should be a focus on courses that offer plenty of time to learn skills and time to practice them in the pool. A course that offers to get you through in four to six hours in the pool does not allow much time to just swim around and practice those new skills; especially if there are more than a couple people in the class because each skill takes time for each diver to perform. Class size is another factor to consider. Smaller classes insure that students have plenty of time to just swim and practice the new skills before moving on to something new and that’s the right way to learn to dive.
When selecting an initial certification class ask yourself what you plan to get out of it. Do you want to be able to dive with confidence and skill? Do you want to be able to plan a dive, dive that plan, and safely return from that dive on your own? Do you want to be able to go anywhere within the limits of your training and experience and not have to rely on someone else to keep you safe? Or is it enough that you receive the bare minimum necessary to survive underwater while under supervision? If so are you okay with hiring a private guide or Dive Master to watch over you? Because as we have seen earlier this is the only way you can insure that they will be looking after you and you alone. Are you also okay with the idea that if something happens to them that you may have to look after yourself and perhaps even rescue the guide? This is a very real possibility. And finally are you again okay with the idea that you are literally putting your life in the hands of a stranger? If you are ok with all of these things- I personally would never be- then by all means take the quick and easy course. However if you want to be responsible for yourself and perhaps your loved ones, determine how, when, where you will dive, and be assured in the knowledge that you can handle most any issue that comes up then I strongly suggest that you look into a comprehensive course that will contain all the knowledge and skills necessary to do those things. You may need to do some research to find them but they do exist and are readily available to those who wish to be safe, confident, and skilled divers who do not need to be watched over. I strongly encourage every diver- and diver to be – to do some research before signing up for an Open Water class. As I stated earlier not all training classes are the same. You will encounter other divers and even instructors who will tell you that the basic class of every agency has all the necessary information and training a new diver needs. And to an extent that is true. Where the truth takes a side road is when you start to determine what those entry level classes prepare you for. Do you want to be led or do you want to lead? I want to lead.