Great Minds Think Alike

The response to my recent Undercurrent blog posting (about stupid rules) from so many readers left me chuckling at their own experiences with nit-picking nonsensical rules enforced by  the “village idiots” that somehow end up as divemasters or instructors. I’ve enjoyed reading your input and am cheered to know so many of you share my opinion of the self-appointed “scuba police.”

Dawn is one reader who really hit the jackpot:

“Thank you for speaking out on what many of us have believed. One of my first instructors was so strict on the ‘don’t put your mask on your forehead’ rule that he scared the crap out of a student. The entire class was resting on the surface of the training pool, listening to our teacher, in the middle of the pool, answer a question. One student, who was near the edge of the pool, had his mask in the forbidden position (on his forehead) as he listened attentively. Another instructor, who had told us the rule the day before but was not teaching us that day, snuck up behind the offending student and physically hauled him out of the pool by his BC. His excuse for disrupting our class and painfully yanking this poor guy out of the pool was ‘your mask was on your head so I thought you were in distress.’ No one bought this for a second. He was obviously more concerned with our adherence to an arbitrary rule and, more importantly, to his authority, than he was with helping us become good divers.”

Dawn, I hope that you all got out of the pool and proceeded to give that moron who yanked the student out the pool what I call the “50-50-50 Dive.” That’s when you give someone like that a 50-pound weight belt, 50 psi of air, and 50 feet of water to think over what a dickhead he has been. It was the standard therapy I always administered to that ilk.

As I said, don’t take this crap. Speak up . . . and vote with your wallet. Let the bozos know you won’t do business with them. That always gets their attention, especially in the current economy.

I’m copying some text from the intro to an interview I did with the legendary Paul Humann in my book “Diving Pioneers.” You’ll like this true story!

Paul Humann: Liveaboard Pioneer, Innovative Publisher, and Fish Detective

Paul Humann is the living embodiment of that old joke: “What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”

“An awfully good start!”

He had a perfectly normal and successful career as an attorney in Kansas and chucked it all to — are you ready for this? — start the first liveaboard dive vessel in the Caribbean. I can almost hear his poor mother wailing.

But the impetuous career switch led to even more success with the Cayman Diver and a long list of publishing projects that followed. His talent as an underwater photographer and his zeal for educating divers about the marine life species they encountered led to a nice anthology of articles and images printed in a slew of diving magazines from the 1970s forward. Eventually, he was serendipitously introduced to Ned Deloach through a period of co-editing Ocean Realm magazine. The two men had a vision for a specialized publishing company that would take the subject of fish and coral ID books to an entirely new level. They hocked their homes to finance the first book for New World Publishing and now the company enjoys status as the premier publisher of the best marine guidebooks available worldwide. Recently, they expanded their scope to include Stan Waterman’s superb book of autobiographical essays, Sea Salt. And this book of interviews further widens the net they have cast over diving subjects.

Paul is not just a supremely talented photographer and writer. He’s also an unrestrained truth-teller when it comes to the diving industry’s foibles and often absurdly ill-advised track record of blunders championed by a segment of arch-conservatives. He was a vocal champion of divers’ rights and one of the first to advocate codifying the practice of solo diving for qualified divers. He also endorsed dive computers, nitrox, applications of technical diving, and enlightened practices for modern liveaboards. At times, his opinions have brought him criticism, condemnation and harsher reviews from the lunatic conservative fringe. But his vision helped bring all these initially controversial practices, to the forefront, and they are now mainstream.

I like to think of him as a prophet and first-class raconteur who never flinched from speaking his mind, and stuck to his principles in spite of the fact that his outspoken wisdom would almost surely have gotten him burned as a witch in an earlier era.

Although our paths had crossed many times over the years, the first chance I had to really spend time with Paul was in 1992 when we were both co-hosting a group of divers aboard a liveaboard in the Bahamas. I taught an advanced diver program and he delivered nightly lectures on marine life. We didn’t get one day into the trip before there was an incident.

I surfaced from a dive to find the ship’s divemaster/instructor in a total melt-down… pacing the deck, muttering oaths, threatening reprisals. We were off to a good start. I could only imagine that some diver had committed the cardinal sin of not wearing a snorkel or, God forbid, putting his mask on his forehead while waiting to get out of the water. These were definitely capital offenses in the early 1990s mentality that mandated all divers be treated as manifest idiots — incapable of having a coherent thought about their own diving practices.

I gingerly approached the young man in an attempt to discern the source of his angst. He was fresh out of “instructor college” and had a whopping 50 to 60 dives under his weight belt. But by God, the kid was a diving professional; it said so right on his fancy diploma framed on the bulkhead. And he knew what divers should be doing and would not tolerate deviations from the ironclad rules posted right next to his diploma.

Circling him from a safe distance, I managed to get him to gasp out the transgression that had him so upset. “Mr. Gilliam, I can’t put up with this. Do you know that Mr. Humann is diving without a buddy? He’s all alone down there. By himself. Solo!”

I was shocked and said so — without a trace of revealing sardonic perspective.  What would the kid have me do to such a deviant diver?

“Well, we just can’t have it. It’s against all safety rules. What happens if he runs out of air? Or has a problem? He’ll die!”

I gently explained the likelihood of Mr. Humann experiencing a problem of any sort that he couldn’t stumble through on his own was pretty unlikely. I mentioned that Mr. Humann had been doing this, professionally, for a while. Like about three decades. With over 8,000 dives, most of them solo. And he’d be just fine.

“Oh, no! We can’t be responsible for such bad practices. I’ll have to suspend him from diving,” our hero trumpeted.

Meanwhile, the other amused divers and I could look over the rail and observe Paul blissfully absorbed with his camera at a coral head about 60 feet down. He was unaware of the furor he had created. I knew I had to act quickly to head off a scene, when he finally surfaced and was confronted by diving’s equivalent of Dudley DoRight in a wet suit. (In all truth, I feared for the kid’s life. Paul was just as likely to snap his neck as listen to a reaming from a neophyte.)

I suggested a cunning plan. “Mr. Humann is an old curmudgeon who’s sort of set in his ways. How about if you be his buddy and don’t tell him? That way, you can look after him.”

The kid thought it over, decided this was an intervention designed by Solomon himself and agreed. Meanwhile, the rest of the divers fled the dive deck, stifling snickers. They knew full well what was to come, I think.

The next dive began as Paul gathered his camera gear and slipped over the side to take up residence once again at a favorite coral head. The flash of his strobe confirmed that he was happily immersed once again in his photography and largely oblivious to any outside distractions. Our well-meaning instructor lunged into his own gear and splashed in after him, taking up position about 15 feet behind him. Now all was right again in the diving universe. Wrong!

After about an hour, the kid realized he was running critically low on air. I watched with growing amusement as he desperately tried to stretch his air with breath-holding. A few more frantic glances at his pressure gauge and he was off in a wild scramble of fin strokes and billowing exhaust bubbles. He arrived on the surface about a hundred feet from the boat and then began the “swim of shame” back to the ladder: he had failed to arrive back aboard with at least 750 psi remaining!

He’d also failed to protect the ancient geezer still happily firing away at his fishy subjects. He’d abandoned his buddy. We all gleefully pointed that out. About 20 times. It was a professional failing of biblical proportions. Paul took another 40 minutes or so and calmly swam back to change film. His protector had retreated to the sundeck, still mulling over his abdication of duty (and how Mr. Humann could make a tank last so long). In the end, we convinced him to leave Paul alone. Literally. But we suggested that the instructor might want to work on his own self-sufficiency skills and maybe stick closer to the vessel himself, where he could be more valuable helping divers out of the water and handling cameras. It was a grim moment in the young instructor’s career. Divers weren’t supposed to behave like this. He’d bring this to the attention of his instructor agency when he got back to port.

Paul somehow managed to survive a week of unsupervised solo diving and got a bunch of great photographic images along the way. We never told him about the furor over his diving practices… until now. About seven years later, my company Scuba Diving International (SDI) came out with the first industry training agency program to certify divers in solo diving practices. Of course, the recipient of the first card (#00001) was Paul Humann.

So good readers… you are not alone. We all must wade occasionally in the muck of misapplied and rank stupidity, no matter how well-intended. Those of you who know me and have read my stuff over the last 40 years have certainly determined independently that I don’t suffer fools gladly. And neither should you. Always find out before you go on even a day trip aboard a dive vessel what level of “silliness kool-aid” the operators may have drunk. If it doesn’t fit your style, let them know, and don’t go. There are always more enlightened dive operations . . . although the Cayman Islands may still be an exception. The whole nonsense of relegating everyone to the status of “lowest common denominator” started there and persists today in spite of efforts to move them into the 21st century.

But hey, wait until they hear about the Internet. That will have them fuming for another decade or so trying to put that genie back in the bottle.

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3 thoughts on “Great Minds Think Alike”

  1. during the 90’s and early 2000’s I used to teach scuba. we taught the y course and one of the things we emphasized was to wear your mask around your neck when it wasn’t on your face.the reason we used was that if you put it on your forehead while at the surface in the ocean there was the possibility of a wave coming at you and smacking the mask off your head and into the drink which could turn expensive (specially if you had prescription lenses on the mask). almost all the students understood this and realized that it was a good idea but we never would have tried that stupid trick of yanking someone by the bc.
    we were all volunteer instructors,assistant instructors and teaching assistants and we taught because we loved the sport and wanted to help other people learn this wonderful sport that we practice.
    our teaching was 10 weeks long (every friday night for 10 weeks) and we had 1 hour of classroom then 1 hour of pool work. one situation that I will always remember was when a contractor from Chicago joined the class with his wife and 1 or 2 kids. about the 2nd or third class he approached me at the end of the class and asked me if there was some way that we could dispense with the teaching and just issue the certification cards for which he was willing to pay some additional money (under the table i assumed). I politely told him that it would not be possible and the family never came back after that. since our club had been teaching since 1956 and had certified thousands of students( without the loss of even 1 as far as we know), there was no way we would have jeopardized the lives of any students by cutting short the training we did.
    although we did teach the buddy system, we also realized that buddies can and will get separated at times so we taught them how to proceed from that point on.
    i continue to dive today and enjoy it as much as I did back at the beginning of my relationship with the ocean in the early 70’s.

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  2. 99% of the ocean dives made are solo dives anyway, but the people doing them just don’t realize it. Unless your buddy is paying attention to you instead of the fish and is holding your hand, they shouldn’t be counted on to helpy you. Divers MUST be self sufficient. Buddy Diving” is a falacy that ranks right up there with ‘checks in the mail’. Anyone who has enough experience to actually have had bad things happen underwater (they eventually do) should know the truth about that.

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  3. I wonder if Paul has met some of the dive guides/divemasters I’ve met? They start with the line that goes “At YOUR age”… The latest line is to insist that you need a gigantic tank–the 100 + cubic foot job that weighs over 40 pounds. This is so that you don’t run out of air. And you’re right! I won’t! To use up that tank, I’d have to stay down way, way longer than the no-deco. limits. Then I’d have to break my back hauling this thing up and down the boat’s ladder before I use a bungee cord to attach it to the deck. No way I could make a shore entry with this weight on my back. It won’t fit into a standard tank holder. I outlast the guides with my little steel 50.

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