Scuba Certified vs Open Water
Let's start with a name.
So which one is actually the legit, REAL scuba certification for divers? Like the kind where you put tanks & gauges on and get epic underwater post pics with masks and fins? Is it the Open Water certified one? PADI certified? NAUI Certified? What's the difference between "Open Water" and just "Scuba Certified"? And what on earth is a "C-card" (not to be confused with Sea Card, whatever that is).
Good news! These all pretty much mean the same thing. Even better, "Open Water" doesn't have anything to do with the "open-ness" of the water, or even the ocean at all. It turns out, you don't have to be miles from the sight of dry land way out in the big ol' blue to become an Open Water diver!
Open Water is simply the name of the certification, which pretty much just means good old fashioned "scuba diver". The kind with the fins and the tanks and wetsuits and kraken tattoos.
Open Water Diver = Scuba Certified = Open Water Scuba Diver = Dive Certified = [PADI/NAUI/SSI/Whatever Agency Name] Certified = C-Card = Dive Cert = Certified Diver = And so on... They all mean the same certification level.
The term "Open Water" is generally considered by top agencies (such as NAUI, PADI, SSI and others) to mean something similar to real-world conditions, but beyond the comforts and conveniences of a pool. It doesn't have to be the ocean or anywhere near it. It just has to be more than the pool's conditions with a few agency-specified requirements (one example would be a minimum depth).
People in the US Midwest, for example, often get certified in quarries or lakes. People in Florida will still get certified in freshwater springs, lakes and rivers even though they're close to the ocean, due to guaranteed conditions and sometimes simply driving distance. Open Water can be the ocean, rivers, springs, quarries, sinkholes, inlets, or pretty much any body of water that meets the depth and condition requirements of the agencies.
Most agencies require 15' of depth & no overhead obstructions as a minimum. Pools and training tanks (such as many aquariums) are typically considered "confined water".
Confined Water doesn't mean you're in a straight jacket, or in some dark cave or underground It-Clown pipe. In the world of scuba it usually means something along the lines of a swimming pool. Ladder, stairs, or easy exit, great viz, no currents or sketchy elements.
For typical Open Water Scuba Diver Certification (that's a mouthful), a course would involve 3 general components, which would last from a few to several days, depending on the scheduling and other factors:
- Academic (such as eLearning or classroom)
- Confined Water (this is usually at the pool, where basic concepts and skills are introduced)
- Open Water (these are often your "checkout dives" which can be anywhere from a lakeside beach to a Caribbean dive boat on a coral reef, depending on your course).
At the end of the course (and if everything was completed to the Instructor's satisfaction) you'll be certified to dive. This will be called Open Water Scuba Certified, or something close to it depending on the agency.
It doesn't expire, but to keep skills current a diver should dive twice a year at bare bones minimum. Some dive operators, such as charter boats, will require you to show proof of a dive within a given amount of time to participate on certain dives.
Agency? What's that? Does it matter which one I choose?
So who makes the rules?
An agency sets the standards for its certifications, creates the learning materials, and trains their Instructors. In the US, these are NOT government agencies, and believe it or not there is no law that requires any scuba certification to dive, nor is it regulated by any official government agency. *Note that in Europe and several other countries outside the US, there are government standards and regulations (such ISO certification for EUF) Some of the larger US based agencies (SSI, PADI, NAUI, SDI to name a few) have adapted those standards so they’re compliant when traveling overseas. Although somewhat rare, some countries or provinces may require a permit or special licensing to dive on specific sites or in certain regions. For example, the province of Quebec in Canada requires a recreational diving permit (FQAS) renewal every 3 years...for a small fee.
(A special thanks to Tracy Grubbs of Spruce Creek Scuba for pointing out the ISO/EUF information nugget:)
Here in the US and much of the world abroad, scuba certifications are issued and regulated primarily by the industry itself. For example, there is no law requiring a dive shop to ask to see a scuba certification card to go on their boat or fill a tank. BUT, they do this because then they can see you had a recognized agency affirm that you met their requirements for that particular level of certification. Liability is also a major motivating factor in the dive world. It's pretty obvious why you wouldn't want to rent scuba gear to someone that wasn't even certified to use it, or send someone out on a dive boat that's never been in the water before!
The agency may be a non-profit (such as NAUI) or any other type of business, so long as it is nationally or globally recognized. However, when you hear something like "I'm PADI certified" or "I'm a NAUI Diver" that's really just referring to the agency that issued the card, and doesn't change the certification level itself at all. Essentially, it's the same as saying, "I'm [my preferred brand] certified". While there is nothing wrong with that, what ultimately matters here is the level of certification (such as Open Water Scuba Diver).
Commonly recognized agencies include:
- NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors)
- PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructos)
- SSI (Scuba School International)
- CMAS ( La Fédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)
- And many others, such as NASE, PDIC, SDI, BSAC
The top three above are the big guys in the USA, although there are several others that are rising in popularity. CMAS is huge in the UK and Europe, just to name one across the pond. These are all generally accepted worldwide.
OK so does it matter which one you go with?
Yes and No. If just looking to get Scuba Certified, and maybe go Advanced, Nitrox or even Rescue, the standards are all pretty similar. If going beyond that to a professional level (Divemaster, Instructor) then you may want to see what agency is being used the most wherever you plan to use it, and do some research on membership fees and requirements. For Example, to work on Epcot's Dive Quest Dive Team as a Divemaster, you must be NAUI certified. Check to see if there is a requirement if you know where you wish to work as a professional.
What DOES matter, more than anything, is the Instructor that you will be working with.
All the best and most innovative standards in the world do not matter if the Instructor doesn't know what he or she is doing, or if they simply aren't following the standards to begin with. All the drivers in your home state have the same standards for passing their driver's license exam, and are all subject to the same laws. Do they all drive the same?
Further, it's equally important to make sure you'll enjoy the learning experience with your Instructor or facility team. You'll spend several days and maybe even some long car rides, overnight stays, lunches & dinners, etc. together. So it can get up close and personal, and they will effect how you perceive the sport as well as your comfort level and desire to move forward in diving. Last but not least, you are trusting your life (or your loved one's) with this person should something go wrong.
The Instructor is by far the most important factor when choosing how you'll learn to dive. Do your homework and don't be afraid to ask questions. Some key questions to consider are:
- How long have they been diving? And just as important, how recently?
- Haw many certifications have they issued and what kinds?
- What is the demograph of their students? Have they taught kids, elderly, and people who aren't already inclined to be good at this?
- Have they dealt with any real-life emergencies before and what was the outcome?
- Have they taught classes in multiple environments, different facilities, and in different regions? IE freshwater, saltwater, cold water, tropical, etc?
- Do they offer higher level classes or trips? If you like your Instructor, it's great when you can continue to learn or go on trips with a someone you trust.
- Verify they are in "Active Status" with their Agency. Every Instructor (or even Divemaster) has a member number, which requires annual membership fees, updates, and liability insurance. Their Instructor # should be sufficient to go and validate their membership with the training agency they're using. This ensures that they're insured, up to date and have the ability to issue your certification card through the agency once you complete your training.
In short, your Instructor and learning experience is the most important element of choosing where you get your certification. Certified should also mean "Qualified", no matter what your agency choice or certification card says. Only you know your diving experience and comfort level once you have that card, and it's important to be honest with yourself or your dive partner.
Getting scuba certified is for life, but being qualified is most definitely not.
An Open Water Scuba course essentially "shows you the ropes" and says you can perform the basic skills required by the agencies. It is a license to learn.
It allows you to dive to similar conditions of that which you were trained in. Most people consider 60' of depth as a maximum for Open Water divers. But only you know to what conditions you were trained to and where your comfort level begins and ends.
Scuba skills are 100% perishable, meaning they fade and they do indeed fade rapidly. Picking up where you left off diving is NOT like picking up a bicycle after many years of not riding. It's easy to get right back onto a bike and hardly miss a beat from the last time. Scuba diving is quite the opposite. Even a Divemaster or Instructor who hasn't been diving in a long time will need to refresh his or her skills, and if more than a year they'll need to go through a requalification course.
I like to think of getting scuba certified as more along the lines of being certified that you were able to use all the gym equipment properly without hurting yourself. It typically takes a handful of dives after the certification class to truly feel comfortable (a rough ballpark of around 8-20 dives after the initial certification course, within a year's span, depending on the individual). You now have a gym membership, but it's worthless if you don't use it. A diver should go diving once every 6 months or twice a year at a bare minimum to keep skills current.
So should someone call themselves an Open Water Diver, or say "I've got my C-Card", or "I'm a PADI Diver", "Certified Diver" or what? The answer is...
Remember, "Open Water" is a terminology standard, and pretty much all-of-the-above are correct. It doesn't mean the ocean. It does mean the diver has been shown the ropes of scuba diving and can go rent gear and join dive trips - which is pretty much an amazing theme park ticket to have (no matter what you call it).
The choice of what to call the certification is still ultimately yours, but now you at least know some of the backstory on the terminology and hopefully have a little bit deeper of an understanding.
Thanks for reading and as always feel free to ask questions or shoot me a message!
NAUI Course Director #47487
Divemaster & Trainer for Disney's Dive Quest
*Also a big thanks for contributions from Katie Reich (Sweetwater Scuba Instructor and Disney Divemaster) and Michael Kest (works as a Disney Divemaster)
And if you've read this far, I'll go ahead and tell you...
I usually just say "cert card" or "scuba certified" 🤫
Am I wrong?