Almost every day that I have opened Facebook in the past months, I’ve read about a new tragic dive accident. Many of them would have been preventable, and it begs the question, is the industry churning out incompetent divers?
The recreational dive industry is heading down a dangerous path, where dive training is reduced to the bare essentials. Many have paid for this new trend with their health, or their lives. Often accidents occur during the initial Open Water training. This is a worrying trend considering that per agency standards, the instructor or a qualified assistant should never be further than an arm’s length from the student.
How has the diving industry changed over the last couple of years, what causes those accidents, and how can we prevent more fatalities, both as professionals and as students?
A changing industry
With globalization at its peak and flight prices at an all-time low, tropical vacations have suddenly become widely available for the masses. Millions of tourists now find themselves in a position of getting their SCUBA certification during a one week trip. Many do not plan to do this on the outset of their holiday but are coerced into it by resort staff and tourism agencies.
SCUBA has evolved from a niche sport into a fully blown tourism branch. PADI claims to have certified a staggering 25.000.000 divers since its founding in 1966. With about 900.000 new divers each year certified by PADI alone, diving is growing rapidly.
Many tropical destinations, like Utila and Koh Tao have built a lucrative industry around diving and snorkeling. But the competition is high and in order to stay competitive and attract clients, prices need to be low. Prices not only need to be low by tourist standards, but they need to be lower than that of the competition. This is where the true downward spiral begins.
Common issues in the Dive Industry
Bending the standards
There is a worrying trend where some instructors just “forget” to test certain skills or make them virtually fail-proof. Despite there being a clear requirement of a short swim that needs to be met, I’ve encountered at least one Advanced Diver who did not know how to swim. I’ve heard of other dive shops modifying the swim test to allow the student to wear a mask, snorkel, and fins, or let them repeatedly rest on a flotation device. On a 200 m swim!
A 200 m swim and 10-minute float is a ridiculously low requirement for something that your life might depend on. And yet, some shops water it down even more.
Another often favourably forgotten skill is the CESA, the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent. Here the diver needs to swim up to the surface, from a depth perspective of six to nine metres, with one continuous exhale, in a simulated out of air scenario. I struggled big time with this skill when I first got Open Water certified and somehow it disappeared off the Open Water dive agenda without me ever having completed it.
Watered down theory
While some students may not agree, the dive theory is important. Apart from understanding how gases behave under pressure, it should also serve as proof that someone has the necessary mental maturity to become a safe diver. Dive theory for all courses is already very simplified, and designing essentially foolproof multiple choice tests helps no-one. I was really lucky that my dive centre still teaches the old Dive Master theory (now included in the IDC) and not just the DM material.
A very important factor, and one that suffers dramatically in the competition for the lowest prices is the equipment quality. SCUBA equipment is expensive. A full shop outfit of dive gear including tanks easily sets the shop back by tens of thousands of dollars. And this is not a one-time investment. Gear needs to be serviced, broken pieces repaired or replaced. All of this costs money. By constantly lowering the prices, gear can’t be serviced properly and totally preventable accidents happen. Leaky masks and regulators can cause panic in new divers and high reading SPG’s beg for an out of air situation.
Dive staff – over worked and underpaid
Oh, the glorious work of a dive instructor, what a dream! In reality, this is often not true. While it’s unlikely that any dive master or instructor picked their profession for the money, we’d actually like to be able to live off of it. Low course prices equal low wages. And low wages mean that the staff often have to work a second job, just to make ends meet. This results in tired, stressed staff that are not on top of their game. How could you be if you do four dives a day and then work the bar all night? Being tired in a high-risk environment is dangerous for everyone around. Not to mention, these dive industry staff are essentially responsible for people’s lives. In what other industry do people with so much responsibility get paid so little?
Instructors are often under immense amount of pressure, attempting to follow standards whilst having employers breathing down their necks. It can feel like they are trapped.
Low quality Instructors
With the idea that you can live in paradise and dive everyday, more and more people are aiming to be instructors. With enough money it’s relatively easy to become an instructor, especially with the availability of so many “zero to hero” programs. Divers who 6 months earlier didn’t even have there Open Water license can become Open Water Instructors with only 100 dives under their belt. Not to say all new instructors are bad, but the sheer rate that the industry is producing them is having a knock on effect. Hundreds apply for job positions, and companies take advantage of new instructors who are so desperate to work. Companies advertise jobs with no wage, knowing that if an instructor says no, there will always be another that will take the job. This cheapens the whole industry.
Often dive shops try to pack the maximum, allowed number of students into one course. If they can drop a dive master in training ( DMT) into the mix and up the student number, even better (DMTs pay for the privilege of becoming the shops house-elf for the duration of their course). Large groups are always problematic because they equal less time to deal with the individual. While a newly minted DMT is allowed to assist courses, they are seldom equipped to deal with real issues. In a large group, there will be little opportunity for dealing with typical Open Water skill issues.
Instructors are left without argument, as standards dictate they can take up to 8 Open Water students at once. As for DSDs, I know many instructors who disagree with the 4:1 ratio, yet employees will push for it because it saves them money. How can one instructor control 4 people who have next to no knowledge about diving? With only 2 hands, an instructor is expected to stay with in arms length of all students and control there buoyancy.
“Put another dollar in”
One of my instructors used to say this frequently. We didn’t agree on much, but he has a valid point. Students are encouraged to do as many courses as possible by PADI. While PADI never explicitly says that the courses should be taken right after one another, it comes as no surprise when a dive shop is unwilling to let go of a newfound client. Thus suggesting additional courses, often too soon. The AOW course is the exception but only provides real value to insecure students that would like five additional dives under the supervision of an instructor.
For example: In theory, a non-diver could receive his PADI Wreck Diver Specialty in eleven dives. ELEVEN! What is the likelihood that a brand new diver even with a wreck certification could actually handle himself inside a wreck?
The constant invention of new specialties also creates a false sense of competence in divers. Many courses don’t even require you to get wet.
Striving for tips
How many times have you seen a dive master or even instructor pick up small marine life to show it to the group? I have seen plenty of it. While a true SCUBA diver with proper training will be horrified, many new divers don’t understand the issue and appreciate the opportunity to get a closer look, or even get to touch the poor creature. Their gratitude results in a bigger tip for the underpaid dive professional, and so the cycle continues. Bad wages mean professionals will always value the extra dollar and many are unfortunately willing to go the extra step.
How can professionals improve this situation?
We are the backbone of the industry. Without instructors, there would be no courses, without DMs in many countries there would be no fun diving. And yet, we let the industry dictate ridiculously low wages.
A friend of mine got paid as little as 25 $US for an Open Water Course with three students in it. Not 25 $US per student, 25 $US in total. Another friend taught a couple’s Open Water course and they decided that they didn’t like the idea of diving after the last confined session. Not due to the instructor, they just didn’t like the ocean. The shop refunded their course despite their refund policies and then informed the instructor that he wouldn’t get paid for the course, despite having already taught two and a half days on this course.
Dive professionals need to stand up for fair wages as a united front.
Dive shops often advertise jobs with ridiculous expectations while offering no information on the job itself in return. And yet, anyone that dares to point this out in Facebook’s SCUBA Jobs group gets put down by his fellow divers.
Dive shop owners downright bully instructors into certifying students that can’t perform the skills safely. Clearing a flooded mask while sitting on the bottom with an instructor holding on to you and maybe even helping with the clearing itself by placing your fingers in the right spot, is a far cry from being “alone” at 30 m depth over a drop-off.
Instructors and dive masters should not have to be afraid to speak up in those cases and be prepared to report negligence of agency standards.
How can divers help?
Divers need to understand that low course costs come at a price. That is not to say that we should go for the course costing twice as much as all the others. But we should also consider where the shop is saving those extra 50 $US or 100 $US.
Cheap courses come at a price, and a dive master or instructor can generally tell whether a diver has a solid foundation or not. Diving is an expensive sport and involves a lot of equipment. I don’t believe that someone who wants to dive on vacation once or twice a year necessarily needs their own equipment. Investing a few extra dollars in a shop with well-maintained equipment is however common sense.
We should never let our instructor or dive shop push us into a course we don’t feel ready for. While a good salesperson will make that wreck course after eleven dives sound amazing, it very likely won’t be.
A good way to make sure your dive shop adheres to its agency’s standards is to familiarise yourself with said standards before hand. Agencies generally display their standards on their websites. Divers shouldn’t be afraid to call out misconduct either. Just because someone is new, doesn’t mean they can’t recognise when standards are violated. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk to the shop owner when a dive master takes us to 30 m, despite knowing that we’re only certified to 18 m. If the shop brushes it off, we need to send an email to their agency.
Ultimately the dive industry will have to adapt to growing numbers of divers and find a way to provide proper training. Divers will have to accept that a dive course can’t be offered safely under a certain value, and professionals need to stand up for themselves as a united front.
About the author
Clara is a PADI Dive Master and world traveler. She has a keen desire to make the world a better place and is not afraid to speak up about what goes wrong in the dive industry. If she isn’t diving she’s most likely to be found on her surfboard, designing swimwear or in front of her laptop with a good cup of coffee. Her website Mermaids and Whalebones made a pledge to only support brands that are sustainable, ethical and cruelty free