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Learning to dive in Thailand

“There’s never been a better time to learn to dive!” You seem to hear it everywhere around Thailand these days in coastal resorts, on boats during passages to coral fringed tropical islands and even in the larger cities!

But when talking about taking that first breath underwater, the sales pitch is not only inaccurate, it can be seen as intimidating - to say the least. A much better approach is: "It's always a great time to learn to dive in Thailand." Why? Simple. The water is clear and warm and filled with exciting adventures and creatures to meet and explore. Golden opportunities arise all year round and your dive course will be fun and relaxing without the hustle and bustle of city life.

Instruction is available in several forms, from freelance instructors providing a small, personal service up to 5-star training centres with selfcontained resort facilities offering career development services allowing those who want to learn to choose the style that best suits them.

Learning to dive cannot be self-taught. Instruction is essential and standard safety practices need to be applied and upheld throughout, no matter the size of operation. Thankfully this is the case in Thailand. There are also a number of award-winning facilities around the country proudly displaying their credentials - fine role models for others to follow.

All the top training agencies are omni-present in Thailand and, wherever there's diving, there will be dive centres affiliated to one of them. Training mainly comes 'The Professional Association of Diving Instructors' (PADI) and 'Scuba Schools International' (SSI), followed by the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) in third place. CMAS and NAUI are here too, but with a much smaller presence.

Starting slowly
Not everyone feels comfortable or has the time to jump in at the deep end and enrol in a multi-day commitment without first getting a taste of the fun. But not to worryas, in appreciation of this, the major training agencies offer non-certified experience programmes. These are still under the guidance of a qualified dive professional and obviously follow the highest of safety standards.

Experiences range from taking that first breath underwater in aswimming pool or just off the beach, to going on a dive with an instructor in the open ocean. No corners are cut and training covers all the basic skills needed to submerge and ascend safely. The only difference between these experience programmes and a certifying course is that, after completion, you must still be accompanied by a diving professional at all times and you cannot dive anywhere else. The advantage is that the course takes a short time and, even better, your experience may count toward your certification (depending on the training agency) and you'll be more than ready to sign up for a certifying course when time permits.

Thailand flaunts a comprehensive range of dive centres and services, the majority in the southern provinces, but with several in Pattaya and Koh Chang too. There's also a small selection in Bangkok (generally branches or booking offices). Having a city base is useful for academic and shallow in-water tuition for the local community or those on their way to a diving destination, checking out the city sights first. The one factor these dive centres all have in common is the equally impressive selection of courses they offer.

For those working in full-time jobs and therefore tied up during office hours, knowledge development training can be completed on line and practical training can be completed in the evenings or over a weekend, whichever is most convenient. Once the required skills and knowledge have been mastered, students can then be referred to an affiliated branch or dive centre to complete the open water sections of the course, or any other uncompleted part of it for that matter!

Continuation does not need to be done immediately but there is a timescale the instructor will advise how long the completed training is valid for before the need to repeat. This popular option of splitting the training (known as a referral) over more than one destination is available internationally.

As long as all the training is completed within the designated period and successful completion of the initial training can be proved, students from anywhere in the world can complete their courses here, without committing to a full course during their stay. However, the majority of visitors opt to do the whole course here - a sensible decision, as prices are competitive alongside other popular diving destinations around the world.

Entry level courses introduce students to the underwater environment and how to adapt comfortably to the surroundings, how to use the unfamiliar equipment and above all else - how to dive safely and relax.

On successful completion, newly certified divers may dive unaccompanied by a diving professional, in the same conditions and to the maximum depth covered in training. However, with the great selection of dive centres around, you have the choice of joining any number of daily trips with the option of dives being led by trained diving professionals.

There's no extra charge for this service as it's included as standard in the dive trip price and it's a great way to build confidence and familiarity for novice divers. Plus, if you don't have a buddy, one will be provided for you.

Next, what about fine-tuning your skills and being introduced to new ones. Advanced diving courses are great underwater adventures. Even though the term 'advanced' may imply they are demanding and stressful - in reality they are quite the opposite. Safety and fun are high on the agenda and the results are rewarding. In fact, it's surprising they aren't compulsory, especially as some dive sites are restricted to divers certified as advanced and above.

There's a stream of associated speciality courses that open up the chance to take knowledge learned in advanced training to a more in-depth level. Thailand's tropical waters make certain courses very attractive for instance, the warm waters are more appealing to deep and night diving enthusiasts. Divers may wish to increase their safety levels and obtain the qualification of 'Enriched Air Diver'. The list of speciality topics is endless there are even special courses that have been written to suit the surroundings. Just ask at the dive centre what's on offer! But don't expect to get signed up for any ice diving!

Next on the list are rescue courses which should seriously be mandatory for every diver. Course topics convered include self-rescue, problem management and how to help divers in stressful situations and better still, how to avoid them in the first place. As any diver will know, you never dive without a buddy! But are you capable of looking after each other? If not, then lern! Rescue diver courses are great value in Thailand. Certification requires CPR and First Aid training, also available alongside the course.

The highest level of recreational diver certification is 'Master Scuba Diver' or equivalent, depending on the training agency's certification title. To achieve this rating, or status, divers need to complete all the above courses and be certified in a pre-determined number of different specialities, as well as have completed a designated number of dives. There's also a 'Junior Master Scuba Diver' rating for the over 12 year olds!

Thailand also provides a comprehensive range of technical diving courses, from using enriched air up to diving on mixed gases and cave diving. The use of rebreathers is also becoming more common. Without this type of training, a number of Thailand's wrecks and deep reefs would be inaccessible to divers. Both PADI and SSI provide such courses, as do a handful of training agencies that are solely dedicated to technical diving.

Becoming a Professional
Job done and it's time to consider the world of the professional diver and, yes, this does actually mean getting paid to go diving and getting the chance to get all the cash invested in the courses back again - several times over!

The entry level course is the 'Dive Master' or, depending on training agency, 'Dive Leader'. These are extremely popular in Thailand. Courses run over a number of days and can be taught over a longer period, thus allowing participants to gain some work experience along the way. As the whole focus of the qualification is based around taking care and control of others, rather than just to display a badge of completion, this is a great way to learn. And, with plenty of places in which do a course, it's a popular option indeed.

Setting up a temporary base in one of the diving destinations is not really a problem - more of a dream. The weather's good, the food tasty, the social life usually relaxed and friendly - and prices for everything are reasonable. In fact, the perfect conditions in which take the next step of qualifying to be a diving instructor.

There are several levels of instructor, with the top of the ladder being a 'Course Director', who trains divers to be instructors. Course Directors cannot certify instructors though this has to be done by examiners from the training agencies themselves, who are flown in from all over the world. Instructor courses, termed as Instructor Development Courses, or IDCs for short, are scheduled on a regular basis, as are the Instructor Examinations (IE).

Many operators include complimentary accommodation for the duration of a diving course, especially for beginners. However, a number of the larger centres have taken things one step further and created tailor-made internship packages which, in some cases, include everything needed to sign up as a non-diver and leave as a qualified diving professional complete with a job, either locally or in another country!

These packages can also be joined at anytime during a diver's career, no matter where they are qualification-wise and, as they can include equipment and accommodation in the overall 'package', it's a great opportunity to focus on the matter in hand without all the worry of having to plan dayto- day expenses and practicalities.

The standard of training is high, as is the essential advice on how to survive in the diving industry after completion. Once again, these centres are situated in all of the country's diving destinations.

In fact the only thing difficult about learning to dive in Thailand is deciding where to sign up!

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