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March 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 27, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

The “Discover Scuba Diving” Programs

here’s where the deaths happen

from the March, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Recently, there has been a furor within certain segments of the diving industry over issues of dive safety and what direction the incident and fatality rate has been moving. Is diving getting safer? Or more dangerous? The answers depend on whom you ask and what stake they have in the industry.

When aging sport divers kick back after a day of diving, it's not uncommon to discuss the old days, when learning to dive meant a rigorous training course. Resort courses started a trend toward truncated courses, then came the so-called "Discover Scuba Diving" programs, which allowed tourists to try diving before obtaining certification. These programs were developed by Caribbean dive operators who taught only the most basic skills needed to dive briefly under supervision. This "teaser" could serve as the catalyst for further training, equipment sales and repeat customers. When launched initially, little attention was paid by the fledgling diving industry, leaving the Caribbean operators to shepherd the programs independently. In essence, they were neither endorsed nor legitimized by training agencies or industry leaders, but they flourished anyway.

Bret Gilliam, who founded the dive agencies TDI and SDI and also served as chairman of the board for NAUI, told Undercurrent, "In St. Croix in the early 1970s, it seemed that every beach bar or hotel property had some rudimentary version of the resort course. From my store, we serviced close to 20 hotels, with our staff conducting classes right off their beaches. We probably ran 8,000 to 10,000 people through resort courses annually. Throughout the Caribbean, there were no accidents of any kind except maybe someone stepping on a sea urchin. In the early 1980s, the training agencies decided to codify the programs and extend insurance coverage. They took our input and left us alone. The problems began with the next generation of diving instructors."

Herb Farrar, another instructor from that era, notes, "We used to have two or three instructors take as many as 35 students off the beach. They learned to clear their ears and mask, breathe from a regulator, and maybe a few other very basic skills. All this while standing in chest deep water on the sandy bottom. Then we'd swim them into deeper water, usually never more than 20 feet deep. The whole thing lasted about 30 minutes. Never had the slightest problem. But... the instructors of that era were far more professional and aware. Now it's different."

In the last decade, incidents and
fatalities have soared, even with
student/instructor ratios reduced to
four students per instructor.

By all logic, the safety record should have remained excellent with today's mandated lower ratios. However, in the last decade, incidents and fatalities have soared, even with student/instructor ratios reduced to four students per instructor. Litigation has also increased, and insurance companies are closely monitoring their exposure due to insurance payouts.

A Fatality Case History Examined

On July 13, 2011, a 12-year-old boy, a 13-year-old boy, and an adult (the father of the 13-year-old) participated in a Discover Scuba Diving program led by a PADI instructor. During the dive, all participants followed a line, first for the descent and then to ascend and return to shore. During the ascent, the adult apparently had buoyancy issues, and began a panicked ascent to the surface. The instructor signaled to the two boys to stay together and hold on to the line while he dealt with the adult. After catching the surfacing adult and getting him under control, the instructor returned to the safety line to find both boys missing. One boy was found safe on the surface, but the other was found unconscious on the bottom and subsequently died. None of the participants' families will ever forget this event, and all will forever wonder whether there was something more they could have done to prevent this tragedy. And if there are resulting lawsuits, they will be expensive and ugly.

Interviewed about this exact accident, Bahamas-based instructor Chris Hadley says, "My gut tells me the parents of the deceased 12-year-old -- and their lawyer -- are going to suggest that the odds were unacceptable, and they are going to try to get someone to pay for setting up those odds in the first place. If that is the case, whom should they be pursuing? The instructor who followed all of the standards provided by his training agency, or the agency that created the standards and advertised them as being safe? I'll bet you can guess my answer."

Michele deSouttaine, a French citizen living in St. Barts, believes that what worked in the past when instructors were better trained and more experienced will not work today. "I have been an active instructor since 1975. I have taught junior programs and dozens of introductory programs for children. After seeing the problems encountered by adults in regular openwater classes, I cannot believe that it is safe to take a child -- or anyone, for that matter -- into open water as part of a larger group after only a brief orientation to diving. Those who developed this particular modern program advertise 'direct' supervision with a 4:1 participant-to-instructor ratio, but they do not discuss what happens to their 'direct' supervision if one of the participants has a problem.

"There was direct supervision in this case, until someone had a problem the instructor had to deal with. At that point, 'direct' supervision of all the participants was simply impossible. How could those who developed this program not see that obvious flaw?"

Ratios Went Down, Deaths Went Up

Ratios did change (from 6:1 to 4:1 around 2001), and then came an amendment that prevented the guiding instructor from taking photos while supervising his 4:1 participants. How obvious is that?

Regardless, the so-called Discover Scuba Diving programs (DSD) are still the most dangerous of diving programs. PADI's Drew Richardson provided an overview of his agency's accident data at the 2010 Diving Fatality Workshop held by Divers Alert Network. Prior to 2001, when it had a 6:1 instructor/student ratio, the Discover Diving program was more than six times as dangerous as entry-level training. Today, with a 4:1 ratio, it is at least twice as dangerous.

The Another number that is a little disconcerting is the 36 DSD fatalities that occurred from 1992 to 2008. This is the program that is offered to the public -- individuals, families and children who are typically on holiday -- and these fatalities have occurred under "direct supervision." Most agencies have a minimum age of 10 years in place for participants, but others allow even younger children.

"Direct supervision" is likely one of the issues that will be debated because of this incident. As deSouttaine reflects, "What do you think that term means? I think it should be defined as 'close enough to offer assistance' in the event of any difficulty. In many cases, problems have arisen when one participant has an issue (buoyancy, mask flooding, panic, etc.) and the instructor ends up focusing on that individual instead of the overall group. The unfortunate reality is that any other participant who develops his or her own problem after the instructor's attention is diverted is actually left alone. There is no 'direct supervision' and there is simply nobody there to help."

Peter Meyer, vice president at insurance firm Willis Canada, which insures a significant market share of diving entities in North America, says, "I have serious concerns about how fast things go downhill once a student has a problem. And even with a low student/instructor ratio that sounds good on paper, once separation occurs, there will be some students left completely alone. That's when the accidents happen. We didn't see these problems years ago, but now it happens routinely. The standard needs to change to require that at least two instructors are in the water with any group."

Gilliam shares Meyer's concerns. "There is no easy answer, but mandating two instructors is obviously needed. Forty years ago, when we conducted resort course programs, we used very high ratios. But we had other protocols that tended to mitigate risk. All skills were taught in shallow water, and there were at least two, sometimes more, instructors in the water. This way, if someone had a problem, another instructor could take over the remainder of the group, and the nearest instructor took control over the problem student. And all activity ceased until the problem was solved or the student was removed from the water.

"Also -- and no one likes to talk about this today -- the instructor of that era was a genuine professional. They typically worked in diving seven days a week, full-time, year-round. They made a good living at it, owned homes, saved money and pursued this vocation as a career path. They also tended to have far greater 'situational awareness' about initial signs of stress or when students were going to have problems. They expected the worst, and were prepared mentally and physically to deal with that as a matter of routine. Today, we see instructors who are less experienced and not conditioned to expect contingencies. That is a failure in the system that has to be corrected."

In the case above, all three participants were under "direct supervision" until one of them had a problem. Then there were two participants with no supervision at all, and one of them died. Had the remaining two divers been under "direct supervision," it is very likely that whatever occurrence caused them to leave the safety line could have been prevented. Consequently, if you must have direct supervision to provide safety with respect to DSD participants, then you should have a one-to-one ratio. Those who place statistics above moral common sense would argue that the odds of more than one participant having a problem at any one time are huge, but that is exactly what happened in this current incident and others before.

A similar case involved Ann Jordan, an adult on a DSD dive in Hawaii a few years ago. There were two participants being supervised by a divemaster, and one of them surfaced with the divemaster due to some difficulties. This left Jordan, as the second diver, on the bottom. Jordan made it to the surface by herself, but she then sank and subsequently died.

How to Improve "Direct Supervision"

All interviewed say that when more than one instructor is involved, the ratio could be expanded because a contingency for direct supervision would then exist. Gilliam concludes, "What we're really talking about has now gone full circle back to the 1970s. We used multiple instructors for precisely those reasons. We never wanted one instructor to be forced to decide who to save -- and who might be left alone. In those days, there was no agency telling us what to do, and we had no insurance coverage. So we proactively put our best effort forward based on our daily first-hand experience. It worked. I'm not aware of a single fatality -- ever -- anywhere in the Caribbean from the late 1960s until the modern era in the 1980s."

As Gilliam implies, this is not about ratios, but about "direct supervision." PADI and other agencies clearly recognize that it's the key, but then they have created ratios that defy the ability to provide that required level of supervision when an issue develops. As per the above examples, a one-to-one ratio would obviously work. But it also seems quite clear that other ratios would also work for larger groups. Four students with two instructors, six students with three instructors, or another combination would work just as well, as long as there is still direct supervision available for all participants if the primary instructor becomes occupied with a student problem that manifests suddenly.

Underlying all this is simple economics. It costs good money to put one or more additional instructors in the water, and getting small groups to pony up may be extremely difficult. For small shops, maintaining direct supervision mat may not be economically viable. The only question is, whether failing to maintain direct supervision is morally viable, given the rate of fatalities. That kind of assessment is required as the industry considers what acceptable risk is for programs to attract new candidates for training -- and to keep the industry alive.

-- Ben Davison

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