Figuring out how to choose a dive shop in Southeast Asia is part knowing what to look for and part just listening to gut instincts.
In popular diving destinations such as Koh Tao in Thailand, the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia, and the Gili Islands in Indonesia, you’ll have an overwhelming number of shops from which to choose. Diving isn’t a particularly cheap hobby -- and it can be inherently dangerous if not done properly.
Don’t cheat yourself: choose a dive shop that will give the best experience possible!
Check the Boat
The size and condition of a dive shop’s boat say a lot about the organization and how much diver turnover they experience.
If boats are kept at the harbor or elsewhere, you can still ask if “big boats” or “little boats” are used. Check around to get a consensus across many shops. Bigger boats are more stable (to help prevent sea sickness), offer more room for putting together equipment, and are usually much more social than smaller, noisier vessels such as the longtail boats used in Southeast Asia.
Some dive shops may switch to running only small boats to save money during the low season, while other new or makeshift operations may not even own a boat and need to charter a local taxi boat each time they have customers!
Peek at the Equipment
This one’s a no-brainer; if a dive shop can’t maintain their equipment properly, then they really don’t deserve your business.
Don’t settle for a limited range of masks that don’t fit properly or leaky regulators that will lose half your air.
A glance around the place may be a good initial indication. Gear should be clean and organized, not thrown around in sandy disarray.
Hang Around the Dive Shop
Travelers are often welcome -- encouraged, even -- to linger around dive shop common areas.
Some shops have integrated bars and screen videos from the latest dives. Local divemasters are usually a wealth of information about islands in Southeast Asia; most are friendly and willing to help you get settled, hoping in return that you book diving or snorkeling later.
Just the general atmosphere in a shop is often the first indication as to whether you should dive with an organization or move on. Is the place buzzing with activity? Are the staff friendly, energetic, and excited about their sport? Or are they worn down from too many consecutive dives, too hungover from last night’s party, or too overworked to answer your questions?
Divemasters do work long, exhausting days -- and they certainly don’t do so for the money. But all should still share one thing in common: an excitement and passion for diving! Asking a few questions about what was seen that week, if any whale sharks or mantas have made recent appearances, and general diving chit chat should have them smiling. Bring up their favorite subject and see if the mojo starts flowing.
Along with speaking to staff, with a little timing, you could catch some divers returning from a trip. Give them some time to get situated and update their log books, then ask if the experience was pleasant and whether or not they would recommend that particular dive shop.
Make Sure Communication Is Good
The divemaster in charge of your trip should have an excellent command of your native language. If English is your common language and theirs just barely passes the grade, you may not be able to understand important instructions related to your dive. A little shopping around will certainly turn up plenty of excellent English-speaking divemasters.
If you plan to take a course for the next level of certification, find a shop that offers the book and materials in your native language.
What About Extras?
Many dive operations in competitive areas, such as Thailand’s Koh Tao, will bundle your certification course and accommodation for a discount. Perks are sometimes included to sweeten the deal; ask about free breakfast, food vouchers, bar credit, happy hour drinks -- you could end up surprised at little extras thrown in to retain your business!
Certainly, ask about discounts for future dives or diving bundles. You can score significant discounts for returning to the same shop for subsequent dives.
Don’t Always Believe the Wall of Fame
Dive operations prominently display their PADI and SSI certifications along with accolades from Tripadvisor and other sites. Even rogue shops that have had their “5 Star” statuses revoked still display the certificates, while some operations print their own fake certifications to frame. There are simply too many dive shops in the world to be policed by each certifying organization.
The only way to really be sure of a dive shop’s current standing is to research them with their parent organizations. For PADI schools, you can research individual instructors and divemasters by running their member number on PADI’s Pro Chek tool. Member numbers should be present on displayed certificates; asking a divemaster for their identification card is technically an option but probably won’t help you to make friends!
Use Online Reviews Cautiously
Although checking online reviews is logical -- and often recommended by others giving generic advice for how to choose a dive shop -- all review sites share one common flaw: they don’t always reveal the big picture.
Customers are far more likely to go leave a review after a bad experience or when they feel wronged in some way. Only a dedicated few -- and the friends of owners -- take the time to leave positive reviews after a great experience is over.
Check for reviews, but keep in mind that one disagreement with a divemaster may prompt someone to leave a negative review, meanwhile, dozens of happy customers didn’t bother because they were busy getting on with the rest of their trips.