The night before Christy Gourley went scuba diving for the first time, she cried. She cried again the next day, after taking a resort diving course in the Dominican Republic. Yet this time her...

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The night before Christy Gourley went scuba diving for the first time, she cried. She cried again the next day, after taking a resort diving course in the Dominican Republic. Yet this time her tears were for a different reason — joy and relief.

“When I came out of the water, I just started to cry. I was so proud that I had not only managed to dive but that I had enjoyed myself,” said the 29-year-old from Rockville, Md., who admitted that before she was scared of breathing underwater. “I couldn’t wait to go diving again.”

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For Gourley, the resort course, aka Diving 101, was a perfect fit. She wanted only to sample the sport with her fiancé, and after a morning pool lesson she was soon communing with fish deep below the surf — all for a small time and monetary investment.

But there’s a potential downside to these quickie courses, which churn out divers with industrial-strength speed. With hundreds of resort scuba programs worldwide, would-be divers need to know what they are getting into. Concerns, most of which can be avoided by taking the proper precautions, range from miscommunication about the level of certification to the vigilance of the diving instructor.


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Almost every resort on or near a body of water offers an “Intro to Diving” course that includes quickie certification good for a set amount of time or dives. How do you find the one that’s right for you? Scuba experts offer the following tips.

• Resort diving courses at high-profile properties, especially chains like Wyndham or Beaches, are a safe bet. The programs are well-oiled diving machines, complete with experienced instructors used to handling hordes of tourists and new divers. In more isolated destinations, seek out properties that cater to Western guests, and be sure the instructors speak proficient English if you’re not fluent in the local language.

• Do your research before you go. If the property doesn’t have an on-site facility, ask for a referral to a local dive shop. Or call the tourism office, or search the Web. But look for centers that are accredited. Some dive shops post testimonials on their Web sites — an added layer of comfort. Reputable diving associations such as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (www.padi.com ), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (800-553-6284, www.naui.org) and Scuba Schools International (970-482-0883, www.divessi.com) list member centers worldwide as well as their contact info.

• Before signing up, ask to see the outfitter and/or instructor’s certification. It should be with an esteemed association. Ask the instructor how long he or she has been teaching and diving.

• Class size should be small, no more than three or four divers to an instructor. If there are too many students, ask to be placed in a different class, even it means holding off for another day. You want the instructor’s full attention.

• Inquire about the rules and restrictions of the resort “certification”: How long is it good for, can you return another day and dive or do you need to retake the intro course, etc. Get details about the dive sites, such as depth, sea life, conditions. Some red flags: If the dive takes place in a blustery, murky part of the ocean or exceeds 40 feet. Beginner dives should be in clear, calm, shallow areas.

• During the poolside lesson, speak up if you are confused — this is the time to nail down the basics, not when you are 20 feet under the sea. And if you want an in-pool demonstration, or wish to try a particular maneuver in the pool, ask. If the instructor is impatient or whizzing through the lessons, remember that you’re not committed to taking the dives. Voice your complaint with the dive center and find another instructor. You want to be completely comfortable with the dive master, above and under water.

• Look at the diving equipment and facilities. Are the tanks, regulator, etc., glistening clean or caked with salt and rust? Does the outfitter have its own dock, boat and compressor to fill the tanks, or are you catching a ride aboard a local fisherman’s tin can? The boat should be fully set up for diving, with racks for tanks, rinse tanks, seating, etc.

• Be sure your instructor is always beside you. If he swims off, catch his attention and let him know you want him at your elbow. Or, if you feel unsettled, let him know you are ascending and wait for him in the boat. You should never be left alone.


“Resort courses give guests a taste of diving under the supervision of an instructor at all times,” says Maureen Rayman, a teacher at Aquatic Adventures Scuba Academy in Alexandria, Va., and a member of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whether the resorts abide by that is another thing.”

But Steve Barsky, a diving consultant with Marine Marketing and Consulting in Ventura, Calif., says that due to the resorts’ conscientiousness (read: fear of lawsuits), the vast majority of beginner dives are danger-free. He adds that there are only about 100 scuba fatalities a year in the United States, and 250 worldwide. Most of the victims were open-water certified divers.

“Most resorts just don’t have many accidents,” Barsky says. “They are offering a very limited type of training, have very strict rules, only go so deep and limit the number of people diving. Of course, the diving is pretty pedestrian, but as a beginner, you probably won’t notice.”

In the scuba world, open-water diving programs through such internationally recognized groups as PADI and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) offer the top level of instruction, preparing students for a wide breadth of environments and dangers. Accredited divers are certified for life and can scuba anywhere in the world without having to demonstrate their skills.

Resort’s quickie “certification” programs spoon-feed newbie divers the basics, then throw them into a patch of ocean that’s the equivalent of a bunny slope: no currents or strong winds, clear visibility, maximum depths of 40 feet. In most cases, once you’ve completed your dives or left the property, your certification goes poof — unless you want to retake the course or pursue open-water certification.

“Resort certification is a good way to introduce people to diving,” says Ben Kearney, a 26-year-old Washington, D.C., lawyer and PADI diver whose wife took a resort course in Hawaii. “It’s good for someone who is going on vacation and will be there for at least a week or so and is looking for quick, decent, relatively cheap training.”

Indeed, after less than three hours of lessons, Kearney’s wife, Jennifer, found herself swimming through coral tunnels and a rainbow streak of fish. She even felt confident — and calm — enough to hold a puffer fish, peer at a reef shark and smile for the underwater video camera.

“My instructor took her time, spending an hour just talking and showing us the hand signals, like how to say ‘Help, no air,’ and how to put the gear on,” says the 25-year-old. “She was not quick to go through things. She always asked if we had any questions, to make sure we were comfortable.”

Resort courses are usually held in palm-fringed pools, and lessons take a couple of hours, if that long. The cost is generally $100 or less — or, in the case of some all-inclusives, nothing. (Properties without on-site scuba programs often refer guests to local dive shops; urban and landlocked dive centers also offer intro courses, sans tropical flora.) The instructor will cover the ABCs: how to clear your mask, breathe through a regulator, say “Help!” in scuba sign language. There might be a video or a flip chart, maybe an in-water demonstration. The new divers usually break for a couple of hours before they plunge into the ocean for their first real dive.

In comparison, open-water certification from a group like PADI usually entails 25 to 30 hours of class time, in and out of the pool; four or five open-water test dives; and several hundred bucks.

Many resorts offer courses, often packing them into a couple of days, while diving and community centers might draw them out over four to six weeks. The test-dive sites can be glamorous (Hawaii, Cayman Islands) or horrifying (murky quarries or lakes), depending on schedule and budget.

Judging the risks

There is inherent risk in any water activity, especially scuba diving, even when it is done in the safest, calmest environment. For instance, new divers may be overwhelmed by the weight of the air tank and topple over before they enter the water, or they may be unable to control their buoyancy and scrape coral. In the worst-case scenario, neophytes can misjudge their stamina and have a heart attack or other medical crisis. Filling out a family history and signing a waiver is no guarantee of a carefree dive.

“There is a risk in everything you do. Scuba diving is a physically demanding sport. It’s when things go wrong that you have to be in good shape,” says Barsky, who also investigates diving accidents. “It is very unlikely that (while taking) a resort course you will come across a dangerous situation. But the potential is always there. If you’re a couch potato, maybe scuba diving isn’t for you.”

There is also a concern that resort-certified guests may believe they are an “expert” diver, simply because they were trained by a PADI or NAUI instructor.

“I do think people could be confused,” says Buck Butler, editor of Rodale’s Scuba Diving magazine. “It is something I could see happening very easily. But there is no way you can be certified after just a morning course.”

To avoid confusion, scuba experts advise resort divers to ask the instructor or activities desk how long their resort certification is good for — one day, full length of stay, two weeks.

Resorts almost never allow guests to dive months or even weeks after an introductory course has been completed; he or she must retake the course on a subsequent visit.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to “safe” resort-type dives.