By: Hunter Bierce, PADI Scuba Instructor
Scuba Instructor 101:
How to Become a Dive Instructor
Working in the recreational scuba industry is similar to many other outdoor professional careers. You get to spend your days outside, promoting and advancing the sport that you love. You also have a good way to find work in remote destinations and facilitate a travel-based lifestyle.
As a scuba instructor, you’ll spend more time in the water in a year than most people will in their lifetimes. But the benefits of the job extend far beyond bottom time. Effectively, you’ll be joining a global league of professionals with more experiences and resources than you’ll ever be able to make use of. Here are adjust a few of the perks:
- There’s work anywhere there is diving, and the places where there’s a lot of diving are usually pretty fantastic. Outdoor careers, and diving in particular, make it easy to travel and find a job.
- As long as you’re teaching up to standard, certifying agencies will back you up in terms of liability. Which means you’re protected legally in the event of an accident that you couldn’t prevent.
- Instructor training goes far beyond just dive skills. You’ll develop as a leader and educator, while gathering a host of other useful skills like basic emergency medical and professional sales training.
- Pro deals provide access to heavily discounted gear. You’ll be able to purchase the latest kits and find replacement parts oftentimes at nearly half of the market retail price.
- There’s a ton of opportunity to grow as both a diver and a leader. The more time and energy you invest into furthering your education and teaching capabilities, the more personal and fiscal return you will see.
- You’re joining a community. That means you’ll be surrounded by a group of like-minded friends and mentors to support you in your journey.
Like any other job, there are parts of being a scuba instructor that you’re not going to be thrilled with. That could mean hauling heavy tanks every day, having the limits of your patience tested by students, or just the inherent stress that comes along with being responsible for people who are new to being underwater.
- Working in the outdoor recreation industry does not mean a leisurely career. Being an instructor is hard work physically, mentally, and emotionally. You should expect to be challenged on all of these fronts.
- There’s a big initial investment in terms of both money and time. In order to even sign up for the instructor course you need to be certified at least up to divemaster standards, and have a fair amount of hours underwater on your own time.
- As with many outdoor jobs, finding year-round work can be a challenge depending on where you’re located. New dive instructors oftentimes have to be creative and tenacious about staying employed during the offseason and be willing to do some work on the side to maintain the lifestyle.
- It can be scary. Beyond just the inherent risks diving presents to your own person, you must stay vigilant and ready to respond to the needs of your students. If someone freaks out, or conditions aren’t ideal, it’s your responsibility to figure it out.
Ultimately, becoming a dive instructor is a lifestyle choice that almost certainly will lead to a very rich and interesting career. If you decide that it’s right for you and want to start moving forward in the professional dive industry, here are your bottom lines.
- You need to be at least 18 years of age
- Certified up to Divemaster (Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, Emergency First Responder, and Divemaster Course)
- Have at least 100 logged dives
- Have around $3000 to cover the cost of the course and the requisite materials
- You must pass the Instructor Examination
If you’re a seasoned recreational diver, chances are you’ve amassed at least some of these requirements. In addition, it’s a good idea to take some of the specialty certifications offered after you complete your Advanced Open Water to become a more rounded diver.
It can seem like a daunting task when you’re just starting out with your Open Water, but experience is crucial and it’s way better to take your time and have a solid foundation than it is to rush headlong into a career you’re unprepared for.
The rest of the guide will cover some of the intricacies of the PADI instructor pathway, and how you can move forward into a career teaching people how to dive.
How Much Does a Dive Instructor Make?
As much as becoming a dive instructor is about the experience, at the end of the day you still need to be able to pay the bills. But, the question of how much money a dive instructor can expect to make isn’t as straightforward as with other careers given the flexibility of the work, and the amount of variables that can determine your rates.
As a baseline, new Open Water dive instructors can typically expect to earn $20k USD in a calendar year. But, that’s assuming your only skills are teaching beginner scuba classes.
If you continue to invest in yourself as an instructor, you can get certified to teach more advanced and specialty recreational courses such as nitrox and AVO. The more classes you are certified to teach, the more work you’ll have, and the bigger asset you will be to the dive shop you work for.
If you’re working through a resort or dive shop, you can make commission from selling gear and additional courses. If you’re independent, you can pocket the entirety of your earnings but have to pay a lot in terms of overhead costs like renting equipment and pool space. It’s not uncommon for new dive instructors to do some work on the side.
Some instructors go even further, getting into commercial diving, where the pay can be somewhat lucrative.
How Much Does it Cost?
The typical cost to progress from divemaster all the way to instructor ranges from $2000-3000 USD. But this isn’t the bottom line.
Courses are often offered in modular components, meaning you sometimes have the option to knock out certifications like the EFRI (Emergency First Responder Instructor) separately, and sign up to do PADI’s online learning components on your own time.
Prices and criteria will vary from center to center, but typically you can expect the following price breakdown in USD:
- $1,200 for the IDC “course” itself
- $350 for the Emergency First Responder Instructor certification and application
- $900 for the Instructor Examination and application
- $550 for PADI’s online learning portion of the course
Oftentimes dive centers will offer package deals at a slightly discounted rate. These packages have been known to provide the required course materials and access to their dive facilities. This is a hefty investment on top of all of the previous time and resources you’ve used progressing through your recreational requirements, but there are ways to mitigate the price we’ll discuss later in this guide.
What Qualifications Do You Need?
In order to sign up for your IDC (Instructor Development Course) and start your career as a professional diver instructor, you first need to run the recreational certification gauntlet.
If you’ve been a PADI diver for some time, there’s a good chance you already have your Advanced Open Water. Congratulations, that’s the first big step towards your instructor candidacy.
After the AOW, you have to learn the skills to respond in the event of an incident through the Rescue Diver Course and the more general Emergency First Responder certification. The Rescue Diver Course is fantastic, and a worthwhile investment for any serious diver. Investing in a couple of specialty classes is a good idea too to round out your diving experience. Once you’ve completed these steps, you’re ready to take your divemaster course and become a PADI pro.
As a divemaster, you’ll learn best underwater leadership and guiding principles while assisting with classes and preparing for the responsibilities of an instructor. You don’t need to work as a divemaster before you enroll in an IDC, you just need the certification which also requires at least 60 logged dives. However, you need at least 100 dives to qualify for the Instructor Examination.
Outside of technical qualifications, being a dive instructor means you have great customer service skills and the confidence it takes to lead students into the unknown. You should be comfortable in the water in variable conditions, and in good enough shape to assist students in need. A sense of humor, while not essential, definitely helps.
How Long Will it Take?
Depending on your resources and experience level, obtaining your dive instructor certification could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. For some perspective, the fastest you could possibly go from a brand new diver, all the way to OWSA is 6 months. The jury is out regarding whether or not that’s a good decision.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with cranking through your certifications and getting a jump start on your career, that’s a lot of information to process. Ultimately, only you know the limits of your own abilities. Turn a critical eye toward yourself and be honest about whether or not you feel like you can be responsible for the wellbeing of other people in an emergency situation. If you have prior leadership experience, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to adapt those skills underwater.
The IDC itself can run anywhere between five days to a week and a half, while the Instructor Examination usually runs around two days. There are many routes to becoming an instructor, and the path is going to look different for everyone. That being said, your IDC is a great opportunity to learn from your peers and long term scuba veterans. It’s something to be enjoyed and taken advantage of if that’s the experience you’re seeking.
What Exactly is an IDC?
Think of the IDC as a sort of a capstone course for your diving education. It’s just as much an academic endeavor as it is physical training. Before your IDC actually starts, PADI requires you first complete an online learning course to streamline the in-person training.
Instructor Development Courses are typically split into two parts. The Assistant Instructor course is a partial certification that allows you to co-teach with another, more experienced instructor. Candidates who make it through this initial training can choose to move on to the full OWSI certification which will allow you to teach autonomously. The majority of aspiring instructors push all the way through their IDC and go on to take the Instructor Examination shortly afterwards.
The bulk of the IDC is focused on giving you the tools to teach and assess core skills needed by any PADI open water diver. There’s plenty of time for practice and drilling your demo and assessment skills, as well as the opportunity to practice teaching in a classroom setting. Above all, IDC courses are a fun, collaborative way to prepare for your Examination, and you should leave feeling confident in your ability to succeed.
In addition to the nuts and bolts of Open Water Courses, you’ll also receive professional marketing and sales training, risk assessment techniques, and more about your role as an instructor in the world of scuba diving.
Choosing an IDC Center
If you’re set on actually going for your OWSI, and have amassed all the funds and certifications necessary to sign up for the course, the next thing you’ll want to do is decide where you’re going to take it.There are benefits and drawbacks to every dive center, the trick is finding a five-star dive center that works for you.
IDC courses are offered all over the world, so when you’re deciding where you want to go it’s important to keep a few things in mind. The first and biggest constraint is going to be your own budget and timeframe. While the cold and murky waters of your hometown may not be as exciting as Bali, you’ll learn all of the same skills locally as you would in distant, remote locations without having to pay for travel on top of the course. That being said, it’s a great excuse to make a trip out of it.
You should also consider the kind environment you anticipate teaching in the most. The skills themself don’t change, but factors like visibility, temperature, and general dive conditions do. Ideally, you’ll be taking your IDC and your examination in a setting similar to the one you’ll be teaching in. For example, if you belong to that small section of die-hard freshwater divers, you wouldn’t get as much out of taking your IDC around a tropical reef. Specific considerations and tricks regarding new divers in these kinds of areas can be very helpful.
Ultimately Dive Centers that run IDCs are located pretty much everywhere you can dive, and a final but crucial consideration you should make is possible language barriers between yourself, your instructors, and your peers during the duration of the course.
You’ve completed your IDC, and you’ve practiced your skills and honed your teaching techniques. You’ve spent more time underwater than most people will in several lifetimes and are ready to take the final step in achieving your goal of becoming an Open Water Scuba Instructor–the Instructor Examination (IE). This roughly two-day test proves that you’re worthy of representing PADI as an instructor, and are ready to take on the mantle of teaching.
After you’ve completed all your prerequisites and your IDC, you should feel well-prepared to tackle anything thrown at you over the course of the examination.
The IE is divided into four stand-alone sections. You need to pass each section to qualify as an instructor, but you can retry portions of the exam you didn’t pass at a later date.
The four sections are a written exam where you prove your personal knowledge, a classroom teaching section where you demonstrate you can pass that knowledge along, a pool skills section, and an open-water skills section.
While the exam is generally regarded as “easy” there are some sections that are notoriously more difficult than others, particularly if you’re asked to walk a faux student through a controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA). Don’t stress out too much about it though, ideally, the IE should be celebratory in nature, and you should feel good about yourself moving forward into your dive career.
Becoming a dive instructor is undoubtedly a costly endeavor, not only economically but also in terms of the amount of time needed to get the certifications and experience. Fortunately, some accredited dive centers offer instructor internship programs to help reduce the cost of your IDC. You’ll want to discuss details beforehand, but the way it typically works is you assist as a divemaster with teaching and around the shop, and the cost of your IDC will be covered.
These programs have the added benefit of getting you hands-on experience teaching students, and an introduction to what it’s like to work in a dive shop. Perhaps the only thing more important than getting your accreditation is having the experience you need to back it up in the real world. The IDC pathway is challenging, and while comprehensive in its scope, there’s no substitute for actual guide experience.
Programs like this can cover about half of your total cost, and give the possibility of getting onboarded to the shop as a full-time instructor.
Becoming a scuba instructor is a lot of work, but the rewards from seeing it through to the end far outweigh the cost of admission. You’ll develop leadership and teaching skills that will be with you through the rest of your life. You will have daily experiences that the average person would find exceptional. Adventure, exploration, and growth become the norm for you- and your journey is far from over.
After you have completed your IE and gain some experience as an instructor, there are many other opportunities for development within the scuba industry. You could knock out all of your specialty instructor certifications, become a commercial diver or develop yourself as a tech diving teacher, or even move on to teaching IDCs yourself.
Choosing a career as a scuba instructor, or any outdoor industry job for that matter, forces you to reconcile with what you consider important. An outdoor job forces you to develop mentally and physically in ways that sitting in an office simply cannot. A lot of the benefits aren’t quantifiable, but at the end of the day the satisfaction and contentment you will feel will be more than enough.