If you are thinking about getting certified to scuba dive, we’ll warn you in advance, you have a lot of decisions you will be making. You will have to decide which equipment you eventually want to use. You need to decide which specialty certifications if any, you want to obtain. You also have to decide which of the many sites you want to prioritize on dive trips.
The first decision you will have to make though is which organization you want to be certified under. We’ll help you out with this by going over the different options and looking at the pros and cons of each. We’ll then give you a recommendation based on our experience so you can make a more informed decision for yourself.
What Should You Consider When Choosing An Organization?
If you are only planning on doing a few dives a year or less when you go on vacation, who you are certified with is largely irrelevant. More important for you will be choosing a good school to learn from regardless of the certification organization they are associated with.
But, if you know you want to get serious into diving, choosing the right organization can be more important. If you plan on one day getting into technical or commercial diving, for example, you want to go with an organization that is more focused on that. This is in contrast to an organization that is more concerned with recreational diving and selling specialty certifications that add to the recreational experience.
Going with one organization over another isn’t going to be the end of the world if you choose wrong. If you get into diving in the beginning just for the recreational aspects, but later decide to get into technical diving, it isn’t a huge deal. Many of the organizations will accept experience form other organizations as qualifications for different classes.
When you first get started, much of the information is going to be the same across all of the organizations. You are going to be learning about safe diving practices, how to use the equipment, dive theory, etc. But, after you get through your initial training is when you will start seeing the difference between the organizations.
An organization more concerned with technical diving, for example, will spend more time on learning dive tables and formulas for calculating things such as bottom and decompression times. An organization that focuses more on recreational diving, however, will have more of an emphasis on other activities such as underwater photography or fish identification.
So, in order to figure out which organization will be right for you, first look at these factors:
- How serious are you about scuba diving? Do you plan on making this a serious hobby or a once a year novelty?
- What activities are you interested in when it comes to diving? Are you more interested in seeing pelagic fish and colorful reefs or do you want to deep dive into World War II wrecks?
- Are you primarily concerned with recreational diving? Or, do you one day plan on getting into technical diving?
- How much time do you have for training? Are you wanting a quick course that will certify you to make a few easy dives on vacation? Or, are you wanting something more strenuous with higher thresholds for moving past each certification level?
Answering these questions will help you when it comes time to selecting the right organization for you to train with.
What Are The Different Organizations?
There are quite literally dozens of scuba certification organizations around the world that handle recreational diving certifications. Some of these are country-specific organizations, like the Australian Underwater Federation. Others, however, are international giants with reach in almost every country of the world, like the Professional Association of Dive Instructors.
Most of these certifications are not important to you as a new diver. For that matter, they won’t be important to you later on down the line with hundreds of dives in your logbook. Many of these organizations simply handle diving regulations within their respective countries. Some are also set up to handle different underwater sports such as freediving and competitive spearfishing. So, they have very little relevance to you as a potential open water diver trainee.
That being said, there are still quite a few organizations you can choose from when making the decision of who to do your dive training with. We are going to focus on the core organizations that have dive schools and dive centers around the world.
This article is strictly focused on looking at the pros and cons of each organization as a trainee. But, if you are interested in the history of diving and where these organizations come from, we encourage you to read this. The main organizations include:
We’ll start off with the titan of the industry. PADI is the largest scuba certification organization in the world by certification numbers. As of 2017, the organization reported certifying over 25 million divers.
The organization was founded in 1966 by an instructor certified under the National Association of Underwater Instructors. It was founded as an alternative to current training standards in order to provide a modular approach to scuba training. Under PADI, training was broken down into different certification levels as well as specialty courses. This is in contrast to the standard at the time which was universal and more concentrated on a single level course to certify divers.
This is the largest organization not just in terms of certification numbers, but also dive center numbers. PADI is associated with over 6,500 dive centers around the world. Chances are if you decide to take a certification course while on vacation, it will probably be with a PADI certified instructor.
- As the largest certification organization in the world, you can easily find PADI dive centers almost anywhere diving is popular. This makes it easy to flash your certification card while on vacation and be on a dive boat for an open water fun dive. It also makes it easier to further your education in the future if you want by taking more advanced courses.
- PADI has courses for just about everything. This includes underwater photography, wreck diving, cave diving, ice diving, and more. You can even take courses on technical diving at the highest level.
- PADI instructors come from countries all around the world and you can most likely find an instructor that speaks the same language as you. You can also choose from smaller to larger schools and even find an instructor willing to train you privately. Because of their size, you have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to getting certified.
- PADI has a very rigid idea when it comes to training. One of the reasons they have been so successful is that they have standardized each of their courses to the point they are able to churn out students quite efficiently. This isn’t always a bad thing. It makes it easier to train groups of students and ensure they have the information they need. But, it also leaves little room for the instructor to move away from the material. So, if a student needs more help in one area and less in another, for example, it isn’t as easy to do this under the PADI curriculum. One way around this is with private lessons where an instructor can focus on your individual needs. But, even with this, the PADI curriculum creates a very strict standard of what needs to be taught and how to teach it.
This was the first civilian dive training organization in existence. It was founded in 1960 as a means to begin educating the public on the sport of scuba diving. NAUI was one of the first organizations to begin certifying scuba instructors and set many of the modern standards used in scuba education.
Their original advisory board consisted of diving legends such as Captain George F. Bond, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer. All three were pioneering members of the scuba diving community and helped to bring NAUI into prominence.
Currently, NAUI standards are used for training high-level divers in the United States. This includes military dive programs such as the Navy Seas, Coast Guard search and rescue program, and other special operations diving programs. They also certify US Park Service divers as well as divers for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
- As the oldest civilian certifying organization in the world, they have blazed trails when it comes to standardizing the dive industry. When you learn under an NAUI program, you are learning the same material taught to the United States Military, National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), and many other high-level companies, groups, and government organizations. This is a stamp of approval that the material is top-notch.
- As with SSI and PADI, NAUI has courses for both introductory as well as advanced recreational diving. They also have technical diving courses for people interested in progressing past recreational diving. There are also many of the same specialty courses such as wreck diving, cave diving, ice diving, underwater photography, etc. This means you are getting all of the same course types as you would with PADI and SSI, with the prestige and history behind the NAUI.
- NAUI instructors are not as confined to regulation as SSI and PADI instructors when it comes to what they teach. All courses will cover the basic materials, but instructors are free to venture off depending on the student. You will also be learning the dive tables more thoroughly than with either SSI or PADI. This is a major benefit in the long term, especially if you plan on getting into more advanced forms of diving later on. We always encourage new divers to learn their dive tables and surface air consumption (SAC) rates as these can be life-saving in emergency situations. Many modern divers are totally reliant on their computers. This is fine until the rare event happens when a dive computer fails.
- The only con with NAUI is that they are not as large as PADI. Organizations are not known for releasing the numbers on how many divers they have certified. For this reason, it is very hard to rank them. The exception to this is PADI and a few smaller organizations for which there is limited information. But, NAUI is still one of the top in the world. That being said, there are many places around the world that may not have NAUI dive centers. They are more prominent in the United States. This should not put you off from getting a certification from them. It is simply a small factor to take into consideration.
SSI is another of the most popular dive certification organizations around the world. In fact, SSI, combined with PADI and NAUI, make up the vast majority of certifications in just the United States. This isn’t including world numbers, which are likely to skew a bit differently as the Asian market for diving grows.
The history of SSI goes back to 1970. It was founded in Colorado and has been sold throughout the years to a number of different companies. As of 2014, it was held by Mares, a company that manufactures scuba equipment.
There is a fierce debate between PADI divers and SSI divers over which one is better. Commonly cited is that SSI tends to focus more on the technical aspects of scuba diving including learning the formulas. Regardless of which is better, the main thing to know is that certifications under one can be used when diving with the other.
This means you can do your Open Water Certification with SSI and do other courses with PADI. If you do a Nitrox course with PADI, for example, it can be transferred over to SSI to count towards your overall experience level. This makes it quite convenient when you are traveling if you want to do a specialty course at a school affiliated with an organization different than the one you are certified with.
- Like PADI, SSI is an extremely large organization with affiliates all around the world. This makes it easy to find a dive center to work with when you are traveling. So, if you are on vacation and want to take a specialty course, you can easily find a dive center to do that at. This can be more challenging with smaller organizations. Also, with a smaller organization, the course isn’t always guaranteed to transfer to a different organization.
- SSI has many specialty courses you can take giving you a lot of freedom with where you want to take your diving. You can take courses for wreck diving, cave diving, technical diving, and more. There are also courses to get into the commercial side of diving. You can train to become an SSI qualified dive instructor. This is great if you know you want to eventually move past simple open water recreational dives into deeper and more intensive dives. You can also progress into technical diving eventually.
- SSI certifications are recognized by governing bodies all around the world. This means you can go almost anywhere in the world and easily dive. Not all organizations are recognized around the world. This is a major benefit of diving with an organization such as PADI or SSI.
- There aren’t any huge drawbacks with SSI. As mentioned above, the main drawback of PADI is how rigid their material is. Also, they provide little room for their instructors to deviate from this material. SSI is more forgiving with this and does not hold their instructors to as rigid of a standard. This allows instructors to teach other aspects of diving that may be more interesting to their students, while still covering the basics. Both organization’s material is almost completely identical. At the end of the day, it is going to come down to the quality of the instructor with both organizations. If there is one downside to SSI that we can name though, it would be that they are smaller than PADI and NAUI. They are still one of the largest organizations in the world, but there are places that might not have an SSI affiliated dive center.
Our final scuba certification organization is an alternative to the majors. SDI is the recreational sister to Technical Diving International (TDI). They were established in the late 1990s by a number of professionals coming from the field of technical diving. This makes SDI unique from other organizations such as SSI and PADI in that their material has been developed from a technical perspective for recreational divers.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that their course progression is meant to take divers to the point they can enter into technical diving. This is different than other organizations that put technical diving more as an aside. Instead, other organizations focus on moving students at the upper level into dive instructor qualification courses.
Another major difference between SDI and other organizations is the emphasis placed on using dive computers. Other organizations train students to use tables and gauges to calculate dive times. SDI, as well as TDI, instead train students to use modern-day technology. The emphasis is placed on using this technology to enhance diving and making each dive as safe as possible. They are a small but growing certification organization and a great option if you plan on getting into technical diving later on.
- The fact that their material was developed by technical divers is a huge benefit. This means that people who are pushing diving to its limits, and who are more technically oriented, have created the material. Since technical divers are at the forefront of diving, they often are ahead of other divers when it comes to utilizing new technology and diving practices. This is apparent in their insistence of training students using dive computers instead of gauges and tables.
- Like the other organizations on this list, SDI offers a large number of supplementary specialty courses such as underwater photography, cave diving, wreck diving, search and recovery, etc. This means you have options with where to take your scuba diving and what you want to learn.
- SDI sets minimum qualifications that must be met in order to keep advancing. An example of this is that you must have 25 logged dives in order to take their Advanced Diver Development Program. This is SDI’s equivalent to PADI’s Advanced Open Water Diver Certification. What we like about this is that it ensures you are actually ready to progress as a diver and that you have practical experience to accompany the technical experience and theory you are learning in the classroom. This is a major benefit as you advance in your diving education so that you aren’t just learning a bunch of theory which you don’t have the experience to back.
- The major drawback of SDI is that they are a much smaller organization than PADI, SSI, or NAUI. This is going to show when you go on vacation as you may try to dive at places that don’t recognize their certification. Most experienced dive centers who have heard of SDI and TDI will accept their qualifications and have no problem letting you dive with them. But, it is one downside if you do opt to go this route.
- Second, they do use computers for training instead of gauges and dive tables. We think it is extremely important as a new diver to learn your tables and to be taught on a computer. This is so that in the event of a catastrophic failure of your computer, you aren’t stuck wondering what to do and in a potentially harmful or fatal situation. If you do opt to dive with SSI, we recommend you learn your tables in self-study on the side. Computer failure during a dive is extremely rare. But, you want to be prepared for everything that could possibly go wrong on a dive well before it actually happens. Once you are on the dive, there is nothing that you can do in the event of failure.
Which Organization Do We Recommend?
The answer to this is going to depend on what your purposes for learning scuba diving are. If you are the average recreational scuba diver and you are learning diving as part of a vacation, we recommend PADI. They are the program that is going to get you from training to diving the quickest. This doesn’t mean that you are going to be the most prepared or the most learned of divers. But, for the depths you will be diving and the types of dive sites you will be on, you will be adequately prepared for the dives.
As we mentioned above, PADI is highly standardized across their program. This standardization is strictly enforced across all of their affiliates and by all of their dive instructors. This means you are getting the same training and meeting the same requirements at one school as the next. It doesn’t mean that a dive instructor isn’t going to spend a little extra time if you don’t understand a specific aspect of a course. In most situations, you probably aren’t going to be passed through before you’ve learned everything properly.
If you fall into this category of recreational diver, the most important thing is the school you are choosing to go with. Smaller to medium-sized schools tend to offer a better experience in terms of trainer to student time. We have heard stories from fellow dive instructors we know that at the largest school in the world, they once certified over 160 students in one day. While these students probably did just fine during their subsequent open water dives, you can probably guess they weren’t all feeling fully confident after graduation.
But, when we did our Open Water Diver Certification Course through PADI, we went with a one on one trainer. Yes, we did pay a few hundred dollars more than we would pay in the cheapest places in the world. On the other hand, we received undivided attention from our instructor who made sure to drill us repeatedly until we knew everything and could consistently execute each technique.
This was the same PADI program and, in the end, we were trained just the same as all of the other divers in the world. The difference came in just how confident we were at the end of that training with the skills we had learned. While we know it isn’t possible to always learn one on one, the smaller the class, the better you will probably learn.
If you plan on getting into more advanced types of diving later on, especially technical diving, then we recommend you go with NAUI or SDI. These organizations are more technical in what they are teaching. This may mean you are spending longer amounts of time in the classroom and studying, but in the long run, you are going to have a better grasp of the information. That will be a major benefit when you are diving and when you begin to take higher-level scuba classes.
If you do opt to go with SDI, as we mentioned before, make sure you are learning your dive tables on your own. This is going to be especially helpful when you go to technical dive training. Also, in the event of an emergency, it may even save your life.
A lot to think about isn’t there? The above list represents only a small fraction of the total number of dive certification organizations around the world. There are many more local organizations that you can choose from. Especially, once you get out of the United States, these organizations become much better known among local dive communities.
Which organization do you think you will go with? Let us know in the comments. Or, if you have already been trained as an open water diver, let us know your thoughts on the organization that trained you. You never know how your experiences might help your fellow divers.