Choosing a Shop
So, you’ve decided you’re ready to take a course or go on a series of dives. How to choose between all the different dive shops? Both Utila and Roatán have set minimum prices among nearly all of their shops to avoid price wars—that price is currently at US$250 for an Open Water course in Utila and US$280 for an Open Water course in West End, Roatán. A few shops charge more, but typically include course materials and other fees (Utila has a US$4 daily reef tax, and Roatán a once-annually US$10 Marine Park fee). Dive shops do get together throughout the year, to change prices based on the cost of fuel and the level of activity on the islands, so these prices may fluctuate. Guanaja has fewer dive shops, and they are more expensive.
Perhaps the most important criteria for choosing a dive shop, especially for novice divers taking their first course, is the quality of the instructors. A good instructor can mean the difference between a fun, safe, and informative course, and one that just follows the book—or worse. Certified divers will also want to ensure their dive leader is competent, as they will be, in part, relying on that person’s judgment and safety skills. Ask how many dives a dive master has completed—100 is very few; 500 is a decent amount; 1,000 or more is a lot.
Also, a dive master with 100 or so dives is likely to have gone through all or most of his or her courses on the Bay Islands, where conditions are excellent much of the time. Consequently, that dive master will have less experience dealing with emergency situations than a diver trained in, for instance, the North Sea or the northern Pacific off California. At the same time, experience on Bay Island reefs is essential to understanding local conditions. If you can find an instructor who has worked on the islands for several years but also has experience in other parts of the world, that’s best of all.
After talking to the dive masters, look closely at the gear you would be using. The newer, the better. Especially crucial is having a well-maintained air compressor to ensure clean air in your tank. Cast an eye over the hoses, regulator, and BCD air vest, which should all look new and be without signs of wear and tear. Most shops should and do replace their gear on a regular basis. Ensure fins and mask fit snugly and comfortably—this may seem like a trivial detail in the dive shop, but a tight fin or a leaky mask can be very distracting in the water and ruin a dive if annoying enough.
A large dive boat is also a great bonus, much more stable and easier to get in and out of than the smaller launches used by many shops, and provides a less choppy and wet ride to and from the dive sites—but it usually also means more divers at each site. Those prone to seasickness should bring motion sickness pills, which are sold by many dive shops. Waters around the Bay Islands are usually a fairly balmy 28°C (82°F) or so, but if the water temperatures get down to the low 20s, as they sometimes do, you will want to make sure your shop has good wetsuits, full-length if you get cold easily.
Another factor to consider is the setup and schedule of dives at the different shops. Utila shops usually send out two dive boats a day for a total of four dives, two on the morning boat (around 7 a.m.) and another two on the afternoon boat (around 1 p.m.). Roatán’s West End shops usually send out three dive boats a day with one dive each, at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 2 p.m., although some have dives half an hour earlier or later.
While the shop chooses the sites, clients should not be shy in requesting certain dives. Most dive shops are happy to accommodate, although some may put up resistance in going to a far-off site. And be sure the group you are going with will not be too large. An ideal group size is 4–6 divers, dive master included. Certainly, you don’t want to go with more than eight divers, or it starts to feel a bit like an underwater procession.
Be aware that many shops advertise low instructor-to-student or dive master-to-diver ratios, but fail to mention that their groups number 12 or 15 divers, with three or four dive masters/instructors to herd everybody along.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition