I recently suggested to my fiancé that we certify in Sub Aqua as a hobby. We have both ocean snorkeled and taken some preliminary swimming dives for fun.

When I suggested PADI, a close friend became alarmed and said that BSAC was a more reputable syllabus. I understand there are numerous certification bodies around the world.

I know that choosing a course of action questions are beyond the scope of SE but what should I consider or know before I pay money to a Sub-Aqua training provider?


Asking in Travel rather than Sport was a deliberate choice due to the nature of the SE members in Travel.SE. Happy to have it moved if mods deem appropriate though.

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about outdoor activities, fits better in Outdoor.SE or sports.SE – Nean Der Thal Jan 3 '15 at 12:10
  • @MeNoTalk I semi-agree. Happy for mods to move it wherever they see fit. – Venture2099 Jan 3 '15 at 12:13
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    When I asked a year or so ago, the conclusion seemed to be that Travel.SE was a good place for questions about travelling to scuba dive, Outdoors.SE was best about how to dive / techniques / etc – Gagravarr Jan 3 '15 at 15:38

Better for What?

Which school is better? This is a query which has been keeping us awake at night since the concept of "teaching" was first concocted. The answer is obviously: there is no point is asking yourself, or others, which is the best school, without first deciding the criteria on which to base such a qualitative and, more importantly, subjective judgement. The word "best" per se has no meaning.

Teaching and Training Styles

The only criteria that really matters in my opinion is the teaching method. After all, an effective teaching method that suits one's forma mentis and abilities is paramount for effective learning. When it comes to diving schools, the teaching method is intrinsically linked with the target demographics. So the question then becomes: what are you looking to get out of diving? Is this going to be a one-off experience? Do you just want to give it a try? Are you doing this purely for seasonal leisure, i.e. something once every so often when you are by the seaside? Or do you plan on making diving your primary hobby?

Turns out diving is such a complex, and somewhat unnatural activity, that there's probably no way of knowing before trying. You might argue that this is true for most unknown things in life. However underwater breathing is something that humans aren't meant to do, and thus diving carries an inherent psychological stress, which is unique to it. There is no way to know how you will react to the regulated breathing, the water above you, the abyss below you, the depth, the potential claustrophobia, before trying.

PADI Didactics

Why do I mention the demographics? In my opinion the objective of PADI has always been to get as many people as possible to scuba dive for fun. This is achieved by initiating divers with (very) short Open Water courses which, upon completion, allow you to dive up to a depth of 18m accompanied by a Divemaster or higher. Short means that it is not uncommon to knock out the full course, including theory, confined and open water practice, in three days during a week long stay in a holiday camp. This raises the question on how much understanding, and mastery, one might gain in such a short time. Then again, the PADI Open Water is aimed at the aforementioned seasonal leisure divers, which will most probably always dive with clubs in tourist villages, on simple fish-watching shallow dives. Nothing wrong with that.

Local Federations

Other diving schools and federations, on the other hand, target enthusiasts who wish to learn diving to gain competence over the discipline. These are people who might think of turning diving into their main year-round hobby. BSAC is an example of such a school. CMAS is another. The former is the main British scuba association. The latter is a confederation of local diving schools across the world, which abide by the same regulations and teaching syllabi. The objective of these schools is in my opinion to form qualified competent divers, rather than to get everyone in the water as fast as possible. For completeness sake, I am a CMAS 3* diver and BSAC Assistant Instructor. I have also tried the PADI system indirectly by assisting during an Advanced course. So yes I speak from personal experience and might indeed be biased.

Compare Syllabi

Having said this, you will most probably find the syllabi of the various Open Water comparable courses across different schools, as well as the mutual equivalences and recognition between them. These should already give you an indication of the amount of learning and dedication required to complete the course. This in turn is representative of the quality of the courses, in terms of competence levels and goals. I remember learning the mechanics and physics inside the workings of a regulator during my CMAS 1* (first level) course. I do not recall reading about it on the PADI Open Water manual. Whether this knowledge is useful to a first level diver is all up to you -- the student -- and it depends on where your interest in diving comes from.

BSAC Equivalences

The BSAC page on crossing-over mentions the equivalence between PADI and BSAC certifications:

For example – divers transferring from PADI:

PADI Open Water or Advanced Open Water Similar to: BSAC Ocean Diver Progress to: BSAC Sports Diver

PADI Rescue Diver Similar to: Sports Diver Progress to: Dive Leader

Here is the full document in PDF.

This page has a more comprehensive breakdown of equivalences between diving agencies. Remember to contact your club for more precise information.

My Personal Opinion

Finally, any answer to this question will carry a heavy opinion-based component. So here is mine. I have trained in Italy and France with CMAS. All my CMAS instructors made me feel safe. They were competent and looked like they were in control of everything. And that's the most important thing in my opinion when doing something potentially life-threatening. I found BSAC a bit too pedantic in their breaking-everything-into-baby-steps philosophy. Then again they often deal with people who are not comfortable with swimming, let alone diving, so this method might be the most effective. PADI's first level courses -- Open Water and Advanced -- always gave me the impression of being geared towards making a profit, rather than forming competent divers. Their semi professional courses -- Rescue and Divemaster -- are somewhat different in this sense.

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    +1, you beat me to it. I think a handy summary is that PADI is jokingly known as "Pay And Dive Instantly" for a reason: if you want to get in the water and try it out, PADI is your best bet. But if you're keen on a deeper grounding that will let you understand exactly what is doing on and dive in more difficult conditions, a CMAS/BSAC course is likely to be worth the investment. (And yes, I'm a CMAS diver too.) – lambshaanxy Jan 3 '15 at 12:10
  • BSAC it is. Outstanding answer - thank you and also to @jpatokal for a humorous summary. :-) – Venture2099 Jan 3 '15 at 12:13
  • @jpatokal I tried my best not to be too partial. After all there is no universal good or bad. Any answer to this question will carry a heavy opinion-based component. What I can say though is that all my CMAS instructors made me feel safe. And that's the most important thing imho when doing something potentially life-threatening. I also know of excellent competent PADI Divemasters and Instructors who are real professionals. Can't say the same for Open Water's though. – JoErNanO Jan 3 '15 at 12:17
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    Should we really going into a PADI vs CMAS discussion? IMO it really doesn't matter. I know quite some good PADI instructors and I had some really bas examples of CMAS practice. My first license (CMAS) even appeared to be illegitimate in the end. So I started diving really unprepared with a very bad CMAS instructor. – user141 Jan 3 '15 at 23:05
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    @JoErNanO My comment wasn't intended to be partial: a CMAS/BSAC course is total overkill for somebody who (say) wants to dive a bit on their once-in-a-life tropical honeymoon, and might even unnecessarily scare them off with its rigour (wetsuits in British waters, brr...). And if PADI gets them hooked, there's nothing stopping continuing with CMAS & co if they get more serious. – lambshaanxy Jan 4 '15 at 3:43

If most of your diving is likely to be around the UK, then another consideration is BSAC originally developed their courses for our local cold, dark wreck-filled waters. BSAC also has (or at least had) an extensive club organisation with the associated social life, whereas PADI is all about the money. (Disclosure: Trained with a BSAC club many years ago. Good fun at the time too)

  • I would +1 this because you make a valid point with BSAC training divers to dive in the UK. If only you did not end the answer with PADI is all about the money. – JoErNanO Jan 3 '15 at 23:31
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    @JoErNanO That's a statement of fact, not an insult. PADI is commercial; BSAC (and CMAS) are non-profit. Doesn't mean they're bad/good, just different. – lambshaanxy Jan 4 '15 at 3:46
  • @jpatokal Maybe so. But written like this it sounds as if all that PADI does it to take money from people teaching them nothing, and not even making it fun compared to the social aspects of BSAC. – JoErNanO Jan 4 '15 at 17:14

It is not PADI or CMAS or whatever institute you should worry about, it is the number of dives a fellow diver made. I (CMAS) have had very bad dives with fellow CMAS divers and had very good and magnificent dives with PADI divers (v.v.)

In the end it is not the license institute that counts, but more the experience your instructor/fellow diver has. Both PADI and CMAS are professional institutes. So when in doubt don't ask for the organisation but ask for the logbooks of the instructor.

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    I don't think the logbook counts. I have recovered experienced divers (and instructors) from nitrogen narcosis more times that I care to count for. – JoErNanO Jan 3 '15 at 23:33
  • @JoErNanO sure, but I am pretty sure you also did the same for both PADI and CMAS divers. – user141 Jan 4 '15 at 23:16

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