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Beneath The Waves

From Technicolor Fish to Ghostly Shipwrecks, Scuba Diving Reveals a Whole Other World
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 1)

Although it attracts some strange looks, I often compare scuba diving with a more landlocked pastime: golf. Once you've learned the basics, both sports can be enjoyed at a wide variety of places. You can drag cumbersome equipment with you, or rent it readily throughout the world. You can become obsessed with either sport, or participate in them once or twice a year. Vacations can be built around either, or they can be just one of many pursuits to enjoy while on a trip. Like golf courses, each dive site is unique, and each area has special characteristics that can leave even the most fanatic sportsmen befuddled as to which is the best. St. Andrew's or Pebble Beach? Palau or the Great Barrier Reef?

The first step in diving is to become certified, which is akin to getting your driver's license. While there is no law to prevent you from diving uncertified, proof of certification, commonly called a C-card, is required to rent equipment, board a dive boat or fill air tanks. Diving without proper training would be as sensible as driving on a freeway in a blizzard with no prior experience. There are more than a dozen certifying bodies in the United States, the largest of which is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, headquartered in Santa Ana, California. According to spokesman Kevin Young, the association certifies about three-quarters of U.S. divers and a little more than half worldwide. About 680,000 divers received basic PADI certification in 1995 and more than 728,000 were certified last year; growth has averaged more than 10 percent annually for the past 20 years. The next largest agency is the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Other large certifying organizations include the YMCA, Scuba Schools International (SSI) and the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS).

There is no clear advantage to being certified by one group rather than another. The basic requirements for certification courses are laid out by a nonprofit industry group known as the Recreational Scuba Training Council (RSTC), and most of the certifying bodies incorporate the RSTC's minimum standards. A more important issue is universal acceptance. NAUI, PADI, YMCA, SSI and NASDS cards are recognized by dive shops throughout the world, while you may have some difficulty with C-cards issued by smaller organizations. Internationally, other major groups include the British Sub Aqua Club and the Confederation Mondiale des Activities Subaquatiques in France.

Which group's course you choose often depends on the most convenient dive shop. Many dive shops are affiliated with more than one organization and may offer a choice. Some instructors are qualified to teach for several groups. "The defining factor in which certification to go with is what your instructor is certified to teach," says Daryl Polenz, a New York investment banker who has been diving actively for five years. "I found a dive shop I was comfortable with and took a basically NAUI course, but my instructor taught PADI as well, so I was able to get both NAUI and PADI cards."

Len Todisco suggests slightly different criteria: "You should choose a dealer based on your comfort level with the retailer and the services they provide, not the letters on the card."

Generally, you start out with a basic course. PADI calls its first level of certification Open Water, while NAUI goes with the straightforward Scuba Diver. Both programs include a mix of classroom study, swimming pool sessions and real dives. Most courses consist of four to six classes, each of which is followed by a pool session where basic skills and use of equipment are taught. At the end of a course, divers must complete four dives with their instructors, usually over the course of two days. The length of the course depends upon where you take it. In most urban settings, classes meet once or twice a week for about a month. In tropical resorts, many individuals take the basic course in less than a week, with sessions every day. Both NAUI and PADI offer the classroom portion of their course on interactive CD-ROM for home study.

Since scuba diving is much easier in warm water, many students opt for what are known as referral dives. They complete their classroom and pool requirements at home, then do their certification dives at another dive shop in a warmer climate, where they have been referred by their home instructor.

Before signing up for a course, find out exactly what is and isn't included. Prices for courses are not set by the organizations, but by individual instructors or retailers. Many shops require students to provide their own fins, mask, snorkel and weight belt; tanks and other equipment are generally supplied. Some shops include the four certification dives in the price of the course, while others charge a separate fee. It is especially important to check this if you plan to go the referral route.

With locations in Grand Cayman, Aruba, Hawaii, Curaçao and the Bahamas, Red Sail Sports is one of the world's largest chains of retail scuba shops. Instructors at all of their locations are certified to teach PADI, NAUI, NASDS and SSI courses, and they give a lot of referrals. Red Sail charges $440 for a five-day basic certification course, including all equipment and materials, and $275 to complete referral dives. Courses may be more expensive in urban areas and places where the competition is not as intense.

Kate Copley, marketing director for Red Sail's busiest location, located at the Hyatt Resort on Grand Cayman, is an example of someone who has been bitten by the diving bug. "I came to the U.S. for the summer [from England] to work, and when I was done I went down to Key West on vacation. There was scuba diving everywhere, and I'd always wanted to try it so I went out once, and that was it. I sold my plane ticket back home and began working in a dive shop and training the next day. When I became an instructor, everyone said to go to Grand Cayman, so I did, planning to stay three months. It's been eight years now."


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