FAQ: What’s the difference between an Independent and a Freelance instructor?

It is important to establish the credentials of your diving instructor and it is equally important to establish whether he/she is an independent or freelance instructor.

An independent is just that, an instructor who can take you right through the course without being dependent on a dive centre for equipment, training material or training aids.

A freelance instructor will need to rely on the availability of gear and training aids from a dive centre. A freelance Instructor will not be able to guarantee the same gear, wetsuit, mask etc. that you have used in the pool when you do your sea dives as they are rented and may therefore be out with another diver when you need them.

The divemobile taking in the sights in Gansbaai
The divemobile taking in the sights in Gansbaai

To be an independent instructor you need to be able to operate independently of any dive centre. This means you will need:

  • to have your own rental gear: regulators, BCDs , wetsuits, cylinders, fins, masks, and possibly even a compressor; and
  • to be able to find students, discuss and plan their course schedule entirely independent of a dive centre schedule and without relying on someone else’s training aids. For example if you are going to sign up for an Enriched Air/Nitrox course will there be a Nitrox analyser? If you plan to do night diving you will there be torches available, glow sticks, and strobes? Search and Recovery dives will require slates, reels and a lift bag. Being an independent instructor requires a certain degree of self-sufficiency.

(Often, independent instructors or freelance instructors open dive centres themselves. This transition usually comes with having a retail outlet and often the main focus is then diverted from teaching diving to paying the rent. Sales become more of a focus and they then arm themselves with freelance instructor contact details so anyone wanting to do a course can be accommodated.)

When you’re signing up for a dive course, this is a useful distinction to be aware of, and you should ask your instructor about whose kit he uses, and whether he’s dependent on a dive centre in any way.

Dive Deals column: The invisble cost of learning to dive

This is the second column in a three part series I wrote for the DiveDeals.co.za website, as part of my regular weekly contribution. Part the first can be found here.

The “invisible” costs of learning to dive

Last week we broke down some of the non-negotiable costs that are included in a course fee for an entry level scuba diving course. Some of them may seem far-fetched. This week I’ll explain why they aren’t.

You may think it costs a dive centre nothing to fill a cylinder. You may be close, but purchasing a compressor and maintaining it costs money. The compressor operator has to be qualified to fill cylinders, by doing a Department of Manpower-approved compressor course. This also costs money. A dive operator who doesn’t own a compressor will need to find a dive centre who does, and pay between R25 and R50 to fill cylinders. None of these are optional costs to a dive instructor.

You may also say, once you have a cylinder it costs nothing to use it. Wrong again: a cylinder needs an annual inspection that costs up to R100, pillar valves need regular services, tank nets wear out, and handles break. These costs aren’t optional.

You may think a dive centre gets equipment really cheap. Some do, but how good is it? And if they get it so cheap why do they want so much money for it when you buy it from them? Dive centres and schools need their gear to be rugged, robust and trouble free so not all choose budget equipment. A half decent dive school will have all the sizes, from XXS to XXL and a few of each of these sizes, this includes booties, wetsuits and fins. A decent wetsuit can cost you R2,000 – R3,000. What do you think it costs for 20 or 30 decent wetsuits?

Nothing you subject to human bodily fluids, regular immersion in salt water, and exposure to sun and sand lasts forever and dive gear is no exception. There is costly maintenance on all dive gear regardless of its quality, so this also is not a variable in course pricing.

A vehicle is required to transport the instructor and the gear to the beach, as is some form of building to house the classroom and training aids, store the gear and park the car.

Lest we forget, you expect to have the undivided (or at least, not too divided!) attention of an Instructor for at least three to four days. For anyone to stand in front of you as a qualified and paid-up in teaching status instructor, he/she has most likely spent around  R70,000 and used at least 6 -12 months getting the required training and qualifications. You may not be surprised to learn that they would like to recoup that money.

This is all without a boat. Let’s leave the boats out of this, as it is possible to qualify as a competent diver by doing shore entries.

So we’ve established that learning to dive costs money, and we’ve identified some of the areas where expenses can build up. Next week we’ll try and tie it all together, looking at what it actually costs to dive – what will a dive centre or scuba instructor charge you for a course, and what that implies.

Dive Deals column: The cost of learning to dive

Here’s the third article I wrote for the Dive Deals website. The first two are here and here.

The cost of learning to dive

Anyone starting out on the rewarding and life-changing path of becoming a regular diver will at some point ask ‘’what does it cost?’’.

Like any sport that is equipment-intense, there will be expenses related to getting started. These expenses can be managed and spread out depending on your own situation and the sales skills of your local dive centre.

As a starting point I want to focus on what many will say is the most popular of dive courses and that is Open Water diver.

Most dive training agencies stipulate the required standards and set the basic guidelines as to how their course must be structured and what the requirements for course content, learning materials and minimum standards are. This is not a variable part of the program.

There are variables, however: what brand and configuration of gear, time schedules and training periods are all variables provided they meet the minimum standard. These factors can all be interpreted quite widely – you could end up diving without a hoodie or gloves in a 3mm wetsuit in less than 20 degree water or perhaps you will have a 7mm wetsuit, with a shortie over it, a hoodie, 5mm gloves and so on.

Where no scope for interpretation exists, naturally will follow more expense.

Let’s break it down even more.

Any business irrespective of what it does, exists with the goal of making a profit. Huge turnover don’t always equate with huge profits and many smaller, efficiently run businesses make a tidy profit. So let’s imagine a dive centre with one employee, its main focus being on diver training.

Let’s take the non-variable items first.

You walk in the door and want to become a qualified diver. You don’t want to be conned into doing a seemingly cheap course that will only qualify you to dive to 12 metres while accompanied by an instructor – you want to be able to dive independently, to a reasonable depth. The PADI Open Water course and the NAUI Open Water 1 course, for example, fit the bill nicely. So this is what you will cost the dive operator:

  • A training pack with at least the minimum required manual, logbook and dive planner: R450
  •  Two sets of gear for three days, capitalised and depreciated over a year: R300
  • 10 air fills (1 student and 1 Instructor, pool and four dives): R400
  • Getting to and from the dive sites: R400
  • Wages for the owner/instructor: R850
  • Odds and ends such as electricity, pens and pencils, rent, telephone calls, lunch maybe? : R100

(These figures aren’t meant to be prescriptive or even highly accurate, but just give an idea of where expenses occur in running a dive course.)

So it’s not implausible that R2,500 of your course fee is eaten up before you even hit the water. You may look at some of the costs I’ve listed above and say to yourself, “He’s smoking socks – it doesn’t cost a dive centre anything to fill a cylinder! And what’s this about the gear costing R300 over the course days? Dive centres hardly pay anything for gear, and then they have it to use as they please!”

We’ll see next week how some of the “invisible” costs of learning to dive add up.

Dive Deals column: Don’t become a lost diver

Here’s the second in my series of articles for the DiveDeals.co.za website.

Don’t become a lost diver

Last week we looked at some of the situations and reasons that could cause a freshly qualified scuba diver to give up on the sport. This week I’d like to examine some of the simple things that can be done by the qualifying diver – before, during and after doing one’s first dive course – to reduce the attrition rate of new divers and avoid becoming a statistic.

Learning to dive

Firstly, learn to dive in a place you feel comfortable, with an instructor you feel good about. Choose an instructor whom you trust, and find approachable. Ask a lot of questions before you sign up. During the course, never hesitate to tell your instructor you are not sure of something you have just learnt. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. If you’re not comfortable performing a skill, ask if you can do it again. That skill might one day make the difference between a disastrous dive and a dive that ended well for all concerned.

Buying gear

Don’t buy the first piece of gear you are shown based on the sales pitch. There is very little junk available in the dive industry, but it just might not be what suits your budget, your body shape or diving needs. You WILL ultimately be better off buying your own equipment, but don’t rush into it without some research. Try on different styles of wetsuits, dive with different style BCDs, various volume masks, and so on. Then you will be qualified to make a good decision about what kit to buy for yourself.

On the boat

Do not hesitate to tell the skipper you are nervous, and never hesitate to tell the divemaster it’s your first dive and you are apprehensive. Don’t be shy to tell the group on the beach during the briefing you have never dived in the sea, or never been deeper than 12 metres, or whatever the case.

The divemaster faced with 10 new faces every dive cannot be expected to read everyone’s state of mind. Equally, a skipper that takes 30-40 different people out on his boat each day can’t be expected to know everyone’s gear, mental state, or qualification.

As a divemaster, skipper, and instructor, I can assure you the vast majority of people in the dive industry are helpful, keen to see you dive with them again and again and will go to great lengths to assist you whilst you find your feet. All you have to do is tell them that you’re just starting out. Don’t be afraid to ask the diver nearby for help as they will most likely be happy to share their knowledge. If they aren’t, don’t take it personally – unfortunately you will meet ungracious people in all areas of life – and just ask someone else.

Bad experiences

In the unlikely event you have a bad experience on a dive or with a dive operator, don’t give up move on as there are many, many, options and the vast majority of dive operators are good at what they do, keeping you a happy diver. After all, a dive centre filled with enthusiastic divers is a fun place to be and to these individuals diving will soon become a way of life. Diving has more to offer than any other sport in the world. (My opinion, yes, but shared by millions.)

FAQ: Should I learn to dive with a dive centre or independent Instructor?

Potential students often ask the question, should I learn to dive at a dive centre or with an Independent Instructor? Which training agency is best? PADI, NAUI, CMAS, or SSI? To name but a few.

The goal of all the agencies is to turn you into a competent diver. The Instructor is instrumental in this and it makes no difference where they trained or where they work. They are either good at what they do or they are not.

The important issue is the quality of the training you receive and this is largely dependent on the calibre of the Instructor. Some dive centres have exceptional staff whilst others are worse than dodgy. Some dive centres will take shortcuts in the interest of profit margins and the same can be said for Independents. The Instructor you choose needs to be passionate about diving and if the Instructor sees diving as just another job then the quality of the training will be mediocre. If you do four 20 minutes dives for your Open Water dives you meet the standard for certification with regards to dive time but do you get enough experience from this? If you did four 40 minute dives you would have double the amount of water time. Given the steep learning curve diving has this makes a huge difference.

All certifying agencies have standards, (these being the minimum requirements for certification) and all Instructors are required to follow these standards without deviation. You can add to the number of times you have a student perform a task, or add several dives to the course if you feel the student requires this, but you cannot skip a step or do less than what the standards specify.

Preparing for confined water skills
Preparing for confined water skills

Dive centres will sometimes have Instructors on staff, always available and there when you sign up. Some however will rely on an army of freelance Instructors they can call upon when they need to. This often means you sign up, pay and have yet to meet the person you will be trained by. This also means you are on somewhat of a merry go round as there will need to be several calls and “I will get back to you” conversations before you have a time and date for diving and classroom usage.

It can also often result in you having several different Instructors during your training as the freelance Instructor you start with may not be available on the subsequent days. The downside to having several different instructors during your course is that anything you felt uncomfortable with on day one is not necessarily conveyed to the Instructor for day two or for day three and as such you can often be left feeling unsure of your ability and not as confident as you should be by the end of the course. Having the same Instructor for the duration of the course ensures that any weakness you may feel you have can be addressed and the skills redone until you are confident.

Having said this, it is possible to walk into a dive centre, find an Instructor behind the counter, who will sign you up talk you through the stages of the course and the program you will follow and sort out everything in a flash. You then leave happy in the knowledge that you have met your Instructor and had a chat and know what’s next.

I would encourage you to ask questions about who will be your Instructor(s) when you are shopping for a dive course. This is not a small decision and you can avoid being short-changed by being well informed.