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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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May 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Dive Shop Owner’s Take on Dive Training

“too many inexperienced divers say ‘I can do this’”

from the May, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Hi Ben,

I just finished reading Bret Gilliam's Part I on "The Decline of Dive Training" in your March issue, and while I agree with most of what he says, he missed a larger point when it comes to referral training. In the "good old days" when training was completed start-to-finish with your local dive shop, the shop had a large stake in making sure you were trained properly and enjoyed the sport to the point where you wanted to continue. By certifying qualified, happy divers, there was a better chance you'd buy some big-ticket gear and continue diving with the shop -- it was essentially an investment in a long-term customer, and longterm profits for the store.

But when divers go to a resort to complete their training, that perspective goes away. First, the resort has no real emotional investment in the aspiring divers who will be gone in seven days. There is generally no long term benefit to the resort. The divers are also on vacation, a totally different mindset from taking a class, and who in the service industry really wants to ruin someone's vacation? All of this means (and this is not intended as a slam at the resorts, it's just the way things are) resorts will generally do whatever they need to do to "get someone through" the required certification dives. You're going to have to be pretty incompetent to fail. The resorts will bend over backwards to get skills completed and dives done, which may mean divers relying more on the supervising instructor than might normally be the case at a local dive shop. So what you end up with many times are divers who are certified but who lack basic competence. As Bret points out, clearing your mask once on the 24th try doesn't cut it for many of us, but it may seem to meet a training standard, especially to a newer, inexperienced instructor supervising.

There's a local dive here in Los Angeles at Farnsworth Banks. It lies a few miles off the backside of Catalina Island, tops out at 54 feet, drops down to hundreds of feet and is exposed to currents and swell. Festooned with sea life, it's a gorgeous dive that can be done within recreational depths, but it's considered (and advertised as) an advanced dive. We start our briefing by saying, "People have died here. Don't you be next." As I was signing people in on a Farnsworth trip some years ago, one diver noted that her last dive was a few years earlier and that she only had maybe 10 dives under her belt. I told her I wasn't going to let her do the Farnsworth dive. She said, "I can do this." I explained why I didn't think that was a good plan, and she again insisted, "I can do this." I told her we'd see once we got there.

We had planned on two dives at Farnsworth, and I told her she wasn't doing the first dive, but if I thought conditions were benign enough, I'd take her with me on the second dive. It was a spectacular day, so after the first dive was completed, I told her she could dive the second dive but would be glued to my hip. During that dive, I did everything but breathe for her: adjusted her buoyancy, tightened her weight belt, towed her around like a rag doll (I don't think she ever kicked), vented her BC on the way back up, and then plopped her on the swim step when we were done. When I asked her how she liked the dive, the first words out of her mouth were, "See? I TOLD you I could do it!" She simply had no awareness of how much help she'd gotten.

The other thing that's changed in the past few years is that when I got certified in 1978, entering the world of scuba diving was a lifestyle choice. You really wanted to get certified, and you invested significant time and effort to do so, with the assumption that this was something you'd be doing for quite some time. Scuba is no longer a lifestyle choice for a lot of people, it's simply one more item on their bucket list. "We could try rock-climbing, skiing, surfing . . . oh yeah, let's go ahead and get certified this weekend."

And even though you'll find plenty of veteran instructors like Bret or myself who bemoan the downward spiral of training, the reason our accident rate hasn't spiked is that the ill-trained people don't stick around too long. Ours is a fairly safe sport and many accidents are the result of poor diver judgment or inattention (e.g., being out of air) rather than lack of skill. You can possibly make foolish decisions a number of times before it catches up with you, but a lot of these people simply leave the sport before they have that serious or fatal accident. The systemic problem is that when you look at all of this, we -- as an industry -- are shooting ourselves in the foot, and we're contributing to our own demise.

-- Ken Kurtis, Owner of Reef Seekers Dive Co. in Beverly Hills, CA

Here's Bret Gilliam's reply:

I find myself in complete agreement with all of Ken's perspective, and his comments should be recommended reading for all in the diving industry. Unless some fundamental changes are made -- and in a timely manner -- the competence levels of new divers will continue to decline, and the sport will suffer from lack of growth and customer retention. That's simply bad business.

Also, the accident/incidence rate will spike. In fact, it has already dramatically increased, but it's difficult to accurately quantify because so much of the accident and fatality data are concealed in confidentiality agreements when cases settle. The industry wants to ignore this reality, but it's true. I'm on the inside of many lawsuits for both the defense and plaintiffs, so I am privy to all the evidence. Ken obviously understands and has had to deal with this stuff firsthand. The industry needs to wake up and address the reforms needed."

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