I wanted to give a big thumbs-up to Capt. Jamie Bostwick and his Aristakat Dive Charter. His specialty is putting divers onto big megalodon teeth down in Venice, and he certainly delivers. My wife and I dove with him a short while back and had a great time. We found all sorts of shark teeth and some other cool fossils. My big tooth of the day was just short of 4" long! He has had two divers this summer find teeth that were 6" long...huge! Check him out at Aristakat Charters
I wish I lived closer to Venice...it's a long drive from Jacksonville!
I dive out of Jacksonville quite frequently. Actually, most of my dive sites are the publicly known wrecks and reefs. You can download the GPS coordinates from the Florida Fish and Wildlife website at FWC - Fishing in Florida - Freshwater and Saltwater Information
The diving off Jax is nothing short of amazing. The amount of life on one of the artificial reefs is staggering! And the spearfishing is incredible, too.
The last time that I went diving with him this year, I think it was $50 for a two-tank trip. Tank rental adds a little bit to it, but still reasonable -- I always bring my own cylinders, but that's just me. Considering the shallow depth, you should be able to get about 90 minutes of bottom time from each tank. Lots of time for hunting fossils!
Start up cost for getting started in diving varies. My advice is to get in touch with your local dive shop. They are an unending wealth of information and you will want a good relationship with the people that you get your underwater life support system from! Learn from the best instructors you can find and then have fun!
I would get certified first, then start checking out used gear. You will save over half of the cost of new gear. The general rule is that when someone buys something, it loses half the value that day, I know b/c I tried to sell a (like brand new) dive computer and every vulture out there was downing my price which was really the price w/o tax and w/o the upgrade in software, and it was a Or Best Offer deal, and noone wanted to offer anything, just downing me for offering something for sale. So, you can get some good deals, but you have to experiment with what kind of gear you want. I would go to Depth Perception, Tackle Shack, Bill Jackson's, Mac's, and Scuba Quest and look around. You can rent the gear (should be covered in the cost of the class with the exception of you buying the basic mask, snorkel, fins, and booties). If you want to get certified, I may or may not have time to get you started. I am literally working everyday, but I may have some time off soon. Hit me up sometime, firstname.lastname@example.org
Duane US MARINE \ NAUI Dive Instructor
You can get certified for cheap, and you will likely end up with cheap training. Or you can look for the best instructor, who will hopefully charge more than the average. Every experienced instructor that I have talked to, and that has been a few, says that it is hard to make money offering thorough, in depth instruction. So it follows that the instructors offering the best deal are likely to give less thorough, less personalized instruction. And after my experiences having been taught to the bare minimum of standards, I wouldn't recommend that approach.
The first level PADI certification, "Open Water Diver", is pretty minimal, and while you can seek out an instructor that's going to go more in depth as others suggested, I'm not certain there's a lot of value in that unless you're going the private class route, which is going to be considerably more expensive.
My suggestion would be go ahead and take the cheap Open Water certification class, but then quickly get a few dives under your belt (a couple of 4-dive weekends), then go on for the next certification level, Advanced Open Water.
So many people either give up or never move on from Open Water to Advanced that the Open Water cert courses are a real revolving door system. Probably less than 20% go on to Advanced Open Water, and that's where you're likely to find smaller classes and instructors that will take more time with you. You'll likely be a [Umuch[/U] better diver with your Advanced certification.