By: Bradley Axmith, Divemaster
Scuba Dive 101:
PADI vs SSI vs NAUI:
What You Need to Know
What’s the difference between NAUI, PADI, and SSI? Is one scuba certification better than the other? Does price reflect quality? Veteran scuba divers all have their opinions on the matter, but we give you a balanced answer based on anecdotes, experience, and data. You can read about safety, scuba diving certification levels, price, and time required for each of the three.
Which One Should I choose? The Quick Answer
Open water certification teaches the fundamentals of scuba diving. Any decent dive shop offers courses with lessons provided by professionals with requisite diving experience and maximum enthusiasm. Anywhere in the world where there’s water, there’s going to be scuba divers selling tours and scuba licensing.
But which company should you choose? Before we shore-dive into the debate, the quick answer for those not interested in more details is: for open water certification, all three give you what you need and the diving card from one is recognized by the others. Price might be a factor too. BUT! It is more important to choose the right dive shop and a good instructor when getting started.
Both PADI and SSI are truly global organizations with courses that teach the same skills you need to dive anywhere in the world. The same skills are also taught by NAUI, but you will find NAUI courses taught in fewer places around the world with only a few locations in Asia. Of the three, NAUI is also the only non-profit agency.
NAUI dive tables might calculate time at bottom during a dive more conservatively (more later). But whether the PADI dive-planner wheel is used, or the SSI dive tables, the differences are almost irrelevant for entry-level certification.
To answer the “which one should I choose” question quickly: wherever a good dive operator with a good instructor is conveniently located, anyone will do. All three entry-level certifications allow divers to descend to the same depth and to dive with any shop.
All three training agencies follow the same recommended depth limits for the three recreational scuba diver certifications. All three companies also offer a host of specialty courses, some of which are wickedly interesting; others might just be available to take another coin from your pocket.
As a follow-up to the simple answer, some recreational dive operations are just looking to crank out as many “certs” as they can. They are the seldom blemishes on the industry and usually stand out clearly – but they do exist and usually can be easily identified by their cavernous holes.
What Are the Differences, if any between PADI, SSI, and NAUI? A Deeper Dive
If you are looking to try scuba diving for the first time you can try without getting certified, but without any professional guidance, you are tempting fate.
Scuba diving is quite safe and the reason for the small number of accidents, injuries, and death is due to the small contingents of diving professionals teaching the ins-and-outs of scuba safety to the millions of certified recreational divers around the world.
For almost every scuba diver – young and old, rookie and veteran – the small differences are of little import. There are still dive briefings and practices that follow the same guidelines for each agency. Still, there are subtle differences.
No matter where in the world, or what type of dive, all training agencies agree that safety is paramount to the scuba diving industry.
Using NAUI dive tables (dive tables calculate how much nitrogen gets absorbed during a dive) will curiously yield less bottom time on a dive than a dive using PADI tables, for example. That might make NAUI a little more conservative, but only by a fraction.
In reality, most divers nowadays use personal dive computers. Virtually every instructor and divemaster will have one, which calculates – conservatively at that – actual nitrogen absorption levels, rendering the use of dive tables rare and this point of difference practically trivial.
In fact, all three organizations base their knowledge on shared practices so, quality-wise, an open water certificate from one player should be equal to the others. SSI and PADI are most similar since digitization has begun to play so central a part in the delivery of their courses. Whereas NAUI’s non-profit culture makes it stand out.
Read more below about the specifics, prices, and general expectations connected to each of these three organizations.
The Professional Association of Dive Instructors, or PADI as we all know it, was started in 1966 to expand the recreational dive market by organizing courses into modules that made certification more accessible to the public. Since the late 1980s, it has been the biggest certifying agency in the world and has issued 27 million scuba certificates over the years, according to their own statements.
Many dive businesses and resorts run the PADI model, meaning they teach their curriculum in exchange for support in the form of materials, bookings, and equipment rebates. PADI elearning has made it easier for dive centers to offer certifications, and has proven profitable for the parent organization.
There are over 6,600 dive shops and resorts under the PADI umbrella, and about 127,000 divemasters and instructors that are active – meaning annually paying professional members. According to PADI there are 27 million
PADI courses include those for minors under 10, junior open water diver, discovery, open water, advanced open water, and rescue diver. Above rescue diver level lies divemaster, which is the first professional level certification, granting the right to work as a dive guide.
An open water card certifies divers to a maximum depth of 60 feet (18 meters). Advanced diver certification awards night dive credentials and certifies the scuba diver to depths of 130 feet (40 meters).
PADI eLearning: Online Education Anywhere
PADI eLearning is available for all its course offerings. The PADI eLearning System works on Windows, Mac, Android, and iPhones. PADI Touch also plays on iPads and Android tablets. Just make sure the device has the right specs to run the program.
PADI’s online learning System is the digitized, classroom portion of their courses. Through videos and interactive exercises you can learn the theory bits of any course up to divemaster.
The system has developed to work with specific platforms. Students can choose the device they’re most confortable with: PADI Touch for use on tablets and mobile telephones or PADI eLearning for desktop learning.
Course material is the exact same for tablets, deskotop or classroom. PADI has just developed different methods to appeal to consumers with different preferences.
The PADI Scuba Diving Essentials App is a decent tool for keeping track of your dives and finding new dive shops. As a guide to eLearning it offers a gateway to PADI e-Learning on computer and PADI Touch.
Purchasing a PADI eLearning Open Water Diver course will set you back $169 as of early 2020. When buying online you will have to register a profile and order in the format of your liking (desktop or desktop/tablet) and from a specific dive shop, the location of which in the digitized world matters not.
Remember, $169 covers only the classroom (theory) component of certification. You’ll have to find another dive center or resort to complete the confined and open water dive requirements of the degree. From the date of registration, when logging on for the first time, the eLearning program is valid for 12 months. Within that time frame students will have to complete the eLearning course as well as the practical parts.
Using your PADI login, the open water course material will be available in perpetuity and, one imagines and hopes, more useful tools will follow in subsequent updates.
PADI’s Environmental Efforts.
The Project AWARE foundation was established by PADI in 1989. Its motto is, “where conservation meets adventure”.
Project AWARE is a registered nonprofit organization that is primarly a local, grass-roots and volunteer-based environmental organization with offices and activities around the world. Divers have organized beach cleanups, plastic awareness campaigns, and participate in shark protection education and lobbyism.
As a non-profit entity and supporting acclaimed institutions like the Ocean Film Festival, AWARE is educating and effecting positive outcomes on behalf of the scuba diving community.
The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) is the oldest recreational scuba diving organization (est. 1959). Their motto is: “dive safety through education”. It is also the largest non-profit certifying agency for divers.
The Navy SEALs, NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory spacewalk training, and Walt Disney Resorts use NAUI professionals and curriculum for their programs getting the California-based training agency street cred.
It started in Los Angeles in the 50s when the aqua-lung revolution was spreading through the world. The Skin Diver magazine was introducing scuba diving training to America and the TV show Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, was attracting aspiring divers in California and across the States.
When a sports director for L.A.’s parks & rec program and a local lifeguard teamed up with an oceanographer at the Scripps Institute in 1955, the world’s first civilian diver training agency, the National Diving Patrol, granting the first provisional diving certifications to educated divers across the US was established.
Sea Hunt ran from 1958-1961, told the story of Bridges’ Mike Nelson, a Navy Frogman (precursor to the SEALs) whose heroics involved scuba diving to thwart evil and save the day. It inspired the first wave of certified, recreational scuba divers.
With Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung facilitating the scuba diving revolution alongside Sea Hunt’s popularity, NAUI was born.
In 1959 NAUI was established and began training instructors the following year. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, himself, sat on the first board of directors of the nascent training agency.
NAUI is the second biggest agency by the number of certifications and NAUI affiliates can be found everywhere in North America, many places around Europe and Central America, plus several spots in the Middle East.
Scuba diver certifications issued by NAUI are organized into introductory, diver, specialty, technical, and freediver levels. It is the NAUI Scuba Diver rank that grants the holder the minimum privileges to dive independently or without supervision around the world.
There is an online NAUI Educational System or NES that provides the academic materials that will be covered in the theory part of the open water Scuba Diver certification. But it is required to participate in some classroom instruction, where eLearning materials assist the theoretical knowledge development, rather than consisting solely of independent study.
Using the NES allows students to find a NAUI dive center and get the in-water required dives for full certification. Whereas PADI will put another diver in as fast as possible, most entry-level students who go through NAUI shouldn’t expect the same certification factory.
The NAUI introductory program offers 4 featured courses intended to appeal to the needs and ambitions of the individual diver. Graduates carry-over their skills to the next level.
There is a Try Scuba/Passport Scuba Diver Program, where the first part introduces the beginner to scuba diving in a pool or confined water. The Passport Scuba Diver certificate is granted following the required number of open water dives under a NAUI instructor’s supervision.
The Passport is valid up to 12 months allowing the holder to dive with a NAUI instructor in controlled conditions suitable for a scuba diver prospect (ie. not deep, no strong currents, etc.). Any dive during this period extends the validity of the passport an additional year and counts toward graduation to next-level diving.
Any 10+ year-old can take the Try/Passport course and 8+ year-olds are allowed only to try the confined dive portion.
A special one-on-one Tandem Scuba Diver course provides a unique experiential opportunity for an aspiring diver to receive intensive, one-on-one training to accommodate an actual open water scuba dive down to 40 feet. NAUI Tandem Divers need to be 10 years of age or older to enroll.
Going old-school, as in the ancient school of diving, NAUI teaches a Skin Diver/Junior Skin Diver course which includes theory and two open water dives. This certification level is offered to 8 year-olds and older and provides some useful skills the scuba diver utilizes like equalization and buoyancy control. SSI has also recently expanded its curriculum to include freediving too.
Becoming a NAUI “Scuba Diver” means earning a certification on par with PADI’s open water disignation.
The Open Water equivalent rank in NAUI’s progressive training program is the Scuba Diver class. Basic diving science, equipment usage, responsible diving practices, as well as the simple knowledge and skills needed to safely dive in the open water are taught. Some diver rescue skills are also part of the Scuba Diver class, something SSI and PADI entry-level courses don’t teach.
A NAUI Scuba Diver can submerge down to 60 feet unaccompanied by a professional. They will have completed 4 open water dives upon certification.
A NAUI Advanced Scuba Diver sets their sights deeper. 6 open water dives which include navigation and low-visibility techniques are required. Qualification to descend to 130 feet (40 meters) plus submerging into the night waters, plus three additional elective dives are taught.
Scuba diving with enriched air nitrogen or NITROX means longer bottom times and shorter surface intervals between dives. Instead of the standard 21% oxygen contained in scuba tanks, mot NITROX tanks for recreational diving are filled with 32%, a benefit to decompression limits.
Because many dive centers have begun promoting NITROX (higher oxygen mixtures), there are a lot of NAUI operators selling open water courses in tandem with the entry-level Scuba Diver course.
The Master Scuba Diver and Rescue Diver courses follow the advanced and lead up to professional levels.
Some thematic examples of the elective dives are search and recovery, light salvage, wreck diving, freshwater diving, and diving for photos and videos.
The Master Scuba Diver (called Divemaster by most) is the first professional-level certificate that trains divers to guide other certified divers into the depths. Only Divemasters are entitled to pursue instructor training.
NAUI Mobile: Getting With the Times… Almost
Since 1960, NAUI has trained more than 60,000 professionals. Diving is their passion and safety is the backbone of their system. Digitization is, however, a distant priority – so far. On the NAUI Mobile app you can log in and find a dive center, locate a trainer, buy products, calculate gas mixtures for specific depths, and you can call up your profile with your c-cards (NAUI calls members’ digitized certifications electronic C cards instead of eCards like SSI and PADI).
NAUI on the App Store for iOS
NAUI Mobile App on Google Play for Android.
NAUI launched its new mobile app in January 2019. Getting certification cards and replacement cards is quick and easy. MySSI also has some useful tools for planning dives and continued training too.
NAUI really started the recreational diving scene. Because of its organizational nature, it hasn’t grown as fast as its “competitors”. In fact, there is no competition in its leadership structure with the board of directors voted in by a simple majority of all member-instructors.
For this reason it’s hard to say if PADI or NAUI or SSI is better, but there is a cultural difference that you notice the longer you dive within their ecosystem. This has nothing to do with PADI and SSI following WRSTC guidelines and NAUI subject to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) scuba diving framework.
Its focus on thorough training produces better-educated divers and adding some rescue skills is laudable. But there is no available data to show a better safety track record. Anecdotal evidence indicates that NAUI probably has more robust nerdship on the technical side of diving than other dive organizations.
Technical diving is a whole other subject worth investigating once you get your fish legs on.
NAUI has essentially remained the same organizationally, with an unchanged model to achieve more growth because it’s not a for-profit outfit. Offering NITROX to beginners is one clear exception to this tendency, though.
Whereas both SSI and PADI have undergone changes through mergers and acquisitions, tweaking its corporate development model, NAUI grows through word of mouth. But it could just mean that their focus has perhaps been directed in other areas development.
In 2015 NAUI announced an alliance with the Divers Alert Network to share data and co-develop the full suite of DAN courses, including Basic Life Support and First Aid, Emergency Oxygen for Scuba Diving Injuries, First Aid for Hazardous Marine Life Injuries, Neurological Assessment, and Diving Emergency Management Provider.
The DAN-NAUI courses are also available in digital form to instructors, in order to embed the safety skills that, though rarely needed, are brilliant and life-saving when fate comes knocking.
All NAUI scuba divers, whether active or not, are invited to join the NAUI Green Diver Initiative (GDI). The GDI is dedicated to promoting conservation and marine preservation by spreading awareness and educating its divers so that they join in clean-up initiatives and have the support to start their own green projects at the local level.
The Scuba School International was founded in 1970 by Robert Clark and Ed Brawley in response to the growing opportunities in the recreational scuba diver market. At the time, there was little regulation in the industry. Brawley and Clark started SSI to fill Clark’s perceived gap in the market’s direction.
Today, there are 2,400 SSI scuba centers around the globe operating in multiple languages at dive centers and resorts, working in 30 different languages.
SSI developed the first standard course books under the SSI Total Teaching System, which combined existing dive manuals developed by the likes of NAUI’s Tillman into comprehensive handbooks for instructors.
The current SSI diving agency includes its amalgamation with the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS) in 1999 and has certified dive shops in over 110 countries.
The fusion combined NASDS’ marketing and business acumen with SSI’s educational prowess, for which Robert Clark received a NOGI award in 1997 and was inducted into the Diving Equipment Marketing Association’s (DEMA) Hall of Fame in 1998.
In 2014 the diving equipment company Mares bought SSI for $5.5 billion in a strategic acquisition intended to help compete with PADI. Mares’ parent company, the sports gear firm HEAD of Holland, by most accounts has given its scuba subsidiary freedom to operate without meddling.
SSI MARES has a formidable market capitalization under parent company HEAD, meaning they can compete with PADI on a global scale and buy equipment firms like rEvo that specialize in rebreathers. It has made possible the creation of the Dive Expedition Team, an initiative to test equipment in extreme conditions to improve knowledge and apply it to the recreational sector.
Though the new SSI seems part of a maverick and intrepid operator, SSI teaches basically the same scuba diving standards as PADI, set by the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). SSI diving schools certify students to the same limits and qualification levels as other mainstream agencies including the open water diver, the advanced open water diver, diver stress & rescue diver, and master diver.
This means that not only are SSI certifications accepted for diving at PADI centers but students with an SSI open water certificate can start a PADI advanced OW course.
SSI Diving Certification Levels
A graduated course program is offered by SSI diving franchises, meaning with each certificate gained, the next rung in the latter awaits. The Open Water Diver is the level accepted around the world if you want to dive unsupervised.
Try Scuba, Basic Diver and Scuba Diver courses are components of the complete Open Water Diver course. In other words, anyone over 10 years-old ready to dive can skip straight to an Open Water Course.
The Try Scuba course is as it sounds designed to provide a taste of what the scuba diving experience is all about. This course takes students from 8+ years-old into a single confined water dive down to a maximum of 15 feet (5 meters).
The SSI Basic Diver certificate is awarded to the diver who completes 1 confined dive (Try Scuba certs get a pass on this) plus 1 open water dive to depths no more than 40 feet (12 meters).
Basic divers are then certified to dive with professional supervision (Divemaster or Instructor) in the Open Water in similar conditions. Their 1 open water dive will also be counted toward their Open Water Certification if enrolled within 6 months of completion.
Getting an SSI Scuba Diver certificate requires 3 confined dives and 2 open water experiences. More theoretical training is involved in this course, which is generally selected by participants who don’t have the time to complete the open water program.
The theory section is completed online before any dive is allowed and the training counts against the requirements of the open water certification. So each logged dive – deep dive or night dive for example – moves you closer to attaining another certification.
Recreational SSI diving cards issued through coursework and logged dives.
eLearning and Digital Resources
One of the main components of the SSI Digital Training System is the app. The free MySSI app really is a leap beyond what was available years ago. SSI’s digital app immediately puts scuba training materials into the palm of your hand. Try Scuba, Snorkeling, Try Freediving, and Scuba Diver course resources are free to use.
All diplomas are collected in the digital wallet section (eCards) and logged dives count toward upgrading your certification. MySSI logs your dives and syncs with selected dive computers (MARES obviously being one of them).
Another smart piece of the app is the inclusion of insurance. Both from a seller’s interest and a diver’s point of view, you can keep some very important data centralized in this way.
MySSI app has been developed to work interoperably with the following MARES brand dive computers: MARES Smart – Smart Apnea – – Smart Air – Puck Pro – Puck Pro Plus – Quad – Quad Air and GENIUS.
SSI diving is very flexible when it comes to its manual. While PADI certification requires every student to buy one, you can borrow SSI’s manual when you sign up for a course and return it when done. You can buy the SSI manual online and keep it for life. You can share them with your buddies no problem.
The price of an SSI lifetime course manual is $140 or €79 Euros, depending on which dive shop’s site you’re shopping on. Some dive centers may get you to pay ($50 for example) for a “rental” of digital materials that run out after 3 months, but all materials are available when you sign up for a course. The lifetime “diamond” package makes more sense and includes updates.
The philosophy of SSI Diving is built on the diver diamond’s 4 principles:
Being SSI Open Water Diver certified means qualification to 60 feet (18 meters) diving after completing 16-32 hours of combined coursework. This includes theory, 6 confined water sessions with 4 open water dives.
Like NAUI, SSI touts experience and encourages diving students to get as many dives in, especially in between Open Water and Advanced certifications.
Some of the course specialties are where SSI starts to stand out from the others. Learning shark ecology, sea turtle ecology, and coral identification are courses both relevant to what we experience when diving and critical components of understanding the balance of the ocean.
The MySSI app has a similar style to video games, reflecting rejuvenated digital efforts.
SSI’s specialty courses are offered on digital platforms. To achieve the Advanced Open Water certificate, 4 of these specialty courses are needed along with 24 logged dives (which include supervised night dive and deep dive) to receive the certification.
The digital offerings by SSI are quite sleek. Not only are the different courses bundled to achieve more competitive prices, but the e-learning materials are available to coursists forever.
There is also a Scuba Skills Update course to assure the open water diver that they haven’t lost touch with the skills they learned.
This obvious advantage means an open water cert can freshen up on their material, years after their last dive. It is also one of the reasons some dive shops have taught both PADI and SSI in order to offer better prices to random students while taking advantage of the PADI promotional machine.
SSI’s Blue Oceans: Getting Sustainable
The Blue Oceans movement is about educating divers and people working around the diving industry. The program supports conservation and making its operations more sustainable because of the real, acute environmental problems affecting the aquatic environment.
Plastic waste, shark finning, and coral reef degradation are the three problems Blue Oceans educational pursuits address.
Digitization helps cut-down plastic and the responsible sourcing for materials minimizes the impact of operations. This includes using recycled plastic to manufacture certification cards, but it doesn’t stop at the dive shop or while diving.
The Blue Oceans Responsible Diver Code is an all-encompassing rule-book for helping the planet survive. This includes all-encompassing behavioral tweaks like: walking instead of driving, don’t shower too long, turn off the lights when not using them, and throw out your waste in sorting containers when available.
The Blue Oceans program is SSI Diving’s initiative designed to make their operations more sustainable. Formerly called Mission Deep Blue, it is designed to appeal to both divers and non-divers alike.
PADI vs SSI vs NAUI: What Does Certification Cost?
There are some regional differences, as previously noted. PADI is the market leader with over 6,600 dive shops and resorts in 186 countries using their program. This accounts for the more than 27 million PADI-certified divers since its beginning.
The PADI certification franchise model has also spawned a culture of cynics around diving communities, complaining about the corporate profile. “PADI stands for, put another dollar in,” you might hear, for example.
PADI seems enthusiastic about reaping rewards from its market leader status. Requiring every course-goer to buy their manual for one; charging $42 for replacement cards, for another.
No matter what, PADI has made diving cheaper by the sheer nature of its organization’s scale, a fact from which both SSI as well as NAUI benefit. This means PADI that, while PADI courses cost a little more today, it has made it more accessible for people.
After various mergers and strategic partnerships, SSI diving is competing with PADI on its own terms. Their courses are cheaper and their materials are made available free of charge during the course of lessons.
Price Range of Entry-Level Certification: PADI vs SSI vs NAUI
*as of January 2020
It’s possible to find packages that offer rebates on courses when booked together with accommodations. These will sometimes be online travel agents, sometimes resorts will advertise directly. Usually savings can be had during the slower seasons when most unfortunate souls are indentured behind a desk.
If you’re lucky enough to have flexibility and the wherewithal to flee work or home, give these places a chance. But do some research and find out whether it’s monsoon season at your destination or if the resort is an outlier without any surrounding restaurants or facilities.
Final Thoughts: Who Would I Choose?
If I could go back in time and choose PADI or NAUI or SSI, I would be hard-pressed to change the past. I got certified in the classroom over two days, with confined dives in a pool and open dives in a close-to-freezing freshwater lake. Done!
While it was amazing, I learned the most on subsequent dives and courses. The more you dive, the better scuba diver you become. While I think NAUI teaches the best, SSI has the most modern approach to scuba diving, and PADI had the best social scene, in the end it’s just you and your own aquatic experience. It is what you make of it. Make it good, whatever the acronym.