When diving with a new dive operator, there’s a good chance you’ll be required to do a checkout dive. It’ll be the first dive of your stay, in an easy location, usually fairly confined, in reasonably shallow water, and a guide or instructor will accompany you. Checkout dives allow operators to assess your skills and experience level in relation to the requirements of local sites, which will help them guide you to dive sites that will fit your abilities, making your dives safer and more enjoyable.
Teaching you the ropes
Each dive operator runs things slightly differently. The briefing for the checkout dive is typically the most thorough of all the briefings you’ll receive during your stay. Divemasters or dive guides will likely cover how briefings will be conducted, how gear is to be treated and stored, local weather and water conditions, dive dos and don’ts, signaling and any local regulations. They’ll show you what kind of gear they use, especially important if you’re renting or buddied up with someone who is, and give you info on where to rinse, dry, and store gear, as well as any procedures surrounding the dive, including entry and exit protocols.
Showing you the sites
Each dive site is different, and even if you’re an experienced diver, a first dive with an experienced, local dive guide can help you learn about local currents and wildlife that may need extra consideration, whether because it poses a potential threat to divers or because it’s endangered or threatened in some way. You’ll often dive one of the more popular sites with a guide, making it safer for you when you dive it on your own, if it’s on the agenda.
Getting comfortable in the water again
If you haven’t gone diving in a while, a checkout dive is a great chance to get reacquainted with the world aquatic before you head out on more adventuresome dives. Checkouts allow divers to brush up on skills and get back in the habit, in a safe environment.
Checking out the gear
If you’re renting gear, this is your chance to try it out, get used to it, and address any concerns or problems. If you use your own gear, it’s a chance to get it wet again, and make sure everything is working as it should. Even if you’ve used it quite recently, something may have happened to it during travel, making a checkout dive useful.
Evaluating you as a diver
Certification level and number of logged dives tells an operator something about a diver’s ability, but not all. I’ve dived with OWD divers with only a couple of dozen dives, who were born naturals, comfortable in the water, attentive to their buddies, and a pleasure to dive with, even in demanding sites. I’ve also dived with tech diving instructors with thousands of dives, who seemed to have the buddy skills of a piranha, the buoyancy skills of life raft, and a complete lack of awareness as to what they were doing or where they were. I’ve even seen one experienced diver descend rapidly to 100 feet, overinflate his BCD, shoot towards the surface like a bat out of hell, panic, grab a passing diver — probably for help — only to drag her into his uncontrolled ascent.
Skills vary greatly among otherwise comparable divers, and dive operators are well aware of this. The checkout dive is the best chance for operators to see their guests in water and evaluate their skills and experience level. During the checkout, an instructor or guide will typically look for your general comfort level in the water, buoyancy skills, gear handling and setup, your awareness of your surroundings and how you handle yourself around corals or marine life. They’ll typically also evaluate any specific skills needed for the area, such as how you handle current, your ability to deploy a DSMB, and so on.
It is important not to view these checkout dives as an exam that you need to pass, or as an occasion to impress the dive operator. Of course you’ll want to showcase your skills to your best abilities, but mainly the checkout dive is there for your benefit so that you can dive safely and enjoyably. Checkout dives are an important part of keeping divers safe for dive operators who see dozens or divers come in and out of their shop every week.