So you want to be a divemaster? - A bleak look at professional diving.

If what you're going to say may cause offence or disappointment, it's only fair to give due warning. As such I should probably say that this blog entry is going to be akin to a cold bucket of water for people considering going pro. It may very well cause you to reflect on the value of professional diver education, it may disappoint you, and it may cause you to reconsider if you're planning on becoming a divemaster for the wrong reasons.  What I'll be writing about is PADI education. Not because PADI courses are bad, (in fact I think they generally are good and I'm pleased to be a PADI instructor myself,) but because PADI divemasters and instructors form the backbone of recreational diving in my part of the world. Other agencies and diveshops affiliated with these agencies have identical or similar practises however, so keep in mind that while the courses and programs I'll be discussing will be PADI, it could just as well be SSI or another agency. I should say it's my strong intention not  to bash any agency, but to have a candid discussion based on published and readily available figures. Lastly I should say that the situation I describe in this blog pertains to going pro in Asia, although you can safely assume the same will hold true in the Carribean, Egypt and other holiday destinations. If you however do your divemaster internship in the cold of Finland or somewhere else unusual, all bets are off.

If you want to be a divemaster, you'll get to carry a ton of these!
Some people decide they want to become divemasters when they're doing their rescue diver course. Perhaps their instructor suggests they should go this route. Other people set out on a journey that takes them straight from open water diver to divemaster, the not so flatteringly named zero-to-hero route, and It can all be done in as little as a couple of weeks.

However if you've made it to PADI rescue diver, you've probably noticed that there's a very definite sales-pitch at the end of every course.  If you've done the Open Water, you really should do the Advanced course. If you're doing the advanced course, why stop there? Move on to rescue.  As a rescue-diver, you should seriously consider becoming a dive master and so on.  This isn't something vile or inherently bad, it's done in all industries. You buy a car, you'll probably want some insurance to go with it, or how about a nice leather interior or a shiny GPS navigator? Shortly put, everyone who has something to sell, is interested in additional sales. As a PADI instructor I make my living selling to people - sure some people walk in from the street and ask to do this or that course, but if I want to earn money next week too, I'd be stupid not to ask if they'd be interested in upgrading their license, joining a nitrox class or whatnot. 

Personally I don't find selling like this distasteful. I would if what I sold was crap, but I genuinely believe the courses are good. People are happy paying for instruction when they feel they get something worthwhile out  of it.  Nitrox and rescue courses for example are just rock solid courses, where people learn something valuable, but when we start talking about professional levels of diver education, things start getting a little fuzzy.  The marketing of professional courses, both from official side and very often also from the individual instructors out in the shops and resorts, sadly just doesn't reflect reality in my opinion.

The pretext is that you can quit your boring job and become a dive professional living a careless life of aquatic adventure on a white sand beach.  The truth is that you can, if you've got the funds to support you as you do so. Nine out of ten won't make enough to live off. Nine out of ten won't make enough for their return flight. Nine out of ten won't make enough for professional insurance and certainly won't make enough to replace their gear when it wears out. The one that does make it, not only has very good sales and language skills, he is most likely also blessed with a fair bit of luck. Being at the right place at the right time and meeting the right people account for how a lot of my diving colleagues landed themselves their jobs. It's also why I'm still in the industry. (The average lifespan of an instructor is roughly two years, before he hangs up his fins.)

If you don't believe me, let me show you some statistics.  PADI issues a little less than a million certifications every year. (923,571 in 2010, the last year PADI has published data on)  Also in 2010 PADI had 135,038 members. That's divemasters, assistant instructors, and upwards in the PADI instructor echelon.  Remember, only professionals are members of PADI, although many beginning divers have the misconception they are PADI members because they've done a PADI course.
Now PADI used to to publish which percentage of their members had which qualifications, but it would seem this info isn't readily available anymore. Going alone on memory here, there's around 100,000 members who are at least Open Water Instructors, although many of course have a higher rating. This is important, because with a few insignificant exceptions, only Open Water Scuba Instructors and upwards are allowed to issue certifications. So if you actually sit down and do the math, each instructor, in average, only gets around nine certification in a year!  Hardly enough to make a living you'll probably agree.

Now consider that successful dive shops have instructors who issue hundreds if not close to a thousand certifications in a year. That cuts down on what's left for you. Also consider, that a lot of the PADI marketing scheme is feeding the dog its own tail. Some of the people who do the most courses, are fellow professionals. There's tons of instructors who get at least half a dozen specialties, a staff instructor rating, or the pat-on-the-back-well-done ratings of MSDT or Master Instructor. All of these count as another certification, although some of them doesn't actually involve any instructors doing any work. It doesn't generate any money or work for any instructors, but it does count as another certification.

So why is the pretext that you can live as scuba instructor so predominant. Well, possibly because the people who have paid up already, are trying to make back their investment, but certainly because there's good money in taking a budding diver all the way to the top. Many places in Asia a typical DM course goes something along these lines. A few weeks into the course it's discussed how difficult it is to find work as a divemaster, but that as an instructor you'll be much more employable, because you can do both divemaster AND instructor work. Then once the student is on his way to becoming an instructor, he's told that, quite frankly, there's just so many instructors, that it's almost hopeless to get employed without a bit of experience. Fortunately, if you'll just pay a little more, you can do an internship as an instructor (where you not only pay for the chance to work, you also ensure the shop won't have to hire an instructor.) Then once you have a number of certifications under your belt, the course director convince you to get a bunch of specialties, as it just makes you much more employable, and it will make you a MSDT. 
Guess what, once you're a MSDT, you can't get any work because the next bunch of instructors are already paying the shop to work for free! However, there's no reason to despair yet because there's a thing called IDC-staff instructor, and if you get that course, you can assist the course director on the instructor courses. It's great fun, and not terribly expensive. And then, surely you'll be more employable. Only when you have the IDCSI qualification, you discover that you'll have to pay to actually assist on courses, and thus, almost at the very top of instructor-ratings you are still paying others for a chance to work for them.

It really is a very good business plan, and it's executed with great precision and flair by the people who make their living doing it.

So, does that mean you shouldn't become a divemaster? Well, that's entirely up to you of course - there can be a ton of valid reasons to do so. It may look cool on your CV, it'll no doubt make you a better diver, you'll have fun doing the course, you'll learn a lot of interesting stuff and you may get lucky if you mention it in bars with non-divers and share the story of you fought the great white shark. But unless you're outstandingly lucky and skilled, you can safely forget about making any serious money on it, and taking the next course, and the next course after that just won't change that, sorry. Because, - at the end of the day - people in this industry are not only willing to work for free, they are willing to pay for working.

Do you agree or disagree? Did you land yourself a dream job, am I overly pessimistic or a hypocrite for speaking my mind as a professional who's (barely) making a living? Share your thoughts, I'd like to hear from you.


The one in a million picture

When I did my PADI IDC (the PADI  instructor development course) my course director warned against what he called "instructor burn out." Basically he told every instructor he ever taught, that it was important to try and find new things in diving to rekindle the interest. One of the things that I've found work for me and that I enjoy tremendously is underwater photography. A whole dive spent hovering around a single motive or two on one of the many divesites around Dumaguete is a dive well spent to me. If I get a couple of good shots out of it, all the better. (I've become extremely picky with what I consider good shots)  - it's also tremendously good fun to teach the course, and see people get that warm "I didn't know I was that good!" sense of accomplishment.

As a PADI underwater photography instructor, one of the best tools at my disposal is shoving students other diver's underwater pictures. There's a lot to be learned from dissecting both good and bad pictures. As such I'm always trawling dive magazines, scuba forums and such searching for pictures what I can use. It was doing this, I came across an amazing picture shot by Michael Patrick O'Neill, that was posted in a diving group on Facebook. It's the kind of picture that makes you go "Wow.  Just wow."  I could go on at lenght about the composition, the lighting and the drama in the shot, but really I just wanted to share something cool with you. Something that inspires me, and makes me want to grab a tank and head straight out on the reef. 


Solo diving in Dumaguete

The practise of solo diving (i.e. diving without a buddy) has been hotly debated for the last ten years. On one side, some see the very notion of getting in the water  alone as an expressed death wish, while others argue that any buddy is not better than no buddy, and that for some underwater activities solo diving makes perfect sense.

PADI's view on solo diving remains the same as when President Drew Richardson formulated it initially. It is viewed as a form of technical diving, that CAN be done in a safe way by experienced divers, who has the requisite training and is equipped with redundancy in mind. Until recently it was only the SCUBA agency TDISDI, that offered a an actual distinct "solo diving" course. Other people wanting to dive alone, did their training through unsanctioned courses taught privately by technical instructors, various technical training from different agencies, and lastly - to be completely honest - many people just went ahead and did it on their own.  Now PADI,  seeing a need for this kind of training has come up with their own course called "Self-Reliant Diver."
On your own underwater

The entry requirements for the Self-Reliant Diver course are necessarily rather steep; You need at least a hundred logged dives  plus be an Advanced Open Water diver. Furthermore your instructor needs to assess your readiness before the course starts. I feel, that although solo diving isn't for everyone, the self-reliant philosophy should hold an appeal to all responsible divers. After all it may be nice to have your buddy to help you, but there is something reassuring about knowing you are able to handle all likely emergencies on your own.


Don't wake me up (and the anatomy of sea cucumbers)

We all know them, the odd, ugly sausage shaped monstrosities that slowly wiggle their way across the sea floor. Most divers encounter them in one shape or another on all their dives, which I suppose is only fitting considering sea cucumbers live in all seas and, as far as we know, at all depths.

A while back I decided, that as a diver I should really start taking more of an interest in some of the more inanimate animals underwater. It turns out sea cucumbers weren’t quite as dull as I had thought. Who’d have thought they have fish living inside of them feeding off their private parts, and that they can liquify at will?!

So to begin, sea cucumbers are echinoderms (pronounced eh-kino-derm, which literally means spiky skin in greek) this places them in the same family as starfish and sea urchins, although the similarities are admittedly hard to see at a glance. However, if you consider that most other echinoderms have a mouth on the underside and their asshole on the top, and otherwise have a radially symmetrical body, a sea cucumber can really be said to be lying on it’s side. They eat then, by slowly ingesting the small particles in the sand or substate they crawl through.

Now if you’ve seen Jackass the movie, you’ll know that some species of sea cucumbers eject a sticky fibrous mass if you handle them a bit roughly. (If, say, you rub it in front of yourself, to simulate an ejaculating penis. Oh, and if you think I’m sick and making this up, you may want to see this youtube clip.) Regardless, I think it’s fair to assume that although it may possibly be hilarious in an infantile, drunken redneck kind of way, (your mileage may vary) this particular practical joke is rather stressful to the animal, if not outright fatal.

What happens, is that when sea cucumbers are attacked they shed a sticky thread like structure which is actually parts of their guts. Fortunately, as they have amazing regenerative abilities it doesn’t usually kill them. Anyway, these sticky threads, known as cuverian threads are highly toxic (the poison is called holothurin) and can dissuade many potential predators. Fortunately for drunk rednecks, the poison can’t penetrate human skin. As far as we know no jackass has yet tried eating it, but the results would likely be dire.

Strangely this somehow reminds me of my wife. Now if you are married to a woman who’ll wake you up in the middle of the night, to ask how to solve a rubiks cube, or why it was that the Roman Empire fell or some other such obscure 3 am question, you will most likely have thought about how to get away with murder. Fortunately for my better half, come morning I’ll have forgotten how I swore to kill her, and be all friendly and loving again.

However… And this is of course purely speculative, If you did want to get away with murder, a good bet would be poisoning with something so obscure, noone would think about testing for it in a autopsy. Indeed, to the disgruntled and all too improperly awoken husband, the abundant toxicity of the aquatic realm should be rather interesting. Such possibilities... - but I digress.

So back to sea cucumbers. Now, the last critter I wrote about was the sea squirt, which has got a rotten deal as it has to eat its own brain to grow a stomach. In other words, once the hunger kicks in, the brain goes out. If you’ve been gorging yourself out of the fridge in the middle of the night after a binge, you’ll know what that is like. Anyway, compared to the sea squirt, the sea cucumber is perhaps even worse off - it hasn’t even got a brain to begin with! What it’s got instead is a ring of nerves around its mouth, but oddly enough - if you somehow surgically remove it, the sea cucumber carries on with business like it didn’t mind at all! How it does this is anyones guess. Scientists, who I suppose per definition like to figure things out, have agreed this is all very puzzling and mildly disturbing.

It gets stranger still… A fish known as the pearlfish (which has a long slender, transparent body) actually lives in the gut cavity of the sea cucumber. It does this by leaving and entering through the cucumber’s rectum. It’s speculated that they feed on the gonads of its host, but it is known for a fact, that the pearl fish leave occasionally, often at night, to feed on small fishes and shrimps. What the sea cucumber thinks about all of this, noone dares speculate about. Perhaps it doesn’t notice that it’s being anally violated at all, because, curiously, the way it manages to breathe, is by repeatedly sucking water in through its anus and then expelling it again. Maybe the sneaky pearlfish just catches a ride on the current? Anyway some guy actually caught it on camera, if you want to see it yourself.

Lastly, the sea cucumbers occasionally exihibit remarkable shapeshifting skills. Their body wall can be tightened and loosened at will, and if the animal wants to squeeze through a narrow constriction it can liquify its body and simply pour into the crevice. Other sea cucumbers can at will change their boyancy characteristics to gently float up from the bottom, in order to drift with the current until they decide it’s time to settle down again. Kind of gives the term brainless drifter a whole new meaning if you ask me.

That all folks, I hope next time you go scuba diving you'll maybe want to have a closer look at the sea cucumbers as well. Thanks for reading and see you underwater in Dauin.


Critter Feature: The Sea Squirt

A while back I was teaching a frenchman his PADI advanced open water course in Dumaguete. Let’s call him Jerome. Now Jerome was a pretty good diver already with lots of dives under his belt, and honestly, he mostly took the advanced course to avoid hassle, when he wanted to dive deeper than the eighteen meters allowed by his PADI open water license. As he was already quite familiar with both deep diving and navigation, we agreed to do what the course outline required us to do, but to put a heavy emphasis on marine biology on all of our dives.

Bluebell tunicates. Photo by Nick Hobgood @ Wikipedia
On one of the dives, Jerome writes a big question mark on his underwater slate, and points at one of the “soft things” that most divers just ignore or assume is some sort of plant or soft coral. Feeling really cool, knowledgeable and instructor-like, I write Sea Squirt back.

As he stares at me with the “duh!” look, I realise that wasn’t quite what he meant. On the slate he writes “What kind?

Now it’s my turn to give him a vacant look. I really didn’t have the foggiest idea what kind of sea squirt it was. Who wants to know that?! Well, other than Jerome obviously. Fortunately a passing sea turtle saves the day, I point at it and we follow it for a while as it casually grazes.

Back on the boat, the dastardly bugger resumes his questions about sea squirts.

"So what kind of sea squirt was it we saw?"

"Uhm… just a sea squirt you know..."

"Are they plants or animals?"

"Animals,... I’m sure. " (sigh of relief, finally something I knew)

"So how do they propagate, if they’re stuck to a rock?"

"Uhm… I suppose, uhm…"

Here it is Jerome! - Polycarpa Aurata.

Beautiful picture by Jan Messerschmidt.
I realised I didn’t know very much about sea squirts at all; For that matter, I realised that besides the name, I didn’t know a lot about most of the things we see underwater, that isn’t either a fish or a kind of coral. Jerome was obviously enjoying himself, and boy did he catch on fast. For the remainder of the dives we did together, he’d point at all the things that noone ever bothered asking me about before. He must have had a sixth sense, the bastard. After the dives, we’d spend hours looking things up (mostly on the internet, as most of the books available to us only had fish in them.) As it turned out, Jerome enjoyed doing the research tremendously, and I learned a great deal as well. So Jerome, if you’re reading this - cheers for teaching me something as well!

So after pondering my deplorable lack of knowledge of many marine lifeforms, I decided to educate myself and to write a number of small articles about the odd things we encounter underwater, that usually goes unnoticed or unexplained. So in honour of Jerome, I humbly present the Sea Squirt:

Perhaps you’re one of the divers who every now and then try to touch something underwater, just to know what it feels like. (Ah, the joyfull memories of doing that to sea nettles the first time… but I digress) If you’ve done that to a sea squirt, you’ll agree it’s a pretty well-named creature. But there’s more to this strange animal than its squirt gun.

Sea squirts belong to a remarkable group of undersea animals called tunicates (link opens a Wikipedia article on tunicates.) Tunicates are basically saclike filter-feeders that live on plankton and organic matter they strain from the water they pump through their bodies.

Although one couldn’t tell by looking at their soft and squishy bodies, sea squirts are also part of the groups of animals that include fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals! This is because in their larval stage, sea squirts have many of the anatomical features of vertebrate animals.

After the ability to, well, squirt, squirts are probably most famous for “eating their brains.” What happens isn’t quite as drastic as it sounds, but the sea squirt life-cycle is pretty fascinating regardless. Sea squirts are hermaphrodites—that’s to say they have both male and female reproductive organs. They spawn by releasing eggs and sperm into the water at the same time. After about three days, eggs develop into tadpole-like larvae, that wiggle and twitch around, which helps disperse them.

Sea squirt anatomy. Original source unknown.
The free-swimming larvae stage lasts only a short time, as the larvae aren’t capable of feeding. Soon, they seek out the bottom and cement themselves headfirst to the spot where they will spend the rest of their lives. It’s not unlike moving to the suburbs, putting up a white picket fence and having kids really. Regardless, there they need to start feeding, so an amazing transformation begins.

The sea squirt larvae begin absorbing all their tadpole-like parts. Where the sea squirt tadpole had gills, it develops the intake and exit siphons that will help it bring water and food into its body. It absorbs its twitching tail and its primitive eye, until finally, it even absorbs the rudimentary little brain that it used to swim about and find its attachment place.

So, yes, in plain English, the sea squirt “eats its own brain,” such as it is. But since the sea squirt no longer needs it to swim around or to see, this isn’t really such a great loss to the creature. Besides, from a practical point of view, it needs this now superfluous body material to help develop its digestive, reproductive, and circulatory organs.

So what is a fully grown sea squirt? Well, it’s basically a big stomach inside a sack. The sack pumps water in and out of itself, filtering plankton carried to it by sea currents. Water comes in one siphon and heads down into the large basket-like stomach. The stomach has numerous sieve-like slits for the incoming water to pass through. Plankton in the incoming water get trapped in a sticky mucus coating and small hair-like cilia help move the plankton to the stomach for digestion. Filtered water and waste products are expelled through the second siphon.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is the sea squirt.

Lastly, in all fairness I have to add that I'm indebted to the gentleman behind GoodHeartExtremeScience for his write-up on Sea Squirts, as I blatantly borrowed a fair bit of it. Sir, if you ever find your way to the Philippines and Dumaguete, I owe you a cold beer!


Eating out in Dumaguete

As Dumaguete is such a nice town with a plethora of excellent restaurants and cafés, it'd be a shame not to try a few of them, if you decide to take a day away from diving and go shopping and sightseeing in around Dumaguete.

One of my absolute favourites at the moment is KRI. Now, while we have no idea if it's pronounced kree, crye or kay-are-aye we do know that the food there is absolutely delicious. KRI is owned and run by Ritchie Armogenia, who's obviously had his chéf training abroad. He whips up delicious fusion dishes, that combine the best of western palate with various asian and Filipino specialties, all while keeping it pretty budget friendly. Most dishes are just short of a hundred peso, which undeniably is very cheap compared to the other well-run restaurants in Dumaguete. The servings are small mind you, so you may want to have a look at their starters or desserts as well.

We recommend their fish burritos, bacon and blue cheese burgers as well as the amazing asian egg noodles. Wash it down with homemade ginger-lemonade or try one of their shakes.

You'll find KRI on Silliman Avenue just opposite the post office. It's a bit away from the beach boulevard and the streets most normally walked by tourists, (hence the low pricing and local clientele we assume)  but it's well worth the walk.