From chapter 3 of the PADI Open water diver manual you will start hearing and learning about speciality courses. From an equipment specific course like a drysuit or DPV course to skill specific course like a navigation course, you as a diver will be inundated with offers to continue your education and take the next specialty course that your local shop offers. But which courses are really worth your money and time?
This is a hard question to answer since there are many variables that come into play. But here is my opinion. I will try to be as unbiased as possible since I can and do teach many of these courses.
PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI all have very similar training progressions and standards. In fact many of their courses are exactly the same since they follow a universal standard in order to say they meet and exceed the ISO for a given class. The agency with which you take a recreational course is probably of least consequence. It starts getting different once you get into technical diving but that is beyond the reach of this article.
So if the agency doesn’t really matter, then how about the shop you choose to take the course with? Will the shop you started your education with provide the best course for your money?
And it depends entirely on the instructor that is giving the course. Your instructor will make the biggest difference between a course that is worth while and one that is worthless.
Like what was mentioned in the previous article, you should take a wreck class from a wreck diver, a Sidemount class from a sidemount diver. A search and recovery class from a Fire/Police Diver and so on. I’ll go even further to say take the class from the diver you most wish to emulate.
Speaking as a busy instructor with a family and full time profession, it’s hard to make time to do the dives I like to do. One dive season before I started Good Life Divers I did nothing but do Open water checkout beach dives at two different sites. By the end of the season I was exhausted and never wanted to solely teach Open Water classes again. It wasn’t fair to my students or myself If all I ever did was dive the exact same profile week in and week out but was expected to be able to give a wreck or navigation course for the shop I taught for at the time.
So, in the following years I made sure I went out and did the dives I wanted to do. The ones that were fun for me. I traveled during the off season, I took some extra classes and I made every effort I could to ensure that when a student would ask about a certain course, I felt up to par to to teach it. Not all instructors feel that way. Not all dive shops encourage their instructional staff to make sure they are experts in the fields they can teach.
I have personally seen terrible courses. And I refuse to give them. I recently turned away a student that was asking about an equipment specialist course since I don’t feel I would have made the course worthwhile for him. There are much better instructors and equipment technicians to take that course from. I don’t want to give my students the same bad experience I had during my own advanced open water course.
First we met at a local beach and we were going to complete a Peak performance buoyancy dive, a search and recovery dive and a navigation dive all in the same day. The Peak performance buoyancy dive consisted of doing a weight check and “hovering” off the bottom in 5 feet of water without an instructor underwater to verify that it was actually done. I was wearing about 28lbs in a 3mil wetsuit, as per my instructor that was the perfect amount for me. Dive 1 done. And all it took was 6 minutes.
Dive 2 was my navigation dive, where from the exact same spot where I hovered I completed a square pattern which was all of about 20 x 20 feet wide. To my credit I did get back to where I started from. 3 minutes later Dive 2 done! Bam I’m such an advanced diver I thought!
Dive 3 was search and recovery. The instructor already had a lift bag attached to a cinder block using rope that he tied himself. Our job was to find the block, make it neutral and move it 5 feet and call it a day. Simple enough. We used a reel and did an arc search found it within about a minute or so since it was only about 10 feet away. We added air to the bag and moved it and surfaced. Dive 3 done! 16 minutes spent underwater today and I’ve already got 3 dives done!
The next day we were to meet at the Sea Hunter where we were going to complete our Deep and wreck dive. At this point in my career I have 24 dives. The deepest of which was 28 feet for 20 minutes. Oh well, to 100 feet I go!
The ride out to the wreck was uneventful and it was humbling watching all the tech divers gear up for their dives. We splashed in, and by we I mean my friend who happens to be a Divemaster but wasn’t working for the shop and another student. Our instructor was with another group. We splashed in and did a 30 minute dive on the wreck. This was probably my first real dive and it actually went very well. Aside from being grossly over weighted, we had amazing visibility (no joking, you could see the wreck from the surface) and just slight current. Back on board the boat we waited an hour to go back down.
Second dive, I don’t know if this was my deep dive or wreck dive but the profile was 84 feet for 17 minutes. Towards the end of the dive I noticed my SPG dipping to Zero with every breath. It scared me and I made a bee line for the anchor line. Half was up around 50 feet, I was so preoccupied with my SPG dipping that I forgot to release the air in my BCD and I made a polaris missile esque ascent. I came out of the water so high, if I had planned it, I could have probably landed back on the deck of the Sea hunter.
3 hours later back at the dock with an empty O2 bottle and a hell of a head ache, my instructor gave me the great news. I was an advanced diver. Woohoo! That was easy.
It had taken me a long time to realize that was a bad course. But at the time I was so pleased with myself that I had passed. I really didn’t think about it, Until I saw a group of cave divers hovering mid water motionless, that’s when I realized I may have been ripped off. I had no business having an advanced card, probably not even an Open water card since I couldn’t stay off the bottom.
So how do you know you are getting a good course? Did it challenge you physically and mentally? Did you feel and look like the type of diver you envisioned yourself afterwards? Did you actually complete all the course skills and standards. You can look them up if you wanted to or ask your instructor for a copy of them. With all of that said, when it comes to specialty courses, take the courses that will get you something out of them. Be it a new set of skills or
“permission” to do something you couldn’t do before.
For example, the nitrox course gets you Nitrox. The AOW and Deep course gets you new depth limits. The wreck, cavern and search and recovery course get you a new set of skills. The sidemount or full face mask course teach you how to safely dive a new and complicated piece of equipment. The drysuit course lessens the learning curve you will face from learning how to use it on your own.
There are some courses that don’t get you anything. Take the boat diver course. No boat captain I know will ever ask you for it to dive off of their boat. Unless you are going to take this course from an instructor that will teach you small boat handling skills, It’s probably not going to be worth your time. The drift diver course, even though covers a few specific skills to drift diving like carrying a float offers you nothing more than a detailed pre-dive briefing.
Instead of taking a Peak performance buoyancy course, Look for a course that requires the same amount of attention to buoyancy and teaches you more than just hovering through a hula hoop. Like a Basic Skills workshop, intro to tech or SOLO diver course or even the GUE Fundamentals course.
Here is a list of things you can do without taking a full on specialty course. Find yourself a good mentor or dive club and save your money for the really worthwhile courses.
Altitude diver, Boat diver, Drift diver, Multilevel diver, night diver, Peak performance buoyancy,
Underwater naturalist. All of the skills and performance requirements in these courses are achieved in other more robust courses or are gained during the dive briefing. On the other hand, If you can take a Fish ID course from a marine biologist, by all means do it. You will probably get your monies worth there.
With the right instructor your Wreck, Cavern, Deep, Search and recovery, Nitrox, photography or Videography, DPV, Dry suit, Equipment specialist, Ice Diving and Sidemount courses could all be money well spent. If that’s the type of diving that interest you.