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Getting my scuba certification in Florida…

Have you ever wanted to do something so much that you wouldn’t let yourself quit, no matter how bad the situation got, you’d find a way to make it happen? That’s where I found myself recently…

After all the studying and grueling quizzes, I finally passed my online dive course and was finally ready to get into the water!

I had two choices… To the right, off Highway 27, Devil’s Den. To the left, Blue Grotto.

So, how did a city girl end up on an unassuming road in Central Florida? For her scuba certification of course! I would find myself spending a few weeks here discovering a newfound hobby and then honing my skills in scuba diving.

However, just like a lot of the best things in life, it wasn’t all smooth sailing…

If you think I was certified on my first try, you’re wrong. In fact, there were so many obstacles in my way, (many of which were through no fault of my own) that I almost didn’t complete my training.

How I got to this point is a tale of choosing the correct dive shop and the research that went into it. And now, I’m so excited to share my experience with you!

In this blog…

  • I share my experience training for my PADI Open Water Scuba Certification
  • Compare 2 dive shops I was trained with side by side, including the dive shop (and instructor) that made all the difference.
  • Give you a step by step guide to getting your Open Water Certification with PADI.
  • Share helpful tips for your scuba journey whether you’re just starting out or looking to get back into diving!
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[This post was originally posted April of 2021. Updated May of 2022]

What Inspired Me to Scuba Dive

Who’s the role model in your life?

My role model is my mom. She’s my best friend. Ever since I could remember, she’s always encouraged me to live life to the fullest, seizing every moment and opportunity presented. She’s the reason I decided to give scuba diving a try.

When you think about it, nothing is ever really impossible… even if it’s intimidating. Raising me to believe that I could do whatever I wanted, I never hesitated to commit.

In her heyday, she was a Master Diver Instructor, the highest level you can reach in PADI’s certification program. It’s an understatement to say that I’m in awe of her.

When I was a teen, she would share the most incredible scuba adventures she had living in Hawaii for 10 years. Also, some scary stories too. It felt like I was living vicariously through her, all the while wondering if I would ever get the chance to dive myself.

At the time she shared these stories, my Lupus had just been newly diagnosed. There was a lot I couldn’t do back then except daydream about it.

I knew scuba diving would be far off into the future until my Lupus was under control. Hoping for the day to finally come for my chance, almost 10 years later, it finally did! Now having better health, money and time to dedicate myself to anything I want to pursue, I decided it was time to stop daydreaming about diving and finally just do it.

However, my scuba dreams were almost put to an end before they even began, starting with a horrible experience at a dive shop. Just when I was going to give up, another dive shop would step up and turn it all around. That’s what this blog is about.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I received medical clearance from my team of doctors prior to my diving. If you have any preexisting health issues, you must do this.

The Road to My Scuba Certification in Florida

On an unassuming rural highway driving through central Florida, I find myself at a crossroads. Literally….

Do I make a right and end up at an ominous-sounding Devils Den or, do I make a left and end up at a welcoming sounding Blue Grotto?

Luckily, I didn’t have to choose. I chose to dive at both places. 😉

What is PADI?

“Professional Association of Diving Instructors

PADI is one of a few internationally known recreational diving membership and diver training organizations. They offer different levels of training depending on the certification you want.

What is Required to Obtain Your PADI Open Water Certification?

As of this post, to receive your PADI Open Water Certification, you must complete:

  • 8 laps in a pool
  • 10 minutes treading water
  • followed by 4 confined (i.e. pool) dives with training exercises
  • and then 4 open water (ocean/river/spring/lake) dives with training exercises.

The total PADI program is done in 2 days, which can be split up between days depending on the dive shop.

But, I was almost derailed from finding this new fun exploration of the underwater world.

Not because of fear, or the inability to afford it, but because of what I found to be a scourge on the industry, a “turn and burn” dive shop called XXXXXXXX.

Actually, I’ve decided not to give them any airtime. We will leave it at this… They were so horrible and put my life in danger that I have reported them to PADI and am taking further action against this shop. They are a company that specializes in Manatee Snorkel tours with a little PADI Dive Shop on the side.

Needless to say, the road here was a bit more challenging than it should have been. The proverbial road that is… not the unassuming Highway 27.

Read on for my reviews and experience!

What’s a PADI 5 Star Dive Center?

“PADI Five Star Dive Centers are progressive dive shops that provide a full range of PADI scuba diving education programs, equipment selection, and experience opportunities while encouraging aquatic environmental responsibility. These businesses excel in providing quality services to divers [and] present a professional image.”

Source: PADI

It All Starts with the Right Dive Shop

So, how did I go from almost quitting completely to finally getting my scuba certification? Now, it’s time to compare both dive shops side by side. I almost guarantee that you’ll instantly be able to spot the difference between the two. 😉

Heads up: I’m spending a bit more time on the negativity than I normally would in my blogs because it would be a shame if you wanted to learn something new and were exposed to bad treatment which turned you off from a great sport. It’s better that you know now that there are great dive shops out there. Do your research in advance to avoid making the same mistake I did!

Real Girl Reviews: Dive Shops in Florida

Dive Shop #1: The Shop that shall not be named.

0 Stars

It started with a trip to the shop which was a clean facility with a love of dive equipment. The salespeople were great at helping my sister and me try on different snorkel masks.

We ended up buying over $800 worth of gear before the class! After having spent an additional $875 on the class and $390 ($195/ea.) for the online PADI course work. That money alone would make most people forge on in a class.

Unfortunately, I chose this shop because they were a PADI 5 Star Center and had overall positive reviews on Trip Advisor for the most part and I put my faith in them. However, if you look closely, the positive reviews are for the snorkel tours and you’ll find negative reviews for the Dive Training portion.

I’ll fast forward from here…

Dive Training with Shop XXXX

There was a class of 5, (including myself and my sister). We were led by what the shop had indicated was a “new instructor”.

Our in-water training was supposed to be completed over 2 days back to back (this shop doesn’t offer breaks in-between days) and would consist of a few hours of closed swimming pool training followed by a dive in the local river that same afternoon.

The following day would be two additional dives before receiving our certification.

However, at this dive shop, nothing seemed to go as planned. It seemed like one problem after another.

My sister and I were suited with wetsuits that were far too small for us- kid-sized. Flippers didn’t fit me.

There was also a problem with one of the other students where the instructor spent much of the time on the surface with her while the rest of us remained underwater waiting for them to join us, shivering all the while.

The instructor did not spend a whole lot of time telling us what to do. The extent of our training was putting the equipment together and the “instructor” announcing, “When you descend, don’t let your knees hit the bottom if you go down too fast”.

We were supposed to be doing the closed water training in their heated indoor pool. IT WASN’T.

For 5 hours straight, we were in water that was 72F and NOT in the 80s as we were originally told it would be (which makes a huge difference when you’re underwater for a length of time).

I had already spoken to the manager prior to booking to let her know that with my Lupus being exposed, that being in water that was too cold for extended periods of time could have an adverse effect on my body.

We remained in the pool even after the instructor commented to both my sister and me, “You must be really cold, your lips are purple”. We later found out via contacting PADI that hypothermia sets in after 2.5 hours in water temperatures of 72F.

Animals in Florida Keys That Bite, Sting, Scare You & Make You Dinner

Florida is one of the top states for deadliest animals. Not to mention, annoying animals that bite you and scare the bajeebers out of you. Before you go, here’s what you should know…

I remember shivering uncontrollably while kneeling at the bottom of the deep pool. As were the other students. That’s when I said, “enough is enough”. It was evident that we couldn’t rely on our instructor to take our health seriously, we had to take things into our own hands.

Once we got out of the pool, we let the shop know that we could no longer continue that day. Prior to speaking with PADI, we had offered to pay for a private session to finish the course so it would go faster yet, they refused.

They thought we were prepared all ready to go on an open water dive. Even though WE HAD ZERO TRAINING at that point.

They also refused a partial refund or even rescheduling.

Later, the owner would respond sarcastically that the other people in the class, cold or not.. finished their dives, got certified, and hopefully we would see them out in the ocean at some point.

And just like that, my diving dreams stopped dead in its tracks. If shops like this have careless instructors, a manager working off commissions, and an owner only concerned about the turn & burn of getting customers in and out in 2 days while upselling them things they did not need to begin with, then we are all screwed.

That’s why a dive shop and a good instructor make all the difference.

This brings me to the next dive shop. Thankfully, my horrible experience with that bad shop in Crystal River didn’t end there.

What happened next? Let’s just skip to the GOOD part……

Miami to Key West Road Trip Itinerary

Most people think of “Key West” when they think of the Florida Keys but, there’s so much more to the archipelago than that! For the perfect roadtrip itinerary to the upper to middle keys, read my blog!

Dive Shop #2: Birds Underwater Dive Shop, Crystal River, Florida – SUCCESS!

5 star element

Fortunately, we found a FABULOUS SHOP of PROFESSIONAL DIVERS with an OWNER that cares not only about his customers but…. surprise, surprise… also cares about the DIVE Industry.

Not to mention, a great price compared to other shops. They are more genuine and not just trying to sell you. It’s important to Bill, the owner, that you don’t buy their equipment until after you’re sure you like diving.

I’m happy to say that Jeff Sandmann, an Instructor at Birds Underwater Dive Shop (also in Crystal River), changed everything which made all the difference in us getting our certification in the end.

Since my sister and I were basically traumatized from the last experience and needed baby steps again, Jeff was the perfect instructor to get us back in the water again.

Their website doesn’t lie, “his classes will reflect the real-world experience that you can’t get from a book”. Jeff really goes above and beyond for his students.

You end up feeling like you’re getting more training than what you paid for. Pay attention because he has a lot of great info. Some of it is not even part of the course but good to know. He tells you for a reason… to be prepared in any situation.

Like… how to use your neon inflatable signal just in case you had to sleep while floating on the water until the morning without drowning. I mean it’s like serious stuff. He’s legit. Felt kinda like military training. 😁

But be prepared, Jeff is a talker! He also comes with stories too. We thought he was a funny guy and enjoyed him.

Birds Underwater offer SDI, TDI, AND PADI certifications.

While the dive shop also offers Manatee Snorkel tours, what I’ve seen and heard from others is that they are responsible tours. Can’t say the same for the tour at the 1st dive shop who, as you will see, hard sells photos of customers TOUCHING the manatees… a big no-no.

But, I digress… back to the SCUBA!

While PADI is much more marketed and well known, after researching it a bit more, I wish I had gone with the SDI training.

But alas, I’m a consumer guilty of following that shiny marketing. 😉

In any event, after we paid our fee… yes, that means I’ve double paid for our training because our lives were not worth risking diving with the other shop again… Jeff started our training following the PADI guidelines.

But, FIRST and foremost, he ensured that we were PROPERLY FITTED with wetsuits that were the CORRECT SIZE (unlike the last shop).

Because we had indicated our concern for the cold, he had us double up on two wetsuits, one of them being a size larger than the other, that totaled 6mm. Snug and cozy.

He then spent a significant amount of time explaining the use of the equipment and how to set it up correctly, even explaining how and why everything works the way it does so we understood the significance as it pertained to our health and safety.

He was shocked that in 5 hours of training at the last dive shop, we had not learned any of this.

It was clear in those moments (and many others to follow), that he actually cared and took our wellbeing seriously which is what the last shop should have done.

He then fitted us with BCD’s (Buoyancy Control Device), went over the Octopus functions, correctly weighted us (for the weights we would put in our BCD’s), and made sure our mask & snorkels were in good condition and fit (we had previously purchased these at the other shop).

Before we continued, I told him of our bad experience getting in the water at the last place and asked if he would mind if we took a few moments to breathe out of the regulator above water before diving to get acclimated.

To which he replied, “Yes, of course. That’s what we usually do anyway. I’m surprised the last place didn’t”.


Snorkeling in North Lake Tahoe

Go sailing and snorkel in North Lake Tahoe and visit Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley. Plan a fun visit this Summer!


To read about what happened next, read how I completed my scuba training and earned my certification in my blogs DEVIL’S DEN PREHISTORIC SPRINGS and BLUE GROTTO coming soon.

Read my blog coming soon about tips to prepare for open water scuba training after getting your online dive course.

You can also read about when I finally got my scuba certification at Blue Grotto Springs in Florida.

BOTTOMLINE

Do your research, avoid turn and burn shops, and find a place that truly believes in what they are doing/selling. It’s crazy to think that had I given up after my first negative encounter, I would have missed an incredible opportunity to experience all that the amazing underwater world of SCUBA has to offer. I am happy I was able to get my scuba certification in Florida.

When you’re in the water, remember to just breathe. Literally! If you can master your breath control, you’ll master your buoyancy. This means you can float neutrally without much effort, allowing you to relax and allow enjoy the moment.

Scuba not only exposes you to an underwater world you’d usually not have access to, it makes you feel more confident in yourself and your abilities (being able to assemble & carry your gear & equipment + learning new skills).

You will see so many things and meet so many people. It’s the kind of experience that gives you memories to talk about for years to come!

REMEMBER

Don’t let the initial challenges or money setbacks scare you away. If it’s really something you want to do. Make a plan to do it. Even if it takes you a little while to be able to commit to it. It’s the most incredible feeling once you do.

Also, don’t let anxiety, impatience, exhaustion, etc. get you down. Every diver goes through a variation of that at some point (myself included). You’re normal! It makes you stronger in every possible way. You WILL overcome the obstacles you face and soon after, you’ll feel badass. Promise!

Now that I have my certification, I’m super excited to rent tanks and get back out there again! Now, with my diver card. 😉

illustration of geeves traveling with pink suitcase and blue outfit

Hopefully, you’ve got some useful info and enjoyed reading about the journey and experience of getting my scuba certification in Florida! If you enjoyed this blog, I’d love it if you left a comment below. You can also follow me on TikTokTwitter and Instagram!😊 

Are you scuba certified? Are you thinking about getting your scuba certification? Let me know in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

20 Helpful Tips for Traveling with a Chronic Illness

Florida Keys Animals That See You As Dinner, What to Do About it

Miami to Key West Drive: Road Trip Itinerary for the Upper to Middle Keys

The Ultimate Packing List for Every Type of Traveler

Fun North Lake Tahoe Adventures in Palisades Tahoe, Olympic Valley

Fishing in Maine: A Great Fishing Trip in Rangeley Lake

Fishing Trip Packing List: What to Bring Fishing?


Fact Check:

At Real Girl Review, we value truth and always strive for accuracy. Posts are updated regularly. If you read something that still doesn’t sound right, contact me at [email protected]. I will investigate the facts and make changes as I deem necessary.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for an insightful article. Scuba certification is something that I’m planning on getting.

  2. You totally should! It’s such a great sport and you meet so many new people all over the world. It’s been a wonderful journey so far. Let me know if you have any questions.

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