I have loved diving ever since I took my first breath of compressed air underwater. Call it love on first breath and I knew it was a love that would only grow. I knew that I wanted to continue learning and practicing and just become the best diver I could possibly be.
I also liked the idea of one day passing on my love for diving and maybe teaching others. While I have a job that I absolutely love, I like the idea of having options.
With that said, I had been eying with becoming a divemaster for a while. A divemaster is basically the first step on the professional dive ladder and a prerequisite if you want to become an instructor. The divemaster training (DMT) includes practical assignments, theory and assisting on different courses with different exams throughout.
It usually is handled just like any other course you would pay for but takes a few weeks up to months to complete, depending on the dive center you chose. In May my book came out and with that an advance in my account - I knew the time was now or never.
Now, a few months later, I am looking back. I am a PADI divemaster but to be honest, my experience wasn't the greatest and the certification is nothing I feel particularly proud of. I feel a bit silly whenever I am asked about my certification on dives now, I feel like I cannot live up to the term of divemaster.
I am not writing this post to rant but more to figure out if there is something I could have done differently before and during my training. I also want to give some very honest advice for anybody who is interested in doing the divemaster training and how to get the best possible experience from it.
PADI or SSI?
Planning my DMT started with the question if I would stick with SSI or cross over to PADI. After speaking to a few professionals and posting the question to my scuba group, I somewhat unenthusiastically decided for PADI. It seemed the better option if I ever wanted to make an international career out of it. I was also told that SSI makes a crossover a lot easier than PADI so I decided to go with them first.
However, I say unenthusiastically as PADI is more expensive (PADI is jokingly called 'Put Another Dollar In') and very much focussed on their image (you even have your appearance evaluated on your score sheet!!). I had to learn a whole lot about their standards and regulations, something that I didn't find conducive to diving itself or my training overall.
With a lot of money spent on study materials, I was really dismayed to find that my divemaster manual was full of grammatical and factual errors (same in my Nitrox book I got later so it wasn't an exception it seems).
Later I found out that you do a so called Dive Guide with SSI and only have to pay fees if you decide to upgrade this with a theory part to actually work as a divemaster. Maybe the better option for those who are only in it for the experience. I don't have any way to compare the two options now but I wasn't impressed with PADI.
Where to go?
Next, I had to decide where I wanted to go for my divemaster training. I had set aside two months and a bit to get my rescue diver (a requirement to start the DMT) and to do my training. I made the decision pretty quickly (maybe too quickly) - I was keen to return to the island where I first fell in love with diving, Koh Tao, and the dive center I started with.
I knew that this was a place I could be comfortably live for two months. I also knew that diving conditions were easy something I thought to be a good thing (it isn't but more on that later) so I knew I would be able to focus on my skills and training rather than be distracted by hammerheads and pygmy seahorses.
But Koh Tao is often seen as a scuba factory and has a bit of a bad reputation in the dive community. I didn't really care too much before as my first motivation was to become a better diver and not to work as a divemaster. However, it very quickly became clear that training here isn't about the individual but to make the most amount of money in the shortest time possible. Not the greatest feeling if you actually want to learn something.
Teachers vs. Mentors
It says in the PADI manual that you will get a mentor with your course and unfortunately, I took their word for it. Yeah, yeah, I know that was naive... And since that was important to me from the get go I probably should have rather looked for an instructor I connected with and gone where he/she teaches instead of picking my location and just dealing with whoever was teaching there.
Don't get me wrong, I met some incredible divers and some incredible instructors. However, I learned that just because you are an amazing diver doesn't mean you will make a good instructor.
One of my instructors was both and I think if the circumstances were different he would have even made a brilliant mentor. As it was though he seemed overworked and tired, putting most of his efforts into his OW and AOW students.
I still don't know if and how much an instructor gets from the fees you pay to a dive center for your training but I don't think it is a lot. Mind you does that have to be my problem since I paid for my course?!
I just expected something more. And if not a mentor I was at least looking for some structure, guidance, an open ear when I had questions and concerns. I was not expecting to come in between a pissing contest of two alpha dogs and the dive center's owner and his staff who didn't seem to care all that much.
Will I need my own equipment?
This is the part where I just need to say thank you to my wonderful sponsors over at Scubapro! While you don't need your own equipment to start your DMT I was so happy to have my own and packed my bag like an excited little kid going to school each morning.
If you can't afford a whole kit yet, I highly recommend investing in a mask, fins, and your own dive computer as it will make your diving so much more enjoyable and according to PADI you will look more trustworthy and stuff.
No seriously, at some point, my mask cracked as it was getting quite old and I had to borrow one for the last week of my training. It was incredibly annoying because masks are so personal and when I finally found one I liked I had to give it up whenever a customer needed it. I was thrilled to be reunited with a brand new mask, waiting for me when I got back (only to have it stolen two weeks later but that's a different story...).
If you have a bit more money to spend I'd definitely get a wetsuit and then a BCD. All dive centers seem to have the same awkwardly short wetsuits...honestly, nobody ever looked good in one of those (whereas I like to think I look like Catwoman in mine!) and I wonder - are just the cheapest ones?!
You get what you pay for
As it is the case with almost anything in life you get what you pay for. Same holds true here. For a PADI divemaster, some dive centers will offer internships to help with the fees. And even if you pay the course fees you will still be required to do some work. Checking customers in in the morning, getting their gear ready, helping out on the boat and doing it all again once the dives were done. But if you get your training for free, you will usually be required to do a lot more work.
I needed enough time for my job so I decided to just pay the fees and not worry about time. I also believe that you get what you pay for. I wanted to pay for the course to be actually get treated like a customer and receive the best training possible. While some say that fees in Koh Tao are notoriously low and so what the heck do you expect?, I didn't get what I paid for.
There was little organization for us five DMTs and even the fact that there were five of us in low season with too few clients to work with spoke to this. There was no structure and little guidance and while I am a grown-up and can usually sort myself out, it was often tricky to do so because nobody seemed to feel responsible for us.
Practice makes perfect?
PADI requires a minimum of 40 dives to start with and 60 to complete the training but I thought I was being generous by taking two months to gain more experience. In hindsight, I don't think someone with 60 dives will make a good divemaster nor will two months of shallow water dives in easy conditions.
Heck, I started with over 60 dives and finished with 110 and there are still many situations and conditions I don't feel comfortable in.
I spoke to one of my instructors after my training was done and he told me flat out that for the best experience one should go to Europe or Australia. If you want to stick to South East Asia I think areas like Komodo will give you a proper challenge and ultimately turn you into a better diver.
The problem with diving and the skills you are required to get for the PADI divemaster is that you cannot really practice in your own time. Yes, you can and probably should put your ego aside and practice skills in front of the mirror because you are meant to showing students and thus need to be extra concise. But practicing things like the Buddha hover on your bed is extremely difficult unless you are Superman. And believe me, I tried.
Only quite late during the training was I told that I could practice skills alongside students and even then I was quite embarrassed at times - if you have students around you want to do well and not flop around like a newbie.
Since any sort of self-practice would require tanks and a buddy I am honestly not sure how other dive centers handle this issue. Or is it just me who would want/need some more time to master skills?? Do other people just get all their practice done beforehand and start as perfect, little divers? I honestly don't know.
I have decided not to share the names of the dive center where I was doing my internship nor to mention the instructors I had by name. This is not a post to name and shame but rather one that allows me to reflect on my experience and to help others to ask the right questions if they want to become a divemaster too. However, if you want more details than I am sharing here, please feel free to send me an email.
I also realize that I will probably never make it as a PADI ambassador after this post but that is alright. I am still feeling a little underwhelmed and grumpy about their service, their prices and their grammar, so I will do without.
Are you a divemaster? I'd be curious to hear about your training and if you have any additional advice on how to get the best experience possible.