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April 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Decline of Dive Training: Part II

it’s being dumbed down at all levels . . . but there’s hope

from the April, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Here's the second of dive veteran Bret Gilliam's two-part story on dive training and where it's headed, both for better and for worse.

Another major factor in the dive industry's floundering , the proverbial "elephant in the room," is the increase in online equipment sales at the expense of the local dive retailer. This trend seriously threatens the survival of traditional dive stores, and we're seeing shops close at an alarming rate. This is particularly harmful to dive training because these facilities are the primary source of certification programs that bring new folks into the sport and foster their continued interest.

Another rising trend has hurt dive stores: the practice of resorts and liveaboard vessels providing full equipment packages, including dive computers, regulators, BCDs, wetsuits, etc., at nominal rental rates or at no charge for week-long bookings. You can't blame them. This is what divers want in an age of absurd airline baggage fees: the convenience of having all the equipment they need available at their dive location. It's no muss-no fuss travel. The same model has served ski resorts for decades; only the most committed skiers buy equipment. Nowadays they prefer to organize their gear on arrival at the mountain. Many industry professionals argue that this practice works to retain participation by offering a wide selection of stateof- the-art gear without a big financial outlay, and by stimulating travel, perhaps the most effective way to keep the diver or the skier active. However, try telling that to a local retail store.

Basic Realities

I am deeply concerned about the dumbing down of dive training on all levels. Of course, the impetus originates with some agencies that see their strategy as enrolling and graduating more students. (Go ahead . . . you guess the prime offender.) But, it seems, they miss the point about customer retention. People who are not fully competent are not confident. When turned loose with a pocketful of certifications and questionable specialties, many quickly learn that their advanced or master diver status doesn't help them in a strong current, surge, reduced visibility or other stressful situation. Before you know it, they drop out and choose another sport like tennis. Once gone, they aren't coming back.

The dive industry must grasp some basic realities, key among them the firm understanding and importance of quality initial training as the acorn grows into the lasting oak tree -- the active diving participant.

Agencies need to upgrade requirements for instructor/divemaster qualifications to ensure that true professionals are the result. These knowledgeable people will pass on their training and, by their example, build the strong force of professionals needed in the sport. Concurrently, changes are needed at the entry level where more supervised training is essential for newcomers. This means more dives and longer bottom times. Let's do away with four dives, as short as 15 minutes each, in return for a C-card that says you are a qualified diver. Agencies also need to de-emphasize the collection of specialty certifications that serve only to confuse new divers with respect to their actual competency and skill level. Are you an advanced diver, with only nine dives? C'mon, we all know the answer to that. Are you an advanced skier with nine runs down the mountain, most of them on the bunny slope or easy trails? You're not advanced at anything with only nine experiences, whether it's diving, driving, photography or golf. The industry would benefit greatly by producing a more complete training package that truly qualifies people with the skills and confidence that keeps them in the sport.

Sometimes I'm hopeful, and sometimes I'm not. A recent change by SSI now allows divers to do their "open water" dives in an aquarium. Yes, you read that correctly. No current, no surge, temperate water, perfect visibility -- no stressor whatsoever. There is no requirement for a dive in the ocean, a lake or even a muddy pond. Do you really think this will prepare those divers to dive on their own? Call me crazy, but I'm skeptical.

There are some bright spots. Diving technology and equipment has never been better. The emergence of reliable rebreather models is one exciting development. This apparatus may play an important role in the sport's growth in the years to come, but proper training is critically important for those interested in using this more complex apparatus. Rebreathers could serve as the stimulus at all levels of participation, particularly among young people who yearn for the latest tech advance and stand in line overnight just to buy a new smartphone.

However, caution needs to be the highest priority in training curriculum, along with screening divers for proper prior experience and aptitude. Rebreathers are not forgiving apparatus. If you make a mistake in pre-dive set points, maintenance and attention to detail, then you will probably die. The accident record has proven this beyond argument or debate. On a personal note, when I ran the TDI agency and initiated the first widely used certification programs for rebreathers in the early 1990s, I required instructors to have a minimum of 500 logged dives, and 100 logged dives on that particular rebreather model before we accepted them to teach other divers. For students, I required a minimum of 250 dives logged in a variety of conditions, as well as certifications in nitrox and decompression procedures.

I can't offer a solution to Internet sales. And I can't fix the continued effects that warmer temperatures, pollution and other phenomena have had deteriorating the ocean environment. Diving is still a vibrant and exciting experience that is a great family recreation, and that's key to the long-term health of the sport. Yeah, the reefs and marine life are not what they were when I started diving, but I still love it. For those just now experiencing the wonder of seeing a dolphin or a turtle that gives them a hello for the first time, it's a thrill they will remember forever. So let's give them the tools and training they need to become competent, confident and independent divers who will enjoy the sport throughout their lives.

As I have often been quoted saying, "safety is good business." But I'm concerned by what I see, and hope that these issues won't come back to haunt the current generation of diving. Still, there's time to make the adjustments and get the ship back on course. The industry needs to embrace proactive change. That starts with meaningful reform to training models that have gone askew. The best diving customer is an active diver. Not one who dropped out when his qualifications proved less than real.

Reality... it's a bitch.

Bret Gilliam is a 43-year veteran of the diving industry, with involvement in retail stores, resorts, liveaboards, cruise ships, manufacturing, publishing and hyperbaric medicine. He founded the training agencies TDI, SDI, and ERDI. and served as the Chairman of the Board for NAUI in the early 1990s. He has logged more than 18,000 dives in his career.

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