You’re a qualified Open Water diver… What next?

So, you have just qualified as an Open Water diver. Congratulations, the world’s oceans are there for you to explore. An often asked question is:

What’s next?

Advanced. One word, and that is often what you will get from anyone, including your instructor.

However, a good instructor will sit you down and try and find out a little more about where you think you might go with your diving. At this point it is unlikely you will know: will wrecks be your thing? Underwater photography? Exploring little-known dive sites?

Many an instructor will tell you that whilst doing your Advanced course you will come to realise what you will like best. This is hardly likely. Will one dive on a wreck be convincing enough? Will one dive with a camera have you rushing out to buy R20,000 worth of underwater photography equipment?

What if you decide photography is your thing… Do you choose to do three photography dives as part of your Advanced course? Can you? Do you even need to do an Advanced course if you love underwater photography? Or perhaps deep diving is what your heart desires. Will your Instructor take you on four deep dives for your Advanced course?

There are a multitude of questions and the answers are not always clear until you have done some diving. The whole idea with the Advanced course is to do the two core dives – navigation and deep – and three adventure dives, in the hope one of the three will entice you to do the corresponding Specialty.

It often does, and sadly this is likely to be where a diver stops exploring the opportunities available. A diver does a photography dive, rushes off to buy a camera, and this becomes his main focus. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with this – but what you do is limit yourself if you choose this path.

Often a new diver will decide Divemaster is the goal, so they do Advanced, Rescue and Divemaster. In as little as two months you have achieved this status, have done 60 dives and are now ready to go and work and earn an income for doing what you love. Sounds great, and it is, but are you ready for everything?

You land the dream Divemaster job in a tropical location – awesome! The first day you get to take a group of 12 on a night dive. Hmm, oh yes, you did do one during your Divemaster training, or perhaps two, or maybe not… Can you safely say you are ready to take 12 strangers on an underwater exploration at night when you have no experience?

Day two the group want to explore a deep reef, so off you go with twelve strangers to a depth of 30 metres. You did one deep dive for Advanced, possibly a few during Divemaster – are you ready? The next day you take 12 strangers to a site with a raging current. Have you done drift diving? It is an amazing experience when everyone drifts along with you but have a few stragglers, a few who swim against the current and suddenly your group of 12 are scattered all over the ocean.

Yes, you are a qualified Divemaster, but it could be you have little or no experience in drift diving, night diving, wreck diving and everyone’s favourite, deep diving. Sure there are Divemasters with all of this experience, but they are few and far between. Some Divemasters have never dived with a camera, and they get frustrated when the have a group of photographers to lead who are content to move no more than 20 metres from the entry point because there is so much to photograph.

So the question again, “Whats next?”

You should dive, as much as you can. If you want to combine this with furthering your diving qualifications, that’s great, but you don’t have to. I dived as an Open Water diver for 18 years, and didn’t feel as though I was missing out on anything. Plus, after all that time in the water, I was a capable and confident diver already when I started to do more dive courses.

Local diving varies from city to city and country to country. Depending on where you plan on doing the majority of your dives, have your instructor advise you on the best, but many different, options. In any event, to build on your capabilities underwater try and choose a path that will cover a wide range of diving environments and give you some solid experience.

My opinion is do more than one of your Advanced dives using a compass, so you are comfortable with how they work. Many of Cape Town’s dive sites are shore entries and being a good navigator eliminates long surface swims.

Also, do more than one dive to a depth greater than 18 metres. You are going to be qualified to dive to 30 metres after the Advanced course, so be sure you are comfortable being at 30 metres.

If you decide to do Specialties but are unsure of which, consider where you will dive. For example in Cape Town I would suggest you do a Deep Specialty and have your instructor conduct some of the dives on wrecks. This will get you to a point where you are comfortable with greater depths (Deep Specialty will qualify you to 40 metres). If wreck diving is your passion a Wreck Specialty is a must, as is Enriched Air diving as this extends your bottom time, a valuable commodity at most of the wrecks in and around Cape Town.

PADI course flowchart
PADI course flowchart

These are just a few of the options, so dust off the Open Water manual and see just how many different routes there are. Choose wisely! And remember to dive as much as possible.

Magazine: Divestyle

Divestyle January/February 2011
Divestyle January/February 2011

Until the advent of The Dive Site, there were two primary South African print edition diving magazines: Submerge, and Divestyle. We subscribe to both of these. Frankly, The Dive Site has set a new standard for diving magazines, but it’s early days yet and Submerge and Divestyle are well-established.

Of the two (Divestyle and Submerge), Divestyle has the most professional look, at least on the cover. Submerge looks a bit like an eighties throwback, a lot like the tacky photography magazines that rely on lurid fonts and neon colours on the cover to get attention.

To be honest, however, there’s not much to differentiate the two magazines. Sometimes they put out issues within weeks of each other, with identical topics for their cover stories. We’ve just received the latest Divestyle, though, so I can comment in detail on it.

The magazine is published by the husband and wife team who produced The Dive Spots of Southern Africa. Many of the articles in the magazine are written by one or both of them. Fiona McIntosh, author of the Atlas of Dive Sites of South Africa and Mozambique is also a regular (and much appreciated) contributor.

They do have a useful section near the front of the magazine where local dive centre owners and dive instructors can provide short updates on the current local dive conditions – this section was particularly interesting and active after the fire in Ponta do Ouro and has provided a good way to keep up to date with developments among the dive operators there.

I also enjoy the technical diving section (strangely enough, since I’m firmly in the recreational scuba camp!) for its contributions by greats such as Don Shirley, Peter Herbst and Nuno Gomes. The format here is that a question is posed, and several tech divers contribute their opinions. There is a regular column by a diving instructor, too, which provides interesting (and sometimes controversial) insights.

The dive travel aspect of the magazine is pretty good – we keep old issues of all our diving magazines for this very reason. Both local and international destinations are covered.

The photographs are generally of high quality, and there’s  a section where readers can send in their own photos for a bimonthly competition. I enjoy seeing what equipment others are using, and personally judging the results!

Tony enjoys the various bits and pieces of advertising leaflets that come with the magazine… He often wonders what sort of quality training a dive centre that offers a “buy one Open Water course, get one free” offer is willing to provide…

The Divestyle website is quite useful, with useful information on local and international travel destinations available free of charge. There are book and DVD reviews as well as a few dive gear and camera reviews too, but not as many as I’d expect. (The magazine has a regular section on cool new gadgets and toys for divers… Tony and I enjoy those pages particularly!)

The magazine comes out six times per year. There’s not much of a saving off the cover price for subscribing, and it doesn’t arrive earlier in my postbox than it does in the shops… But I do find it convenient to subscribe. You can get hold of it in local dive shops and (I think) at CNA and Exclusive Books.

Latest issue (January/February 2011)

This latest issue (cover pictured above) got up my nose because the editor commented that an article he’d published in the current issue concerning evolution didn’t sit well with his personal convictions. All well and good, but how does putting a bikini-clad woman on the cover sit with your convictions? It’s naive to think that there’s any deeper interpretation of the image that can be made, other than “sex sells”, and hypocritical to object to an article on evolution on religious grounds, but not to an almost naked covergirl! (Given my background, I know about this stuff… the religious side, not appearing almost naked on magazine covers, I mean… and can sympathise, but I can’t bear hypocrisy!)

There was also a vapid article about the broadnose sevengill cowsharks in False Bay. The image accompanying the piece could have been much improved (talk to Jacques, for example) and to say that the article said nothing useful would be quite complimentary. A local expert such as Georgina Jones, while acknowledging the shortcomings in our knowledge of these wonderful creatures, would have been able to provide a far more insightful and informative article.

That said (as I climb clumsily down off my high horse), I wouldn’t dissuade you from subscribing, and I will acknowledge that we did enjoy this issue about as much as we usually do!

What it takes to be a Divemaster

Many divers dream of becoming a Divemaster or a Open Water scuba instructor. In reality it is a “dream job” as it is made up of 99% good stuff and only 1% of the bad. (More on this shortly.)

The Divemaster role requires hard work
The Divemaster role requires hard work

Sadly not everyone can be a Divemaster. Not because its difficult (it’s not – learning to be a Divemaster is easy and fun with the right mindset, and we can all learn something new if we want it) but something else needs to be there first, an intangible skill or demeanour for want of a better word.

There are lots of good Divemasters, people who scored 90% plus on all the exams, scored highly on their skill sets and have the right gear and proper diving habits. But there are fewer really exceptional Divemasters, who performed as well as the rest while in training but have that elusive ability to be exceptional Divemasters. These are people who you would be happy to trust in any situation. It is only in an emergency situation that this ability in a person shines through.

You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster
You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster

Being exceptionally good in the water is not all that is required. An active Divemaster will know the dive site, have exceptional buoyancy, keep divers together and ensure you all see the hidden beauty of the dive site. But will they cope when two people run out of air at the same time, or when half the group gets lost, or two people panic when their masks flood (90% of regular divers have not removed their masks since their Open Water course)? Will they make the right decision if the conditions are unsafe, or will they dive anyway because they need the money? What will they do if you see a shark and some of the group panic and some just freeze?

There is a lot more to being a Divemaster than completing the course. It is only once you have done the course and started working as a Divemaster that you start to learn, and only the right people stick it out. You need to have the ability to feel ”that was a good dive” despite a dive where things happen like an O ring pops on the boat, a regulator free flows, a diver loses a weight belt, someone gets lost , someone runs out of air and yanks your regulator out your mouth dislodging your teeth, the visiblity is lousy and the water is cold, the boat leaks and the weather sucks… Is this you? Yes? Then become a Divemaster and it will change your life… Diving is a way of life.

Seal Team

PADI has an amazing program for young kids. It is called Seal Team and it is a program in which 8 – 10 year olds can learn to dive.

Abby giving an OK sign
Abby giving an OK sign

My latest junior dive star is nine years old. Abby, on vacation from the UK, wanted to learn to dive with her older brother and sister plus mom and dad. The five of them spent two days in the pool and in these sessions Mom, dad and older brother and sister completed their confined skills for Junior Open Water and for the parents, Open Water diver.

Abby writes on a slate underwater - look at that buoyancy
Abby writes on a slate underwater - look at that buoyancy

Abby completed five dives and five Aqua Missions thus resulting in her being certified as a PADI Seal.
At the age of nine her buoyancy was excellent, she swam through hoops , cleared a flooded mask, recovered her regulator and used an alternate air source.

Writing on the wall
Writing on the wall

We also played games with hoops and slates and she used an underwater camera to take a whole lot of paparazzi photos of her family while they were all diving! The Seal Team crewpack contains a DVD and a manual/logbook with quizzes, puzzles and lots of information. It’s definitely not a Mickey Mouse course – and it’s a lot of fun both to teach and participate in.

Seal Team manual/logbook
Seal Team manual/logbook

Thoughts on correct weighting

Most divers are overweighed, partly from the fact that their benchmark is the amount of weight they used when doing their Open Water course and more often due to their decision to add more weight after having a dive where they struggled to descend.

We are not all the same and different tissues have a different specific gravity, fatty tissues less than 1 and muscle and bone around 1.8-1.9 therefore not all 80 kg divers will wear the same weight.

Wetsuits, boots, gloves, mask volume, hoodies all have different buoyancy characteristics just as changing from a 10 litre cylinder to a 12 litre cylinder will also affect your buoyancy. As your comfort level in the ocean increases your breathing rate improves, your control over the inflator button improves (i.e. small bursts). All these factors contribute to achieving the real weight you require.

Tank weights are often used to ensure a diver is ”heavy” saving the instructor or divemaster the hassle of a buoyant diver floating on the surface whilst the rest of his divers are descending to unknown depths. Tank weights are promoted as being the reason a diver is balanced. Ankle weights are also often added to girls’ ankles as they are ”too light”. A huge factor in this is the material used in their fins: some cheap fins float like corks. I don’t like tank weights because if you are at 25 metres and run out of air you will be unable to ditch all your weights. A well trained diver will not be over weighted, will not run out of air at 25 metrees or have any other mishap… However correct weighting, proper training and a competent diver in the correct gear all go hand in hand. Mess with just one of these aspects and mishaps do happen.

Correct weighting is essential for comfort underwater
Correct weighting is essential for comfort underwater

If you think you are correctly weighted, lie in 5 metres of water, take your weight belt off and hold it in your lap. Slowly remove one weight at a time: you will be surprised at how little weight you need to stay at the bottom. Another option is to place your weight belt on the bottom, hold it tightly and move your arms up and down the length of your body until you are perfectly horizontal. If you find you need all your weight on your chest..then look at a BC with integrated weight pockets. Moving your cylinder up and down in your BC strap also helps find the perfect balance. Remember adding a shorty wetsuit and a rash vest to keep you warm add to the buoyancy of your chest area. A hoodie that fills with air also affects your profile.

Precision Diving blog

I’m always on the lookout for thoughtful fellow-divers who enjoy sharing their knowledge, experience and opinions on the sport, and I’ve been following Duane Johnson of Precision Diving (based in Chicago in the USA) for a while.

He has a fantastic blog in which he gives his thoughts on a wide range of subjects (he’s into everything from ice and cave diving to wreck penetration) including his thoughts on teaching scuba diving. Here are some of his most popular posts:

He’s also got a monthly newsletter that’s worth signing up for.

Why I teach PADI

I do not profess to having much insight into how other certifying agencies equip their Instructors but I do know how PADI does.

PADI slates for the Instructor
PADI slates for the Instructor

As PADI Instructors we are kept up to date with the latest training information quarterly, and we receive an up dated Instructor’s Manual every year with all changes, alterations and additions to the curriculum. We attend forums where we are given the latest info, what’s new for the year, statistics and on the PADI Pro website there is a host of white paper topics relating to marketing, training and PADI programs, and an endless supply of diving related indemnity forms etc. For every program there is an underwater slate, detailing the requirements for each dive. PADI do ensure that we, as instructors have every bit of information available.

PADI Open Water Training DVDs
PADI Open Water Training DVDs

For every program, training course or any aspect of your diving business PADI has made all the info readily available for Instructors. PADI also continues to evolve an often leads the way in improving the training courses.

PADI Open Water logbook
PADI Open Water logbook front cover
PADI Open Water logbook
PADI Open Water logbook adventure dive information pages

For example, the PADI Open Water course training materials – crew pack as we commonly know it – originally contained a manual and a dive tables. Today it also contains an electronic dive planner, your own set of DVDs, an amazing log book for all your courses (Open Water, Advanced, Rescue, Specialty courses, and forty odd fun dives), plus loads of information on specialties, and a booklet giving you some insight on the diving options you have. All this in addition to the manual!

PADI Electronic Dive Planner
PADI Electronic Dive Planner

Learning to dive in Cape Town with me at Learn to Dive Today means you also get a SURG slate on the common creatures we have here, plus free DAN diving medical cover for the duration of your Open Water course.

SURG Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula slate
SURG Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula slate
SURG Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula slate
SURG Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula slate (reverse)

The perfect diver

One of the first concerns many qualified divers have is buoyancy and their air consumption. As an Instructor, skipper and Divemaster I am often reminded of my own concerns when I started diving. Don’t envy the diver on the boat staying down the longest on the smallest cylinder. Dive often, enhance your training, hone your skills and soon you will be that diver,  first in and last out, with air to spare.

It makes no difference who your Instructor was, which certification agency you obtained your qualification from or where you are diving. All divers are taught the basics of diving during their initial training. However, the duration of your qualifying dives has a huge impact on your level of competency at the end of your training.

If you have done four, or five in some instances, short twenty minute dives (the minimum for PADI) and – let’ s presume – you spent two hours in the water during your confined water training then your total bottom time will be less than four hours. However if your qualifying dives were 50 minutes each it will be the case that your total bottom time when you’re newly qualified is a lot more.

Some people take to diving instantly and do not find any aspect of the training intimidating and within two hours of getting into the water they are relaxed, have good buoyancy and controlled breathing. For others it is a little harder coming to terms with the heavy gear, good buoyancy control seems to be a distant dream and managing to get 30 minutes on a 12 litre cylinder in shallow water is out of the question.

With bottom time comes perfection. This involves becoming comfortable with your gear so you instinctively find your pressure gauge, being correctly weighted (a huge factor in air consumption), being warm, and moving slowly with the correct profile. All of this improves air consumption dramatically.

Another important factor is confidence. Diving beyond your ability and training, doing a dive you feel you should rather not be doing are huge ”gas guzzling” factors so don’t do that deep dive to a wreck because you feel you can or think you should, do it when you know you can and really want to.

The learning curve for a diver is steep and for me the most rewarding aspect of teaching diving is to watch and be a part of a students initial flapping around in the water like a fish out of the water, to becoming relaxed, calm and confident, and watching them grow into a competent diver in such a short period of time.

Learning to dive

I always try and learn as much as possible from potential divers when I first meet them. There are several reasons for people wanting to learn to dive.

People often start their dive course with a statement like ”I don’t think I want to do this.”

These are often spouses of qualified divers, under pressure to learn to dive. The spouse always wants to tag along and this just places unnecessary pressure on the student. If you dive and have a new boyfriend or girlfriend and want then to learn, help them find an instructor and then back off, support them from a distance and don’t try and justify their every weakness. Don’t tell then not to worry ”everyone struggles with that” and don’t hang around while they learn. Go home and do something else.

The same applies if one of your children wants to learn. If you are qualified don’t join the child on every step of the course. Again, find an instructor you are comfortable with and let him or her do their job. Having you peer over the instructor’s shoulder distracts the child and your presence places unnecessary pressure on them as they feel you are going to step in any moment and tell them off if they are slow or struggle with certain skills.

Diving in Sodwana
Diving in Sodwana

The most important aspect of learning to dive is finding an instructor who teaches for the love of the sport. Yes, they want to be paid for it, but the difference is the right instructor will have the patience, the time, the ability to calm you and the patience to wait for you while you deal with all of the wild thoughts running through your head. You can make it easier by being honest with the instructor and trusting their judgement, but trust doesn’t arrive with the signing up of a course. This comes slowly during the training and a good instructor will earn this trust from you quickly if they are good at what they do. They will allow you to voice your fears, will talk you through them one by one instead of saying ”no, that’s crazy,” and they will talk about each and every fear and wild thought you are having until you are ready. They will spend extra time in the pool with you if you need it and don’t be afraid to say you do. Don’t be afraid to admit you did not get something or do not feel comfortable with a skill. Do it again until you feel at ease with what you need to achieve underwater.

Being able to clear your mask of water whilst on the verge of panic is not the right way. Sure, to an observer you cleared your mask, but to a dedicated instructor you did not do it right, you need to be able to do this whilst swimming along enjoying the scenery and without hesitating or hyperventilating. This may seem intimidating, but with the right amount of effort on the part of your instructor, patience and understanding everyone can perform each and every skill as a diver with ease.

Remember, talk to your instructor if you are not comfortable with something, anything, and fix it before you wander off and explore the ocean.

PADI is in my opinion the best certification agency. The rest are doing the same as PADI: teaching people to dive. I don’t want to get into the different techniques as ultimately everyone ends up as a diver, free to explore and experience the wonders of the ocean. Every certification agency has minimum standards of achievement. If you feel you have just scraped through everything by the skin of your teeth, talk to your instructor, get some more bottom time and you too will soon look like a professional underwater and you will wonder why you even found something to be difficult.

After all all instructors want you to be as good a diver as possible and your exemplary dive skills make us proud of what we do, and motivated to do it again and again and again.

Scuba diving and the art of teaching

I often find that when people ask me what I do for a living and I say ”Teach scuba diving” their reaction seems to be slightly dismissive. It sometimes gives rise to the thought that it appears to not really qualify as a form of employment if you are doing something that many people see as a ”hobby”. Many people will respond with ”well at least you are doing something you love”. I find this amusing – is a career in anything not meant to be ”you doing something you love”?

If not, why do you do it? How many people hate their jobs? What do you get out of what you do?

Why do I take people diving?

Well, I have never found anything quite as rewarding as watching a student go from fear, nervousness, apprehension, and lack of confidence to being a good diver, comfortable in the water and ready to explore the marine world. Learning to dive is a life changing experience: once you have shown a potential diver the basics, once they have mastered the skills and once they have spent a few hours underwater the world seems a different place. You have a plethora of new creatures to discover, talk about and experience. You have the tantalising anticipation of the unknown as you drop below the surface for every dive, knowing you will see so many things: reefs, wrecks, marine life, behavioural changes in creature as the day changes and so much more. There is always going to be something down there you have not seen before, not seen recently, and may never see again.

Diving is a realm of tranquillity, beauty and magnificence, from the most minute nudibranch to a great big whale lumbering by, there is something for everyone on every dive.

Everyone can dive, many people fear the unknown so they don’t, but get them past that point and there is no looking back.