I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of ‘Specialty courses’. The phrase itself is a misnomer. The above definition suggests that over the 2 - 4 dives required for most ‘Specialty’ courses, you will become ‘highly skilled.’ You won’t. ‘Introduction to…’ would be a better phrase. In this article, I go through the typical range of recreational ‘Specialty’ courses available from the majority of major agencies and sort the good from the bad and the ugly.
Some specialty classes are absolute Bullsh*t. A mess of information and skills any diver should already have in their arsenal before passing their entry-level certification. No dive shop will ever ask you for proof of any of these certifications. They are for card collectors only. Have I taught these classes? Damn right I have… when I worked for a touristic dive center and the boss said, ‘James, go teach a Peak Performance Buoyancy class.’ Yes, boss.
Another group of courses I classify as Ad-On. These expand your dive skills with areas not necessarily covered in an Open Water class, but don’t offer a gateway to development beyond their topic. They are typically condition or equipment specific training for types of diving you may not have been exposed to.
And then you have Essential Access courses. These are courses that give you fundamental knowledge as a building block to future skills development. If you have a goal to reach, the chances are you’re going to need these courses to prepare yourself for future diving glory!
Now to single out some of the biggest scams as well as the courses worth your time and money.
Buoyancy – B.S.
Buoyancy is not a ‘specialty’ course: it is an essential skill necessary for safe diving. If you haven’t mastered buoyancy control as a certified OW diver, please go back to your original OW Instructor and ask for a refund, because they didn’t do their job. There is no reason to do a separate class and pay more money to an agency for skills you should already have learned.
When I get emails that say something like, ‘Hey James, I’d love to make my buoyancy better…’ I’m not going to sell this person a buoyancy course. I’m going to sell them a course that will develop them as a diver, and whilst we are diving together, we will work on improving their buoyancy.
No dive center in the entire world has ever asked any diver to show a Buoyancy Specialty certification card. Don’t get me started on ‘Boat Diver’…
Photographer/Videographer – B.S.
I am a horrible underwater photographer and an even worse videographer. And yet, I am a Photographer/Videographer Instructor! How can this be, you may ask?
When I worked in the Caribbean, a tourist who had just bought a GoPro wandered into our dive shop and got sold an UW Photography class, but we had no Instructors on site certified to teach this class! What to do? Well, some agencies allow their Instructors to ‘self-certify’ to be allowed to teach certain specialties. (These are the mostly the specialties in the ‘B.S.’ and ‘Add-On’ columns of the above table.) All you have to do is tick a box stating that, if asked, (I have never been asked) you are able to demonstrate ‘experience’ in said specialty. (‘Highly Skilled.’ - remember?!) A few mouse-clicks and the entry of some credit card details et voilá, I’m an UW Photography Instructor! I look up the course standards and off we head to the boat to do $200 worth of diving for $450.
Don’t get me wrong: there are people in the world who are both fantastic Instructors AND great UW photographers. But if I wanted to get better, and I do, I would find an UW Photographer (not necessarily an Instructor) I admire and ask if I can buy them some dives and lunch and we go dive together and they show me some tips and tricks. I don’t need to pay (insert certification agency here) to be a better Photographer/Videographer.
Dry Suit – Add On
As with most Add-on courses on the above chart, the Dry Suit Specialty adds potentially new equipment that is not necessarily covered in an OW course, depending on your geography. I learned to dive in the English Channel, so my OW course was automatically taught in a Dry Suit. No specialty course required. I did my first hundred dives without getting more than my cheeks wet.
But if you learned diving in a tropical locale, you can have a long and thorough dive career without ever knowing the agony and ecstasy of Dry Suit diving! If, however, you suddenly have the urge to dive the Silfra fissure in Iceland or dive with penguins in Antarctica, you’re going to have to embrace the dry side of diving.
Dry suits affect your buoyancy; feature valves that need managing and have specific donning and doffing procedures all of which are covered in the course. Do you need the card? In some places, including Iceland, yes. Some operators do ask for Dry Suit certification.
Equipment – Add-On
Whether this course ends up in the Add-On or the B.S. column is entirely in the hands of the Instructor.
Ultimately, what you should be hoping to gain is a better appreciation of how scuba equipment works, with some basic hints and tips for maintaining your gear and therefore making it last longer. If this is what you get, such as at the course ran by my friends over at Logbook Adventures, then I say it’s a useful Add-On course. Be mindful that these courses are not service technician courses and do not negate the need for your gear to be properly serviced as per manufacturers’ recommendations.
However, I have also bore witness to Instructors whose Equipment class is little more than the same introduction to the gear you should be getting with your OW course. Proceed with caution and do your homework.
Nitrox – Essential Access
What?! You don’t have your Nitrox cert?! It’s OK, don’t panic, we can help!
Most agencies’ Nitrox certification is a non-diving course. Yep, you don’t even need to get wet to pass. And I’m cool with that, because Nitrox is a heavily theoretical subject. You’re going to learn how reducing the percentage of Nitrogen in your breathing mix by enriching with oxygen will extend your NDL limits, as well as what ‘oxygen clean’ means in regards to equipment and learn the proper techniques for calibrating a nitrox analyzer to properly measure your mixes.
If you’re finding that your recreational dive limits are being limited by your no decompression time as opposed to your gas consumption, you absolutely should be diving Nitrox. If you have desires to move into Technical Diving, then a basic Nitrox certification is an essential prerequisite for Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures training.
There is nothing wrong with being a card collector! Many people make their diving sub-hobby collecting as many different certification cards as they can. Just know that there is not special correlation between a diver’s skill and number of cert cards in their binder.
Only you can decide the value of a specialty course. What are you hoping to gain from it? How will it propel you towards your diving goals?
What specialty courses have you done? Did you feel they were good value for money? Did they enhance your diving skills? Would you take them again, given the choice? Let us know in the comments below!
Until next time, safe diving!