Being a Scuba Instructor – What Does Your Future Boss Want From You?

Go to a popular dive destination at the start of the season and throw a rock in the air, chances are that it will land on an out of work scuba instructor looking for a gig. They desperately traipse from dive centre to dive centre, knuckles bleeding from knocking on doors repeatedly. The army of jobless, starving instructors roam the streets, hungry for scuba work, like a scene from a zombie movie. Well, that is of course, my own over-dramatic spin on things. But the truth is that pretty much anywhere in the world you can dive, the competition for paid positions is fierce. Exactly what is it that makes a dive shop owner or manager pick someone out of the crowd and give them a job? Let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

The responses to my questions below come from successful, long standing dive industry professionals who are either dive centre owners or in managerial positions. These are the people who decide who to employ and the intention of the questions is to understand what it is that would make them offer somebody a job. Even though the responses are from people in different parts of the world, I find it interesting to note that there are some common themes that run through each.

No matter where it is you are looking for work, this information will help you understand what it is you should be aspiring to be. Many thanks to Lydia, David, Donna & Gary for giving your time and valuable responses.

From Lydia Jakubek – Director of Pro Dive Mexico

1)      Can you describe your perfect dive centre employee?

Enthusiastic, pro-active person with high quality customer service, always willing to help and address clients’ needs, patient, with high level of empathy. Safety goes first in our company, so we look for people with a high sense of responsibility under as well as out of the water. Passion for diving and environmental protection is a must for all our staff members – we give high emphasis to environmental education of our clients and protection of reefs and marine life. Sales motivation is also important as sales are crucial part of daily tasks of our people.

From other attributes I would mention flexibility, problem solving skills, ability to cope with new situations and team spirit.

2)      A good team is made up of people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. What characteristics would you want from individuals within your dream team?

See above – it is really difficult (but not impossible) to find an ideal employee with all the mentioned attributes, so we try to mix people with different personalities and strengths to create perfect teams in our dive centers.

3)    What do you think makes someone a bad dive professional?

In my personal opinion, it is lack of passion in diving (you can’t do well something you don’t enjoy) and lack of empathy.

4)      What helps make a CV stand out for you?

Professionalism with which the CV is prepared – providing detailed and structured information about person’s education and experience (both in diving as well as non-diving) and main skills, including language skills. It is a CV where I can see that the person really put some thoughts into preparing the CV and considered what our company, having dive centers in 5* all-inclusive hotel resorts, might be looking for in an instructor.

5)  If a diver you know personally told you they planned to become an instructor, what advice would you give them?

I would ask them what is their motivation behind this decision? Being a dive instructor is an amazing and rewarding job (I believe that people do not forget the person who introduced them to diving for the first time). But it is a demanding job and there are days which can be really tough. So instructors need to love diving and love sharing their love and passion for diving with other people.

6) Think of the last person you employed, what made you give them the job over their competition?

Language skills. Our clients come from all around the world and being able to communicate and teach in several languages gives a person very significant advantage over his/her peers.

From David Joyce – Owner of Evolution Diving Resort, Philippines

1)      Can you describe your perfect dive centre employee?

A dive centre employee has to be a perfect blend of enthusiasm and authority.  I joke to staff that we are in the business of making dreams come true but in essence it’s true.  People save up and come a long way with the goal to learn to dive and we need to deliver that to them with confidence, safety and fun at the forefront.  A jaded Instructor or bored DM is no good to anyone.  We infect our customers daily with our own joy for what we do.  We embody the lifestyle and our actions and interest in diving is a fruitful sales technique in itself.

2)      A good team is made up of people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. What characteristics would you want from individuals within your dream team?

Being a team player is critical but you still need leadership skills on a daily basis, and certainly in a crisis.  With so many variables at play on a daily basis from weather to diver levels, from water conditions to boats available, we need to pull together to find the best options for the largest number of our clients each day.  Again confidence and authority are required to make on the spot decisions based on the above factors and many more.  You don’t want to ignore the advice around you and send divers out into a storm and you don’t want to be a shrinking violet assigning divers to the House Reef for every dive.   Dive pros need to make the divers around them feel safe and at ease.  If you have never dived a particular site before a true pro should know how to wing and bluff it.  Get the necessary intelligence you can from other dive staff and make your customers think it’s your 1,000th time on that site.

Modern dive staff need to bring extra tools to the trade – namely additional languages, real world work experience, social media presence, sales ability and more.  Like it or not it’s a fact in diving that it is not a 9 to 5 job.  If you want the lifestyle you need to be willing to work long hours.  However the typical 12 to 14 hour day often includes 3 or 4 magical dives and a few beers with interesting customers so not something to complain about.

3)      What do you think makes someone a bad dive professional?

The same things that make any employee bad.  Tardiness is not tolerated.  Keeping your students waiting or not showing up shows them you are disorganised, inconsiderate and possibly hungover – why should they put their trust in you and put their life in your hands?  They shouldn’t.  Deportment on land and in sea – again just because we work on the beach doesn’t mean you have to smell like old fish.  And if your dive equipment looks like you it also doesn’t give your students confidence.  A true dive Instructor needs to manage the social side of the job with the professional side.  Yes we socialise and entertain our customers, no we don’t come in bleary eyed and still half cut and expect that to be OK.  A bad Pro is also impatient, especially with students or divers who they see as below them.  A bad Pro cuts corners and doesn’t stick to standards, something that is all too prevalent in the dive industry.

 

4)      What helps make a CV stand out for you?

It is very simple – present it as if you were going for a ‘real’ job offering 100k per year.  Make sure formatting and spelling are perfect.  Get to the point and keep it concise.   Most employers will glance at a CV and decide whether to dig deeper in a nano second. Most CVs fail this test.  Telling me your passion for diving will not get you the job.  Don’t tell me you’re fluent in English when I can’t understand the rest of your CV.  Highlight your non diving achievements and link them to what you can offer, whether it’s experience with computers, a former life as an electrician or an ability to write well.  If you are a newly minted Instructor highlight your willingness to learn and adapt. If you are a salty old sea dog, highlight your willingness to learn and adapt.

5)      If a diver you know personally told you they planned to become an instructor, what advice would you give them?

Only do the IDC if you are 100% sure you plan to work and teach.  Some people see it as a natural stepping stone in dive training.  Wrong.  Being an Instructor doesn’t teach you how to be a better diver or deepen your dive knowledge, you can do that in others ways such as tech training.  It simply gives you the keys to a lifestyle.  It’s up to you to unlock the door.

6)      Think of the last person you employed, what made you give them the job over their competition?

The last instructor we hired was a person with real world management experience and maturity.  She switched to becoming an Instructor because she had enough of the rate race and was looking for something more personally fulfilling even if less lucrative.  People like this appreciate the lifestyle the most and are great to work with and their decision to switch out of the rate race and into the dive world is exactly the dream we sell and embody on a daily basis.

From Donna Dornbos – Owner of JND Scuba Center/Dixie Divers of Palm Bay, FL

1)      Can you describe your perfect dive centre employee?

Someone who wants to work, reliable, trustworthy, who is going to be a good role model, someone who has work ethic, is polite and does not use fowl language, a good listener, who does not become weary of doing the right thing, creative, can multitask, able to make wise decisions, asks a lot of questions (this is the way I know they care), always looking for efficient ways of doing things, people person, can sell, sell sell, does not get tired of diving, wants to keep learning, patience, articulates well, handles stress well, enthusiastic all the time

2)      A good team is made up of people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. What characteristics would you want from individuals within your dream team?

A sense of humor, trustworthy, mature, reliable.

3)      What do you think makes someone a bad dive professional?

Not professional (in words and actions), not dressing appropriately, gossips, is not safe, does the opposite of what they say, tries to act cool.

4)      What helps make a CV stand out for you?

 

5)      If a diver you know personally told you they planned to become an instructor, what advice would you give them?  

Make sure you are not doing it for the money.  You must love to dive, love to teach, be patient and it is a lot of responsibility.  Do not stop learning….about gear, about techniques….

Always be humble….your students can always teach you something.  There is not just one way of doing things.

6)      Think of the last person you employed, what made you give them the job over their competition?

Let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of people standing in line to be employed by JND Scuba in Palm Bay!!  I can only think of one person whom we have as an instructor that I work well with.  I have had maybe only one or two instructors who have been reliable in all of our 16 years in owning the business.

 

From Gary Hawkes, Business Development, Cairns Dive Centre, Australia

1)      Can you describe your perfect dive centre employee?

Engaging, professional, passionate about diving and environment, understand you can never know it all, holds a good work life balance, shows up insured, with excellent quality dive equipment

2)      A good team is made up of people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. What characteristics would you want from individuals within your dream team?

Attention to detail, know the balance between actively teaching and over teaching, always learning for personal development, Useful skill set from pre diving experience, Able to apply risk assessment as second nature, Customer satisfaction experience and safety main priorities, Confident to stand behind unpopular decisions such as: calling of a dive due to conditions, saying no due to medical issues or lack of experience

3)      What do you think makes someone a bad dive professional?

Tardiness, know it all ego, unprofessional paperwork, not questioning decisions they are uncomfortable with, all about them not the dive crew as a team

4)      What helps make a CV stand out for you?

Relevant information, bold contact details, short personal introduction ( 2 lines is fine) professional photo, references supplied, availability

5)      If a diver you know personally told you they planned to become an instructor, what advice would you give them?

Get experience as a dive master first, plus get the extra skill sets that will make you stand out eg: compressor maintenance, service technician, gas blender, tender licence, coxwain. Also your equipment should be complete, professional and at a high standard, Choose agency based on area you wish to work, get insurance

6)      Think of the last person you employed, what made you give them the job over their competition?

Attitude, experience, good references

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Being an Instructor – Getting the First Gig

So you passed the exam and got your instructor ticket? Welcome to the party! From here on in life will be all about cocktails on the beach and getting paid to float around in the ocean…. or something like that. So all you need to do now is find somewhere to work and that’s got to be the easy part right? Wrong! Getting your first job as a scuba instructor is hard. As a rookie instructor, it’s going to require more than being in the right place at the right time, with a big smile and a passion for diving. You need to stack the odds in your favour. In order to help you I have put together the following guide.

Are You Experienced?

The age old catch 22, you need experience to get the job but how do you get one without the other? There are attributes that employers will look favourably upon in lieu of teaching experience. For a dive operation to be successful it needs to have dedicated, solid, reliable people working within it, there aren’t many jobs out there for people who just want to hang out and look cool.

When you move from one industry to another, even though the two fields of employment may be completely different, there will be some skills applicable to both. Common transferable skills are:

IT/web skills – It’s the digital age, having a strong online presence is critical for a modern business and dive outfits are no exception. Dive centres always appreciate having staff who, when out of the water, can help improve their online presence. Web design or optimisation skills will definitely boost your chances of getting work

Mechanic – What happens to the dive centre when the compressor breaks or boat engine dies? Calling in technicians to fix broken machinery, even cars, takes time and money, having someone on the team who can help with basic mechanics is a huge asset. Also showing you are mechanically minded will mean that you are more likely to catch on to things like regulator and BCD repairs.

Sales – A dive centre is a business, it needs to make money and it does that by selling its product to its customers. As an instructor working closely with the student (customer) you are in a perfect position to advise them on further diving, training or equipment. Dive centre owners and managers like to employ people with sales and marketing backgrounds as they are likely to be more able to recognise revenue generating opportunities.

Customer service – Having experience in managing customer expectations and generally keeping people happy is an asset. Many dive businesses rely on repeat business from their customers and they all should be concerned with online reviews that their customers leave. For these reasons they need to employ people who are able to ensure the customer leaves happy even when things don’t necessarily go as smoothly as you would like.

Ability to work with children – Not everybody (myself included) can work well with kids. Nowadays there are so many programs for younger divers, being able to accommodate them means more business for the dive centre.

Leadership – As a dive professional you will need leadership skills, people need to feel confidence in doing what you ask of them. Beyond this, larger dive centres like to employ people that they feel can work up to managerial roles. If you can demonstrate that you have been successful in people management then this will help you.

First Things First….

Before you go looking for a job, there are some things that you absolutely need to get squared away, these include:

  • Your own skills. If you have trouble with basic concepts like buoyancy, navigation or deploying an SMB then it will be noticed. Be the best you can be – if you know you have weaknesses in fundamental skills that you are supposed to teach to other people then practice the hell out of them and improve yourself.
  • Starting out your dive career with no money, or even worse, in debt is a bad plan. Your income for the first year probably won’t be very much so plan on saving enough to pay for your instructor training as well as having a bit of a cushion to keep you afloat.
  • Having your own gear is not something that will put you head and shoulders above the competition, it is a basic requirement. This includes ancillaries like an SMB, computer, compass etc. Tough, practical, hard wearing gear is best and if you know where you want to go to work it is worth looking at how easy it is to get your brand of gear serviced and maintained in that area.
  • When the brown stuff hits the fan things get very expensive very quickly, trust me, you need insurance. As a professional (depending on where you work), it may make sense to think about liability insurance as well.
  • Make sure your instructor certification is valid and that you have paid up all your membership fees.

Building a CV/Resume

Like any job, you are going to need to get a CV or resume together. I am deliberately not going to offer a template because your CV should be personal. You can research ideas but I would suggest keeping it short and sweet. Dive centres get sent sackloads of emails from people wanting work, yours needs to stand out and should not include pointless blurb.

It should include:

  • Your contact details
  • Web presence details e.g. Flikr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blog addresses and forum user IDs
  • Personal profile
  • Education history
  • Previous employment history
  • Dive training, certifications and experience
  • Languages & other relevant skills

It should not include:

  • Paragraphs about your love of scuba, this should go without saying
  • Statements like “I don’t care where I work, I just want to get a dive job”

Make it yours, keep it neat and if you feel the need to add graphics of any description then be sure they maintain a professional image.

Making contact

My advice is not to wait until an opening is advertised. When a dive centre advertises that they have a position available, they get absolutely bombarded with emails from people with all kinds of experience. Watch the wording of an advert “would suit a new instructor” often translates in to “come and work for free.” Of course there is no harm in responding to adds if you see one you want. Leading agencies have jobs boards and there are other places you can look for example facebook sites, dive job websites and sections on forums like scubaboard. Keeping an eye on these sites can help you build an overall picture of the employment market. It shows you what region is hiring at a particular time and can also point out places to avoid like somewhere that constantly has to repost the same job advert over and over again because they can’t hold on to their staff.

The best way to get started is to go in to the dive centre in person, meet the boss and talk to them about getting a job. Unfortunately though, this is not always possible. If you want to work in your home country then this may not be an issue as you may even know the staff already. If you want to leave your home country and work overseas then this becomes a lot more difficult depending on your available time and money.

The alternative is to email the company. When sending an email I would suggest a template is a good idea but a blanket email is not so. The email itself can have your cover letter in the body text and attached should be your CV, a clear photo of you out of the water and some references if you have them. Avoid anything that makes your email too large as that’s a good way to get deleted immediately and be sure to run a spell check on everything!

However you make contact with the dive centre you want to work in, it really helps to create a good impression if you tailor your approach to them. For example:

Approach 1

Dear Dive Centre

I am coming to Thailand and really want a dive job, do you have any openings in June?

Approach 2

Dear Mr Smith

I note with interest that your dive centre is an eco-operator. As a diver with a passion for environmental sustainability I would like to enquire about forthcoming employment opportunities within your organisation.

Approach 1 is of course the easiest and can be sent out blindly to hundreds of dive centres at a time by putting their email addresses in the BCC field. Even though you can reach more people in less time, it is likely any reputable organisation will trash the email.

Approach 2 shows that you have an interest in the dive centre, it appeals to their ego a little and shows them that your personal interests are in line with the company goals. Little things like this help you appear to be interested in working for that specific company as opposed to just getting any old job that you don’t really care about.

Although the above example is based on a written approach, you can do the same in person. If you are able to walk into a dive centre to talk about job opportunities then at least take 10 minutes first to look them up on the internet. Try to find their identity, what do they do, what sets them apart from other dive centres? If you get talking to the manager about what it is you really like about his/her centre then he/she will be more likely to remember you over anyone else that has called by recently.

Special Skills

There are skills that may not be a particular requirement for a job but can help you get work over others if you have them, these include:

  • Photography skills. Having an underwater camera and knowing how to use it is advantageous. A good photographer with a camera enables the dive centre to offer so much more to its guests. In addition to this, it is good for the centres own marketing to have someone on the team creating and posting good quality pictures.
  • Tech skills. Being a tech diver shows an extended knowledge of dive theory and practice. Just having a basic tech course will really help you stand out.
  • Every language that you can speak opens up a new customer group for the dive centre you are working for. The importance of language skills varies depending on where in the world you want to work as does the languages you speak. In some parts of the world, being able to speak a few popular languages is the most important asset a dive instructor can have.
  • Having a background in sports can help in general as that shows you are more suited to an active lifestyle. Most dive centres prefer nonsmokers so if you do smoke then maybe now is a good time to think about stopping. If you are good enough to offer classes in anything else like swimming or yoga then it is always worth approaching the dive centre with your pitch.
  • Social media. Dive centres have to utilise social media in order to promote their business so it helps if they have staff who understand how to use it effectively. Having your own online presence is a good idea, this could include blogs, facebook, twitter, Instagram, tripadvisor and scubadviser, as well as being active on forums like scubaboard. Think about what you post and what is posted about you for example a cover photo of you lying in a pool of your own vomit after your DM snorkel test does not create a very good image of a reliable dive professional. Keep it clean and avoid posting offensive beliefs or strong comments on subjects like politics or religion.

Getting Out What You Put In

There are so many opportunities out there it is impossible to imagine. You don’t even need to limit yourself to working for other people, there is nothing to stop you setting up as an independent instructor. When chasing a dive job, you need to be wary, some could offer the best job for you in the world, others could end up being an expensive disaster. Never rush in to anything and always do your homework. Research the location, company, hours, work etc etc etc. Don’t just go out there and desperately grab the first place you are offered because it is critical for your success that you find the right place. Ask yourself genuinely what do you want and then try to find it. Getting your first job is tough but there are thousands upon thousands of dive professionals out there working who all managed it, myself included.

Good luck & safe diving.

Journey to the Dark Side

Published in Tech Diver Mag, Issue 19, June 2015

rb1

I like sitting at the bar talking nonsense, I’m good at it and it’s where I feel comfortable, once there, the idea of leaving becomes preposterous. Metaphorically, my comfort zone is the same, offering protection and sanctuary from what lurks outside. As nice as it sounds, I know I can’t stay in the bar forever, there is a whole world outside that should be explored. With this in mind, I recently leapt out of my comfort zone and changed everything I knew about diving. I finally made the step in to the silent world by getting certified as a rebreather diver.

For years I have given lots of thought to rebreathers, I have read articles and probably like many others, have heard mixed opinions about their safety. “Rebreathers are just death boxes and their users deserve to die!” That was a quote from a customer I heard recently. OK, agreed it is a little blunt, but it does kind of highlight one school of thinking on rebreathers. I find it interesting to hear the difference in opinions within the dive community on the subject. Some love them, some hate them, and many do not know enough about them to comfortably form an opinion.

What is a rebreather? Well, apart from a very big strain on your bank balance, a rebreather is a unit that recycles exhaled gas by filtering out carbon dioxide and giving the user good gas to breath. The APD Evolution (Evo) which I am now certified to use monitors the gas in “the loop” and will give me the best mix possible based on the depth I am at, within the parameters that I have set it. The Evo is a Closed Circuit Rebreather which means that the gas constantly travels through a circuit without being expelled apart from during ascents.

I remember the first time I saw a rebreather, it was on a dive boat somewhere off the south coast of England. As the divers loaded their gear on to the boat, I noticed the conspicuous yellow boxes and recall having no idea what they were or what they did. Being relatively new to the sport, I did not want to expose my ignorance by asking silly questions. Throughout the trip, I kept a suspicious eye on the strange looking devices and their owners hoping to get some clues. When the rebreather divers were getting out of the water and help was required to stow their units on the boat, I was reluctant to get involved thinking that if I grabbed one in the wrong place it may explode. Back on dry land, I went home and started to research these mystical devices, later feeling something of an authority on the subject as I had been near one once.

The main reasons why I had not tried rebreather diving earlier in my career were cost and availability, I expect these are the biggest constraints for most people. I was initially concerned about the safety aspect so spent quite a bit of time researching rebreather accidents and incidents. Time and time again, I came back to the same theme – user error. Like in open circuit, complacency kills. Writing this, I am reminded of a Mark Powel quote “diving is safe as long as you remember it is dangerous” – very true whether you are talking open or closed circuit.

On the subject of safety, I came to learn that modern units themselves are reliable and most often will do what they are built to do. When divers cut corners due to cost, time, laziness or just plain stupidity then accidents happen. My conclusion was to study the hell out of the subject to become as knowledgeable as I could, get good training, stay focused and tread carefully.

As an avid open circuit tech diver, my interest in rebreather diving is depth. The cost of helium is limiting and aside the startup cost, rebreathers are far more economical when using trimix due to their lack of wasted gas. My initial turn offs were their complexity, required time and effort to get ready for the dive and reliability (I have seen many a frustrated rebreather diver have to remain topside due to some fault or another).

My instructor was a bastard named Steve Tippetts. I don’t think he’ll mind me (affectionately) referring to him as such because I firmly believe that he prides himself on being a hard ass instructor. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted good training and Steves tough regimented way fit the bill perfectly. I had worked with Steve for over a year in Divetech and in that time we became friends. Steve took this as fair game to try his hardest to make me cry during the course and I expected nothing less. An IANTD IT, he has had years of honing his skills and developing a whole host of nasty little tricks which he has a habit of pulling out of the bag at the worst times possible. Of course I am dramatizing, by “tricks” I mean carefully placed training scenarios that made me think about what was going on and how to use what I had available to solve the problem. IANTD say that training is paid for but certification is earned, in my experience I fully concur, there was no plain sailing in this course.

rebreather

During the training, the hardest thing to come to terms with was buoyancy. Losing the ability to control position in the water with my lungs was a challenge. On open circuit I can hang in the water perfectly with next to no movement from my body whatsoever. My first foray in to closed circuit must have looked like one of those air puppet things that you get outside car dealers. It seemed as though my dive skills that took over a decade to acquire had evaporated in to think air. Time to park the ego and get back to learning some basics.

Having the luxury of being surrounded by some very accomplished rebreather divers, I notice that the style looks different to open circuit. The perfect trim and motionlessness that I had spent years striving to develop is not how it works on a rebreather. Even very skilled closed circuit divers often have to fin gently in a slightly diagonal position in order to maintain their depth.

But that’s the whole thing about new experiences, of course there will be differences. As humbling as it was to go right back to square one, the excitement of learning something new and completely different was more than worth it.

So having completed my basic training and done 30 or so dives, what’s the verdict? I like rebreather diving very much, against closed circuit there are advantages and disadvantages. Trimix is a way off yet but drops to 130 feet or so are comfortable. My current opinion is that a rebreather is a tool and is the best tool for some jobs. For example, the stretch of coastline between our two dive centres is 3 km long, I have now dived it both open and closed circuit. On open circuit I carried five 80cf tanks (twins and three staged) and enough weight to sink them all when empty. On closed circuit, I had my neat little rebreather unit and a 40cf bailout. If nothing else I had a very good nights sleep after the open circuit dive which took an hour longer due to the considerable increase in drag and weight. I’m able to shoot far more lionfish without bubbles to scare them away and I imagine that photographers will note similar benefits. However, I do love the simplicity of open circuit and having a full understanding of how each component of the inside of a regulator works is reassuring.

And now my comfort zone has expanded. To carry on the metaphor, the bar just got a lot bigger, has more people in it but the cost of the drinks has risen somewhat. For me, rebreather diving will not fully replace open circuit. I love the capabilities a rebreather provides and it is a perfect vehicle to take me to the depths I want to go to. However, for light recreational diving, I prefer the simplicity of open circuit. Maybe in the long term, my opinion will change, but for now, my perfect world is big enough for both technologies. As far as plans for the immediate future go, all this talk about bars has got me thirsty, time to have a little toast to the new adventure.

Diving in the Land of The Morning Calm

Published in UK Diver magazine May 2015

“You can dive in Korea…?” This is the response I usually get from people when I tell them about my three and a half years spent instructing scuba there. Often this will be accompanied by a puzzled expression as they dig deep in to their memory for anything they may have heard in the past about diving in that part of Asia.

To start with, yes, you can dive in Korea. The country is surrounded by water, with the exception of the heavily armed border that divides the north and south. Due to North Korea being totally off limits to the south, it is much like being on an island. Referred to as “the hermit nation”, their dive scene, like many aspects of their culture, is little known about outside of the country.

Historically, South Korea has maintained a strong relationship with the ocean, however this bond is based largely on (ab)using the sea as a food source. As well as the extensive industrial fishing that takes place, Koreans also have a traditional technique for harvesting their seas. For centuries “Haenyeo,” who are essentially free divers, have braved the frigid temperatures of their surrounding waters. Equipped with a mask, fins, a basic spear or knife, a net bag attached to a float and a rope to assist descents and ascents, these sturdy individuals spend the day duck-diving for anything from clams to octopus. Their catch is then sold to the scores of seafood restaurants or fish markets that are found in abundance up and down the country.

So there is water and you can dive there, but what is it like? In truth, even if it were possible, I feel it would be unfair to classify Korean diving as either good or bad. A variety of elements can present challenging conditions for people who are more accustomed to fairer waters. It can be hard work diving in Korea but on a good day, that hard work really pays off.

It transpired that my UK dive training and experience prepared me well for what Korea had to offer. I was based in Busan, a city on the south coast with a population of around 3.5million people. In general, diving for much of the year was not for the faint hearted. Perilously rocky beach entrances lead to dark murky water where much of the year fins are not visible. At best, divers in Taejongdae beach get to enjoy 10 meters of clarity.

Elsewhere, visibility stretches from nonexistent up to 30 meters. Depending on whether you are east, south or west and what time of year you are in the water, temperatures range from 3 degrees up to a high of 25. Bracing thermoclines and ripping currents are common. My years were typically spent trying to dive around typhoons, monsoons, rainy seasons, yellow dust (a visible pollution that drifts over from China) and snowy winters.

I found it interesting to note that in spite of the challenging elements, Korea has a strong dive scene. It is a rapidly growing market for certification agencies, dominated by PADI and SSI, I even encountered a cluster of BSAC clubs. The cultural norm is to do things as a group, for this reason dive clubs and the excursions they offer are very successful. It is in this fashion that divers living in the colossal, built up cities make their trips to lesser populated, rural areas to enjoy far better conditions.

Many Koreans are drawn to the ocean by their love of fresh seafood. Due to excessive overfishing, there is limited opportunity to spear anything sizeable. As such, it is common for divers to take nets and tools for removing anything that still clings to the rocky surface.

sea squirt

Embracing a “Look don’t touch” approach made our international dive club stand out from the others who could not see the point in entering the water if not to hunt. When teaching courses, I would need an interpreter to describe to the boat captain exactly what we needed in terms of depths and other requirements. We would then cram ourselves in to a boat, packed with underwater hunters and start our journey to the site. Along the way, at seemingly random intervals, hunters would roll backwards over the inflatable sides, the outboard motor only slowing down momentarily to lessen the impact. The solo divers would then be picked up an hour later, one by one as the boat made its way back to the harbour having collected us from our predetermined exit point. I will always remember one particularly angry “undersea hunter” who had made such an entrance, unfortunately without his weight belt. The diver’s cries to get the attention of the boat captain went unheard resulting in him floating around on the surface for over an hour in his dry suit before being picked up again.

Unfortunately, the ensuing disharmony between traditional Haenyeo and scuba divers has a tendency to manifest itself, sometimes to the point of physical force. While out on a dive, a buddy of mine had a Haenyeo, angered by the extent at which the ocean is ravaged by scuba divers, sneak up to him and pull his mask off and reg out. I personally am only too aware of how fishermen view scuba divers having had one deliberately drop an anchor on me while I was guiding a dive around a pretty island called Goeje Do. Miraculously, the anchor missed us by a couple of feet.

sea hare

Divers encounter a variety of attractions in amongst the rocky underwater terrain. Artificial reefs have been created using giant concrete cubes. These underwater climbing frames resemble playgrounds, which are enjoyed by groups of giant octopus. On the south west corner of the coastline, dive clubs frequently visit small fishing villages on the outskirts of Pohang. Here they find underwater statues like a Buddah set in a cave, a Virgin Mary and, oddly enough, a 6 foot tall concrete penis. Upon investigating the latter, I learned that the concrete penis was an offering to the angry spirit of a lady who was swept out to sea on her wedding day. Her screams can apparently be heard in the storms that, as legend has it, she creates in her frustrated state. Such phallic statues can also be found on dry land. Nearby, giant octopus starfish slowly crawl around two nameless wrecked fishing boats. Heading further north to Uljin, divers will be rewarded with a section of coastline littered with wrecks. On the other end of the scale, macro lovers can find an astonishing array of colourful nudibranches.

buddah  octopus starfish

The national gemstone is Jeju island. Situated approximately 100 miles from the mainland, the journey is just a 45 minute hop away by plane. This honeymoon destination is southerly enough to be home to tropical fish as well as their cold water relatives. Jeju has an abundance of colourful soft coral and kelp gardens. Operations here offer the chance for people without certification to try diving as it is sufficiently distanced from the harsher conditions of the mainland. Beginners are sometimes taken in to the water without fins in order to make them easier for an instructor to tow them around. Just when I thought I could no longer be surprised, while diving around Jeju one day, I encountered a group of four people without fins, tied together being dragged around by a guide.

Scuba enthusiasts in Korea can take advantage of their location in order to explore the surrounding countries. From Seoul it is easy to fly to an abundance of world class dive destinations including Palau, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. As diving increases in popularity, more Korean owned dive centres are opening up in these locations to keep up with the trend.

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere truly off the beaten path of dive tourism. In South Korea, I experienced a completely different way of living and diving. Some marine life I found to be most fascinating include Nomura’s jellyfish, the world’s largest cnidarian weighing up to 220kgs; the giant octopus; sea hares that follow the cold water; and the flying gurnard that swim/fly/run throughout the sand flats. Korea is unlike anywhere else, however, as the newer generations continue to embrace western culture, their identity will change. A different attitude to the ocean and its inhabitants will undoubtedly be a good thing but having said that I know I am lucky to have seen the country above and below water in its present form. I became a diver and a traveler in response to my passion for adventure. Living and diving in Korea met my needs for fresh excitement. Diving in these unknown waters, in a manner so abstract from anywhere else, reminded me of the thrill I enjoyed on my first ever dives.

Being a Scuba Instructor – Where to Get Trained

 

These are exciting times. For whatever reason, you have decided to change your life and become a scuba instructor. When I was in the same situation, I remember yo-yoing from feelings of elation to outright panic, so many things to think about and so many unknown possibilities. You have pictured what it would be like to get paid to do something you love and now you are going to make the dream a reality. You’re probably aware by now that you are going to need a lot of money, and that’s just one thing that will be affected by where you go to get your training. There is a world full of options but where is best for you? The facility you decide to get your training with will have a big influence on your future as an instructor, and the importance of making the right decision is not to be undermined. This guide will hopefully help you narrow down your options.

Which Agency?

To work as a legitimate dive instructor you need to be certified by an agency. There are many out there and as ever there are pros & cons with each. Despite being one of the most expensive, I chose PADI. My rationale was simply that PADI is the biggest agency; more dive centres means more job openings. Here’s a few agencies in no particular order: PADI, BSAC, CMAS, SSI, NAUI, IANTD, ANDI, GUE, PDIC & SDI.

Differences between agencies can include:

  • Costs including initial outlay and ongoing membership fees
  • Global presence & volume
  • Quality of educational materials
  • Level of flexibility you are permitted to use in your teaching
  • Instructor support
  • Brand recognition

 

Getting Ready

Before starting an instructor course you will need to be an experienced diver. Experience is often measured by number of logged dives, level of training and how long you have been certified. These factors make up some of the prerequisites to enrolling on a course. Prerequisites will vary from agency to agency, some requiring more experience than others.

Experience can be built in different ways. For example, one hypothetical candidate may have completed their entry level course and over a period of a few years acquired a number dives and certifications sufficient for them to apply for an instructor course. Another candidate might go through what is sometimes referred to as a “zero to hero” program – in which they sign up with little to no diving experience and quickly move through all the required diver levels.

The latter of the two attracts criticism from people who argue that the time frame and acquired experience is too small. The advantage of the zero to hero program is that if you have made up your mind that this is absolutely something you want to do right now then you can.

Location

To start off with, options can be sliced crudely in half, home or away. By home, I mean somewhere in your home country, possibly near the area you dive. Away would be defined as heading overseas. There is no one right or wrong answer for the general community but certain options will be best suited to certain divers.

Reasons to stay at home:

  • If you plan to teach scuba courses in your home country then it is a good idea to get trained to do so in that environment.
  • Having contacts will help you to get work and the instructor training process is a good time to meet people.
  • There may be someone in your area who is known to be a good instructor, firsthand knowledge of the quality of a facility is far superior to web based research.
  • With everything you have to do on your instructor course, you may prefer to keep external influencers like climate, food, accommodation, money etc the same.

Reasons to go overseas:

  • Same as above, it makes sense to get your training in the environment you want to work in.
  • Overseas training may be cheaper.
  • You may find training possibilities overseas which do not even exist in your home country.
  • Diving often appeals to the adventurous, if that’s you then an overseas trip will add to the excitement.
  • It is typical for resort based courses to offer deals with free boat dives in for non-training days.

If heading overseas to do your training, the next question is where? Try to define what it is you actually want. If you want to go to work overseas then it really does make sense to do your training as close to the area you want to live in as possible. To help you find where you want to go, research things like working conditions, seasons, legalities, nightlife, cost of living, crime rates, languages and travel arrangements.

Common places for people to go in no particular order are: Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Red Sea, Mexico, The Caribbean and the United States to name just a few. Consider your timing, it would make sense to complete your training and be ready to go just before the season starts when people are hiring.

Cost

Money is always going to affect your decision but finding the cheapest deal should not be the aim of the game. That said, price is not a true indicator of quality – don’t think that just because one course is more expensive than another that it is any better. If your decision making process is based entirely on money then you will likely miss out on better training possibilities.

I have noticed that some dive centres can be quite selective as to what they include when publishing the cost of their instructor courses. When asking for a quote, be sure to get the figure that the whole endeavor will set you back. You need to have your prerequisites in order first then you’ll have to look at the cost of the training course, the exam, membership application fee as well as equipment and materials you will need.

If you are looking at going overseas to do your training then you need to think about external costs like accommodation, food, transport visas etc. Spending a month in a country with a high cost of living will put much more of a strain on your finances. It is no secret that wages for a recreational scuba instructor are low and it may take a while before you get regular work so make sure you get as much money together in advance as you can.

Which Facility, Course Director or Instructor Trainer?

You may find that the area you want to go to get trained in has a few facilities that you can get your instructor ticket with. My biased opinion is that the quality of a course is directly in line with the quality of the person delivering it. No two courses will be exactly the same and even though you could pass an instructor exam having completed training through different dive centres, there is nothing to say the overall preparedness would be equal.

There are plenty of ways you can research instructor trainers online by looking at Trip Advisor, Scubaboard, Scubadviser, company websites and social media like Facebook, Twitter and blog pages. When you get a shortlist, try contacting the potential trainers and evaluate their responses. Read between the lines on what is ego babble and what is actually genuine.

You need to look for more than a program that just teaches you how to pass the exam, it’s a big scary world out there and as a fresh instructor you need as much help as you can get. Look for what is offered beyond the core requirements.

Some instructor training facilities have strong relations with dive centres throughout the region in which they are based, this can make getting your first post-certification gig a lot easier. You could even get lucky and end up working for the company you do your instructor training with.

Some facilities are able to offer work based training in between divemaster and instructor which can be a fantastic opportunity. It is easy enough to find a centre that offers unlimited free diving while you are with them which has to be attractive to some candidates.

Finally….

I am a scuba instructor that has been working full time for the last eight years, I love it. It is not for everybody, the work is hard and money is always tight at best. If you find the right set up for you then you will have a great time working in the industry, if you get unlucky then you’ll likely burn out in no time. There is never a need to rush in to anything, take your time, do your research and where possible, try to learn from other people’s mistakes.

Good luck & dive safe!

 

Deadly Invasion

Divers in the waters of the western Atlantic are on a killing spree. Armed with spears and containment devices, they take to the water in order to cull as much as possible. Tournaments are held with cash prizes awarded for the biggest, smallest and heaviest haul. There is one specific species targeted, but no discrimination between age, size or gender. Environmentalists, scientists and even governments actively support the culling. But exactly what are they hunting and why?

The target is the lionfish and the reason they are being culled with such ferocity is due to the devastation they are inflicting on a beautiful habitat. Such is their appetite, that their stomach can stretch up to thirty times to accommodate prey over half their own size. A study in the Bahamas found them to cause an 80 percent reduction in native fish in just five weeks. They breed and spread at an astonishing rate and have been found to hold up to 60 dead fish and crustaceans in their gut at one time. Native species now struggle as they compete with this newcomer, and immense strain is being put on the food chain. Simply put, the lionfish are literally eating the reef population in to extinction.

fish and diver

The problem stems from the fact that these fish are not native to the east coast of America. Their arrival has caused chaos within this ecosystem. Lionfish are referred to as an “invasive species” due to the fact that, since their introduction in the mid 1980’s, their population has simply exploded. They have found a utopia in this new habitat as they feed gluttonously without the threat of any natural predators. Dr. James Morris from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has said that: “Lionfish may prove to be one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”

The exact story behind how they arrived in the Americas is unknown, but there has been much speculation. A popular theory was that an ocean front aquarium containing lionfish was damaged in 1992 during hurricane Andrew causing its contents to spill in to the sea. While this may well have happened, it cannot be the sole cause of the problem as the first reported sighting in Florida, USA, 1985 predates the hurricane. Scientists believe that the earliest recorded sightings were of fish that were released in to the ocean by private aquarium owners. It is also believed that the present situation results from multiple releases as opposed to one careless owner.

To call the lionfish invasive as a species is, I think, unfair. These fish made no conscious decision to uproot themselves from their native waters and venture in to new territories with grand plans of domination. The truth is that they are more a victim of their own extraordinary beauty. Lionfish have a unique, majestic appearance that, unfortunately for them, makes for a good commodity in the aquarium trade. It is this attraction that has resulted in them being plucked from their indigenous Indo-Pacific seas. Aquarium owners who bought lionfish have been known to struggle to keep up with the demands of their appetite. In these cases instead of killing them or rehoming them in another aquarium, they were dumped in the ocean.

Divers who have been lucky enough to encounter the lionfish in both their Asian and American habitats have noticed that there are differences between old and new. A common observation is that the new arrivals are much bigger in size than their cousins in their natural habitat. Their behaviour is also different; they are far less timid than their relatives, due to the absence of any kind of threat from other marine life, and they congregate in larger groups. Photographers notice that the more defensive lionfish in Asia will point their venom-filled dorsal spines at anyone who gets too close, a survival instinct that is far less common in their Atlantic relatives.

What is incredible about this translocation is the speed at which this species has conquered such a huge amount of territory. Since the first recording in Florida, lionfish have now been reported as far north as New York and as far south as Venezuela. They spread at such an alarming rate because the females are capable of releasing up to 30,000 eggs every 4 days. The egg sacks float in the water columns, where currents transport them to their new location. Previously uninvaded reef areas become affected when the current washes large numbers of eggs on to them starting a population boom.

They are a very versatile species, having the ability to live just below the surface or even at depths as great as 175 meters.

lionfish

Attempts have been made to incorporate this voracious carnivore in to the existing food chain, but so far there has been little success. Hunters have tried spearing the fish and then feeding them to predators such as snappers, groupers, moray eels and sharks, who happily eat the dead or dying lionfish from a spear, but very rarely will actually attack or kill the lionfish. In Grand Cayman for example, feeding lionfish to other species has now been banned. Having tried this as a potential solution it was found that it only contributed towards the unbalance, as predators started to associate divers with food. Reports of moray eels swimming towards divers (often causing panic attacks) are one example of a negative impact on diver safety. Changes in the behaviour of fish such as groupers and snappers have been observed, for example in their closer proximity to divers who could be hunting illegally. These are just a couple of reasons why the Department of Environment concluded that feeding was not the answer.

As nature struggles to adjust to yet another blow from human intervention, there does not appear to be an overall solution in sight. Ideas along the lines of importing more species from Asia who already feed on lionfish have been written off as too risky. One lionfish culler jokingly suggested starting a rumour that lionfish are an aphrodisiac that stimulate weight loss.

In a desperate attempt to suppress the population growth, local communities are promoting the hunting and killing of both kinds of invasive lionfish – pterois volitans and pterois miles. Mass fishing techniques are not possible due to their inhabiting confined spaces like small tunnels or space under ledges. Currently, the most effective way to remove lionfish from the reef is for divers to spear them.

There is a misconception that lionfish are poisonous but in truth the white meat is perfectly edible. They are equipped with venomous spines which they have to defend themselves but once removed, the fish is very good to eat. As the lionfish venom is not heat stable, when subjected to high temperatures it is even possible to make dishes with the spines on creating quite a dramatic visual effect on the plate.

Lionfish culling has become a very popular activity throughout the tropical western Atlantic. Some kill the fish to eat, others to sell, some to try to offer relief to the struggling reefs, and then of course there are the gung-ho chest beaters who just want to kill something. Innovative entrepreneurs have established tradelines with companies specializing in catching, killing and exporting the fish to fine dining restaurants in the States. Lionfish now appear on menus throughout most of the Caribbean with specialities that range from lionfish ceviche to some very authentic tasting lionfish and chips. Many dive centres are actively assisting in the culling activities by providing spearfishing training and education. Cullers are made aware of how to hunt safely and responsibly in order to avoid injury to themselves or their surroundings. While on Caribbean holidays, divers can be trained in the use of spear guns, Hawaiian slings or even nets to catch the fish and then how to safely remove the spines before handing them over to the kitchen.

lfish

Culling lionfish is a risky business, being stung or “spiked” by a lionfish spine is not something to be brushed off. The venom causes intense pain and swelling and can cause necrosis of the flesh or even send the recipient in to anaphylactic shock. Most injuries are sustained to the divers hands and often occur when trying to put a lionfish in to a containment device underwater or when handling the dead fish back on land.

No -one knows yet how this story will unfold. It is speculated that we have not yet seen the worst of the invasion, and it is believed that their population will continue to rise. As the footprint of the lionfish upon the reef gets deeper, so the struggle becomes harder for native marine life. It is hoped that controlling species will develop a taste for lionfish but until such time the dive community accepts the responsibility to do what it can to keep numbers as low as possible. For now, the advice is to eat our way through this and given the taste of some of the fine dishes being cooked up, I for one am more than happy to do my bit.

Diving with Buzz Aldrin

Diving has taken me to some incredible places and enabled me to do things that would have once been unimaginable. There are a few experiences which will always stand out, some good, some bad and certainly some ugly. Recently I had the very distinct pleasure of not only meeting Buzz Aldrin, his son and his personal assistant but guiding them all on a DPV (underwater scooter) dive in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman.

When I started working for Divetech in 2013, I recall staring with amazement at the signed photos of the moon landing that were behind the counter. Boyish excitement rose within me as I recalled my childhood fascination with space. So when I was informed by my operations manager that I would be guiding Buzz Aldrin on a DPV dive I will not pretend that I was anything less than awestruck.

I knew that Buzz participates in fundraising activities for the Astronaut Scholarship Fund (ASF) and that in the past he had been diving with us in order to raise money for that cause. My initial assumption that this visit was along the same lines turned out to be wrong, this time round Buzz was on vacation.

It goes without saying that life for an astronaut will be different to most other peoples, vacations, it turns out, are no exception. I was soon to learn that this would not be a relaxed affair where we had all afternoon to casually stroll in to the ocean like one of our normal gigs.  The dive was sandwiched in to a schedule involving activities like school visits and presentations, even on vacation it seems that the work never stops. This trip to Grand Cayman was certainly no vacation for his personal assistant. In the brief glimpse of their lives I had, I could see that she never switches off and the ability she demonstrates in keeping the tight schedule on track is an art form unto itself.

buzz cropped

When the day came, I made my introductions and tried to play down my excitement, after all, I was there to do a job. Underwater my focus would primarily have to be on safety as it is with any dive regardless of whether the people with me have been to space or not. Immediately I sensed that time was not to be wasted. The group as a whole were more than polite and pleasant but also keen to keep things moving in order to honor their next commitments. Knowing they were all experienced divers, I kept my briefing to a minimum, just covering what was required to make sure everyone was on the same page.

At first, it took the group a little while to get to grips with the scooters. All but one were tentative in their initial approach, trying the controls to see what did what. Buzz was the one who was not so interested in starting slow, he clearly wanted the thing to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. Before long, we were on our way, shooting through the water like a bunch of crazed maniacs. I love DPV dives. As soon as we got moving, this one proved to be as much fun as any I’ve been on before. Everybody held on tight with the scooters between their legs, occasionally swerving to avoid coral heads and other underwater obstacles.

As I looked around the group to make sure everyone (including the man who once walked on the moon) was OK and keeping up, my mask shuddered and my reg pulled at my mouth under the velocity. We flew through the water just a couple of feet from the sandy floor, the mini wall to our left hurtled by way too fast to pick out any detail.

Periodically, I checked in with each of the group to ensure that everything was good by giving the “OK?” signal. Although everyone responded, in truth this was one of those times when you don’t really need to see the confirmation as you can tell from their faces that OK is an understatement. Everyone was having an amazing time, me included.

As all good things must come to an end, constrained by air, decompression limits and battery power we had to start thinking about ending the dive. Following a decrease in speed while we did our safety stop we cruised on in to the exit point. Breaking the surface it was smiles all round. In the excitement of the dive, I had forgotten to be star struck, it was just so much fun that everything other than the thrill of the moment ceased to exist.

Back on dry land, opportunity to talk about the dive was minimal. Buzz said his good bye by giving me a “Get Your Ass to Mars” T shirt and mentioned that he hopes I see someone land on Mars in my lifetime as (in his words) he probably won’t get to see it in his.

buzzdd

Then they were gone, what a whirlwind of a morning! I slowly set about washing and packing up the gear, taking the opportunity to rest a little. I still was not fully able to digest what had just happened. As I made my way back home, I started thinking about the Mars project and wondered what it would be like to be the first person to go there. What would go through your mind to truly pioneer something like that?

It is my sense of adventure that attracted me to diving. This same attraction has kept me traveling the world in search of new and interesting underwater escapades. To meet a living legend who has had an adventure, the likes of which I can only dream of, was nothing short of inspirational. This encounter gave me an interesting perspective on what is achievable in life. From here on in, whenever I set my sights on something, I will never again worry about punching too high. As Buzz can tell you, not even the sky is the limit.