Travel Smarter: Evaluating an Unfamiliar Dive Operator

Photo by Stephen Frink

Your first trip to a dive destination can engulf you in new experiences — unexplored sites, unfamiliar creatures and sometimes unanticipated situations. While you have likely researched the dive operator and read online reviews about them, it’s a good idea to evaluate them in person after you arrive. Here are some guidelines to help you determine if you can trust the business with your safety.

Before the Dive

Look around at the state of the shop. Is it cluttered and disorganized? Is the rental gear old, unclean, in obvious disrepair or showing signs of serious wear? If the staff doesn’t maintain the building or their equipment, then chances are they may overlook or take little care with other aspects of the operation.

Ask questions of the staff members, and pay attention to both the substance of their answers and their demeanor while talking with you. They may answer your questions fully, provide additional information and do so with friendliness and enthusiasm, or you may encounter a staff member who seems to be going through the motions and is not willing to engage with you. Their attitude can help you determine if you can trust them during your dives.

Ask if they can handle repairs, ask about their policies, and ask them about any special accommodations you may need. Ask other divers in the shop if they have dived with them before and what their experience was like. The responses you get from other divers and the thoroughness of the staff’s answers will give you some idea about how dedicated the business is to taking care of you as a diver.

Boarding the Boat

Any vessel with more than six passengers for hire that is operating from a U.S. port must have a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) inspection certificate, so make sure you see that displayed. A captain of a boat operating within the U.S. and while carrying passengers for hire must also be licensed by the USCG. Smaller vessels or those that operate from ports outside the U.S. are subject to different regulations.

The boat should also have appropriate safety equipment: a fire extinguisher, personal flotation devices for every person, a first aid kit, an oxygen unit, a radio and nonskid decks. The usual modifications for divers should be present as well, including an adequate platform and ladder, descent lines and well-organized gear stations with proper, secure storage. The captain should tell you where all the safety equipment is located during the boat safety briefing, which should happen before you leave the dock. This is also a time to ask questions and make sure you feel comfortable with the boat and its equipment.

On Board

Now that the dive shop and the boat have passed muster, the last step is preparing to dive. The divemaster, who should be certified, should give a thorough dive briefing. A good divemaster will get to know everyone on board and understand each diver’s skill level and experience. You should understand the system used to account for each diver — there must a physical count in place — and what will happen in case of an emergency in the water.

Remember to trust your intuition and be willing to find another operator or cancel your dive if you feel unsure or unsafe. Experienced divers may be savvy about spotting potential issues, but even novice divers can rely on common sense to tell them if something isn’t right; if something feels off to you, it probably is. Any one warning sign alone may not necessarily indicate an actual problem. But any indication of a problem or combination of problems could potentially increase your risk, so it is up to you to recognize the signs and keep yourself safe.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2019