If you are planning on becoming a diver and looking around at different dive shops, you will probably be wondering what the difference is between taking an SSI or a PADI Open Water Course. In this article I will explain the differences between the two.
What is a Diver Certification Agency?
A Diver Certification Agency is basically responsible for creating diving courses, and then certifying divers who complete those courses. By certifying a diver, an Instructor is guaranteeing that diver has not only completed the course, but reached a predefined level of proficiency. There are currently more than 150 recreational diver certification agencies, of which SSI and PADI certify the majority of divers.
Many of these agencies, SSI and PADI included, are members of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). The WRSTC defines the minimum standards which its members must comply with and this is what defines the baseline of courses. These standards include; academic course content, skills to be performed, minimum ages for students , maximum number of students per instructor and maximum depths. As such you will find that courses from WRSTC cover much of the same content, but it will be taught differently. It is these differences I will be aiming to cover in this article.
Signing Up for a Course – Begin Your Study
Different Dive Centres affiliate themselves with different agencies. As an Instructor has to invest time and money to become certified to teach for a particular agency, most Instructors only teach for one agency. There are some instructors who have been certified to teach courses for multiple agencies and you may well find some Dive Centres who therefore offer both SSI and PADI courses.
When you sign up for a course, the first thing you will have to do is complete some home study. This is where we notice the first differences. With a PADI Open Water course most Dive Centres will give you a book to read, multiples choice questions to answer (Knowledge Reviews), and a few hours of videos to watch. PADI has a rule that students have to own their training material. You may have to buy a book and carry it around (not great if you are backpacking). Many dive centres now have library copies of books that they lend to the student. In this case they then provide an electronic copy as well.
If you want to begin your study with PADI before you go on holiday to learn diving, there are a couple of options. PADI e-learning provides you with the academic material via Adobe Flash. The big problem here is that Flash is quite a dated technology which has now been largely replaced in most areas by HTML5. This means that the e-learning course most likely won’t work on your mobile device. It can only be accessed on a laptop, and then only when you are online.
The other option is PADI Touch. This is PADI’s digital training manual which is provided via the PADI Library mobile app. This is more up to date than the old flash based e-learning. The first problem with this is that it only works on Android and iOS, so if you have a Windows phone or tablet you are out of luck. If you buy the Touch option it won’t work on your Windows, MacOS or Linux laptop either. Looking on the Google Play store, PADI Library only scores 3.6 out of 5 stars with many of the comments complaining the application is very buggy. Being able to read the course offline is a major advantage of the PADI Library App.
If you do choose to do the online training you will find it costing significantly more than signing up at your dive shop and buying a book. Current cost for both PADI e-learning and Touch is $196. Here on Gili Trawangan an Open Water course currently costs 5,500,000 IDR. If you have already bought a PADI e-learning or Touch course then you can get the course for 4,900,000 IDR. So you save 600,000 IDR ($45). Add this to the price of the e-learning or Touch course and it doesn’t look very cheap. The combined cost of the online training plus the discounted course on Gili is $563 which makes it $151 more expensive to do a PADI course with e-learning or Touch!
Digital Learning, Real Diving
Signing up for an SSI course is slightly different. SSI launched their current course in 2015 under the catchphrase “Digital Learning, Real Diving”. You can probably tell from that they are really pushing the online aspect of training. The problem here is that many dive centres have been slow to adopt the new course and over a year later I have witnessed some shops still using out of date books and exams. So it’s very important to make sure the Dive Centre you choose is teaching the digital training course.
SSI have really taken advantage of the power of technology with their latest course. It is all based on HTML5 so it will work on any device with a web browser. To access this you will need an internet connection, which can be a problem on tropical islands. To solve that, SSI have something called the SSI Hub. The Hub is a small battery powered device which stores all of the online courses inside it. Users can connect their mobile device to it and download the course into their phone so it is available offline. No internet connection, no power, no problem. To use the Hub you need the SSI App, which like the PADI Library app is available on Android and iOS.
Digital Learning, Same Price
SSI have made their digital training available to you at no extra cost. There is also a book of the new course which is the same course but on paper. There are no embedded videos with the book so SSI also provide a video so if someone was unable to do the digital training they can still use a book and videos. Another difference here is SSI don’t force the student to purchase the book.
For students who want to start their training before going on holiday, they can sign up for the Scuba Diver course at www.divessi.com for free. This course is the first 3 chapters of the Open Water Course. For the last 3 chapters the Dive Centre has to register the student for the Open Water course, at a fee to be determined by the dive centre. But at the time of writing this only costs the Dive Centre $38 and includes the certification fee. This means an SSI Open Water course with digital learning before arriving is only 5,500,000 IDR ($412), so no additional cost over signing up at the shop!
Completing the Academics
A big difference between SSI and PADI is how they choose to teach their courses. PADI use prescriptive training. This means that students, read the book, watch the videos, answer knowledge reviews and then complete a test. The only intervention from the Instructor during this is to correct any questions the student answered incorrectly and ensure the student understands the correct answer. SSI is significantly different in this regard.
The SSI Open Water Course includes 6 academic sessions. This is where an Instructor can actually teach the academic portion of the course. SSI provide a powerpoint presentation that the instructor can use to talk the student through all the topics to be covered. Being able to explain the principles of diving, in an interactive situation is a guaranteed way to ensure the students understand the concepts. If a student it confused by an explanation they can simply stop the instructor and ask questions. Instructors can also see when students look confused or are falling asleep and engage with them directly. This is not possible in PADI where the students are watching a DVD.
PADI students who have bought the e-learning course are also able to do the exam online. The first problem with this is that they are doing the exam before having any interaction with an instructor, so it has been entirely self study. Also by doing the exam at home it would be very easy to cheat. A couple of minutes with google are all that you require to find the answers to the PADI exam. SSI students on the other hand will have completed academic sessions with their instructor before sitting the exam. With SSI, you will sit your exam in the presence of an instructor, so no cheating.
In The Water
The first in water training is confined training which is done in a pool or in pool like conditions. SSI and PADI define a list of skills which must be completed before a student can progress to the Open Water. PADI’s major difference here is that they specify groups of skills and you must complete them in a specific order. The problem here could be if a student is struggling with a skill, they cannot progress to the next group of skills until they complete it. This can be very demoralising for a student with difficulties, and will put them under pressure if none of the group can progress until they master one particular skill . With SSI the instructor is able to decide on the most appropriate order for skills.
A Different Approach
This allows an SSI instructor to move on and then return to the problem skill later, perhaps once they are more comfortable in the water. Instructors usually teach Open Water courses to a group of students. With an SSI course the instructor could finish the confined training with the group, and then keep the student with the problem in the pool for some extra one on one coaching after everyone else is done.
Another problem with the strict ordering of PADI skills is that it often results in instructors feeling they have to break the rules in order to get students through the training. PADI also require you to complete certain skills on particular dives. The Open Water course normally includes 4 dives, but if a student had a problem with a skill on a dive, they would have to repeat that dive, at additional cost. For an SSI student, they could get some additional coaching and repeat the skill on the next dive.
Probably the major difference between the skills taught on SSI and PADI is the emergency ascents. The PADI course teaches the Control Emergency Swimming Ascent (CESA). This is done horizontally in confined training, and vertically in the Open Water from a depth of 6 – 9 meters. Instructors are always vocal about how much they dislike the CESA. CESAs involve fast ascents and the instructor has take each student individually. This could mean the instructor making 6 rapid ascents in a short space of time. For instructors who are diving everyday and have nitrogen absorbed in their bodies, these rapid ascents are potentially dangerous as they can bring on Decompression Sickness. PADI training materials also mention a Buoyant Ascent, but you won’t find it in the Instructor manual, so its not taught to students.
You will learn both an Emergency Swimming Ascent (ESA) and an Emergency Buoyant Ascent (EBA) with SSI. These are taught vertically in the pool, but performing in the Open Water is at the instructors discretion, which means that most instructors do not do it and feel that teaching it in confined water is sufficient. This increases safety for both instructors and students. The fact that an Emergency Buoyant Ascent is taught in confined is also a great advantage to students as they get to practice this with the instructor.
After a student has completed all their training to a satisfactory level its time for the Instructor to certify them. This is where they report their details to the certification agency who issues their Open Water certificate. In the PADI system you are issued with a temporary card. You will receive your physical card in the post (usually takes few weeks). If the diver wants a digital card then they need to pay $35 for it. Dive shops can search for a divers record online if the diver forgets their card. With PADI this requires a PADI login to check. So only PADI professionals who have paid their renewal fee can verify a diver. This isn’t much use if you want to dive at a dive shop without any PADI professionals working there.
With SSI, when a diver is certified, their digital card is immediately issued to them at no extra charge. You can use a mobile device, or any device with a web browser to view these D-cards. The dive shop can print their physical card immediately if they want to have a physical card. To check a divers SSI certification, anyone can put their details into the website to see their card. If an SSI diver forgets their card, any dive shop can verify them.
As I said in the introduction, it is the certification agency’s responsibility to create the diving courses. Diving is constantly evolving. We are still learning about how our bodies are affected by diving and equipment manufacturers are always advancing their gear. So it is also the certification agencies responsibility to keep their courses up to date. In order to update the old systems, new books would need to be printed and bought. The great thing about online training is that updates can be made instantly and everyone can benefit immediately.
Since the SSI Open Water Digital Learning course was released there have been several subtle updates. The SSI exams have also received several updates over the last 2 years. The PADI exams have to be purchased by the Instructors so they are only updated every few years. The nature of the PADI digital courses and the book mean that they also receive updates far less often than the SSI courses.
Maximum Ascent Rates
One very significant difference in standards between PADI and SSI is the maximum ascent rate. PADI quote a maximum ascent rate of 18 meters per minute. SSI give a much more conservative 9 meters per minute. Modern dive computers agree with the SSI maximum and will show anything faster as too fast. Enforcing a slower ascent rate helps to reduce the chances of decompression sickness.
SSI now teach that the only safe way to plan your dives is with a Dive Computer. PADI still give the option to teach Dive Tables. All professional divers dive with a computer and any serious recreational diver will own a computer. It makes sense therefore to teach divers how to use a computer from Dive 1. On an SSI Open Water course they will learn all the features of a dive computer. Giving PADI instructors the option to still teach tables makes it very tempting for Dive Centres to save money by not purchasing enough computers for all their students.
PADI has higher certification fees than SSI. This means that some places in the world you will see courses price slightly more expensive than SSI courses. For the Dive Centre the membership fees are also higher with PADI and this has caused many Dive Centres to switch their affiliation from PADI to SSI. For the majority of new dive centres, the low erprice makes SSI a very attractive option. We are now seeing many more SSI dive shops opening up. Despite the fact that there are still more PADI dive centres than SSI, we could see this change over the next few years.
It seems clear that the SSI Open Water course offers several advantages over the PADI course. My advice to anyone taking any Open Water course would be to ask a few questions before enrolling. Ensure that they are teaching the latest version of the course. With the SSI digital course you know you always have the latest version. When writing the exam, make sure it is also the latest version. SSI exams always have the date of release at the bottom and their have been several revisions this year. Look for a dive shop which teaches you how to use a Dive Computer on the course.
Both PADI and SSI are large very reputable agencies so you can be guaranteed a high quality course. Whichever course you do take, the most important things is to have a good instructor, as they are the key to making good divers.