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Like many things, the French like to do it differently. Scuba diving is, unfortunately, one of those things that don’t work in the same way the rest of the world does. This article is not meant to judge whether it is a good thing. It is a practical guide if you intend to visit France with scuba diving in mind or if you live in France, but trained abroad, and would like to explore the best dive sites in France, from diving in Marseille to its furthest overseas territories of the Pacific Ocean.
Understand PA & PE equivalences
What does PA mean? “Plongeur Autonome” = Autonomous Diver
What does PE mean? “Plongeur Encadré” = Supervised Diver (with a Divemaster or an Instructor)
What do the numbers 12, 20, 40 mean? It is the maximum depth in meters the diver is allowed to in the PA or PE case
In France, you do not necessarily do fun dives with a Divemaster, hence the different cases. If you request to have a guided dive, it usually comes at an additional cost.
However, according to the classification below, you may dive deeper depending on your scuba diving certification level:
PA case without a dive leader
- PA12: Autonomous Diver who can go down to 12 m maximum without a dive leader or an instructor. You can be granted PA12 in France if you are a certified PADI (or equivalent) Scuba Diver. Note: in practice, you will usually be asked to be a certified Open Water Diver.
- PA20: Autonomous Diver who can go down to 20 m maximum without a dive leader or an instructor. You can be granted PA20 in France if you are at least a certified PADI (or equivalent) Open Water Diver. Note: in practice, you will usually be asked to be certified Advanced Open Water Diver.
- PA40: Autonomous Diver who can go down to 40 m maximum without a dive leader or an instructor. You can be granted PA40 in France if you are at least a certified PADI (or equivalent) Advanced Open Water Diver + Deep Specialty. Note: in practice, you will usually be asked to be a certified Rescue Diver.
PE case with a dive leader
- PE20: Supervised Diver who can go down to 20 m maximum with a dive leader or an instructor. You can be granted PE20 in France if you are a certified PADI (or equivalent) Scuba Diver. Note: in practice, you will usually be asked to be a certified Open Water Diver.
- PE40: Supervised Diver who can go down to 40 m maximum with a dive leader or an instructor. You can be granted PE40 in France if you are at least a certified PADI (or equivalent) Open Water Diver. Note: in practice, you will usually be asked to be a certified Rescue Diver.
Sources: [only available in French] Art. A322-77 French Sports Law
As a PADI Divemaster with a Deep Specialty, I am considered a PA40, but any new Dive Director I meet needs to confirm it. I recommend having your scuba diving logbook up-to-date and having a positive attitude. For information, PADI (or equivalent) Divemasters cannot lead dives in France, and PADI (or equivalent) Instructors cannot teach in France.
When I say France, it means its main territory in Europe with Corsica, its overseas territories in the Caribbean & South America (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana) and the Indian Ocean (Reunion Island, Mayotte). New Caledonia and French Polynesia Sports Laws are based on the French Sports Law but have more flexible arrangements. In New Caledonia, I can be allowed to lead a dive as a PADI Divemaster.
Understand liability release does not exist in France
The Sports Law in France rules scuba diving. It gives the person in charge of the dive, called the Dive Director, all the responsibility for what will happen during the whole dive. So you will never sign any liability release in France; the scuba diving centre is entirely responsible for you.
Based on this principle, it is essential to understand that this Dive Director will not take any unnecessary risk if he does not know the level of a scuba diver he has never met. So don’t be shocked if you are not immediately granted the equivalence explained below or ask to go first on an easier dive for observation.
Please try to be understanding. At any time, “gendarmerie maritime” can stop the boat, ask everyone’s dive computer to check the maximum depth of each diver and compare it with the roll. If anyone goes below his authorised depth, the Dive Director is held responsible and can be fined.
Sources: [only available in French] Art. A322-72 French Sports Law
Don’t forget to bring a medical statement from your doctor
One important point that nobody will ever tell you: most of the time, you will be asked for a medical statement from your doctor saying you are fit for scuba diving. The statement must not be older than one year. You will need to show this document before going on your first dive. This is not a legal requirement, but since the Dive Director, as explained above, is fully responsible for you, he/she usually wants to take this risk away by asking for this medical statement.
If you have no idea what it should look like, you can use this medical form made by PADI.
I have never been asked to show my diving insurance. The main reason is if we have a diving accident in France, we will be covered by Social Security, which is true to some extent when you have good health complementary insurance (people living and working in France have this included in their salary package). Make your life easier by always having valid scuba diving insurance for all the additional medical costs (hospitalisation, repatriation, additional treatments later).
- If you are an EU citizen, ask for your European health insurance card.
- If you are not an EU citizen, have scuba diving insurance.
The best places to go scuba diving in France
Based on the regulation explained above, you should be able to dive anywhere. However, there is a difference between theory and practice. To be honest, popular areas with foreign tourists will be your best bet to make your life easier. My recommendations are :
- French Riviera, the Mediterranean coast from Hyères to Menton in the south of France
- Martinique & Guadeloupe in the Caribbean
- New Caledonia & French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean
For areas such as Northern France and Normandy, unfortunately, all scuba diving centres are associative clubs affiliated with the French Scuba diving Federation (FFESSM, equivalent to BSAC in the UK), and it will be hard, almost impossible to go diving there if you do not know someone.
For further details, have a look at my blog posts about travelling and scuba diving in France:
- Diving in Marseille & the Calanques National Park
- Diving in Port Cros National Park
- Diving in Nice, the heart of the French Riviera
- Diving with the seahorses of Thau Lagoon near Sète
- My 2-week scuba diving itinerary in Brittany
- Ice diving above 2000m in the French Alps
Can you scuba dive in France if you don’t speak French?
I know, I know… the reputation of France for its English speaking skills is not at its best… but believe me, things have slowly started to change. For instance, did you realise you are reading a diving blog in English written by a French girl?
Once again, tourist areas will be your best bet to find scuba diving centres that can offer service in English. On France’s mainland, the French Riviera will be the place to go.
Are you hesitating to contact a dive centre to know if they speak English? Join our group on Facebook, where French scuba divers who speak English will help you to find out.
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