So You Want to Learn to Dive?
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So You Want to Learn to Dive?

What is it about the ocean that draws us in? The draw is irresistible. Some of us like to walk on the beach. Some fish, some surf, others dive. Many of us do all of these things to get closer to nature.

When I ask an Open Water class why they want to learn to dive, the most common response is, "learning to SCUBA dive is on my bucket list." Some others do it for the challenge, or even for work. Many divers are tinkerers or technophiles and simply like the technical aspect of the sport. No matter your reason for wanting to dive, you're hooked.

So you want to learn to dive... Here's what you need to know.

If you are visiting this website, you are probably already a diver. My hope is you will decide that this article has some useful information and that you will pass it on to your friends who are not yet divers for them to read before making a decision.

I should tell you a bit about myself before we get started, so you will know where my opinions and experiences come from. I have been diving most of my life. I started working on dive charter boats the summer I graduated from high school, and soon began teaching SCUBA as an assistant at the university level.

Since then, I've worked as an instructor in the Caribbean and in coastal North Carolina and have trained hundreds of divers. I'm currently a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, a DAN DEMP Instructor, and a US Coast Guard licensed captain. I wrote this article in order to share pertinent information and advice with beginning divers, to help them get the most out of their training experience.

The most important piece of advice I can give a future/student diver: Ask questions!

My goal here is to give you information that you can use to effectively start your journey toward becoming an Open Water Diver. I'll also give you some questions to ask prospective instructors and dive shops. It is important that you choose the right setting to learn, and that you make the most of the Open Water class that you choose.

How Does This Work?

A person interested in SCUBA will be confronted with a wide variety of courses, equipment, and diving opportunities, all a bit overwhelming. Each training organization has a chart of its classes, and most of these charts follow a similar structure. For the sake of simplicity, I'll use details from the PADI system, as that is the most widely recognized and the one I am most familiar with.

PADI Training Chart
PADI's Training Chart

The training chart and its list of classes can be a bit intimidating to outsiders. Before you learn to dive, you will be confronted with a choice. People interested in trying diving can do one of three things, called Discover Scuba, certification as a Scuba Diver, and certification as an Open Water Diver.

Discover Scuba Diving, also called a resort course, teaches you some basic safety skills in the pool before taking you on a supervised, controlled dive in shallow water. This is an experience, not a class. It is much like tandem skydiving in that your life is in the hands of the guide, not your own.

Earning a Scuba Diver certification allows you to skip the training part of Discover Scuba and just go diving when you want to, but you still must be supervised by a professional, and you still have a forty-foot depth limit. Scuba Diver training consists of the first half of the Open Water course and thus is easily upgraded by simply completing the latter half of the course.

Open Water Scuba Diver is the certification that allows you to plan and execute your own dives with a buddy. This course teaches you to manage safety and risk, and ensures that you have the skills necessary to perform beginning-level dives independently, as well as judge dive sites and conditions for suitability to your skill level.

What level you pursue is a personal choice based on how much time and energy you plan to devote to your new hobby. Discover Scuba is a great way to try diving without much cost or commitment, and Scuba Diver is wonderful for vacationers who are consistent but occasional divers. However, any level below Open Water severely limits your diving opportunities outside of vacation destinations, and limits what dives you will be allowed to do, even under the supervision of professionals.

After Open Water there are a slew of courses available to you to further your knowledge and skills, but my focus will be on preparing you for your first committed step into the diving world, which is your Open Water class.

What Will I Need?

Depending on your location, an Open Water class may be taught a-la-carte, each chapter priced as an individual training session, or all in one go. It may be partly online or it may be taught entirely in your local dive shop. It may be all-inclusive, or you may be required to purchase books or equipment, rent some equipment, or pay your own way into pools or dive sites.

There are certain pieces of equipment that you will be required to have to complete an Open Water class, whether that equipment is rented, borrowed, or purchased. Here is a list, applicable to EVERY Open Water student:

Basic Gear:

  • Diving mask
  • Fins (usually open-heel with booties)
  • Snorkel
  • Wet Suit or Dry Suit
  • Timing device such as a waterproof watch or dive computer


  • Cylinder (air tank)
  • BCD (Buoyancy Compensating Device, the harness for the tank)
  • Regulator system (with gauges and two second-stages)
  • Weights
  • Whistle, or similar


  • Open Water textbook (sometimes a video too)
  • Forms packet
  • Dive Tables or electronic dive-planning device
  • Log book

Be sure to ask which of these items are included in your class fees and which you will be required to furnish for yourself, and whether the ones you need to furnish are available to rent or purchase at your local dive shop.

What Will I Do?

Open Water classes are very diverse, but there are certain standards that must be followed by an instructor in each setting. Your training will start in a classroom, progress to pool (or confined water) training, then progress further to open water checkout dives.

Prior to starting class, you will be required to fill out some forms. Make sure that you read them, fill them out honestly and completely, and ask questions. The forms are meant to be informative, and they gather information that will help the instructor ensure your safety.

In class, your instructor will teach you some of the science behind diving, how diving works, as well as how to operate the equipment and how to plan and execute dives. PADI's class is divided into five chapters. Each of these chapters will have a self-quiz which the instructor will review with you to ensure your understanding, and a test. At the end of the course, there will be an additional examination to ensure that the information stuck. Some instructors will combine more than one chapter in one session, but the risk of information overload prevents too much shortening of the schedule.

Pool training is divided into five sections as well, and like class training some instructors choose to combine the five pool dives into two or three longer sessions to save on pool costs. Each dive presents new motor skills and sequentially practices old ones until you have mastered the skills required of an Open Water diver. There are 35 skills taught in the class, all critical to your safety and skill as a diver.

There are four open water dives required to complete the course, over a minimum of two days.  Open water is any reasonable environment for beginning diving, and must be at least 15 ft deep.

Regardless where your open water training occurs, it is your chance to demonstrate the skills that you mastered in the pool. Each dive will last a minimum of 20-30 minutes, and you must be able to comfortably and repeatably execute each of the skills when prompted without seeing an example. In addition, each of the four dives has an exploration portion where you see the dive site after completing your skills. After all, you are training to dive, not training to demonstrate skills.

After successfully completing the classroom portion and exam, the five pool dives, and the four open water dives, you will log your dives with your instructor. Congratulations, you are a certified Open Water Diver!

Don't get too excited… You still need to sign up! Be sure to ask about the planned schedule for your class, and how much time you will need to devote to study outside of class. Most instructors require the book to be read completely, forms completed, and chapter reviews filled out prior to starting class!

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to guide you through the process of choosing a class, signing up for it, and preparing for your first session.

How do I Choose?

How can you know, as a beginner, which class to take? How can you know what to look for to ensure that you get the best value for your hard-earned dollar while getting the experience you need to be a self-sufficient (with a buddy of course) diver?

First of all, don't think of this process as purchasing a certification. Your Open Water class is not just a means to an end. It is a valuable and fun diving experience in itself. Realize that you are investing in training that allows you to participate in an activity which can kill you if you don't know what you are doing. Hire somebody to train you only when they have earned your trust and respect as a dive professional, and don't fall for cheap talk and salesmanship.

The structure of the dive industry is designed to dazzle you with certifications and titles, because our job is to keep you and your family safe while you are engaged in an inherently risky activity. Realize that certifications and titles are largely meaningless. They represent a minimum level of competency at a point in time and have little relevance to someone's talents, much like being a licensed physician or attorney does not make you good at your job.

We all had good teachers and bad teachers in school. Education is not a commodity. Having a good teacher means you will learn a lot more and perform much better.

In theory, a student in a diving class will learn the same thing regardless who teaches it.

In reality, all too often I've run across divers who were simply never taught properly and were thus a danger to themselves and to others.

A dive instructor who is good at her or his job will earn a reputation as such. A shop is no different. Ask around. Reputable instructors tend to work for reputable shops. This is partly because the shop recognizes and cultivates talent, and partly because good instructors recognize and seek out good employers. (Of course, there are also wonderful independent instructors. Reputation is doubly important in choosing independent instructors.)

A good dive instructor will recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and develop your weaknesses as a diver into strengths. This person will do so while acting as a life guard, ensuring that what you don't yet know will not hurt you. He or she will strike a balance between pushing the limits of your comfort zone and keeping you safe and motivated. This is a talent that comes with years of diving experience, countless hours of training, constant vigilance, and lots of experience with students in the local diving environment.

In short, don't entrust your life to someone who you would not trust with your car keys.

Be sure to ask an instructor about his or her experience and where it was gained. Most will dive into stories about the past, former students, and the best dive ever. The dive industry is small and well-connected, so instructors in the same town tend to know each other. Ask each instructor's opinion of the others, but take the information you receive with a grain of salt. After all, they do compete for your business.

How Long Should it Take?

Learning to dive requires that you gain some knowledge about dive theory and learn some safety rules, but it is mostly about learning new motor skills. Learning these motor skills requires short-circuiting some of your body's natural reactions to water. Learning motor skills can only be done through practice.

There are some things that cannot be done without when teaching and practicing these motor skills: a pool, equipment, an instructor, and adequate time. Pools are expensive. Equipment less so, but proper maintenance takes time and attention. An instructor must teach new skills to the class, provide time for students to practice, and spend enough time with each student to ensure mastery of those skills. Time, the last component and the most important, increases the cost of all the rest.

Diving organizations place no time requirements on an Open Water class in order to account for varying paces of learning and class sizes, but PADI's instructor manual recommends "approximately 31 hours" to complete the class work and exam, master skills during your five pool sessions, and demonstrate those skills during your four checkout dives.

Don't short-change yourself here, as at the completion of this class you will be given a plastic card that allows you to go anywhere in the world, rent or purchase gear, and go diving without asking anyone's permission or seeking any guidance.

Be sure to ask how much time will be spent in class, in the pool, and on each dive. Short classes may interrupt less of your busy schedule, but thorough classes will do more to ensure your competency and safety.

How Much Should it Cost?

Your investment in Open Water training should take into account everything that we've talked about to this point. You should find instructors that you trust, then sit down with them and discuss the total cost of your course, materials, gear, and certification. If one is more expensive than another, ask why.

After adding everything together, your total cost for certification as an Open Water diver can be anywhere from about $400 to over $1,000, depending largely on your location and the size of your class.

Shops in major metropolitan areas often train students prior to a vacation, then never see them again. In addition, pool space is more expensive in these areas. These shops must recoup all costs up front, and typically charge toward the high end of the spectrum. In order to make the class seem more affordable, the total price may be broken into chunks, such as separating the materials, equipment rental, and checkout dives from the classroom and pool portions.

Vacation destinations see enough volume of business to encounter economies of scale, so they are able to charge somewhat lower prices. However, they also typically include everything in one price tag and require you to bring nothing but a bathing suit to class. They also do not see much repeat business, so they must ensure that their costs are covered up front. As a result, expect a vacation destination to be toward the middle of the spectrum.

Local diving destinations have excellent diving nearby and a population base to support it. There are many of these places around the US. These areas are able to charge somewhat less for a class because many of their students come back and dive on a regular basis. They will usually require that you purchase some minimal gear, such as a mask, fins, and snorkel, before you start class in order to lower the incremental cost of you going diving once certified. These shops will promote higher levels of diving education as a way to become a safer, more knowledgeable and experienced diver.

While variability is common, you may encounter two companies that charge very different prices for what appears to be the same service. This is rarely the case. Ask questions of both until you get to the bottom of the price difference.

Beware of "too-good-to-be-true" prices, as well as people who prey on your insecurities and overcharge. Businesses using these tactics don't last very long, and as a result their people are rarely professionals. They will typically use part-time labor from the cheapest source. Professionals charge a fair rate and explain upfront what services will be provided.

Be sure to ask what is included, what you will be expected to furnish, and what perks there are to choosing this particular operator over the others.

Diving, like any hobby, comes at a cost. Diving is more expensive than some activities, but there are plenty of hobbies whose budgets put ours to shame. However, it takes a sizable initial investment to get into diving. An open water class is only the beginning of your adventure, and it is an important first step. Don't let the temptation to save money cost you an enjoyable, safe educational experience.

Once complete, investment in your Open Water certification is well worth the trouble and cost. Diving is an activity that you can enjoy with the same enthusiasm at every point in your life. When you are beneath the waves, swimming with the fish, exploring Jacques Cousteau's "Silent World," you will have long forgotten the price tag.

Ask Questions? What Questions do I Ask?

  • What is included in my class and what will I have to provide?
  • Who will teach my class?
  • Where did he/she get their training and experience?
  • Can I meet this person?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • How long has this instructor worked for you?
  • Ask around town for recommendations. There are more divers out there than you think!
  • What is the schedule for the class?
  • What will I need to do before class to prepare?
  • How much time will we spend in the pool?
  • Where will we complete our checkout dives?
  • Do I need to pay to get in, or is this included in the class price?

Be sure to check out more articles on dive training, photography, and other great topics by author Brad Butler on

A special thanks to Brian Jeno and Robert Nowicki for their help with this article!


Brad Butler

Brad is a PADI Course Director and USCG Licensed Captain. A founding member of CoolDudesDiving, he currently works for Aquatic Safaris in Wilmington, NC. He writes for us in his spare time.