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Scuba diving opens up the magic of the underwater world to humans. The freedom people feel while breathing underwater, being in the presence of the planet's most beautiful and bizarre creatures of all sizes in the midst of an alien world beneath the waves, is an experience incomparable to any other. Once considered a sport only for the rich, scuba diving is now more accessible, affordable, and safer than ever, with millions of people all around the globe enjoying the hobby, be it regularly or occasionally on vacation.

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From kaleidoscopic reefs and coral-coated sea walls heaving with colorful fish, turtles, and sharks to eerie shipwrecks, caves, and current-swept subaquatic mountains attracting manta rays, schools of hammerheads, and gigantic whale sharks, the oceans know no bounds in terms of marine life.

Don't forget about freshwater antics, either; many divers also explore the wonders within inland and subterranean lakes, which house their own unique aquatic specimens for observation. It truly doesn't matter; whether diving out in the open ocean, enjoying encounters with dolphins, whales, and the likes, taking in rainbow-hued reefs, discovering the crystal-clear waters in the icy arctic, or submersing oneself in a lake, scuba diving is one of life's most serene pastimes and bucket list items — but underwater explorers must get the right dive certifications first before they can venture into the extraterrestrial dimension below the water's surface.

Related: These Are The World's Best Dive Sites For Scuba Diving With Sharks

As any experienced or aspiring diver might be aware, there are so many dive programs and certifications available, which can make research into getting certified a little complicated. However, this guide to each scuba diving course and certification has been written by a dive instructor, covering every angle so that hopeful divers can understand each one in the correct order.

While every dive course mentioned in this guide is based on the programs designed and offered by the most popular dive agency, PADI, most agencies — such as SSI, SDI, NAUI, RAID, and others — follow a similar flow of courses, each with similar names, curriculums, and course requirements, bar a few differences.

In ascending order and each being a prerequisite to the next, here's a comprehensive catalog and overview of every dive course at the recreational level before entering into the higher zone of professional dive training.

PADI Scuba Diver Course

Scuba Diver Course Prerequisites:

  • Over ten years old
  • Ability to swim and be comfortable in the water
  • Be medically fit for scuba diving (some countries may legally require a medical certificate from a physician)

First, the Open Water certification (mentioned next) is the ideal place to begin one's journey as a diver, as it's considered the initial level of certification required to dive without the presence of certified diving professional. However, the Scuba Diver certification is the stage before the Open Water Diver cert and is technically the first step on the diver ladder.

The Scuba Diver certification is often a useful option for those who wish to become a diver but are short on time since the full Open Water program takes at least a couple of days longer to complete. Generally, not all dive centers, instructors, and operators offer the Scuba Diver program, so it's wise to check before booking a vacation somewhere to undertake this novice level. However, don't panic; most do offer it, and it's a great choice for those interested in diving but who aren't sure how confident they will be in the water.

After signing up for the Scuba Diver course, participants spend two or three days undertaking its requirements. Students must complete three out of the five theory sections (videos, knowledge development sections, and quizzes), three of the five confined water dives, and only two of the four open water dives that make up the full Open Water Diver program.

Hence, the Scuba Diver cert is considered 'half' of the Open Water Diver cert, generally speaking, as it requires students to complete approximately half of the theory, confined water dives, and open water dives. Think of the Scuba Diver course as an intermediate step toward the Open Water Diver certification, the latter of which can be pursued and earned by completing another day or two to finish the full program.

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The theory section of the course covers the basics of scuba diving skills and safety, which are then put into practice during the confined water portion of the program. Also, while many people complete the theory part of the course in person with their instructor, a lot prefer to do this part in advance online via PADI's e-learning. Opting for e-learning allows students to undertake all theory in their own time before starting the practical sections of the program, which they then take with the instructor. It's usually a more convenient option for those who don't want to spend any of their vacation studying books, taking quizzes and exams, and watching dive theory videos in a classroom.

After the appropriate theory modules are finished, the confined water classes are usually conducted in a swimming pool, although they can be taught in a shallow, calm area of the ocean or a lake — so long as the conditions are 'swimming pool-like.' In the confined water lessons, the instructor has the student(s) complete a series of mandatory skills — both in and out of the water — until the student has learned and demonstrated each skill to the instructor's satisfaction.

Once the confined water skills have been mastered, the best part of the program takes place: the open water modules! This part is undeniably the most fun — for both student and instructor — and is when students put the diving skills they learned in theory and confined water sections to the test out in the open water. Either in the ocean or a lake, students take to the open water with their instructor and must fulfill the same skills.

During the two open water dives, students will complete several skills on each plunge, but the skills part of the dives don't usually take that long, which leaves plenty of time to enjoy the underwater world as they explore the dive site alongside the instructor. Plus, unlike the full Open Water Diver course, there's no final exam. As long as students complete all knowledge reviews and quizzes, confined water skills, and open water dives to the instructor's satisfaction, they will receive the Scuba Diver certification.

Scuba Diver Course Overview:

  • Three theory sessions (knowledge reviews and quizzes)
  • Three confined water sessions
  • Two open water dives
  • Total time: two to three days

The Scuba Diver certification permits holders to:

  • Dive to a maximum depth of 12 meters (40 feet)
  • Only dive under the direct supervision of an instructor (if Scuba Diver-certified divers wish to dive without an instructor, they need to upgrade to the Open Water Diver certification, which, as explained above, requires two further theory sections, confined water dives and open water dives)

Related: These Are The Best Places In The World To Dive With Manta Rays

The Scuba Diver course is ideal for those who:

  • Don’t have the necessary time to complete the whole Open Water course
  • Can’t finish the full Open Water program
  • Only wish to dive with a dive professional (a PADI Instructor, for example) instead of with a dive buddy or another diver who is not a dive professional.

If students wish to upgrade to the Open Water certification, they can do so at any time in the future, whether they decide to extend their vacation to complete the necessary extra sections of the course or sign up to do these sections at a later date. The instructor can refer students to another dive center or instructor if they decide to upgrade to the Open Water Diver certification with a different dive center/instructor.

Note: When a certified Scuba Diver wishes to upgrade to the Open Water Diver certification, they must (with an instructor):

  • Complete two more theory sections (two additional knowledge development modules and a quiz
  • Complete a final exam.
  • Complete the remaining two out of five confined water skill sessions (in a pool or a body of water with pool-like conditions)
  • Complete a surface swim
  • Complete the remaining two out of four open water dives (in the ocean or in a suitable lake that meets the course requirements)

Related: Why Bonaire Island Is A Top Scuba Diving Destination

PADI Open Water Diver

Open Water Diver Course Prerequisites:

  • Ability to swim and be comfortable in the water
  • Be medically fit for diving (again, some countries require a medical certificate from a physician)
  • Be able to float or tread water without aids for 10 minutes (instructors will ask students to perform this task under their supervision)
  • Swim 200 meters/yards without aids or swim 300 meters/yards with a mask, fins, and a snorkel (instructors will also ask students to perform this task — but students can choose which option they prefer)

The Open Water Diver course is where it really begins; it's the first autonomous diving certification and teaches participants how to be a great, safe diver without necessarily being under the wing of a dive professional (although diving with a certified buddy is always mandatory, no matter what certification a diver holds). It's the most popular beginner diver program and is highly recommended for newbies because it teaches them even more valuable skills and allows a greater level of diver freedom.

As discussed, the Open Water Diver certification is the next level up from the Scuba Diver course, and any participant who already has the Scuba Diver cert only needs to fill the above-mentioned checklist for upgrading to the Open Water certification. However, the Scuba Diver qualification isn't a prerequisite, so absolute beginners can still sign up for the Open Water Diver course. So long as participants meet the prerequisite criteria bullet-pointed above, they can take the Open Water Diver course.

The Open Water Diver course consists of the same sections as the Scuba Diver course, except it has two more theory sections involving videos, knowledge development assessments, and a quiz, two extra confined water sections, two more open water dives, and a final exam.

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Open Water Diver Course Overview:

For students starting the Open Water course from scratch, the program overview looks like this:

  • Five theory sections (videos, knowledge development assessments, and quizzes)
  • Five confined water sessions
  • Four open water dives
  • 10-minute float/treading water
  • 200-meter swim/300-meter swim with mask, snorkel, and fins
  • Final exam
  • Total time: three to four days

Open Water Diver Certification Information:

Upon completion of the Open Water Diver course, students receive the Open Water Diver certification, which certifies divers to:

  • Dive to a maximum depth of 18 meters (60 feet)
  • Dive with a certified dive buddy or another certified diver (who also holds a minimum of an Open Water Diver certification)

Any young divers certified between the ages of 10 to 14 receive a Junior Open Diver certification, not the 'full' Open Water Diver cert. The Junior Open Water Diver carries the same weight, but there are some important differences. Junior divers between 10 and 11 may only dive with a dive professional, a certified parent, or a certified guardian — and only to a maximum depth of 12 meters (40 feet). Junior divers aged between 12 and 14 are permitted to dive to 12 meters (40 feet) only when accompanied by a certified adult diver over 18. Once Junior Open Water Divers turn 15, they are automatically upgraded to the standard Open Water Diver certification without any further applications necessary.

PADI Advanced Open Water Diver

Advanced Open Water Diver Course Prerequisites:

  • Have the Open Water Diver or Junior Open Water Diver certification (or another qualifying certification from another dive agency, for example)
  • Be at least 12 years old
  • Be medically fit to dive

The name of this program can be quite deceiving; divers don't need to be 'advanced' to undertake the Advanced Open Water Diver course; rather, it advances their existing skills and builds upon the Open Water Diver certification by exploring the underwater world. Divers who are at least 12 years old and have the Open Water Diver certification can opt for this course, which is considered the second level on the diving path. What participants might enjoy about this program, in particular, is the fact there are no 'fixed' classroom theory sessions per se; everything is all about getting in the water and discovering its adventures.

Students receive the Advanced Open Water Diver course book, which they can study at their leisure before completing the diver quizzes, which the instructor will check, but that's about all there is to the 'theory' side of the course. Handily, there's no final exam necessary to pass this program, either.

During the Advanced Diver course, students log a total of five 'specialty' dives with their instructor. Specialty dives are unlike ordinary dives; in essence, they're much like 'themed' dives, in which students explore certain environments and complete skills appropriate to that particular specialty dive. Two of the dive specialty dives are mandatory — the 'deep' dive and the 'navigation' dive.

The deep dive involves exploring depths (up to 30 meters max) and equips students to handle the unique physiological effects of deep diving. On the other hand, the navigation dive equips divers with the know-how to find their way above and below the surface using an underwater compass, visual landmarks, kick cycles, and time.

The other three specialty dives are up to the student, and they can choose from several useful (and amazing) situations to experience, so long as the location permits. The following specialty dives are usually the most widely available and most popular:

  • Deep
  • Night
  • Peak Performance Buoyancy
  • Digital Underwater Photography
  • Boat
  • Fish Identification
  • Underwater Naturalist
  • Search & Recovery

Plenty more specialty dive types also exist, although they are often less available due to a lack of equipment or suitable dive sites near any given dive center's vicinity that allow these dives to be carried out:

  • Cavern
  • Wreck
  • Altitude
  • Ice
  • Dry Suit
  • Enriched Air
  • Sidemount
  • Adaptive Support
  • Dive Against Debris
  • Full Face Mask
  • Shark Conservation

Advanced Open Water Diver Course Overview:

  • Five open water dives: (a deep dive below 18 meters/60 feet, a navigation dive, and three specialty dives of the student's choice)
  • Total time required: two to three days

Advanced Open Water Diver Certification Information:

After completing the Advanced Open Water Diver course, students earn the Advanced Open Water Diver certification, permitting them to:

  • Dive to a maximum depth of 30 meters (100 feet)

Related: These Are Some Of The World's Best Scuba Diving Destinations

PADI Rescue Diver

Rescue Diver Course Prerequisites:

  • Have the Advanced Open Water Diver or Junior Advanced Open Water Diver certification
  • Emergency First Response (EFR) Primary and Secondary Care training (or qualifying training) within 24 months
  • Be 12 years of age or older
  • Be medically fit to dive

For most dive instructors, the Rescue Diver course is one of the most fun and enriching scuba courses to teach. Rescue Divers are much like the emergency services of the aquatic world, equipped with the in-depth know-how to solve myriads of problems and respond to dive-related emergencies both on land, on the surface, and underwater. Out of all the dive programs, this one is often branded the most physically and mentally challenging; however, it's the most rewarding, shifting the focus from oneself to other divers.

The purpose of the Rescue Diver course is to teach divers to prevent, manage, and solve all kinds of problems that may occur when scuba diving — not just for themselves but also for other divers. It also equips divers with the knowledge to identify small, potential problems before they become big ones. As such, there's a lot to learn in this program before earning the esteemed Rescue Diver certification, but don't panic; it can be completed in around four to seven days — though those days will be plush with work and plenty of taxing tasks.

First, course participants must be at least 12 years old and have earned their Advanced Open Water qualification. In addition, they also need to have completed a CPR and First Aid training program within the last 24 months (there are exceptions for qualified medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, for instance). If students don't have the required CPR and First Aid training, they can undertake it alongside the Rescue Diver course, which is a ton of fun and teaches them a wide array of highly valuable skills, but it does mean even more work is added to an already-heavy course. Among divers, the most popular CPR and First Aid training course is Emergency First Response (EFR), and most dive instructors are Emergency First Response instructors themselves, enabling them to teach the program to aspiring Rescue Divers.

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For students without the EFR Primary and Secondary Care certification completed within the last 24 months, they will complete this program before starting the Rescue Diver course. In the EFR course, students learn about CPR, health and safety, identification of hazards, how to respond to various emergency scenarios, how to operate an AED, how to identify scuba diving-related illnesses, and how to administer emergency oxygen to a diver. The EFR portion takes around two days, after which the Rescue Diver course begins.

Throughout the dry land part of the Rescue Diver course, participants study the Rescue Diver textbook and complete quizzes before starting their in-water skills practice, which has them demonstrate what they learned in the classroom in a variety of rescue scenarios in and around the water. Much of the course consists of role-playing rescue scenarios under the guidance and supervision of the instructor, covering aspects and essential in-water and out-of-water skills, including the causes of dive emergencies, recognizing and responding to various types of diver distress, identifying and rectifying equipment issues, effectuating missing diver procedures, undertaking first aid and injury treatment, accident management, and quick problem-solving.

Overall, ten water rescue exercises form the structure of the Rescue Diver course. They include drills such as:

  • Assisting tired and panicked divers
  • Self-rescue (relieving cramps, handling equipment malfunctions, etc.)
  • Responding to distressed divers — both from the shore, on the surface, and underwater (practicing scenarios with unresponsive divers underwater and on the surface, for example)
  • Searching for a missing diver while following proper procedures
  • Administering emergency oxygen
  • Giving in-water rescue breaths while undergoing equipment removal and towing an unresponsive diver to shore or a boat (this is an intense but highly rewarding exercise!)
  • Assisting and pulling victims out of the water
  • A full start-to-finish rescue of an unresponsive diver at the surface and underwater, which is normally left until the very end of the course for students to complete (after much practice, of course)

Dive instructors and their assistants will simulate and guide Rescue Diver students through these rescue scenarios — and usually without any warning (during dinner or when relaxing on the beach or at the bar are common times instructors like to instigate a surprise role-playing emergency situation for students who take the course while on vacation!) This means students must be ready at all times to put their theoretical and practical training into practice and respond quickly and appropriately as if the incident was occurring in real life.

Rescue Diver Course Overview:

  • Complete Emergency First Response Primary and Secondary Care (if students haven't taken this certification already within the prior 24 months)
  • Complete rescue theory and quizzes
  • Complete all ten confined water rescue scenarios
  • Complete all rescue skills in open water (number of dives depends on the student and how fast they progress)
  • Total time: four to seven days

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PADI Master Scuba Diver

Master Scuba Diver Prerequisites:

  • Have the Rescue Diver certification
  • Be 12 years old or over
  • Have logged a minimum of 50 dives
  • Have at least five Specialty Diver certifications
  • Be medically fit to dive

The Master Scuba Diver certification doesn't have a respective course; it's earned by fulfilling a checklist synonymous with advanced and experienced recreational scuba divers. The Master Scuba Diver status is the final title of the recreational scuba realm, after which comes the ranks of the dive pros (starting with the Divemaster cert below).

Less than 2% of divers ever achieve this high rating, which is acquired through hard work, ample time spent underwater (50 dives at least), and additional specialty training. This 'specialty training' entails any of the multiple Specialty Diver courses available, which are like shorter 'mini-programs' that teach specific knowledge and skills and certify divers in a certain area of expertise.

Although there are many more, some of the most popular Specialty Diver courses are:

  • Deep Diver — certifies divers to a max depth of 40 meters (the absolute limit of recreational scuba diving standards)
  • Enriched Air Diver — certifies divers to dive on enriched air nitrox (a blend of air with a higher oxygen percentage, enabling longer dives)
  • Underwater Navigation — expands on previously learned underwater navigation techniques
  • Night Diver — teaches divers proper night diving strategy
  • Drift Diver — diving in currents
  • Wreck Diver — teaches divers to properly and safely navigate, penetrate, and explore underwater wrecks.
  • Digital Underwater Photographer — teaches basic underwater photography skills and underwater camera use, care, and prep.
  • Sidemount Diver -— teaches students how to dive with a side-mount setup (two tanks on either side instead of one on the back)
  • Dry Suit Diver — teaches divers how to dive using a dry suit
  • Search and Recovery — teaches divers how to search for and recover lost items (or divers) underwater using proper techniques

Those who've risen through the diving ranks, having logged at least 50 dives and achieved their Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and five Specialty Diver certifications will therefore meet the criteria for the elite Master Scuba Diver and can then apply to have their certification upgraded from Rescue Diver to Master Scuba Diver — proudly flashing their cert level whenever they go diving from there on out.

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PADI Divemaster

Divemaster Course Prerequisites:

  • Have the Rescue Diver certification
  • Have at least 40 logged dives to begin the course and have logged a minimum of 60 dives to complete the course.
  • Be age 18 or over
  • Be medically fit to dive

The Divemaster course is the first stage in the professional diving industry, teaching divers to become leaders and take charge of dive activities. This level of training is about honing all the knowledge and skills needed to work as a diver at the professional level, with a view to becoming a mentor and even a motivator for new divers.

Of course, it's not just for hopeful dive pros; the course is perfect for recreational divers who want to amp up their skills even more than ever before and become the best diver they can be. Many fun divers take the Divemaster course to build their knowledge and abilities while also enjoying an incredible experience, which the program always is.

As a diver, it's an amazing time, taking several weeks or even months to work on theory, in-water skills, and open-water competencies, as well as plenty of fun dives with fellow divers and Divemaster students along the way.

Throughout the Divemaster course, participants gradually complete a long list of theoretical and practical skills, assignments, assessments, and exams, as well as a final examination compiling everything learned during the entire program at the end. Divemaster students also assist instructors with other training programs, too, helping them teach Open Water Diver courses, Advanced Open Water Diver courses, Rescue Diver courses, and Specialty Diver courses to other dive students.

In general, the course takes a minimum of four weeks, but many dive operators offer varying course lengths ranging from one month to three months (or more, in some cases, depending on the needs of the student). It's usually recommended to take at least a couple of months or even longer when taking the Divemaster course; students taking their time affords them a more in-depth experience, with more opportunities to dive, learn, and practice their abilities.

Ultimately, Divemaster training is designed to give divers the knowledge and skills to make it in the dive sector as a pro, providing them with both simulated and real work experience during the program, which enables them to get a feel for what it might be like working as a divemaster or instructor.

Whether aspiring divemasters intend on quitting their day job to become a divemaster or get a weekend job at a local dive shop, the Divemaster course is ideal for those who wish to make a career out of diving, not just a hobby. Plus, the Divemaster certification is the main prerequisite for the Instructor Development Course — the training and certification needed to become and work as a professional dive instructor.

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A Basic Divemaster Course Outline:

  • Total time: four to 12 weeks (or longer, if desired)

Through a series of knowledge development classroom sessions, water skills exercises, in-water workshops, hands-on practical assessments, and a final exam, Divemaster course participants develop the necessary abilities to plan, organize, and direct scuba diving activities, such as certain low-level courses and experiences, dive excursions, equipment management, logistics, diver health and safety, and business skills.

Topics, skills, and practical course workshops include:

  • The role and characteristics of a Divemaster
  • Divemaster specialized skills
  • Demonstration of divemaster skills fluently and clearly
  • Diver safety and risk management
  • Supervising dive activities
  • Conducting real dive briefings
  • Assisting with student divers
  • Divemaster-conducted programs
  • Conducting a scuba review and skin diver course
  • Awareness of the dive environment
  • Business of diving and diving careers
  • Dive setup and management
  • Mapping an open water dive site
  • Organizing a search and recovery project
  • Organizing a deep dive
  • Leading Discover Local Diving programs
  • Assisting with Discover Scuba Diving experiences (an instructor-led dive program for beginners who wish to experience diving but not get certified)

Related: Become A Dive Pro: The World's Best Places To Get Your Divemaster Certification

While this guide to each diving course is extensive and in-depth, hopefully, it arms aspiring divers with the knowledge they seek about the specific certification they're interested in, as well as those looking for a detailed program list of each cert as they continue their scuba journey. Not mentioned in this guide is the Instructor certification, as that goes beyond the domain of recreational scuba and instead speeds full steam ahead into the planet of the pros — but worry not, aspiring instructors can read all about it in another exciting feature.

For now, budding divers and season sub-sea explorers should focus on each of the courses discussed above before venturing down the instructor road. Then, if they do decide to pursue the professional dive instructor path, they'll be ready to do so after completing all the courses and being armed with a belt chock-full of the savvy, skills, and certs sectioned in this guide.

Whatever the case, be one adamant about working in the dive industry or cherishing diving as a hobby, ticking these courses off the bucket list is an extraordinary, bucket list-worthy journey and will forever change the lives of those who dive into each and take the plunge!