Why I Gave Up the Best Diving Job in the World

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John BantinAfter twenty-one years working for a major diving magazine, I decided to retire gracefully. You may wonder why I did that. Many divers thought I had the best job in the world.

My family and I love going on holiday. Who doesn’t? My wife went with some girlfriends to the Costa Brava. They had a great time. They sunbathed, they ate some fine meals, they drank probably too much, and they had a lot of laughs. At the same time I went to the Maldives. I enjoyed myself, I ate some fine meals, had a lot of laughs, but I was not there on holiday.

I admit I had a great job. A successful dentist friend of mine, just taking delivery of his brand new Aston Martin, told me that his real ambition was to change careers and become an ‘inspector of tropical dive sites’. That’s more or less the job I’d got, but I rode a pushbike to his surgery.

He takes dentistry very seriously. He is good at what he does and he obviously enjoys it. If he were not good, he’d soon be out of business. It’s the same if you travel the world going diving, taking photographs and writing about it. You don’t approach it with a professional mindset you’d soon be out of business. When you are surrounded those on holiday, it’s important not to lose focus on why you are there. No one wants to hear that you simply had a good time. Where are the results?

Now you may think that I did a lousy job. That’s your privilege. Even now I’m always interested to hear how I can do better. No one is more insecure than someone trying to keep up a standard.

At the beginning of my career as a diving journalist, I flew across the world to the Solomon Islands to do a feature for a magazine. I found myself sitting next to one of the paying holidaymakers also on the trip. He told me he was a professional photographer who had been assigned to cover the trip for a rival magazine. He showed me his camera equipment and I don’t mind telling you that he had twice as much, and better, equipment than me. I felt very insecure. I really didn’t see how the money he would be paid for a feature would warrant that kind of capital expenditure.

As it turned out, he was actually a successful car salesman who got enough satisfaction from seeing his stuff in print. He didn’t need any money for it. There’s nothing wrong with that. The difference is that he was on holiday with his wife. He had a different agenda. I was there to do a job. I was not surprised to see that, despite his superior quality photographic equipment, his results tended to be strictly amateur.

Now that is not to say that many amateurs today do not produce some startlingly good work. The difference is that if your livelihood depends on it, you have to produce every time. No one wants to hear that you had a problem with your camera or that there was nothing interesting to write about. Amateurs are as good as their best work. Professionals are as bad as their worst.

So that is why I spent a lot of time in my room or cabin when I was away. In fact with the advent of digital photography I no longer had a permanent tan. Downloading pictures to a laptop and backing them up on to another medium takes a lot of time. It’s got to be done. Jumping in and getting no pictures during a dive for whatever reason is not just irritating. It’s a disaster. It cuts into the overall camera-time in the water and reduces the total throughput of work. Of course, if a trip goes dramatically wrong, that could be a good story!

When I’ve been on trips that have gone really wrong, it’s often heard from the justly malcontent fare-paying passengers that it’s all right for me ­ my trip was for free. Well, it’s worse than that. I was being paid to be there and under the cosh to come back with something good.

Scuba-diving, like all leisure activities, attract the serious amateur. Few get into the diving industry because it’s a profitable business. Instructors start teaching because they worked their way up through diving certifications until there was nowhere else to go. On the other hand my dentist friend did not simply drift into dentistry and I bet his patients are glad of that.

There has been a revolution in both the photography and the article writing industries. Digital photography has given technical access to anyone who can point a camera in the right direction and the content of the picture is the most important part of the process. Being there is what counts most. A big newspaper in America has even fired its entire photographic staff and issued its reporters with iPhones instead.
Simultaneously those same reporter’s jobs are under threat. Word processing programmes allow anyone to write down a stream of consciousness and rearrange it later so that it can be comprehended. Today everyone is a writer and photographer. Specialised professionals are now too expensive for niche magazines up against increasingly difficult economic conditions brought about by electronic media.

So how do you get a job like the one I had? Well, first you will need to send in unsolicited contributions and bear the disappointment of the rejection slip. We all had to do this.

Even back then in the late ’eighties it took me about four years before I started getting regular commissions. Once you get a commission, you’ve got a monkey on your back. You go off on a trip with the responsibility of the professional. Regardless of the weather conditions, the diving opportunities and whether the wildlife turned up or not, you need to stay focussed on coming up with the goods. That can be difficult when all around you are intent on having a good time and you won’t be doing it for much financial profit.

However, if you really focus on doing a professional job, you supply eye-catching photographs accompanied by copy that is a little bit more than simply a diary of your holiday, copy that is well written and has a slant to it, copy that makes a point, eventually you might get noticed but it can take years and, in today’s economic conditions, it may no longer be economically viable. The British diving magazine I worked for now pays a page-rate only a third of what it paid back when I started more than twenty years earlier. The cost of one flooded camera could wipe out all the money you made in the year.

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8 comments for “Why I Gave Up the Best Diving Job in the World

  1. bret gilliam
    July 27, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    John Bantin is both a dear friend and a professional colleague. We used to end up bumping into each other in remote areas of the world by complete surprise. One time it was in an outlying region of Papua New Guinea… another in the Red Sea. On other occasions he would be my valuable guide in England on my sojourns over there and I lure him over here to Maine to experience real seafood, lobster, and some incredible forests, lakes, and our beautiful ocean coast. It always made our photojournalist assignments more fun. John was the head guy at one of the world’s best diving magazines in the U.K. He wrote with objective candor, professional evaluations, and solid advice for his readers. The entire diving media industry (what’s left of it) has lost one its top figures with his retirement. Like me, he will continue to contribute to Undercurrent and we’re all lucky to still be able to access his great talent.

    We will always be perpetually “joined at the hip” since our sardonic and deranged senses of humor mess so seamlessly.

    Carry on, mate!

    Bret

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  2. July 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    IMHO one more reason of decline of professionalism in dive media (or any other media) is that media outlets are quite satisfied with ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ work of “semi-professionals”, photo enthusiasts or whatever you call those who took enough workshops from real pros to be …good enough.

    I noticed that the prints of my work that I am very lukewarm about are flying off the shelves, but rare winners that i have remain unsold for years. I receive a lot of compliments from people who look at my photography, but I pray they do not look at work of real pros (which they usually do not). I shoot for compliments.

    Most of the visitors to my website go to my UW images, that do not even qualify for mediocre. Just the fact that I took them being underwater blows them away, never mind the quality.
    They obviously never heard of David Doubilet or John Bantin.

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  3. September 20, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Well said, Mr. Bantin. The underwater media world will sorely miss you, but I suppose if you continue to freelance for fun that would work for us as well…. ;)

    I get asked all the time whether my underwater activities are on the Professional-level, and usually encounter some surprise when I explain that I don’t instruct or shoot for a living; it’s simply not possible, especially here in Northern California. I always hear the same old, “if it’s your passion then you should just jump in and go full-time / why not pursue your ‘dreams’ / etc. etc.” – why not? Homelessness. Bills. Family. That’s why not. :P

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  4. Nigel Haines
    September 23, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    As a subscriber to the dive magazine John worked for, I wondered why his articles no longer seemed to be appearing. Now I realise he’s simply retired, though i must have missed the announcement to that effect in the magazine in question!
    As a diver for some forty years I no longer brave the waters around Britain, but now retired I manage to get away to some exotic locations three or four times a year and use John’s articles on destinations as guides to where next to dive. Thank goodness I’ll still be able to read John’s pearl’s of wisdom in “Undercurrent”.

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  5. October 13, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    Terry above – keep your passions private, to yourself and forget about ‘jumping in’ and going professional if you love what you are doing. Often as Bantin says, ‘as you are focused on comming up with the goods to make a living….,’ I will add, ‘passions dissipate.’ Just MHO.

    Unfortunately, Bantin is again right. The old days of creative writing & photo journalism are just that, ‘the old days.’ Gone. Recently I turned down the opportunity to publish a lengthy article in a leading non-dive mag because all I got in return was an offer to post it on their blog, no copyright protection and no mention of recompense for my efforts….It is not just the diving media world that is evaporating…….

    And Mr. Bantin – wish you luck with your new endeavors……

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  6. Casey Mahaney
    October 20, 2014 at 3:06 am

    John you hit the nail on the head. After 30 years in the dive industry, several published books and Magazine articles, 100 plus group trips, I to am “retiring” from the biz. Like one other commenter (Terry), no matter how much you love the ocean and marine life, you have to make a living.

    Good luck John and anyone else who makes or are trying to make a living in this Industry. If you can do it now days, you are one of the few.

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  7. Matt Thompson
    December 15, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    John – it was bittersweet reading this because I too (and my wife) came to very similar conclusions after having diving (and dive travel) move from expensive hobby to “work.”

    My wife and I built one of the very (very) early website companies building websites for dive companies (liveaboards, resorts, trip wholesalers, etc.) for the early web. When we started out we were very excited about helping building awareness for those small, out of the way, one of a kind dive resorts that maybe got a 1 line mention in a Lonely Planet guide. We were divers, we loved diving, and we thought by making others aware of these great destinations we would help them stay around (economically) for us to continue to enjoy them.

    We started small (mostly focusing on Fiji), but grew quickly to building sites for over 30 resorts & liveaboards. Then we moved into helping wholesalers get on the web, and even started looking at how we could provide automated booking for resorts through these partners (this was really early – very hard to do then).

    Somewhere along the way it became “work.” In one 12 month period we were in Fiji 6 times (working with various resorts on their entry to the web). Instead of shooting (film) images underwater for m own personal fun, I was now shooting for their websites. The pressure to get that eye opening shot for the front of the site was high (several times on an overcast, drizzly day, in only ok viz, on an average dive site).

    Totally understand your perspective. We “worked” doing this for about 3 years, then let it fade away when we realized it was taking all the joy out of being underwater… Love diving again, love taking pictures, but no interest in ever turning this into work again.

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  8. Greg Clemens
    January 22, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Enjoyed your thoughts from the heart. We have all had dreams about what it would be like getting paid for doing what we love BUT you bring it back to reality very nicely. Dive for the enjoyment and the fun of it once again.

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