Not all dive shops are created equal. But, hey, not all divers are either. We have different expectations, needs, and preferences. Here are some tips on effectively narrowing your search and selecting the right fit (spoiler: not all recommendations are created equal.)
It can be expensive to “audition” a bunch of different dive shops, and a waste of time. Neither are ever a good thing, but especially when on vacation we hope to hit it right with our dive shop choice – as we don’t always have a ton of opportunities to get the most out of the location.
I’ve gone on trips where the operation really added to the dives.
Sadly, I’ve also had less optimal trips where I:
Over time, I’ve developed some criteria to more reliably pick “the good ones” and they’re not all what you might think.
Have you ever given real thought to what matters most to you in a dive shop? A lot of people haven’t. You know some you like more than others, but why exactly? No, seriously, why?
Think about what it is in particular that made a good experience for you. Did the staff take the time to understand your comfort level and cater the dive site to fit or did they have a pre-set agenda? Did they give you some interesting history of the reefs or wreck on the way out? Often it’s little things that make up the whole, and we don’t pinpoint them all. Doing so will really help you hit that mark more reliably in the future.
Here are some good things to ask yourself before you begin booking:
Does a group make you feel more comfortable or do you prefer just a buddy or two?
Is lowest cost your most important factor, or are you willing to pay a bit more for a better experience?
Would you be comfortable paying significantly more for a much more personalized dive trip?
Do you prefer an atmosphere of contagious, young exuberance or does knowledgeable, experienced staff appeal to you more?
Are you bringing all your own gear, or renting some?
You’re looking for what I call Walmart shops. There’s nothing wrong with that – Walmart does good business. Lots of people prefer to shop there. Here’s how to spot them in the dive realm:
They’re usually in the lower range of cost. They do this and remain very profitable in two ways:
If you’re going from scratch, check out their website. There will usually be a good number of pictures. Do you see the same faces over the course of years? Do they have an “About our staff” page? If they’re not bragging on their experienced, long term staff it’s almost always because they don’t exist.
Watch out for generalized statements like “12 years of dive experience” instead of “10 years as an SSI and PADI instructor who has been with <dive shop name> since 2008.” The first could mean a 12 year-old who did a Discover Scuba course on vacation 10 years ago and had recently decided to try and live the dream as an intern at said dive shop. If they’re long-term and qualified – they’ll state it. Trust me.
Here’s why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Walmart dive shops usually pay their staff in tips. That means they’ll do their best to get you excited and ensure you have fun. Where it’s dangerous is that their inexperience and yearning for high tips can sometimes lead them to engage in activities that are not good for the ecosystem or safe for the diver.
A big bright, shining star that leads you to this type of shop is if they’re one in a chain of shops owned by a conglomerate or otherwise affiliated, like Divers Direct. They’re corporations, so they’re very efficient. Just remember that you’re part of an equation that needs to remain efficient, which generally means no special attention or accommodation – but also means they’re likely to reliably run on time. So if you’re on a tight schedule, that might be another reason to choose a shop that fits this category.
You’re looking for a smaller, locally-owned dive shop but – and this is very important – not every mom and pop shop is created equal. Some are cutting some serious corners – corners that, when cut so much they’re round – could spell disaster.
The easiest and most reliable way to find the diamonds here is by personal referral from a diver you know to be experienced and have similar dive style (not general queries in groups – explained below.) Not everyone has been everywhere, nor tried every shop though.
It can be tricky to find these gems, as they’re focused on running their shop with passion and don’t usually have big marketing chops or budgets. Plus, they tend to have a core base of returning, loyal customers without a ton of advertising.
So here are some additional clues I use to spot the shiny ones:
Let me just get this out of the way, I’m a marketer by profession – but I’m a diver by passion.
If I’m honest, the results you see from other divers in a forum or more a result of good marketing than a good dive shop. People take a trip to Hawaii, they choose the shop with a shiny website and beguiling testimonials. They have a good time, so they recommend it to others. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just that it definitely doesn’t make it the BEST recommendation.
Most often they are occasional divers who don’t know how much better the experience can be. They do know they had fun in Hawaii.
To dig a little bit into marketing psychology, people are generally very reluctant to admit (even to themselves) that they made a poor choice. So they justify it. Oftentimes to the point that they remember the experience very differently than it actually happened, or justify every downfall.
It’s a real thing. We’ve all done it. It’s called post-purchase rationalization, also known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome if you’re into learning more about this sort of thing.
(Veteran divers who have been all over are not immune to this, but they are more likely to offer an objective opinion.)
So they’ll often recommend a mediocre or even poor shop (as long as nothing truly awful happened) not because they’re malicious – they really think they’re being helpful. You just need to know it happens so you can take it with a grain of salt and use the above tips instead of the jumping on the most repeated shop in a thread.
Laura is an avid scuba diver, business owner, mother, enthusiastic champion of inclusion, lover of words, and hater of soup. She finally heeded the call of ocean and left NY for southern Florida six years ago. Since then she's had the opportunity to ask approximately 164 dive buddies "Do you know where the boat is?" Since she doesn't have the option to go big or go home, she just goes big. Big into education, conservation, and laughter.