Signs of a Bad Dive Shop

Scuba Divers Prepare for a Dive
The cleanliness of a dive shop/boat, the quality of the gear, and that staff attitude and organization help to determine whether a dive shop is reputable or not. © Getty Images

Many years ago, I taught part of a scuba course for a local dive shop as a freelance instructor. I had never worked with that shop before, and by the end of the day, I was convinced that I never would again.  

As an instructor, I know what to look for when selecting a dive shop, but many recreational divers may not. In the hope that other divers can learn from my experience, here are some of the signs that convinced me never to work with the dive shop again.

Disorganized Dive Shops Waste Everyone's Time

If you show up with a reservation at a shop and they are surprised to see you, turn around and walk away.  My students arrived at the dive center around 1:00; apparently this was their scheduled time, but no one was quite sure. I had been told to arrive at 11:30, and had given up waiting and gone home before the divers arrived. My students had to wait for an hour while I rushed to return to the shop.

The manager informed me that the students had requested an optional pool review of scuba diving skills, which meant we didn't have time to make the afternoon dives. However, once we were all geared up and in the water, my students explained to me they never asked to review the pool work and were confused as to why they had to do it.

It was a shame that the staff had misunderstood the clients' request. As no pool or dive theory review work was required, we might have made it to the ocean had the times and requests been coordinated.

The students' entire day was wasted because of lack of communication and poor organization. If a shop can't figure out who is showing up for what course at what time, consider what other problems they might have . . . problems such as:

Dirty Shop Equals Dirty Everything Else

If the part of the shop observable by clients is extremely dirty, imagine what the parts the general public can not see are like.

One good indicator is the shop pool (if there is one).

In this case, there was poor visibility in a pool.  The pool smelled bad and I didn't want to take my regulator out to demonstrate skills. The smell stayed on my skin even after a shower.

After my experience with the stench,  I doubt that the shop cleans regulators or rinses their scuba gear properly. This could lead to equipment failure. On the cleanliness scale from "spotless to "gross," this shop rated as "public health issue." 

Poor Equipment Condition and Fit

If disorganization and dirtiness don't clue you in, another way to check the caliber of a dive shop is to check the gear before you dive.

The first tank I grabbed had an old, disintegrating o-ring. The kind, I told my students, that they would want to change before diving. I used it as an example of how a regulator won't seal properly to a tank with a bad o-ring. No biggie, o-rings wear out. I grabbed the second tank, and then a third. All had bad o-rings. Now my students and I were seeing a pattern.

One gear problem, when correctly dealt with is acceptable. Sometimes things just break. But divers evaluating a dive shop should watch for multiple problems that indicate low quality, old, or poorly maintained gear.

In this case, o- rings were not the only problem.

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One of the alternate air sources didn't work at all. The wetsuits were all too big or too small, but the person giving my clients their gear hadn't cared enough to switch them. Two of the weight belts barely closed, and the regulators were bubbling so much that the pool looked like a jacuzzi. I smiled and told the clients why each of these failures was dangerous  and went over how to check scuba gear before a dive. I hoped this would help to them safely, as I wouldn't be the one taking them in the ocean the next day.

The worst thing? The needle in one of the depth gauges had broken off and was rattling around inside the window.

When we returned the broken gear to be set aside and fixed, a shop instructor looked at the broken depth gauge and said, "Oh it's okay, don't worry about it." What? I pulled my student aside and hissed at him "That is not okay. Don't go in the ocean with that gauge tomorrow."

Paperwork and Staff Attitude

A careless attitude towards paperwork can indicate a careless attitude towards everything else. When filling out the shop's liability release, one of the students asked the cost of the shop's dive insurance. The shop instructor told him it cost $1 a dive, but it wasn't worthwhile.

There were two things wrong with this. First, the paperwork read something to the effect that "$1 of the cost of your dive has already been contributed to the local hyperbaric chamber." The instructor had never bothered to read the paperwork and had no idea what she was talking about -- there was no insurance to buy. The second problem is that if the instructor believed there was insurance to purchase, she was giving advice that could cause the shop to lose money.

That attitude tells me that the instructor didn't care much about the shop (not that I blame her). The clue to you as a client is: If the staff doesn't respect the shop, paperwork or procedures, you might not want to be there.

Attitude Towards Safety

What is the most important consideration in diving? Surviving the dive! It follows that the most important consideration in selecting a dive shop is the shop's general attitude towards safety. If a diver finds problems with gear, sanitary conditions, or paperwork, the shop's attitude should be "Okay, let's see what we can do to fix that." If a problem is met with a defensive or nonchalant attitude, be warned. This is not the shop for you.

I was close to telling the clients to run away. In this case, I settled for pointing out problems and explaining them in a non-accusatory way. (What bad luck! ALL of the regulator's bubbles! Never dive with a regulator like this. Here is how to test it before you dive).

Let's hope they were listening.