by Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson
Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. In September last year, I set off on a thirteen month journey around South East Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, and am currently instructing in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.
Working as both an instructor and a dive guide, I often wonder whether a diver’s certification card truly reflects their ability. I have met many divers on both ends of the spectrum — open-water certified individuals who dive like experts, and sometimes, divemasters whose inability to perform even the most basic aspects of diving (like good buoyancy control) leave me baffled as to how they became qualified industry professionals in the first place. It is customary at most centers to present your certification card as a validation of your level of experience and skill in the water, and yet often these cards do not accurately represent a diver’s true competence. Many of the world’s dive sites have a minimum certification requirement due to challenging conditions like strong current or plunging depths — if certifications do not reflect ability, the safety precautions behind these requirements are effectively nullified. Therefore, the problem of misleading certification cards can be (and often is) a serious one.
So, what has caused the undeniable devaluation of the certification card? There are several possible causes, and some or all of them may apply depending on the diver in question. Sometimes, it can be as simple as getting certified under easy conditions — after all, a newly qualified open-water diver taught in the freezing waters, poor visibility and strong currents off the UK might well be better equipped to deal with future challenging situations than a new diver fresh from the warm temperatures and clear waters of the Caribbean. That is not to say that there is any less value in a qualification gained in the latter situation, but divers who learn in pool-like conditions should not allow false confidence to prevent them from seeking further training before attempting to dive in a less forgiving destination.
Often, a dive school’s location is less important than the quality of its instructors. It’s unfortunate but true that poor instruction is largely to blame for sub-par, post-course diver ability. Sometimes, the fault lies with the instructors themselves. A rushed or lazy approach to teaching, or a blasé regard for standards inevitably leads to ill-prepared students, unequipped to fulfill the expectations that their new certification card entails. More often, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the dive center. I have been to many parts of the world where new divers are churned out in such numbers and at such speed that it would put an assembly line to shame.
In these places, courses, and the divers who enroll in them, are simply part of a money-making scheme that results in quantity trumping quality. There is often great pressure on instructors working under these conditions to get courses completed in an exceptionally short time, with no time available for potentially desperately needed extra attention. In these cases, learning issues and less-than-perfect performance or understanding, whether practical or theoretical, are often overlooked. Adding to the pressure on instructors to grant certification is the money the customer has spent. Dive courses anywhere in the world are costly, and I know from personal experience that knowing your student’s investment is a huge incentive to ensure successful certification.
For me, the hardest situation of all when teaching is what to do when a student technically fulfills all the performance requirements as specified by the dive organization, but lacks in other areas that are important but unmentioned in the curriculum. I recently taught a divemaster candidate who performed all the required skills perfectly, but had an air consumption rate so poor that without improvement, he would have had trouble successfully leading a dive after certification. There are certainly gaps in the requirements for each level of qualification, and it depends on the individual student whether or not they fall short of them. The speed at which divers can move up the certification ladder is also to blame; after all, it is possible for a person to progress from a non-diver to a dive professional in a matter of months. This leads to the common misconception within the dive industry that certification level equates to experience. In a sport where such responsibility lies on the shoulders of professionals, and where competence can mean the difference between life and death, this misconception can be a dangerous one.
There are several important steps you can take to avoid becoming one of those divers in possession of a meaningless certification card. When signing up for a course, make sure to choose your dive center carefully. Ask about class sizes, and establish beforehand whether it’s an option to take extra days to certify if necessary. Familiarize yourself with the course content, and don’t be afraid to question your instructor if you feel that aspects of it have been left out or rushed over. If at any point during your course you are unsure of a skill or don’t understand an aspect of theory, don’t hesitate to say so — it is an instructor’s job to help you, but it is hard to do so if you hide your problems. Make use of quality questionnaires sent to you after your course. Feedback from students helps to ensure that the dive community upholds standards for instructors. Don’t just criticize weak areas of an instructor’s teaching approach: if you feel that they did an exceptional job, commend them for doing so.
Above all, once you are certified, it’s up to you to maintain the level of your ability. Never underestimate the value of experience; the more you dive, the greater confidence and competence you will enjoy. Don’t allow too much time to pass before you get back in the water, and if you do, enroll in a refresher course before picking it up again. Constant education is key to diving proficiency; instead of rushing up the certification ladder, take the time to explore all the options on the way up. Specialties are a great way to expand your diving knowledge and ability, while also helping you to get the most out of your time underwater. Certification cards mean very little without the skill and experience to back them up; put yours to good use by going diving as frequently as you can.