There are two places in the world that have the cheapest rates for a PADI Open Water Course, Koh Tao in Thailand and Utila in Honduras. Getting PADI certified in Utila will only set you back around $330 USD and most dive shops will include accommodation for the duration of your course. As we would be heading down south shortly after the completion of my Spanish language immersion program in Guatemala, Kane and I decided to get our scuba certification in Utila, Honduras.
We chose the Utila Dive Centre through a recommendation from a friend who had worked there in the past and set about starting our online learning modules. The eLearning option is good for anyone who is short on time, as most shops will let you do the online learning modules beforehand and then you can spend all your precious time on the island diving. However, this does bring the cost of the certification up to $413 USD, so if you have the time you can save a bit of money. Kane and I normally travel quite slowly and decidedly not on a schedule, but my good friends, Laura and Emily, were meeting us for two weeks so we had to get the certification finished on their time line. By the time we all arrived on the island we had our online learning complete and were ready to hop in the water…or so we thought.
Turns out Emily had not gotten a doctors approval for diving yet so after our initial paper test on the online materials she had to go to a doctor on the island to get cleared to dive. The great thing about diving on Utila is that it is a dive island through and through so there are plenty of affordable, reliable doctors on the island willing to see you on short notice. Unfortunately for Emily the doctor found that her ear had not healed fully from a prior sinus surgery thus diving was out of the question. Utila Dive Centre was more than accommodating with this change of plans and gave her a partial refund for the dives she wouldn’t be joining. In the end she did come along to snorkel a few times though so she still got to see the beautiful underwater world of Utila.
One person down we headed into the water for our swim test, basically just seeing that we could swim well enough to get to a buoy and back. There was a lot of laughing involved as anyone who has attempted to swim freestyle in a bikini will know, if you go at all fast you risk being the star of your very own peep show. Then it was on to the confined water dives, which turned out to be shallow water dives in a calm section of the bay near the dive shop. Those first few dives were exciting, but not scary as we were mostly just bobbing around a few feet from the surface of the water trying to figure out neutral buoyancy, aka how not to sit on your boyfriend’s head or kick precious pieces of coral into smitherines. We dove twice that day, learning hand signals and other important skills for not dying underwater.
The next morning I was feeling good about the whole breathing underwater thing when the rug yanked out from under us. We arrived ready for our last confined water dive, but got told very abruptly that we were instead heading out on the boat to a shallow section of the open ocean to finish our skills dives and said boat was leaving in 5 minutes. In a flurry of activity we were shown how to load our gear onto the boat and with a rev of the engine we were off to the deep blue sea. I did not handle this change well. I had thought we were going to be diving in the safe, calm bay and now here I was bouncing along out to the actual ocean trying not to vomit/hyperventilate.
When the boat pulled up to the dive site I was in full blown freak out mode, but our instructor said everyone in the water so I stuffed me fear down, squeezed Kane’s hand, and jumped in. The water was rougher than the calm bay I was used to, we were getting tossed around a bit, and I was very nervous, but somehow I managed to follow the others through the motions of skills we had learned and started the descent. We only went down to about 10 m that dive, but by the time I made it to the bottom, dead last I might add, my heart was pounding in my ears. Kane swam over to me, held my hand, and sat with me on the bottom until I calmed down enough to start to learn the last few skills we would need for our certification. Slowly and with Kane’s help, I calmed down enough to begin to enjoy the dive. However, I can’t say I enjoyed that first real dive and when we resurfaced for our decompression time I was very glad to be out of the water.
It wasn’t until our first fun dive that I began to understand why so many people love SCUBA. It took me a long time to get down (my ears had been hurting since the day before) but once I got there (after about 20 minutes of a very slow descent with lots of equalizing) I was transported into another world. The irrational fear of being crushed by the water was gone and in its place was this amazing sense of calm. As we floated through the warm island waters full of tropical fish, healthy coral reef, and majestic sea turtles I felt like I was a visitor from another world who was allowed, ever so briefly, a place in this world we call the ocean. Scuba diving let me feel like I was a part of the underwater world, while snorkeling only felt like glimpsing that world through a window, a more removed, less personal experience. I surfaced that day with a huge smile on my face.
Alas, while my mind had decided it enjoyed scuba diving, my body wasn’t so easily convinced. My ears were much worse that afternoon so I dragged myself over to the island doctor to get them checked, just in case. That just in case turned out to be a good idea, because the doctor diagnosed me with an ear infection and said no diving for three days. Crap. Oh well, I would stay on the surface while Laura and Kane finished their certifications and hopefully join the PADI Open Water Divers club in three days time. Three days and three antibiotic shots to the butt later I went back to the doctor, dreams of sea turtles floating through my head. Those dreams were shot down when he found a small rupture in my ear drum, apparently the stress of diving that much over a short time had been too much for my ears. No diving, or flying, for three weeks. Double crap.
Our group of four had dwindled to two by the time the final dives came around and I’m pretty sure the dive shop thought we were falling apart. I was bummed about missing out on my dive certification, but they promised me if I went to another shop with my documentation that I could finish the last dives I needed to do for a discounted cost. I still have yet to finish my course as it is too expensive in the States and we didn’t make it to Koh Tao as planned due to a poorly timed monsoon, but I hope to finish it eventually. I really did fall in love with diving, but I might want to get my ears checked out one more time before I head back underwater.
Tips for Getting PADI Certified in Utila
Travel in Honduras is not the easiest and you have to be flexible about when you arrive on the island if you are attempting to island hop in the region. We had wanted to go from San Ignacio, Belize to Caye Caulker, Belize to Utila, Honduras, but we quickly found out that the trip from Caye Caulker to Utila would have taken a minimum of three days in transit. Realizing our friends did not have the time for that on their two week holiday, we scrapped Caye Caulker, took a cab from San Ignacio to Belize City, flew from Belize City to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on a tiny prop plane, stayed the night in San Pedro Sula, then left early the next morning to get on a bus that would get us to La Ceiba in time for the 9:30 am ferry to Utila.
Travel Companies used:
Belize City to San Pedro Sula: Tropic Air ($150 USD)
San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba: Hedman Alas ($15 USD or 300 Lempira one way)
La Ceiba to Utila: Utila Princess Ferry ($25 USD or 448 Lempira one way)
How to pick a dive shop:
We chose Utila Dive Centre based on personal recommendation and I felt that they were a good dive shop in general, all the equipment was well maintained, but I did not like that our instructor pushed me to get into the water when I was visibly freaking out and told me to keep diving when my ears hurt. This may have just been an instructor problem, but if I could have done it again I would have been more insistent about taking it at my own pace. Your health and safety is worth your dive course taking an extra day.
If you have more time than we did I would recommend not choosing a dive shop until you get to the island so that you can walk around, price shop, and talk to potential instructors to get a feel for how a course with them would go. Make sure you ask to look at the equipment and don’t dive with any companies that have obviously faulty or broken equipment. That being said this is Honduras and a lot of the gear is older, but age does not mean something should be broken.
Utila Dive Centre PADI Open Water Diver Course – $329 USD
Utila Dive Centre PADI Open Water Diver Course doing eLearning – $239 USD to the Dive Centre, $174 USD to PADI for the eLearning, total cost at $413 USD
Every single dive shop on Utila will, and should, offer you accommodation with the cost of the course. Most will offer dorm rooms, but we paid $80 USD extra per person to get put into two private rooms with air con at the Mango Inn for the five nights. The Mango Inn would have been outside of our price range normally, but the subsidized cost of $16 USD a night per person we could afford our little slice of luxury. The Mango Inn was lovely, the rooms were spacious and clean, the air con worked well, and the pool was a refreshing addition.