Who's the Best?
With the number of agencies offering open-water certifications now up to 11 and counting in the U.S. alone, you've got to wonder: Are some better than others? The answer may surprise you.
-By John Francis
Illustration above by Cameron Wasson
Some people will tell you that a NAUI diver is always better than a PADI diver. Or a YMCA diver is better than both. This sort of one-upsmanship is obviously nonsense. Individual divers--and their individual instructors--differ much more than agencies do.
Still, there's the nagging doubt: Is one agency's certification course more thorough than another's? If you're thinking about diving professionally someday, will the acronym on your C-card help or hurt your chances of a job? If you fly to that unspoiled paradise at the end of the earth, will the dive store under the palm tree honor your card?
Who's got the best course?
Who's got the best instructors?
Whose graduates are most employable?
Can I take advanced courses from another agency?
What about the dive store under the palm tree?
Bottom line: Does it matter which agency?
Who's got the best course? Some basic facts: All certification agencies in the United States meet the same minimum standard for entry-level scuba instruction. All basic open-water courses must include the same syllabus of diving skills, physics, physiology, etc., must have classroom or home study instruction, must require pool or confined water instruction, and must require the completion of at least four open-water dives. The standards also specify age, water skills and health minimums for all students. Companion standards regulate the training and performance of instructors.
For these minimum standards we can thank, believe it or not, the government and lawyers. Fear of ham-fisted regulation as well as the "sharks that swim on land" has forced the certification agencies to school around an industry standard, called ANSI Z-86.3 (soon to be revised and reissued as Z-375.1). It was written by the Recreational Scuba Training Council (RSTC), whose members are IDEA, NASDS, PADI, PDIC, SSI and YMCA. The standard is blessed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a nonprofit organization that certifies an industry standard has been arrived at through open discussion and with due process. Although only six agencies are members of RSTC, as a practical matter all have to meet the RSTC/ANSI standard in order to buy liability insurance and defend themselves from lawsuits.
So, regardless of the agency, your basic training will be at least this good. Might yours be better?
After surveying all the agencies that offer a basic open-water certification, our conclusion is ... maybe, but it's likely the instructor who makes the difference, not the agency's published standards. Minimum standards are floors, but they have a way of acting like ceilings, too. More training costs more money, putting the agency who insists on it at a competitive disadvantage when many students want the fastest, cheapest C-card.
Some agencies (IDEA, NASDS and YMCA) require a minimum number of hours of instruction, typically 24. NAUI has no classroom minimum, but requires 17 hours of "practical application," including 10 hours in the water (pool and open water). PDIC requires six lectures and six pool sessions.
Other agencies require that students meet performance standards, and leave the number of lecture hours and pool sessions up to the instructor. This flexibility allows small classes to finish the course requirements quickly and makes it possible for courses to be compressed into weekends. It also makes it easier for instructors to rush students, some of whom may be shy about admitting when they don't understand. That's not the agency's goal, of course, but it happens.
Another indication of whether your agency has stiffer training minimums is the number of open-water scuba dives it requires for certification. The RSTC minimum is four: NAUI, PDIC and YMCA require four scuba and one skin dive. SSI recommends one skin, but requires five scuba dives. NASE requires four scuba and recommends one skin dive; it says it will make the skin dive a requirement next year. IDEA requires four for its "Basic Open Water" certification, but encourages its students to go for its "Open Water" certification requiring six. IANTD requires 90 minutes of bottom time to be performed in four to six scuba dives. The others require at least four, but may recommend more. Obviously, these ceilings are not far above the floor.
Of course, individual instructors can exceed an agency's minimum standards, and many do. The bottom line: Your best chance of getting the best instruction is not to worry about the agency but to find the best instructor for you.
Who's got the best instructors? At first glance, there's no reason to expect one agency to have better instructors than another. All instructors must meet certain RSTC/ANSI minimum standards in age, health and diving experience, and agencies must meet minimums in training them. But here, too, minimums have a way of becoming maximums. Besides, good instructors must have not only diving experience but the gifts of communication, leadership and empathy--gifts of nature as much as of education. All the training in the world will not make some scuba instructors good teachers; others are "naturals."
Where agencies can play an important role is in quality assurance--making sure instructors teach up to standard and weeding out those who don't.
All the agencies we contacted have a formal grievance procedure, which means if a complaint about an instructor reaches them, they will investigate. That's something, but begs the question: How rigorous are the investigations? What are the ground rules for canceling the instructor's certification to teach?
Most agencies (IANTD, IDEA, NASDS, NASE, NAUI, PADI, PDIC, WASI and YMCA) go a step further and survey some or all students who are issued C-cards. NASE requires instructors to turn in critique forms completed anonymously by all students. PDIC sends a postage-paid questionnaire to all students; NASDS and NAUI include one in all copies of their basic scuba textbook. Typically, after naming the instructor, the student is asked whether training standards were met and is invited to add an overall evaluation and written comments.
These surveys give agencies a means of communication with the students in their program that is unfiltered by the instructor or the dive store owner. Even if the agencies routinely round-file the returned questionnaires--and there's no evidence they do--their mere existence can be a deterrent to lazy or abusive instructors.
One agency--Scuba Schools International--questions the value of surveys, pointing to small sample sizes and low response rates. Instead, SSI imposes quality assurance responsibilities on the dive store or school owner, who certainly has an incentive to make students happy. In fact, the alert store owner will often be far quicker than the agency to get rid of bad apples among the store's instructors. SSI requires the owner to appoint a monitor to be responsible for quality assurance, and provides a formal Monitor Assessment Procedure to be followed. SSI's Director of Product Development Gary Clark says many SSI schools and stores survey students as part of this process.
Whose graduates are most employable? In commercial diving work--oil rig construction, salvage and the like--it just doesn't matter who issued your first C-card. Companies look at your experience and your commercial diving school record, but don't care which elementary school you went to or who issued your entry-level certification.
For jobs in recreational scuba--teaching scuba or working at a dive resort--you will absolutely need a professional-level certification. Since most domestic dive stores and international resorts are affiliated with one or more of the agencies, you'll want an instructor's card with the same agency for the best chance at a job. Which raises the question:
Can I take advanced courses from another agency? If you apply for advanced training with another agency, will that agency regard all other entry-level C-cards as equivalent to its own? The quick answer is "yes," though you may have an extra hurdle to get over.
For example, if you hold a non-PADI open-water certification card, PADI requires that you demonstrate your knowledge and skills to the instructor of the advanced PADI course. Other agencies accept outright the cards of RSTC members and of NAUI for at least some courses; other cards are accepted at the discretion of the instructor, who normally will be satisfied if your log book shows a requisite number of dives. No agency will require you to repeat its entry-level training program or even any substantial part of it.
In reality, agencies are eager to accept you into their advanced courses. They see it as an opportunity to capture a customer from a competitor. Will McDonald's sell a Big Mac to a Wendy's customer? You betcha.
What about the dive store under the palm tree? Will it recognize your card? We asked a number of dive travel agents who specialize in sending thousands of divers a year to places with unpronounceable names. None had ever had a problem with an unusual C-card, but all agreed trouble was possible and said that if you raise the issue in advance they will be happy to contact your destination and make sure your card will be accepted.
Bottom line: Does it matter which agency? No, when it comes to training standards, it doesn't matter significantly which agency issues your entry-level C-card unless you plan to push the envelope of exotic dive travel. Even then, the problem is easily solvable.
What does matter, a lot, is that you find a good instructor, one with lots of experience, patience and empathy. For suggestions on identifying the best ones, see "Find The Best Dive Instructor For You."
Can I complete my open-water dives at a tropical resort (so I won't have to dive in a quarry with a thick wetsuit, hood and gloves)?
One popular option is to complete your pool and classroom training near home, then fly to the tropics for your open-water dives and get your C-card there in two or three days, then dive, dive, dive. In the past, if you were taking an ABCD course, you had to find a resort with an ABCD instructor.
Until now. Six agencies (IDEA, NAUI, NASDS, PDIC, SSI and YMCA) have recently agreed on a Universal Referral Program whereby your open-water dives can be supervised by any agency's instructor. For example, you could take an NASDS course at home, then travel to a resort for open-water dives under an SSI instructor, who would certify your completion of the course to your original NASDS instructor. Then you'd get an NASDS C-card.
Contact any of the six agencies for more information.
What about PADI?
It's no secret the C-card that gets dissed most is PADI's. "Most of the untrained, uncomfortable, unsafe divers on any boat are PADI divers" is a comment I've heard over and over.
So what about it? Are most of the unsafe divers PADI divers? In a word, yes. Most of the safe divers are PADI divers, too. The explanation is simple. By most estimates, PADI issues between one-half and two-thirds of all the C-cards in the U.S. each year. PADI gets the lion's share of criticism because it's the lion.
It probably gets more than its share. The Japanese have an expression that explains it: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." So just as the world loves to hammer Microsoft and IBM, so divers--some of them, at least--love to hammer PADI.
Then too, today's diver (who is likely to be a PADI diver) is different from the diver of 25 years ago (who was more likely to be a NAUI, NASDS or YMCA diver). During that time, the sport expanded from a small core of water-loving macho men and women who were likely to be expert swimmers and free divers already. Today's large number of divers comes mostly from the general public, many of them without water skills. With its innovative marketing of more convenient, "user friendly" training, PADI led the way to this expansion. But the other agencies soon followed in order to remain competitive. One result of today's enlarged diving market is that scuba equipment is better, safer and cheaper than before. Another is that there are more marginally skilled divers.
Still, many divers harbor the sincere conviction that PADI's training standards are not as high as those of some other U.S. agencies. After exhaustive research, we could find no evidence of that. Yes, there are differences between agencies. Some teach skills PADI does not. PADI teaches skills others do not. All meet the same industry standard. After a dozen dives, the differences between what training agencies teach will be obliterated by what the ocean teaches.
But--and it's a big one--instructors do matter, as we have said many times. Good instructors do make safer divers. Despite what you may hear, good and bad instructors are found in about the same proportions in all agencies. In fact, good instructors likely belong to several agencies at once.
A few numbers may help put the matter to rest. From 1974 to 1987, PADI's share of annual certifications went up from about 25 percent to about 65 percent. In the same period, according to University of Rhode Island National Underwater Accident Data Center figures, fatalities per 100,000 dives went down from 12 to 4.5. There is no correlation between the kind of C-card you hold and your chances of an accident.
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