What to know about getting scuba certification so you can explore the underwater world

There’s something truly magical about scuba diving: Once you descend under the surface — whether it’s 40 feet, 60 feet or more — you’re immersed in a completely different world, closely observing some of the most fascinating and stunning wildlife on earth. As Rami Hatamleh, founder of Scuba Sensations, said, “scuba diving is an amazing journey, from the peaceful quiet, to the mind-blowing spectacle of colors and creatures to the freeing weightlessness we experience.” Sold? The next step, then, is to get certified. Here’s why, how and what you need to know.

Do you have to be certified to dive?

“In most countries, it’s not illegal [to dive without a certification], but it is difficult because it is a community standard with community enforcement,” said Karl Shreeves, education and content development executive for Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Worldwide, which provides and facilitates dive education and training. (You can also get certified through schools such as Scuba Schools International and British Sub-Aqua Club, though PADI is the largest dive organization in the world). “It’s nearly impossible to get on a dive charter boat and go scuba diving if you’re either not certified or [not] under instructor supervision.” After all, while diving has a solid safety record, he noted, it does come with risks and the certification process teaches divers how to prepare for those risks and enjoy the experience safely.

That said, many dive operators do offer introductory courses (like PADI’s Discover Scuba Diving), which allow you to do a trial dive in relatively shallow open water “with the constant and direct supervision of an active, certified instructor or divemaster,” Hatamleh said. If you’re not totally sold on diving, the Discover course can be a good way to test the waters before taking the plunge into full certification; though Hatamleh recommends finding a dive operator that can offer a personal experience — whether that’s a private course with you and your travel buddies or a small group of divers. “Many resort courses are run like assembly lines and are designed to get people in, out and keep them coming,” he said. “I’ve heard many stories of people who [have] had bad experiences and will not try it again.”

Is scuba diving safe?

Just the thoughts of breathing underwater and encountering sharp-toothed sharks while you’re down there can be enough to deter some people from attempting scuba. But the reality is safety incidents — shark-related and otherwise — are actually extremely rare. In fact, according to data published in the Divers Alert Network Annual Diving Report, the average number of scuba-related emergency room visits each year is far lower than those stemming from sports like snowboarding, bowling, volleyball, fishing and more.

“That said, diving is risky,” Hatamleh said. “Of course. We are going into an unnatural environment for us in which we cannot breathe without proper equipment. [...] While diving is safe, it is safe because most divers follow the rules or safe practices they learn in their scuba training.”

Indeed, Shreeves said the “vast majority” of incidents in diving don’t happen because of things like equipment failures. Rather, they “involve people not doing what they were taught to do; and, more often than not, actually knowingly departing from what they were taught to do,” he said. [If you] dive as you were taught to do, and if you dive as you’re trained, the probability of having a serious, unpleasant incident is extremely low.”

Do you have to be in good shape to dive?

Before you can get certified, you do have to complete and sign a medical questionnaire disclosing medical conditions that could impact your diving; if you do have certain conditions or past injuries, you’ll need to have your doctor sign off to confirm diving isn’t too much of a risk. “What’s really cool about diving is it’s a great equalizer,” Shreeves said. Many people with chronic pain, disabilities and histories of injuries or medical conditions can dive. Shreeves added, “you certainly don’t need to be an athlete: [There are] people ages [10] to literally into their 90s who are active scuba divers.”

That said, to earn the PADI Open Water Diver certification, Shreeves said, you do need to be able to swim about 300 yards in a mask, snorkel and fins without stopping and float or tread water for 10 minutes; but beyond that, it’s really a matter of being able to complete performance requirements and manage wearing the heavy gear on land (though, Hatamleh noted, if you do need assistance because of certain injuries or disabilities, it’s possible to get that). Otherwise, “someone receiving a certification should be able to complete all the requirements, skills and tasks of the course on their own,” Hatamleh said. “They should be able to manage, handle and wear the equipment and walk in it. A certified diver should be self-sufficient, even though we dive with at least one buddy. A person’s physical fitness and health should allow them to achieve [that].”

What does the actual certification training entail?

The PADI Open Water Diver certification course includes three phases: knowledge development, confined water dives and open water dives. The knowledge development largely takes place through PADI’s online eLearning program — a series of slides, videos and quizzes (for the latter, you’ll need to achieve a certain average score to pass the entire course) — which you can sign up for and begin on your own. While you can go at your own pace, Shreeves said it takes most people about five or six hours. From there, you’ll need to find a dive shop so you can solidify your knowledge with an instructor and move to the hands-on training.

During the confined dives (usually in a pool), you’ll learn and practice all of the necessary skills, from setting up your scuba gear and getting in and out of the water with it to clearing water out of a flooded mask and descending and ascending safely. Once you get to the open water, you’ll apply all of those skills (performing them successfully in front of the instructor is required for certification) over the course of four separate dives.

You can complete your entire certification process with one dive center and instructor, or break it up and do your confined dives in one place and open water dives elsewhere (like on a tropical vacation). As for how long it all takes, that depends on the schedule you and your instructor settle on and how you break up your course. “After completing eLearning, you can get certified in as [few] as two days or one month,” Hatamleh said. “My course is four classroom sessions and four pool sessions. People can do that all in a week or over a month, then complete the open water dives. I’ve seen some courses that are over two weekends.”

How much does it cost?

If you go through PADI, you’ll pay $190 for the eLearning; but prices for the actual classes and dive sessions are set by dive centers and instructors. “There is a wide range on this,” Hatamleh said. “I have seen full certification courses for less than $400 and some as high $1,500 (for private [courses]). It all depends on what the person is looking for and how much time they want to spend learning in the classroom and pool, as well [as] class size.”

Beyond that, some instructors might include the cost of eLearning (so you wouldn’t pay PADI separately), as well as costs for purchasing or renting equipment, pool time and more. “There’s so much flexibility in what a dive center or an instructor can offer,” Shreeves said. “You just need to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples, because one pricing structure might cover all the training through your open water dives, [and] another might [charge for] your pool training separately from your open water training because they want to offer you choices in your open water training.”

Aside from the course prices themselves, it’s important to budget for things like travel and lodging (if necessary for your open water dives) and equipment. While your dive shop may provide things like the air cylinder, wetsuit and BCD (or Buoyancy Control Device), others may require you to purchase certain items. Hatamleh requires students to provide their own mask, snorkel, boots and fins; and even if those things aren’t required, Shreeves recommended getting your own anyway. “[The mask] is really central to the diving experience, and it has a personal fit,” Shreeves said. “By getting your own mask, you’re going to get something that fits you really well; and if it’s the right mask for you, when you’re diving, you don’t even think about it. You’re enjoying [the dive]. Similarly, your fins [are] sized according to your feet and leg strength, [and] you want to be able to swim and not think about your fins.”

Ultimately, the decisions about what gear to buy are personal. Either way, though, it’s a good idea to check with your instructor before buying anything so they can help you not only determine what you need but also help ensure you get things that will serve you well in your diving adventures.

Once you complete your course, you can head out and explore the underwater world — certifications from PADI and SSI allow you to dive to a depth of 60 feet — and, if you feel so inclined, rack up even more certifications (like those that allow you to dive even deeper, or explore caves and shipwrecks). Travel the globe with a dedicated dive buddy, or meet and pair up with new people by joining dive charters as you go. “There are all kinds of divers,” Hatamleh said. “People who dive once a year, ones who go every few years, ones who dedicate all their travel to diving and ones who [have] turned it into a lifestyle. No matter what it is for you, I encourage you to do it and open your mind to a world movies cannot recreate.”