Where to go? What to wear? How much will it cost to get certified? Here’s one for those of you who are thinking of getting scuba certified. Hope that you will love scuba as much as I do!
Taking a break from snow-related posts since it’s not ski season yet. Hopefully you will find some real answers here that you won’t find on any scuba operator or certification agency website.
BeyondBanality pro tip: Just go get that certification and DON’T wait around for your friends. You WILL make new (and fun) ones!
Sipadan island – My favourite dive destination
What license do I need to get?
Open Water Diver (OWD) scuba certification (minimum age: 15) is the most basic level of scuba certification and will allow you to dive anywhere globally in a buddy pair (or with a dive guide). The OWD certification course will comprise three components: A) theory lessons (classroom/online), B) confined water practice, usually in a swimming pool, and C) open water dives (usually 4 dives in the ocean).
OWD is NOT the same as Discover Scuba, which is just an introductory session and does not certify you to dive without an instructor.
I have heard of PADI. Will I get a PADI certification?
PADI is not a certification level (common misconception) but a certification agency. Most Singapore operators offer PADI certification, but there are also other certification agencies such as SSI, SDI and NAUI (although not all Singapore operators offer these). All are recognized worldwide. PADI is generally the most expensive due to the course materials. Check out this post that explains the difference between SSI and PADI in more detail.
How many days’ annual leave do I need / Where can I go (for Singapore residents) ?
If you sign up with a Singapore scuba operator (check out the complete listing here), no annual leave is required as the main target audience is people with not enough annual leave / vacation days (i.e. all Singaporeans). You will normally do your A) theory lessons + B) swimming pool sessions on several weekday evenings (after office hours), followed by your C) open water dives during a subsequent weekend. For C) open ocean part of the course, the options listed below are the ones typically offered by Singapore operators:
- Sentosa, Singapore (operator: SEA Aquarium only, year round): It is now possible to get your license at Resorts World Sentosa. This is a fairly recent offering and I have not heard much feedback on these, but to me, learning to dive in a fish tank is quite zzz. 2016 list price is SGD498 (USD370).
- Pulau Hantu, Singapore (operator: various, year round): Limited visibility underwater can make this a scary experience for a first-timer. However if you really need to get certified and cannot travel, even to Malaysia, then I guess this works fine.
- MOST COMMON: Malaysia, resort-based (operator: various, Apr-Oct only): Depart Singapore by coach/minivan on Friday evening (after office hours), stay two nights on an island (usually Tioman island) and return to Singapore by Sunday evening. Your scuba operator will arrange all accommodation, food and transfers in an all-inclusive trip. Expect to pay SGD500-700 (USD370-USD520) for the whole OWD course including the Malaysia trip.
- Malaysia or Indonesia, liveaboard (operator: various, Apr-Oct only): You will depart Singapore via a liveaboard (i.e. dive boat with sleeping cabins), stay two nights on board and return to Singapore by Sunday evening. This method allows you to skip the causeway jam that is common to option 3. Expect to pay SGD1000 (USD750) and above for the whole OWD course including the 2-night boat trip.
Note that option 3 is the most commonly marketed in Singapore, but is considered a budget option. The schedule may be rather uncomfortable and rushed with middle-of-the-night island arrivals and early morning dives. If you prefer to learn at a more relaxed pace you also can consider doing your OWD at a nearby beach resort (e.g. Bali Indonesia, Phuket Thailand, etc.) via a local operator. However, you will probably need to take 2-3 days’ annual leave. Time required is at least 3-4 days for the course (1-2 days for theory+pool, and 2 days of diving), and up to 24hours no-fly time after your last dive (if travelling by airplane).
Budget accomm on Dayang island (zomg those days!)
Can I get OWD certified in Maldives on my honeymoon?
Of course you can, but I would not recommend doing your OWD at a “famous” dive destination such as Maldives, as these are usually “famous” for certain dive sites that are not suitable for first-timers. You will be spending extra money and time to go all the way to Maldives just to dive at a training dive site which is not famous, and may look similar to training dive sites in nearby destinations.
How do I choose a scuba operator?
Due to intense competition, Singapore scuba operators may offer OWD scuba certification starting from as low as SGD450 (USD330). Remember though that it is not just about price- Safety, comfort and learning style are also important. If you are not privy to the gossips of the local scuba community, which most first-timers will not be, you will either need to go on blind faith (aka Uncle Google) or friends’ recommendations.
Other than price, here are some key things you should consider before signing up for a OWD certification :
- Student to instructor ratio: A lower price usually corresponds to large groups as the scuba operator will need to make profit through volume. PADI standards are 8 students to 1 instructor, or maximum 12 students with 1 instructor and 2 assistants (certified dive masters), but honestly any group with more than 4 students is just going to be a big clusterf**k.
- Who is my instructor? Scuba operators may have a mix of instructors who have varying teaching styles, some may be like drill sergeants and some really coddle you. Which style is best for you? Note that your B) pool session instructor may not be the same as your instructor on the C) open water part of your course.
- Type of accommodation and land/sea transfers: This makes a difference to the price as certain scuba operators target a more discerning crowd. Are you staying in a basic dorm style room with no ensuite, or a twin-share ensuite room with proper showers and amenities? Are you doing a midnight sea transfer arriving on the island at 2am-4am and getting up at 7am for your first dive? Being tired and sleep deprived throughout the weekend is not good for safety or learning, especially if you already had a tough week at work or school.
- Hidden costs: Some scuba operators may try to lure you in with a low price but charge you extras. Does your OWD course fee include all rental equipment (including fins/mask/snorkel/wetsuit)? Are there any extra costs such as marine park fees and/or port fees? Is the OWD certification card included (seems obvious but some operators actually leave this out)?
What do I bring/wear?
If you are taking your OWD certification, dive equipment rental (of mask, snorkel, regulator, BCD, wetsuit, fins, weights, tanks) will mostly likely be part of your package- check that everything I have listed is included. You may of course use your own if you already happen to own any of the above, but there is usually no discount even if you do not rent. NOTE: You will need to be responsible for your own equipment bag (e.g. at immigration/customs and on the island), so don’t expect the crew to carry these for you (unless of course you are a chio damsel in distress…..)
If you are travelling overseas for the C) open water part of your OWD course, you will also need:
- Passport (and visa): Duh.
- Sunblock and mozzie repellent (optional): The downside of island life.
- Your own towel and toiletries: If you think that you will be staying in a five star resort, think again. Accommodation is usually very “rustic”/basic, and ensuite toilets and hot water are NOT a given (ask before you sign up!!) A toiletry bag with an integrated hook is a good idea as there may not be shelves for your toiletries in such accommodation.
- Swimwear to wear under your wetsuit: Bikinis for gals and boardshorts for guys please, unless you want to look like a clueless noob. NO ONE wears speedos, really. Swimsuits occasionally seen, but usually found on first timers.
- Flip flops: Don’t wear closed shoes (e.g. sneakers or work shoes) as you may need to remove them on the boat/ferry to the island (then put them on again with wet feet), and most probably walk on sand at some point.
- Seasick pills (optional): For normal levels of seasickness, just bring a couple of pills to take half-hour BEFORE you board a dive boat or ferry. Once you actually feel sick, the pills won’t help.
- Antihistamines (optional): If you have morning sinus problems. Helps with equalizing on early morning dives (see unofficial pre-requisites below).
- Bandana/fabric hairbands (optional, for ladies): To keep your bangs in place so you don’t look like Sadako underwater. Also, stray bangs tend to get under your mask which causes leakage (and ensuing panic).
I know you may not believe it now but most of what you pay for your OWD certification goes to the certification agency and not the scuba operator, leaving them with precious little for accommodation and transfers. Again, you are most likely NOT going to stay at a luxury resort (although it may be called a “resort”). Trust me on this !! If you are too old and/or “atas” (high class) to stay in basic accommodation, either avoid Singapore operators, or pay more for a better experience.
Duty-free alcohol is a must-pack essential (J/K. Not.)
Are there any pre-requisites / Do I have to be a strong swimmer?
PADI OWD certification requires you to be able to swim 200m (any stroke, at our own speed) and keep afloat for 10 minutes. This is normally tested during the confined water session. You do not have to be a strong / fast swimmer but you should be comfortable in the water as you may encounter strong waves, currents, etc. (not during your course but possibly in future.)
Other unofficial pre-requisites: You should not be the extremely seasick/motion-sick type, if only for the sake of your friends who may be social pukers…..you will be spending a LOT of time on minivans and small boats. Sadly, it is not like in the movies where people dive off 100-foot luxury yachts. Also, you will find it easier to scuba if you can equalize easily i.e. clear the pressure when your ears get “blocked” (like when in an airplane or an elevator).
What if I wear glasses?
You will either need to 1) wear contact lenses (recommended) or 2) buy a mask with prescription lenses (allow time for custom order). The problem with option 2 is that you would still need to keep your mask on even on the water surface (kinda unglamorous).
Is it difficult to pass the OWD course? / What difficulties can I expect
Not at all, you will most probably pass unless you have a really bad attitude, or panic to the point that you are unable to complete the required skills. It is natural to be apprehensive about this whole new underwater world but not to worry as the OWD course is designed to progressively build up your confidence.
A very common issue with first-timers is mask leakage, which can lead to panic underwater as the student diver tries to breathe through the water that is filling up inside the mask. This could be due to 1) a bad mask fit 2) hair caught between your mask and face or 3) breathing out through your nose instead of your mouth. Easy solutions: 1) check that your mask fits in the pool and try to “chope” the same one for use in your open water dives 2) use a hairband or hairclip to secure your bangs 3) just be more conscious and focused about breathing through the regulator / your mouth (takes getting used to, I know !)
Can I go with my “pro” friend? / Can I go alone?
You can definitely go on a scuba trip together with your friends who are already certified. Your friends can do fun dives while you do your OWD course, and most likely you will all be diving off the same dive boat. Please do not wait for others if you have interest in taking your OWD certification, or you will most likely be waiting forever. You will meet other fellow students on your OWD course/trip. Take the chance to get to know other beginner divers and you may even become dive buddies and plan future trips together.
Ready to plan your trip? See:
- FAQs II: How to DIY your first scuba trip after getting certified
- Where to buy scuba accessories and equipment (coming soon)
- Best travel insurance for adventure sports