The Pros And Cons Of Certifying Solely In Freshwater

This article draws on my personal experience of certifying in both environments in order to establish whether there is any meaningful difference between the two.

As a dive professional, I’ve often guided customers on their first-ever sea dive. Some of these were students, but many were advanced divers who had only dived in inland quarries, lakes and rivers. This got me thinking about the pros and cons of certifying entirely in freshwater, and whether doing so affects one’s ability to dive safely in a saltwater environment. This article draws on my personal experience of certifying in both environments in order to establish whether there is any meaningful difference between the two.

Pros

I completed my entry-level certification at the end of a vacation to Australia, after which I returned to the U.K. I was instantly hooked, however, and couldn’t wait for my next diving vacation or to start working towards my next certification. The easiest (and cheapest) way for me to continue diving once I got home was to sign up for my advanced course at an inland quarry, only 30 minutes from where I lived. The quarry was a far cry from the Great Barrier Reef, and yet, it was considerably more convenient than making my way to the English coast. Convenience, therefore, is one of freshwater certification’s major pros; it was also far more affordable. In this way, freshwater certification helps make diving more accessible.

Divers that have only ever dived in the ocean often assume that inland diving is easy, since those factors that can make saltwater diving a little tricky (current, swell and tidal changes) are not an issue at inland dive sites. I would argue, however, that freshwater diving has its own difficulties, each of which helps improve the skills and experience of those who certify there. Even though many of world’s most crystalline dive sites are inland, often they’re not the same dive sites at which scuba courses are taught. The worst visibility I’ve ever encountered has been at inland dive sites, which presents a major challenge for beginners. However, if you can feel confident in an environment where your hand disappears a few inches from your face, it’s likely that you’ll remain calm in other stressful situations, too.

It could also be argued that certifying in freshwater gives a diver greater appreciation for the ocean when they dive there for the first time. I’ve never seen clients surface at the end of a sea dive with as much exhilaration as a group I once guided in South Africa, which had until then only ever dived Johannesburg quarries. Whereas those who certify in the ocean may become blasé about turtles, parrotfish, or moray eels, this group was astounded by the color and life on the reef. For them, anything that wasn’t the algae-encrusted shell of an old bus (those who’ve experienced quarry diving will know what I mean) was something to be treasured for a long time. With that being said, freshwater certification sites do have their share of interesting life — I once came face-to-face with a giant pike at that same English quarry where I did my advanced course.

Cons

Although we’ve already established that inland diving is by no means easy, it’s an unavoidable fact that it cannot entirely prepare a diver for the rigors of the ocean. This has been my No. 1 issue with divers who have certified solely in freshwater and then attempted ocean dives without allowing themselves any period of adjustment. Making the transition on a calm, flat day with no current is one thing, but in South Africa, where I’ve spent most of my time as a divemaster and instructor, the ocean rarely complies. I’ve seen certified divers lose their nerve completely because they were unprepared for the difficulties of diving in strong current or in rolling surge.

As a dive guide, you can advise divers who are new to the ocean to wait for better conditions, but if they are fully certified, the decision is really up to them. A lack of ocean experience is usually an easily overcome hurdle under a dive professional’s supervision, but sometimes  — especially when freshwater-certified divers choose to dive as a buddy pair without an experienced guide — this gap in a diver’s knowledge can be dangerous.

Another issue that affects divers who certify solely in one environment or the other is buoyancy. Adequate weight in fresh water will not be adequate in salt water, and the necessary adjustments can make it difficult to reestablish buoyancy control quickly. Although this affects saltwater divers who visit inland dive sites, too, it is better to be slightly negatively buoyant than positively buoyant.

Currently, divers who certify in freshwater are not required to undergo any additional training before transferring their skills to the ocean and vice versa. After reading this article, do you agree that scuba skills are scuba skills, and the environment in which you practice them is irrelevant? Or do you feel that divers who train solely in either freshwater or saltwater should seek further training before being able to conduct themselves safely anywhere else?