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October 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Trip-Ruining Divemasters

hazardous, me-first attitudes

from the October, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

For most divers, dive guides on day boats and liveaboards are critical to our diving experience. A good guide knows where to find the critters, knows the terrain, understands the currents and quirks of dive sites, all the while keeping an eye out for troubled divers and ensuring that everyone gets back to the boat safely. But every so often, amateurish or bored guides ruin the experience.

Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, authors of Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, give a perfect example of the hellish dive guide, whom they dealt with last spring. “From the time he arrived at the dock dressed to kill in a custom wetsuit, this guy was worse than useless. His briefing was basically a command to ‘follow me,’ yet he consistently put us in the water downcurrent from the site. We had to fin like crazy to get to the “sweet spot.” Once on the site, this so-called guide never looked back; he just cruised the reef at warp speed, then ascended and got back on the boat well before the 60-minute bottom time limit. On the afternoon dive he carried a camera - - his, not a guest’s. Now the inexperienced divers were being led by a guide preoccupied with finding his own photographic subjects instead of paying attention to the people he was supposed to watch over. He was also dangerous to the animals underwater. Nudibranchs were de-gilled, crabs tweaked, leaf fish nearly speared with pointers. Seems he wasn’t even a certified divemaster. He explained that his rich uncle’s cousin owned the operation, and that’s how he got the job. When asked how he planned to deal with an emergency, the kind that might take some training to be able to handle well, he just shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

If you’re an experienced diver, you no doubt have been underwater with a lousy guide or two. Not long ago, we asked Undercurrent subscribers about their own guide-from-hell stories, and how their dives might have been affected or even ruined by their guide. We got plenty of responses, which shows that some dive operations should pay more attention to the people they hire, and train them better in an area they seem clueless in: customer service. And while in some cases there’s a bit of humor in the retold story, at the same time divers can be in serious danger.

Self-Serving Photographers

Similar to Jones and Shimlock’s experience, a few readers said their guides were more focused on their cameras than on their divers, often trying to get their photos first, while everyone else waits. Neal Langerman (San Diego, CA) said his Galapagos divemaster “did a three-hour-plus orientation lecture, most of which was describing his video expertise. He managed to cast two divers adrift on Wolf Island, all the while with his face plastered to his video camera. Too many divemasters think preparing a trip video is more important than the guests’ actual diving experience.”

Bored with Diving, the Critters and Us

Maybe they’re burned out, but the bored dive guide needs to get another job. Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX) says she’s had plenty of bored divemasters, “the ones who want to get the dive over ASAP, and loathe photographers who stop for a look at anything. The worst divemasters I’ve ever had were aboard the Palau Aggressor. They were not interested in anything, and just hung back from the group, hovering over the bottom. They did not point out anything of interest, even a shark, and took us on a worthless night dive over a thicket of staghorn coral.”

Just Plain Bizarre

Bill Utterback (Cedar Rapids, IA) had a Nazi-like divemaster last summer at Wakatobi Resort in Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait and told us that, “When some on our boat went deep on a dive and reported seeing pygmy seahorses, she then limited the depth on my dive. She told me she and another dive guide had agreed not to show us pygmy seahorses, but when I spoke to that other guide, I got the impression this agreement was only in her mind. She also told me there were no pygmy seahorses on the house reef but later took two other divers to the sea fans where they were located.” This lady is one bizarre divemaster, but Utterback outsmarted her. “For the rest of the week, our group provided her with a camera so she would spend time looking through a lens rather than limiting our diving.”

It’s All About Me, the Divemaster

Ed Svitil (Alpharetta, GA) was heading to a morning dive in Palau on a Sam’s Tours boat, when his divemaster had the boat driver swing 25 minutes out of the way because she had forgotten something on the boat she lived on. “By the time we got to the Blue Corner, we were one of six dive boats mucking up the site. And Sam’s Tours makes a big speech about ‘leaving early to be there first.’ Then once we were in the water, she disappeared. She never told us where she was and why she took off. At least the divemaster on the Manthiri in the Maldives was honest when he told us, ‘I’ll be leaving you because I’m making a movie.’”

The Distracted Boat Diver

On that same Palau dive, Svitil reports, it turned out the disappearing dive guide came in handy. “We surfaced to find the boat driver asleep some 200 yards away. She finally surfaced between us and the boat and woke him up to come pick us up.”

Tom Pauley (Bishop, CA) just returned from Palau last month, where he had to drift more than 20 minutes waiting for the Maml Divers boat to pick his group up after diving Peleliu Express. “Turns out he was fishing. After this happened, I noticed it with other dive operations in the area; the divers go down and the boat goes off fishing for a while. Actually, this happened to me at Belize’s Ambergris Caye. Same deal; he was off fishing, and we waited 30 minutes. The Belize dive was with a low-budget shop but in Palau, this was a highly advertised business rated five stars in the dive magazines. So what are we paying for?”

Speedy Gonzalez

“She began her desecent slowly, too slowly for
the divemaster, so he grabbed her BC and
pulled her under.”

Bear Johnson (Fresno, CA) signed up for a night dive with a well-regarded dive shop in Cozumel but the divemaster didn’t live up to his shop’s reputation. “Once in the water, we all met up on the bottom and he took off swimming at a very fast rate. When he saw something of interest, he would circle his light around the animal but never stop swimming. Since I didn’t have a buddy, I tried to stay with the divemaster. From time to time, I would slow to look at animals, only to have to race to catch up with him. Finally, I looked back only to see a black ocean. All the other divers were gone! I grabbed the divemaster’s fin to get his attention. He gave the signal to ascend, and we both surfaced. I couldn’t image what was going through the other divers’ minds when they were left on their own drifting in a black ocean at night. Once back on the boat, I went to have a talk with the divemaster, but he quickly climbed up to the bridge where customers were not allowed and didn’t come down after we docked.”

Insufferably Rude

We got a bunch of comments from readers about divemasters who don’t know how to be polite. When James Bonnette (Shreveport, LA) went to Cozumel last year, Scuba Club Cozumel gave him “the absolute worst divemaster. From the start, he sat on the bow of the boat with his iPod in his ears while he read a book. He at no time associated with any of us. When it was time to dive, he gave a short briefing, and started the dive into the current. We thought he was taking us to a location to start a drift dive. Not the case. He swam against the current the entire dive. When we complained about the dive, he said we were inexperienced divers. There were many of us with hundreds of dives under our belts. It was insulting for him to treat us in such a manner.”

Liz Morini (Plymouth, MA) nicknamed her Curacao divemaster “Smiling Johann” because he was anything but a cheerful guy. “Of the 10 divers who had signed up, he asked how many of us had never gone on a night dive before. Six people raised their hands. Smiling Johan said in disgust, ‘This is great, I can’t believe it! You better not crowd me when we’re in the water, and don’t shine your light in my eyes.’ How encouraging.”

It goes beyond mere rudeness when a guide manhandles one of his divers on purpose. While at Queensland’s Lizard Island Resort last November, Mike De La Chapelle (Seattle, WA) was doing his three-minute safety stop at 15 feet, when the divemaster pointed to his watch and signaled him to go to the surface. “I gave him the OK, intending to surface when my dive computer said I had completed my safety stop. He went to the surface but about a minute later, I found myself being dragged to the surface by my tank valve. Needless to say, I was angry and demanded an explanation. I was told the state of Queensland does not allow dives of greater than 60 minutes duration, and that he could lose his divemasters’ certificate if he allowed clients to do so.” Doesn’t sound like this guy considered the possibility that his macho attitude could lead some divers to overreact and panic, maybe even embolize.

John McMahon (Hoffman Estates, IL) says that on a dive trip at the Philippine island of Dumagete, his wife, a new diver, had the divemaster as her buddy. “She began her descent slowly, too slow for the divemaster, so he grabbed her BC, and pulled her under! She began to panic, but he just dragged her along on the dive. Back at the dive shop, we asked the manager at the shop about the divemaster’s credentials. The answer was a shock. He was not certified as a divemaster but had been diving many years, and surely was a ‘master of diving.’”

The Lost Dive Guide

Sometimes it’s all too obvious when a divemaster is new to the dive sites - - or new to diving. David Funderburk (Greeley, CO)’s three-tank dive day with Manta Scuba Divers in Baja California last May was ruined by a divemaster who, although saying she had been diving for four years, acted like a total novice. “On my first dive, she took us to the sandy bottom at 67 feet and motioned us to stay there. After 18 minutes, she returned and had us surface. Apparently she had become lost and had to surface herself to get oriented. The second dive was uneventful but the third dive she aborted after 20 minutes, and no reason was given.”

Jeanette Teller (San Francisco, CA) “had a divemaster on the Big Blue Explorer in Palau who led us on horrible dives. Then I found out it was only her second week in Palau, so of course she didn’t know where she was going. There were two dive boats, ours with one divemaster who didn’t know the area, and the other boat with two divemasters who did know the area. Who made that staffing decision?” She’s got a point. For all the money one must pay to travel half the world to dive, one expects that a dive master has been sufficiently trained about the underwater environment to provide a decent dive. Being a good diver requires more than just passing a course.

A reader from Woodbury, NY was a newbie diver while on a wreck dive at Cayman Brac, and told us, “I was sucking air somewhat quickly, at 700 psi. I signaled to the divemaster, and when she looked at my gauge, she bugged out! She signaled me to go back to the boat, did not even bother offering her octopus or escort me back to the boat. I, of course panicked, and swam up as fast as I could, no safety stop. Fortunately, no problems ensued but this divemaster must have been quite inexperienced, not being able to handle a simple low-on-air scenario.” Of course, an experienced diver should know that 700 psi is no reason at all to panic or swim fast to get back to the boat on a guided dive, but obviously our reader was too inexperienced to know that - - as was the dive guide who should have seen to it that her charge didn’t unwittingly panic.

Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock have a few questions that both dive operators and the divers using their services should consider as food for thought. “Should we, the customers, demand transparency? Should all operations be required to display their employees’ credentials so that you can see exactly who you are diving with? Wouldn’t you rather dive with a professionally trained guide, one who could deal with emergencies, who wants you to enjoy your experience and does everything possible to make that happen?” Yes indeed.

- - Ben Davison

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