Lips; salty. Certification card; shiny. Bank account; lighter. And so, the lifelong love affair begins.
With the Open Water course behind you, and a few dives to your name, your sights are set on the next milestone: the Advanced Open Water course (AOW).
But am I ready yet? you ask eagerly.
Of course, your instructor tells you, I like my Advanced students as wide-eyed and green as they come.
The elation flows, you head straight to the front desk, slap your hand on the counter and declare your wish to enroll in the next course running. The crusty old sea-dog behind the desk looks you over, hey slow down kid, he says, didn’t you just finish your Open Water? Get some experience, then come back and book your course.
Your brow furrows. Well, which one is it? you say to yourself, itching for an answer.
Over the course of this article, we will discuss what to consider before enrollment, how to know if you’re ready and a bit about what the Advanced course actually is. If your infatuation for diving is fresh and alive, then read on!
The Course at a Glance
Before assessing your own suitability for the AOW course, it helps if we first establish what the purpose and content of the course is.
PADI states that their AOW course:
“… helps you build confidence in navigation, fine-tune buoyancy skills and introduces you to different diving activities.”
In a similar vein, SSI (Scuba Schools International) describe their Advanced Adventure Diver course as the “perfect way to advance your dive skills and experience, and to identify which specialty programs interest you.” Across almost all agencies, the AOW course/equivalency has two core purposes:
- Refine and extend the fundamental skills of diving.
- Introduce you to specialised types of diving.
You are introduced to the fundamental skills of diving in your Open Water course. These include buoyancy and trim, as well as basic navigation, among other things. In the AOW course, these core skills are refined and built upon. In the Peak Performance Buoyancy speciality taster dive, for example, you will revisit what you have already learnt regarding BCD and lung control, allowing you to hone these skills, but you will also perform new exercises and be introduced to new techniques, taking your buoyancy and trim to the next level.
Similarly, you will learn new techniques for underwater navigation, such as visual navigation and various distance measuring techniques, as well as refining the compass skills you already know. On top of this, the AOW certification extends your maximum depth limitation (in PADI from 18 to 30 metres). Therefore, you will also be introduced to the additional risks and considerations involved in deeper diving. By so doing, you are again honing that which you already know about dive physics and physiology, as well as extending your knowledge by going into greater detail on subjects such as inert gas narcosis, gas planning and decompression sickness.
This core skill development is done by introducing you to a variety of specialised types of diving – the second purpose of the course. This can be anything from night diving to drift diving – even wreck diving – and they go by the name of ‘adventure dives’ under most agencies. These are essentially Dive One of five different specialities, and act as a taster dive for each. The speciality taster dives available to you depend on the region you’re diving in, as well as the dive centre themselves. Some centres offer a wide variety of ‘adventure dives’ to choose from; others teach the same ones for every student. This is not necessarily a criticism, however, as logistics and geography sometimes give the dive centre a limited range of options to choose from.
When to Begin?
For almost every agency, the only prerequisite for enrolling in an AOW course is to be an Open Water (OW) diver. This is where the debate begins. There is no prerequisite number of dives and thus you could go straight from your OW course into your AOW course. But should you?
There are many instructors and divers alike who recommend gaining experience before enrolling in your AOW course. They usually give a baseline amount of dives you should have; some say at least 10-20, others go as high as 50-100. Conversely, there are many who recommend enrolling as soon as possible after finishing your OW course. There is merit in both these arguments.
Let’s take the first. By having greater experience, you will be able to focus more on the new material you are learning, as it is more likely (though not always) that your core skills, i.e. the ones you learnt in your OW course, will be of a higher level due to your increased experience. Therefore, you can put a greater degree of focus on the new skills involved in the adventure dives, and can also see their value in a wider context, as you can relate them to your own previous diving experiences. Similarly, as the AOW certification allows you to dive in much more extreme sites – especially with liveaboard companies – your greater level of experience will make these dives both more enjoyable and safer.
On the other hand, what is the benefit of taking the AOW in a much sooner time period after you OW course?
Let’s say after 0-10 non-course dives. As your skill level will naturally be lower, the learning curve will be steeper, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Similarly, as you have very little experience of diving, the adventure dives act as an accelerated program for introducing you to the many different routes and possibilities within the world of diving. In this respect, it is arguable you are getting more out of the course than the experienced diver.
On top of this, by building upon and refining skills you recently learnt, you are reinforcing them as well as preventing the building of bad habits. For example, it is very difficult for a diver with 100 dives to relearn how to frog kick, or to stop them from using their hands for buoyancy control if that’s what they’ve been doing the whole time.
Similarly, more often than not, experienced divers wait too long before enrolling in their AOW course, and are then reluctant to do so, as they are unsure if they will learn anything new. And, to a large degree, they are correct. If they can already use a compass, are very comfortable controlling their buoyancy, have already done some dives past 18 metres, and perhaps have even dived some shallow wrecks, then what can the AOW course offer them?
For these divers, a speciality course would likely be much more suitable. By going into the AOW course sooner rather than later, you are essentially consolidating the basics, as well as dipping your toe into what diving has to offer.
The name of the course can also lead to confusion, particularly the moniker ‘Advanced’. What is an Advanced diver?
The word ‘advanced’ is indicative of high level skill. However, let’s remember the full name of the course: Advanced Open Water. The Open Water course is the basic, rudimentary entry-level qualification. Therefore, an advanced version of something basic and rudimentary will not, by definition, be high-level: it will merely be better than basic. If across nearly all recreational scuba diving agencies an AOW diver does not require any prerequisite amount of dives, then we can infer that the qualification is not indicative of high level skills and experience. It is simply a continuation and honing of the basics, just as with advanced driving courses – for example – able to be taken straight after passing your driving test. It advances basic skills; it does not teach advanced ones.
Ultimately, the choice is yours as to when to start your AOW, as it is highly dependent on your goals, your comfort level, and the opinion of your instructor. For some divers, gaining experience and taking more time to practice and apply the basics they have been taught is necessary before enrollment. For others, enrolling sooner is the better option, allowing them to consolidate what they have learnt as well as to extend their skill base from an early point in their diving career.
What can be said, as a general rule, is that the diver should at least have a basic level of competency before enrolling. For example, they should be able to build and dismantle their own equipment without instructor supervision; be able to work as a buddy team and perform buddy checks, and be able to understand and use underwater hand signals. As long as this basic skill level is present, then the diver will greatly benefit from enrolling in an AOW course, regardless of the amount of dives they have (or don’t have!).