We’re going on a vacation to Riviera Maya, Mexico and we want to learn to scuba dive while there. Our travel agent told us we have to be PADI certified before we go, but said we wouldn’t have enough time before we go in April. However, a resort we are looking into says that they have a scuba diving course (PADI) and also a scuba diving course in the pool. What’s the difference and do we need to complete a course before going?

Provided that there is a qualified diving instructor working at or near your chosen resort, you don’t need to be a certified diver before you go on vacation — you should be able to do the course while you’re out there. So your travel agent is either being ignorant or mendacious.

The PADI Open Water Diver course (which is a fairly typical ‘entry-level’ scuba certification) requires approx. 25-30 hours of tuition, split into approx. 6-8 hours’ diving theory (including a multi-choice exam) which can mostly be completed online, 6-8 hours’ practical (pool) training, and 8-10 hours to complete all 4 qualifying open-water dives.

It is very common for people to learn to scuba dive while on vacation, but you would need to commit 3-4 full days of vacation time to the course (and you would need to be able to finish the course at least 24 hours before flying home, for safety reasons). Not everybody wants to do this.

If you wanted to get certified before April, you would have plenty of time to do so, provided that there is a dive centre in your local area which can schedule the course. However, if you live in one of the colder parts of North America, this would mean having to do your qualifying dives in Feb/March, probably in (very) cold water.

If you don’t fancy either of those ideas, a middle-ground option is the ‘referral’ course, where you do the pool & theory training in your hometown (again, only possible if there is a dive centre near you), and then do the 4 qualifying dives on vacation. This would require you to commit only 2 full days of your vacation to diving — but these would be spent diving in the sea, rather than sitting in a classroom. Any pool training would probably be restricted to a short (<1 hour) ‘refresher’ session prior to going for the open-water dives, if the receiving instructor feels it’s necessary.

Bear in mind that when resorts advertise ‘free scuba diving’, 9 times out of 10 they actually mean ‘free try-dives in the hotel pool’. This will be a 5-minute swim round the pool with a mask, fins (maybe), and a scuba unit, but will not qualify you to do anything after that.

The pool-dives will be run by the resort diving/ watersports centre in order to entice guests into paying for a proper ‘intro-dive’ in the sea (which also does not result in any kind of a diving qualification), or even a full (3-4 day) certification course (which does). Make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for, and what you’ll get out of it, before you hand over any cash. Contact the dive centre directly, if you can.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me through Y!A