Article By John Christopher Fine
Veteran Scuba Instructor and Course Director Fred Calhoun’s remark, made more than forty years ago during an instructor institute, still makes me smile every time I think about it. “Call it G.U.P.I.E. for Greatest Underwater Professional Instructor Ever.” Well, Fred’s words, mocking the proliferation of diver certification agencies, that pop out instructors like gingerbread cookies, has come true. One agency indicated that they issued nearly a million certification cards last year. That is a lot but not surprising since their instructor numbers reach astronomical proportions as well.
“I’m only 23, well I’ll be 24. I didn’t think they’d accept me as a Course Director,” a youthful instructor remarked on the dive boat last month. He had a couple of students with him that he was taking below as part of a dive shop program. A little unshaved clump of fuzz remained on his proud chin where he had not yet started to shave.
Dive instruction has nothing to do with age. Dive instruction has everything to do with experience and the ability to present a mature, responsible and confident image. There is the tendency today to show off garish prison tattoos and scrawls with unseemly legends down arms and bodies to create a pseudo- macho image. You are what you wear, especially when it comes to tattoos.
I was friends with a Criminal Court judge. We’d often take coffee together when I was downtown and visited his chambers during recess. For the longest time I noticed that the judge would lean far over his elevated bench and look down at a defendant before imposing bail during arraignment. I finally asked him what he was doing. “I look at their feet. If they’re wearing get-away shoes I set the bail higher.”
Everyone has seen it. Some street people dress tough. Some dress mean. Some impose images that threaten. No, this is not ‘profiling.’ It is absolute body language that comes from the mind. Deliberate signals worn on the outside to create an image about the inside.
The male macho image is one the dive industry has tried to fix over many generations. They are selling pink, gold and bright colors. Advertisements doll up pictures that now include families on vacation and pleasant female models. Gentle is the key although some pretty tough looking tech gear is now pushed at the macho-diver setting the new, gentle trend back a little.
PUNK is fictional. If the fictional number I used in the title is real, it has no bearing on any instructor that is or will be tomorrow. It is just an acronym and arbitrary number that expresses the whole editorial point that we must develop instructors that will not only have the physical ability to handle themselves in the water but who will not be arrogant punks.
“We really had an issue on the boat. An instructor came with a family. Mother, father and two kids,” a divemaster related. “He was morbidly obese. I watched him. He struggled with his gear. It wasn’t rough on the ocean but he wasn’t comfortable. When he jumped into the water it was a disaster. He got immediately tangled in the dive flag line. He pulled his regulator out of his mouth to say the current was pulling him.”
The experienced divemaster’s story recounted what followed: “He completely forgot about his students in the water. Of course there was current and the current was pulling him. He had trouble putting the regulator back in his mouth, got more tangled in the dive flag line as he struggled on the surface. He was without the strength or ability to swim to the tag line I threw out to him or to inflate his BC. I had to throw lines to his students and get them back on the boat safely.”
Alright, leave these issues alone as not politically correct in today’s society: morbid obesity that is gluttony not glandular, garish tattoos and smoking. No point leaving the issue of dive instructors smoking out. It is addictive and I estimate that 75% of dive instructors that take students out on the dive boat I use every day smoke. They smoke at the rear of the boat; they smoke before and after diving in the presence of their students.
A little something about the language instructors use is also relevant. One obese store manager-instructor, replete with tattoos, cannot put a subject and predicate together without the foulest expletives. His students, male, female, young kids with their parents and older women, hear it all. The resonant vocabulary is that of a street punk. There sometimes is shock visible on the facial expressions of the head of a family or older women.
So far no one has told this instructor that he has a foul mouth. Hopefully two Evangelical Christians that often dive with us will be aboard and correct him as they have others about the use of foul and often blasphemous language. If you teach instructor institutes make sure dive instructor candidates hear the right language from you and clean up their acts if it is an obvious problem.
What we are left with once physical attributes are considered is personality. I had a magazine shoot in a Caribbean country. It touts diving and derives income and tourist dollars. There were momentous environmental issues underwater. Visibility was poor. Flocculent matter from rivers carrying human, animal and agricultural waste came from the mainland as well as two adjacent countries. Lionfish have invaded in large numbers and grow fat and sassy devouring reef fish. To our observations large fish were not at all apparent and on the dives we did at four different sites only one small Nassau grouper was observed.
The dive organization for which this foreign PUNK instructor worked got their guests to spear lionfish. They had only one pole spear for the entire operation that charged $1000 for five-days diving. Two divers from the U.S. graciously bought pole spears from the capital city and left them behind for the resort to use.
There was no potable water on the island base and all food and potable water had to be brought by boat. The food was not great, supplemented by catch made of conch, lionfish and, in season, lobster caught by guests.
PUNK with an astronomical certification number had a young female student. Her first open water dive was with us off the dive launch. There was little to photograph. I was working with the marine biologist who had a spear and was intent on lionfish hunting. I had enough of the hunting and lionfish. I needed underwater pictures of people with scenery. I found a recently dead conch trapped in a coral recession. Perfectly legal to handle it. The nation had a prohibition on spearing fish or taking live conch using Scuba. Free diving for conch in this area was encouraged by the resort that used it to feed their guests. Ah, I thought, finally a photo-op.
I took the dead conch shell, swam to the marine biologist and handed it out to him so he could pose holding it. Like a phantom jet PUNK instructor left his novice student on her first open water deep dive, zoomed down, grabbed the conch on his way and traveled to the reef to restore the dead shell to the sand. PUNK violated safety standards by leaving his student in the lurch. His arrogance was apparent in all that he did during other periods of observation. He was a stranger to the nation he was working in, operating to certify students through a U.S. private certification agency in a foreign country.
Some of the local people involved with the operation resented foreign intervention. It was money of course. Money to buy the operation, rent the island and get customers. Cash in hand to pay salaries. All of this is good. Dive operations must be sensitive to the fact that training local dive guides and instructors who already have the experience and local knowledge is far better than bringing in arrogant punks of a different racial, ethnic and social background to run things. It is a carry over of Colonial thinking. The nation long ago declared independence from Great Britain.
No one will be able to correct PUNK No. 999,999. The personality is type cast for life. Whether course directors like Fred Calhoun, with more diving experience than most in the field, will be able to identify PUNK and weed him out before releasing him onto the diving public is not likely. Why? There are not enough Fred Calhoun’s. There are only dive instructor certification mills. Like puppy mills they breed a race of defective instructors.
Skills can be taught. Teaching methods can be taught. Some people even obtain doctoral degrees in education. There are books about how to teach. Psychologists write tomes about personality issues and personality problems. The bottom line is physical and mental preparation for the honor of introducing others to discovery of the underwater world.
Conservation comes from the heart. Captain Don Stewart of Bonaire spent a lifetime teaching and living conservation. His recent passing represents the end of an era and the beginning of an era for renewed dedication to conservation. PUNK arrogance that makes believe lip service to conservation is not necessary. Rank stupidity leaving a student to grab a dead conch shell for the only reason of self-importance is certainly not something that can be corrected once the dive instructor becomes a made man.
What can be taught is the importance of physical conditioning, personal hygiene, avoidance of addictive and unhealthy habits, dress, demeanor, including avoidance of expletives, and tattoos. Becoming a good teacher requires mental conditioning. Arrogance is out. Macho is out. Over- selling is out.
Another boat story. An instructor congratulated his open water students after their fourth open water dive. Four dives and they would get their certification card. “Now I strongly recommend that you should take the Nitrox course. It will give you more down time and is safer.” That is what I heard the instructor tell his newly four-dive certified students.
I said nothing. I remarked later to the boat captain, “If they get twenty minutes on air they will get twenty minutes on the same amount of Nitrox.” We laughed. It is not right. Money should not be the primary motivation for diver education and training. Fair compensation for work is important. Deriving satisfaction from introducing students to a lifetime of discovery and underwater exploration is a living legacy instructors can be proud of.
Dr. John Christopher Fine
The author Dr. John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist, Master Scuba Instructor and Instructor Trainer. He is an expert in maritime affairs and has authored 26 pub- lished books. His large format cof- fee table book: TREASURES OF THE SPANISH MAIN contains information and photographs of Spanish colonial shipwrecks.