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What Every Scuba Diver Should Know About Training Agencies

What is better, a Ford or a Chevy? That debate has been going on for over a hundred years and will likely still be going on a hundred years from now. On scuba diving message boards and dive boats around the world you will find a similar debate. What scuba diving training agency is the best? While the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) is the largest scuba diving certification agency in the world, it is not the only one. A few training agencies have certified around 90% of all recreational divers in the world, still there are 100’s of other agencies out there. So it begs to question, who do I train with and how do I know I can use it everywhere.

Worldwide Accreditation Myth, Sort Of

It is a common misconception that there is somewhere one authority that oversees scuba certification programs, and that authority grants worldwide acceptance of C-cards. That is not the case, worldwide acceptance is based on agreements between agencies. Before the commercialization of divers training, C.M.A.S. was the default worldwide accreditation agency. Spearheaded by its first president, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques “C.M.A.S.” (in English The World Underwater Federation) was founded in 1959. It’s 11 founding federations each representing a country, organized to promote underwater sporting events. Their mission also involved research and technical advancements in the sports. C.M.A.S developed the first scientific based diver training program. The organization now comprises over 130 federations from 5 continents, and issues certifications to divers whose complete a federations training program. All the current commercial training programs are based on the finding and procedures developed by C.M.A.S. This common history of training has encouraged different agencies to accept each others certifications.

In recent years, the International Standards Organization (ISO) have created standards for recreational diver training. These standards are also based on the C.M.A.S programs. External auditors have formed to examine applicants for a ISO accreditation in scuba diving. The European Underwater Federation and RSTC (Recreational Scuba Training Council) are the two largest. These organizations and the ISO standards has lead to further cooperation between training agencies.

Scuba DiverThe major training/certification agencies

When looking for information to help you decided which training agency is right for you, it best to start with the major agencies. In the United States Scuba retail market, a study done 2000 showed that 98.2% of the retailers were affiliated with PADI, NAUI, and SSI. The remaining 1.8% was shared by 20 small agencies.

The major training agencies all follow the ISO standards or the European equivalent. Two ISO standards are most relevant to those looking to become certified, they are: Diver Level 1 – Supervised Diver ISO 24801-1 and Diver Level 2 – Autonomous Diver ISO 24801-2. These correspond to the Scuba Diver Certification and the Open Water Diver certification.

To get you started we will overview five training organizations:

  • Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) – PADI is the undisputed leader in recreational divers training. While statistics vary, it is estimated that PADI has certified between 60-75% of recreational divers worldwide. Their course span the entire range of recreational diving and includes some technical diving. Businesses such as dive centers, dive resorts even boats can register with PADI to become affiliated. They will market them using their website as well as the dive travel company that is a part of PADI. Under the PADI system, instructors are basically a freelancer or independent contractor. They carry their own liability insurance and can work independent of any dive center or resort. PADI is instructor orientated. The certification process is between the instructor and the PADI headquarters.
  • Scuba Schools International (SSI) – SSI has grown to be the second largest training agency. They also have a scope of training similar to PADI. While PADI is an organization of dive instructors, SSI is a network of school. SSI approves the association of a dive center or a resort. The schools in turn hire instructors. When a student completes their training, it is the dive center that approves it and issues the certification. SSI believes their methods ensure that instructors are kept up to date on new procedures and advances in the industry. They also believe that the process is a better quality control over the training then the independent methods of PADI. The SSI C-card has a place for a dive recognition sticker. When a diver reaches a certain milestone of number of dives, a sticker is added to his card. After 100 dives, the diver is issued a Century diver card. Cards are also upgraded at 500,1000 and 5000 dive milestones.
  • National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) – NAUI was the second largest agency before SSI took over that slot. They are a non-profit corporation, one of the oldest training agencies, but, they keep a low profile. It is not surprising to hear people ask if they are still in business or have they merge with someone. They are in business and still going strong in their niche. Most NAUI training is aligned with academic organizations. NAUI divers are generally better trained and have a deep scientific understanding of diving. It seems to be the agency of choice for marine related scientist.
  • Rebreather Association of International Divers (RAID) – The Rebreather Association of International Divers (RAID) has been around for many years but in reality unknown to most recreational divers. Until 2014, RAID was for technical divers. Now it covers the entire field of recreational and technical diving as well as freediving. While the other training agencies look to add on new training and skills to their offering, RAID took another approach. Starting with their excellent rebreather training programs, they reversed engineered what skills were needed at the levels leading up to the technical programs. The company recruited the best in the industry to build new certification classes from the ground up while following the ISO requirements. RAID has designed their training to be interactive with digital media. They fully embrace digital learning, hard copies of the training material is not available. RAID uses the three segments as the others do, theory, confined water and open water. The theory is more in-depth and has been called old school, Which many professional’s applaud. Unlike the others all theory is to be completed before the confined water. The confined water process is about twice as long as others, with a minimum of four hours underwater. The open water is four dives but must total more than three hours. Their program is integrated from scuba diving up to technical and rebreather divers. The importance of critical skills such as buoyancy control are introduced and refined in the initial training and not as an added package. RAID also requires instructors to work for an accredited center.
  • British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) – The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) is as the name implies primarily is in the U.K., where it is till the largest trainer. It is similar to the concept that the YMCA had. It is social as well as diving, with clubs members getting together for training session at a pool in poor weather. The club concept includes skills development and club members will do local dives together and often organize club trips. Training is done by instructors who are local members. The BSAC Ocean Diver student will purchase a training pack that includes manuals and other materials needed. The cost is currently 32 GBP. The diver will pay the club a small fee for the air and any other expenses incurred. The instructor volunteers their time. The program has the theory portion, five pool dives and five open water dives.

While there are many other choices, these agencies are the largest and recognize each others programs. You can dive just about anywhere.

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