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How to spot the dive shop that’s best for you – and why general recommendations shouldn’t be trusted

how to find the right dive shopNot 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.

  • They were knowledgeable and happy to share to their knowledge.
  • They became acquainted with the divers to accurately pick a site within the skill set of all on board.
  • Included the weather conditions of the day into site selection.
  • They even go to locations they know to have a high likelihood of specific marine life we were hoping to see – especially those not commonly seen elsewhere.
  • They’re rental gear was high-end and in good shape.

Sadly, I’ve also had less optimal trips where I:

  • Had to do my best to appreciate a less than optimal site.
  • Was forced into a herded group where I saw more flailing limbs than fish.
  • Even endured operations who tried to “delight” us by harassing marine life for bigger tips.

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?

If your answers match closely to large groups/lowest cost/young energy:

crowded dive boat

School of sardines are fun to dive with, but are you comfy with being packed like them?

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:

  1. They use “cattle boats” – boats which accommodate a big number of divers. Look for them to have a minimum to go out on a trip of generally 10 or more divers. Like Walmart, they’re going for bulk buys here.
  2. The other way they keep costs low to pocket more profit is with staff. If you frequent dive boards and groups, you’ll often see them advertising for interns or other young people with little experience, offering them a “fun, on the job training.”
  3. Mid-range/older rental gear and tanks, often not cycled out on a schedule but as it begins to fail.
  4. Assembly line type of gear set up, where you then take turns walking across the boat in fins to get in the water.

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.

If rock bottom pricing isn’t your deciding factor/buddy system/small groups are appealing/experienced staff are more important to you:

Quiescence six pack dive boats

An example of “six pack” boats – well-maintained, for a max of 6 divers – from my fav dive shop in Key Largo, Quiescence.

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:

  1. Look for smaller boats that are well-maintained. Dive shops like to show off big fancy boats, but smaller boats means fewer divers and access to sites that big boats can’t get to.
  2. Look for lower minimums. If they’ll go out with 4 or fewer divers, it’s a good indication they’re about providing cool experiences and not just profit.
  3. See above for their “About Staff” page but I’ll summarize if you don’t feel like scrolling up – a good dive shop is also good to their employees, which means they attract highly qualified professionals who stick around. Look for specific qualification instead of broad statements and how long they’ve been with that particular shop, not just “the industry.”
  4. If they don’t state it on their website, call and ask about rental gear (even if you don’t need it.) You’re looking to find if they use high-end, reputable brands or budget gear and how often they cycle it out (every 2-3 years is good.)
  5. Look for reviews from locals. These are people who’ve had the opportunity to try most of the local shops and (since they’re living in a dive locale, they probably, you know, dive a lot.) If they’re routinely suggesting one, it’s a good bet they’re doing it right.
  6. Some REALLY good ones provide nice bonuses, like switching out you gear for you and bringing it to you at entry/take it off for you at exit, and offer beverages.

Okay, so here’s why asking for referrals in a dive forum or group doesn’t reliably yield the bour brains tell us liesest results

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.

About the Author Laura

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.

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