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.

Clean air: all about compressor maintenance

Diving, in my opinion, is one of the most rewarding sports on the planet. Breathing underwater, interacting with the myriad of creatures you can and do always encounter and the total tranquilty below the surface cannot be achieved easily in any other sport. If it is an adrenaline rush you need, diving can give you this too. Having raced cars, bikes and go-karts I know what an adrenaline rush does for you, but believe me an encounter with a whale shark, a pod of dolphins, a tiger shark, hammerheads or a great white shark give you a rush unlike anything else, so diving gives you the best of everything.

As with any sport or recreational activity diving has a few inherent risks. Besides regular maintenance of your gear, the air you breathe underwater must be clean and pure. A cylinder filled with contaminated air will harm you quickly and quietly. Unless you test each and every cylinder you breathe from with a sophisticated analyser for air quality you have no idea of how good your air is.

Charcoal, used felt pads, new pads, and drying agent
Charcoal, used felt pads, new pads, and drying agent

All dive centres have a strict policy on compressor maintenance and filter changes or services but occasionally you will have a fill from an operator who is not that scrupulous. You may also have a fill from a privately owned dive compressor and again the same regulations regarding maintenance apply. If you are unsure, ask the compressor operator for his certification card and the compressor service records. This is your right, it is you that is going to breathe that air. A rule of thumb for me is that if the owner dives and breathes that air then it is most likely safe, but if the owner is seldom breathing from the cylinders he supplies then there may be a risk.

Components (felt pads etc) from inside the filter tower
Components (felt pads etc) from inside the filter tower

I often fill my own cylinders, for my students, divers and myself. I am a stickler for the quality of the air I want in my cylinders so I am careful of the places I will fill my cylinders and just as careful of the quality of the air I pump. Our compressor has a service interval of 15 hours and this is what is involved.

The filter tower is made up of a few components. Felt pads between the water separator, charcoal and drying agent. The filter tower also has a bleed valve and bleeding the moisture off every few minutes helps in reducing the moisture the filter must remove. The compressed air passes through the water separator, a felt pad, a drying agent, another felt pad, charcoal, and finally another felt pad before it enters the cylinder. This ensures dry clean air is pumped into the dive cylinder.

Water separator inside the bottom of the filter tower
Water separator inside the bottom of the filter tower

There are other considerations.

Air intake
Air intake

The intake of air to the compressor needs to be clean so a particle filter on the intake pipe is important as is the location of this filter This prevents bugs, sand , dust and paper entering the compressor. The compressor we have has a petrol engine and the exhaust fumes must be kept away from the intake so it is important to position the intake upwind of the motor.

The top of the filter tower
The top of the filter tower

The compressor runs on a synthetic oil that must be changed as often as the filter contents and the Honda engine also has service requirements. Spark plug change after 30 hours, air intake every 15 hours and an engine oil change every 15 hours. The whip or filling hose needs a cap to keep the threads clean and the opening free from contaminants.

A record of the fills done must be maintained and the correct procedure followed. This includes recording the last viz date, owners detail, ending pressure and blend if it is a Nitrox cylinder.

Finally, to operate a compressor requires a certification and in South Africa this must be a course approved by the department of manpower. The CMAS compressor operator course offered by False Bay Underwater Club fullfils these requirements.

CMAS Compressor Operator certification card
CMAS Compressor Operator certification card

Belonging to a dive club

Tony and I recently attended the annual Christmas party of False Bay Underwater Club (FBUC), of which we are members. Tony was a member of the Durban Undersea Club while he stayed up north, but it’s my first experience of belonging to any sort of club (except, of course, for the Cape Town Girls Club, of which I was a founder member at the age of ten) – let alone a diving club.

There are numerous benefits – among them, cheap gear hire, free air fills on club days (Wednesday evenings), and access to courses at reduced rates. FBUC offers CMAS courses to its members and other interested parties, and Tony, Kate and I recently completed a compressor operator course there. The club periodically performs ocean cleanups (Simon’s Town yacht basin was their last one), and is involved in several social responsibility projects – for example, the gifts and baby supplies that we brought to the Christmas party are to be donated to the Beautiful Gate in Crossroads, which cares for babies, children and families in the community, many affected by HIV/AIDS.

FBUC Christmas tree
FBUC Christmas tree

FBUC also holds weekly club dives – there’s a mailing list that informs members where to meet, what day (usually Sunday), and what time. Tony and I have not had a chance to explore any of the Oudekraal shore entry sites yet, and that’s been on hold while we sort out a wetsuit for him that isn’t quite as highly ventilated as his current one, but we look forward to tagging along on some club dives to learn the shore entry dive sites we don’t know in Cape Town.

The thing we have been enjoying most, however, is the access that club membership gives us to the accumulated knowledge and experience of the other members. There are members who are photography gurus, those who manufacture their own gear and accessories, those who repair and service dive kit, mapping and dive site gurus, and experts on marine life. It’s here that we got to check out Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPVs) first hand. (Tony immediately added one to his Christmas list… high hopes!)

Monty checking on the progress of the snoek on the braai
Monty checking on the progress of the snoek on the braai

We’ve learned a huge amount just chatting to other members over a drink (or a fish braai) on a Wednesday evening at the club. It’s been lovely to meet interesting, like-minded people who love the ocean and exploration and are happy to discuss it.

Everything I’ve described regarding False Bay Underwater Club also applies – one way or another – to the other main diving club in Cape Town, Old Mutual Sub Aqua Club (OMSAC). We accompanied some of their members on a cleanup dive on Robben Island earlier this year.

It’s not particularly cheap to be a member of a dive club, but I think it’s been well worth it so far. Not so much for the gear hire and air fills – Tony has his own gear and requires air fills FAR more often than once a week – but for the other reasons I’ve mentioned.

Zero to… HERO!

Congratulations to Kate, who arrived in Cape Town on 8 October 2010 having never dived before, and is leaving on 10 December qualified as a Divemaster, with more than 60 dives and over 45 hours underwater under her belt!

Kate demonstrates incorrect snorkel technique
Kate demonstrates incorrect snorkel technique (in the car, on the wrong side)

While she was here we dived almost every day, in all sorts of conditions. She dived in visibility ranging from pea soup (with croutons) to over 10 metres, water temperatures from 11 degrees up to 18 degrees, and experienced a wide range of what Cape Town diving has to offer. She even did a dive in just a shorty wetsuit – the water LOOKED warm but wasn’t – and I am pretty sure she’s the first diver EVER to do something like that in this city!

She experienced everything from orally inflating another diver’s BCD at 15 metres, to securing Clare’s cylinder when it came loose (oops!), tying knots underwater, a meeting with a very frisky sevengill cowshark on her first ever dive with sharks at Shark Alley, and using a lift bag to ferry our artificial reef out to the correct depth.

Kate transporting part of the artificial reef
Kate transporting part of the artificial reef

She spent a lot of time towing the buoy line, inflated SMBs and balloons underwater (the latter was highly amusing to watch), mapped wrecks and the pipeline at Long Beach, exchanged information on the layout of the SAS Pietermaritzburg with wikivoyage guru Peter Southwood, enjoyed high-speed boat rides to various local dive sites, filled cylinders at a local dive centre, and navigated at night in order to find the yellow buoy at Long Beach. She’s breathed from a hang tank at a safety stop after a deep dive, and from another diver’s octo while swimming to shore. She’s a pro with a compass. She’s also done some underwater photography – thanks to her, the gobies at Long Beach have a serious complex about the paparazzi!

Kate and Clare getting their bearings on the beach
Kate and Clare getting their bearings on the beach. To infinity and beyond!

Kate dived with and without a computer, in various types of gear and several different wetsuits. She knows the difference between an A-clamp and a DIN fitting. She removes and replaces inserts on cylinders with her eyes closed, changes O-rings, and puts on her own kit. She has filled over twenty cylinders as part of her compressor operator course.

Kate was also a fantastic ambassador for diving for the various students of mine that she interacted with. As part of her Divemaster training, she led dives, demonstrated skills, helped students with their kit, and took on various tasks in order to prepare her for the responsibilities that go with this qualification. She did all of this with good humour, good sense and great precision.

Kate helps Anna with her hoodie
Kate helps Anna with her hoodie

During her stay, Kate buddied with all kinds of divers. She met Russians, Swedes, Canadians, French and fellow British divers, and some regte egte South Africans. She assisted foreign-language students with understanding the questions on the quizzes and exams when their English wasn’t up to the task. She got on famously with everyone she encountered, and was never grumpy or a prima donna.

In the ocean she encountered seals (she’s not a fan), giant short-tailed sting rays, hundreds of octopus, sevengill cowsharks, and her favourite friends – barehead gobies! They’re going to miss you, Kate… And especially your underwater singing!

Barehead goby
Look at that sad little goby face!

The courses Kate completed during her stay in Cape Town are:

I am confident that she is a safe, capable diver with excellent experience under her belt so far, and I look forward to hearing about her future exploits in the underwater world.

Kate on the move
Kate on the move

Compressor operator course

Tony, Kate and I recently completed the theory portion of the CMAS (here’s the South African branch) compressor operator course at False Bay Underwater Club (FBUC). The theory component involved a 2 and a half hour lecture delivered by a CMAS instructor, and a written (no multiple choice!) exam. The manual was written by Peter Southwood, the local wikitravel guru.

Operating a compressor is reasonably simple: there’s a well-defined sequence of actions that need to be performed on start up and shut down, as well as constant monitoring of the compressor during the filling process. Some compressors require bleeding off of accumulated moisture and residual oil throughout the filling process. As long as one is circumspect regarding which cylinders one agrees to fill, it is a safe activity.

Turns out in South Africa (and elsewhere) compressor operation and standards are heavily regulated. Given that compressed air cylinders are used in a range of life-critical applications such as fire fighting and scuba diving, this makes good sense.

The practical portion of the course requires us each to perform 20 cylinder fills, including a number of compressor start ups and shut downs. This must be completed within a year of doing the theory component, and signed off. I expect that getting my hands on a compressor and actually doing the fills myself will clarify a lot of the questions I had, and bring those schematic diagrams in the notes to life!

FAQ: Which certification agency is best?

For those of you wondering which certification is better – PADI, SDI & TDINAUI, CMAS, SSI, IANTD, etc. – there are LOTS of them! – there are one or two things to bear in mind:

  • All the agencies teach you to dive. There may be minor differences in course duration and when you learn what skill, but at the end of the day you’re learning the same thing… So don’t stress about it too much!
  • The agency you learn to dive with must be a member of the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). This body sets minimum standards for dive training, and if your agency is recognised by the WRSTC you can be assured that you’ll get a certain level of training including a particular set of skills. WRSTC membership also ensures your qualification will be accepted worldwide.
  • The quality of your instructor is far more important than the agency (s)he teaches for. All the flashy course accessories in the world won’t make a difference if you do four twenty minute dives for your Open Water course – it’s just a waste of time.
  • Some agencies are very cheap to get certified with – the manuals are photocopied, and you don’t get as many free bits and pieces (like carry cases, stickers, SMBs, etc.) when you sign up for a course. Check that the lower course price is related to the lack of flashy accessories included in the course price, rather than to the fact that you’ll be in a class with seven other divers, or that the class will only be held every third Tuesday at 4 a.m.! (You should probably read this post, too.)
  • Some of the certification agencies specialise in particular areas of diving. IANTD is an example – they will teach you to use a rebreather, for example, if that’s your thing. I would select a specialist technical agency such as IANTD or TDI, rather than a recreational agency that has branched out into Tec. if you plan to go into technical diving. They have a long history and quality record of this kind of training, and their instructors have a solid grounding in the sport.

Tony teaches SDI and PADI, which together issue over 75% of diving qualifications worldwide. This combination gives him flexibility to offer affordable and quality courses that include online theory or hard copy materials. All students have the opportunity to do boat dives off our boat, Seahorse, conditions permitting. He’ll be the first to admit that the end goal of any diving qualification is the same… Learning to dive!