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Diving in to a resort course

WashPost: Hotels classes limited but introduction to undersea sights
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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.

InsertArt(2047589)“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, who admitted that before her July venture she was scared of breathing underwater. “I couldn’t wait to go diving again.”

For Gourley, the resort course, aka Diving 101, was a perfect fit. She wanted only to sample the sport with her fiance, 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.

“Resort courses give guests a taste of diving under the supervision of an instructor at all times,” says Maureen Rayman, a teacher at Alexandria’s Aquatic Adventures Scuba Academy 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 courses, meanwhile, are the bottom-feeders of the bunch. These 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 Pentagon 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 at all. (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 hours before they plunge into the ocean for their first real dive.

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

For her part, Jennifer Kearney took an afternoon practice dive off the Big Island coast after her morning pool class, during which her teacher tested her skills 20 feet below on the ocean floor. She was then free to dive with her husband on the second dive, but she swam no deeper than 40 feet in placid water. One complaint: Her instructor deserted her underwater, an apparent disregard for resort course protocol, which requires dive masters to stick to new divers at all times.

“I felt like I had done a real dive,” says Kearney. “But my instructor basically took off. I would hope that would not have been the case if my husband was not with me.”

By design, resort courses are supposed to guarantee the instructor’s undivided attention, among other safeguards. But on occasion, some instructors may bend the rules, adding a measure of indifference, complacence or even danger.

Barsky said 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 aggrandize their skills and believe that they are an “expert” diver, simply because they were trained by a PADI or NAUI instructor. Rockville resident Gourley, for example, thought she was PADI-certified and could dive anywhere, anytime. Then she reread her dive log book from the Dominican Republic. Though most of it was written in German, the rare English phrase said she had “passed the examination as a basic diver according to the general directions of (the shop, First Class Divers).” It was stamped with the instructor’s name, also German. There was no mention of open-water test dives, no seal of approval from PADI or NAUI — not a good sign.

“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; instead, he or she must retake the course on a subsequent visit. Beaches, for example, includes an intro course and one dive per day at its Jamaican and Turks and Caicos resorts. Yet even if you stay for a month and log 31 days of diving, you must reenroll in the beginner course on future visits. For resorts that charge $100 or so for the course and dives, the bill can add up — and you’ll be diving in the same beginner spots over and over again.

“Most people, if they do the resort program and like it, should sign up for (open-water diving) certification. The (resort course) is a good way to get a taste, but it’s not a good way to dive,” Butler says. “Or you will be stuck doing shallow dives on every trip.”

Still, there’s nothing wrong with “safe” dives. Sea life thrives above 40 feet, and the brilliant colors of the fish and coral are intensified by the sunlight streaming through the waves. Plus, there is often a fish feedathon near the surface.

Gourley had no qualms about her beginner dives. During the first outing, she struggled with her buoyancy and sank to the ocean floor. She was concentrating so hard on her air supply that she can’t quite remember what she saw, except that she thinks “it was pretty.” But on her second dive, she was transformed. She bobbed down with confidence, breathing calmly and even holding out a banana to feed the fish — something she was terrified to do just hours before.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company