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Ocean Love: Book of the month

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If you are the kind who loves the ocean deeply, you surely know the pain of not being in or near the water for more than a certain period of time, after which you start to experience serious withdrawal. Long-distance relationships with the seas can be rather difficult. And looking at photographs and videos can do a great deal in lifting spirits and rekindling hope that the next reunion is not too far away. However, few things can come as close to giving us that same sense of joy and peace, as do good books about the ocean. Be it on a quiet evening at home with a hot chocolate or on the bus to work.

How many things can open up our imagination; awaken all our senses and transport us to places far away the way books can? The written word helps us paint the most vivid images in our minds while making us laugh, cry, contemplate or reminisce. In this series, we are sharing some of our favourite books (fiction and non-fiction) that teach us more about the wonders of the ocean but also beautifully put to words, all that we wish to, but usually struggle to.

Try our picks of the month and let us know your thoughts! We welcome suggestions!

#Ocean Love: Book of the Month – What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins Jonathan Balcombe, 2017 To me, diving at the same dive site over and over is never boring. It feels...

#OceanLove: The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

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#OceanLove: Book Of The Month The Highest Tide, A novel by Jim Lynch “If there is poetry in my book about the sea it is not because I deliberately put it...

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

#Ocean Love: Book of the Month – What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

Jonathan Balcombe, 2017

To me, diving at the same dive site over and over is never boring. It feels like going to hang out at a friend’s house. There is pleasure in seeing them again and there is comfort in knowing all your favourite things about their place are still there.

I have a close friend at Dixon’s Pinnacle, here in Havelock; a cute and curious circular batfish (Platax orbicularis).  When I dive Dixon’s, typically the first thing I see is a 10 meter tall wall of batfish gingerly fighting the current. And nearly every time, there will be that one batfish that peals away from the school and swims over to where I am. Swimming barely a meter away, this batfish accompanies us to the second pinnacle, and waits patiently while we look at the big-eyes hovering behind the third pinnacle. She (or he) even ascends with us to the top of the first pinnacle towards the end of the dive while we look for juvenile emperor angelfish.

The probability of this happening is so high that I can confidently brief my divers about the batfish and sure enough, there my buddy will be!  I have grown attached to this batfish and find it especially comforting when she (or he) accompanies me until the mooring line at the end of the dive, even though it is a good 30 meter swim into the blue that my batfish buddy must swim back to the pinnacles, alone.

Book Review: What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

My buddy and I say our goodbyes at the end of a dive at Dixon’s Pinnacle.Picture credit: Mayank Singh

I have not been diving for very long, but it did not take me much time to realise that while it is very difficult to tell individual fishes of a species apart , there is no doubt that every individual is different. Fishes, much like us, have different personalities and temperaments, which may be a sum of their life’s experiences. Although there is a lot that we now know about the lives of fish, there is so much more we are yet to understand about them.

The batfish at Dixon’s and several other underwater friends (and enemies) I have made around Havelock have got my mind constantly churning up questions about what they are doing, what they perceive, feel and think! And as though the forces knew exactly what was going on in my mind, the universe dropped a fabulous book into my lap (alright, read: kindle).

‘What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins’ is an eye-opening and mind-boggling account of fish lives that ethologist Jonathan Balcombe uses to make a strong case for fishes as being sentient beings and not merely animals to be caught or consumed. Balcombe bases his argument on decades of science and numerous anecdotal stories, told in a way that really draws you in. While you may or may not agree with some of his interpretations, the facts and observations he states are real.

Fish swimming in schools are not an arbitrary group of fish moving in arbitrary directions. They have leaders, informants, and navigation-communication systems. They have culture.

Photo credit: Vandit Kalia @vanditkalia

This book comes at a time when fish populations are steadily crashing across the globe. It is taking destructive and wasteful fishing practices to meet the ever increasing demand from the seafood market, the live pet trade, traditional medicine, aphrodisiacs, you name it! There is a need, now more than ever, to talk about fish, as individuals whose lives have intrinsic value and not just commodities that measure in kilograms, pounds or tonnes.

To begin with, we hear very often that we ‘evolved from fish’.  There is significant scientific evidence to show that we are descendants of fish and fossils of the first fishes dates back to 530 million years ago. Today they make up 60% of all vertebrate animals on earth. They have had plenty of time to adapt, evolve and diversify extraordinarily; just, not within our view.

We may never truly know what it is that fish perceive, but we are able to figure out the mind blowing extent to which their sensory abilities have evolved – vision, speech, hearing, taste and touch. Balcombe spends time on each of these and several ‘sixth senses’ including navigation using lateral lines, ultraviolet code language and hunting with electroreception!

Fish can think, calculate and memorise. The ‘three second goldfish memory’ is now a thing of the past. Wouldn’t you agree that a three second memory would be frighteningly painful for a manta ray that plans to travel between specific seamounts in search of plankton blooms and then go back each year for a routine clean at the exact same cleaning station, on exactly the same corner, of the exact same coral reef?

What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe - Review

Fishes such as this Dascyllus uses its lateral line system (seen as the thin line arching across its body) to detect movements and navigate its surroundings

Picture Credit: Gunnhild Sørås  @gunnigullet 

The most interesting part of this book (and you can tell while reading it), is also probably what Balcombe holds closest to his heart. Going beyond the senses, beyond just cognition, he asks- do fish have feelings? Do they have beliefs?

Through studies and stories that are amusing, sad, and hilarious and awe inspiring all at once, we see how fish can have feelings that range from stress to joy. They can appreciate the warmth of the sun in the same way we do after a cold rainy day. A visit to a cleaning station relieves their stress the same way a good massage does ours. They can be inquisitive, deceptive, empathic and playful. Fish have culture, traits that are not innate and need to be learned through the course of their lives.

It makes you wonder why it has taken us so long to acknowledge that fish are not just instinctive but are also intelligent too. Is it because we just have not spent enough time with them? Is it because their faces are not as expressive as other animals that we relate to, like primates? Speaking of primates and how intelligence is contextual, a quote by Albert Einstein comes to mind. “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

“You don’t need to have fur and feather to have a personality. Scales and fins will suffice.” – Jonathan Balcombe

Picture credit: Vikas Nairi  @vikasnairi

In conclusion, this is a really fun book but also pertinent given the current state of affairs where fishes in our oceans and rivers are concerned. We have learned fish behaviour enough to know how and when to detect and catch them using sophisticated technology and yet we fail to use this same knowledge to stop decimating their populations and ecosystems.

Try spending about five minutes on your next dive observing a cleaning station. The interaction between cleaners and clients on a reef alone tells so much about their social systems and will show you that “fish aren’t just alive, they have lives”!

In the meantime, after having read this book, I look forward to heading back to Dixon’s to meet my buddy the batfish again. Do you think that they know that we know what they know?

What a Fish Knows is easily available online, in paperback and kindle versions!

Read other posts in the #OceanLove Book of the Month series here

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Who Are You Calling an Invertebrate?

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Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) juggled many professional hats during his life – he was a professor, biologist, philosopher, physician, and in the middle all that, he found the time to be a phenomenal artist as well. He is known for his enormous contribution to science, through the several new species he discovered, scientific concepts he theorized and biological terms he coined. He is also admired across various disciplines for his exquisite and influential collection of illustrations known as the ‘Kunstformen der Natur’ or ‘Artforms in Nature’ (sketched and painted between 1899 -1904).

If you are looking at any of these plates and admiring them for their abstract beauty or commending Ernst Haeckel for his marvellous attempt at science-fiction, take a look again. These are all real marine animals. They actually exist in these very shapes, patterns and forms. Ernst Haeckel observed and appreciated that in these underwater beauties; several decades before the advent of recreational SCUBA diving.

What do all these animals have in common? On careful observation you will notice that, yes they are all stunningly beautiful, there is inherent symmetry, but also, they are all types of ‘invertebrates’. They are all animals that lack a vertebral column or a backbone/spine inside their bodies.

Speaking of invertebrates, I never did understand the figurative use of this term in our society. To call someone a ‘spineless’, ‘invertebrate’ is to describe them as weak, cowardly, inadequate or ineffective. How did this association come to be?

Over 97% of animals on this planet are spineless, especially in the ocean. Some of the most venomous (box jellyfish), strongest (mantis shrimp), smartest (octopus), fastest reflexes (mantis shrimp again!), largest (giant squid), cutest (alright, this one is heavily subjectiveJ) are some form of marine invertebrate or the other.

A barrel sponge (Xestospongia testudinaria) can dwarf you despite your tank and fins
Vandit Kalia @vanditkalia

When reading about evolution and biology today we learn that, more and more, science doesn’t consider evolution to be progressive. Meaning to say that through the course of geological time, being older or having appeared first is no longer considered ‘primitive’ and being more newly evolved doesn’t make you necessarily ‘advanced’. Scientists now prefer to use terms such as ‘ancestral’ and ‘recent’ instead, with much less value judgement. Take sponges for example. Sponges consist of hollow cavities held together by protein fibres and they have numerous different types of cells, to filter food from water that is brought in and sent out. Sponges constitute some of the oldest animals to have ever lived (fossils as old as 640 million years old), and they still exist, all of 9,000 species of them.

A wise old coral colony
Gunnhild Sørås  
@gunnigullet    Vikas Nairi  @vikasnairi

Backbone-free animals are everywhere, and some of them literally shape our world. During the journey of a single dive in a shallow reef, we are immersing ourselves into a world whose multi-dimensional foundation, was built over millions of years, by the remarkably and astonishingly, spineless coral. Stony coral get a majority of their energy from their in-house photosynthetic symbionts and use it to put down calcium carbonate skeletons, layer by layer, that are strong enough to last years, centuries, and millennia. Corals live and lay the foundation of coral reefs, and then everyone else, from feather-duster worms to fish, start to step in to look for ways to build their own lives. An ecosystem is formed.

A closing sea anemone
Chetana Babburjung
 @chutney_babburjung

Through the course of your dive, you will surely find yourself smiling at clownfish in their anemones. Unlike a majority of their coral cousins which live as colonies of polyps, sea anemones are typically singular polyps lined by a whorl of stinging tentacles. Hidden in the centre of the anemone, if clownfish will allow you to see it, is an opening that is its singular window to the outside world- mouth and anus. It happens rarely and very difficult to catch with the naked eye, but sea anemones can move.

A peacock tail anemone shrimp busy on its host anemone
Gunnhild Sørås 
@gunnigullet

Anemones are cheerful hosts that collaborate not just with clownfish, but a variety of crustaceans, especially anemone shrimps and crabs that promise to help the anemone stay clean in return for a home.

Nudibranchs, a cryptic treasure.
Gunnhild Sørås 
@gunnigullet

Some of the more cryptic treasures to look out for on a reef are sea slugs, who are now coming out of the shadow of their celebrity cousins-the octopus. Among the mind-blowing diversity of sea slugs, nudibranchs are unique in that they breathe through gills placed outside their body (hence the name). While they have a versatile diet, some of them love eating fern-like hydroids. Hydroids just like their relatives -coral, anemones and jellies- are laced with stingers. No matter, Aeolid nudibranchs eat them anyway, carefully pocketing the stingers for later use as self-defence. Similarly sap-sucking slugs feed on algae but extract the algal pigments and keep them alive in their bodies for their own personal photosynthetic use. Is that ingenious, or is that ingenious?

Ernst Haeckel was particularly taken by the symmetry he saw in nature. A classic example for us would be- Echinoderms. A group found exclusively in the ocean, echinoderms are the sea stars, feather stars, brittle stars, urchins, cucumbers and several other unbelievable but underappreciated marine invertebrates (and therefore warrant a separate feature altogether).

A mollusc larva dancing in the blue
Vikas Nairi 
@vikasnairi

A typical shallow dive might last forty-five minutes to an hour and we may still not be ready to ascend to the surface, even though the gases in our tanks and bodies might dictate otherwise. But wait, the dive isn’t over yet.  Safety stops are the best time to connect with bizarre but brilliant drifting creatures, as we hover in an endless soup of plankton.

At the end of the day, if Boris Johnson were to ever call me a “supine invertebrate jelly”, I think I might just say, thank you.

Watch this space for our next  showcase on the underwater lives of the Incredibles.

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

#OceanLove: The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

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#OceanLove: Book Of The Month

The Highest Tide, A novel by Jim Lynch

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea it is not because I deliberately put it there but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry” –Rachel Carson, in her acceptance speech of the National Book Award for non-fiction (1952) for ‘The Sea Around Us’.

Miles O’ Maley is a thirteen-year-old boy who admires Rachel Carson to the extent that he can quote lines from her books and speeches off the top of his head any time of day or night. Growing up around a beautiful bay in Puget Sound, Miles spends most of his time in the tidal mudflats looking for interesting marine life at low tide. He has an extraordinary passion and love for the water with an unparalleled understanding of the ocean and all of its inhabitants. Miles still is your average teenager; struggling with the perils of puberty, love and parents who he thinks do not understand him. He finds growing up more mysterious than the tides.

Sunset The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

Rock pools at low tide. Picture credit: Ajay Kumar @ajay.1994

He doesn’t consider himself special in any way; he only speaks of the world around him. In fact, people around him consider his fascination rather odd, until the day when everything suddenly changes. Miles becomes the centre of media attention for finding a gigantic deep sea creature beached in his bay. The story then becomes about how this one event changes his life, the people around him and the bay that he has grown up in and deeply loves.

While the story is one of fiction, none of the marine life that Miles describes is.  You will find yourself taking to the internet quite frequently to be sure that the bizarre animals and plants actually exist in this world. In this one read, just by following Miles through the ups and downs of his sensationalised summer, you learn about the beauty of tides and how they shape our coastlines. He describes in his totally casual tone, how the marine life seen when the water recedes, is not randomly thrown around but are living creatures that are tracking the tides as well, and actually thriving in this dynamic environment.

His adventures will also leave you wondering, more often than not, why you didn’t spend more time exploring the intertidal rock pools and mud flats during your last beachside holiday.

This is a story of one boy and the places his love for the ocean takes him. It is one that will resonate with you if you have ever been in the ocean, and if you haven’t, the tale is likely to make you excited enough to see everything for yourself! Miles puts it all in perspective for us when he says that “Most people realise the sea covers two-thirds of the planet, but few take the time to understand even a gallon of it”

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch is easily available online, in paperback and kindle versions!

Click here to read about our Intertidal walks at DIVEIndia

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The Incredible Wrasse

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Our first showcase in this series is dedicated to a particularly fascinating and versatile group of fish.*Drum roll* – THE WRASSES!

With nearly 500 known species, wrasses form the second largest marine fish family (Labridae) in the world. Wrasses are generally elongated fish that taper at both ends, you could call that being “cigar-shaped”. Found in tropical and temperature waters, wrasses can be as tiny as the thumb-sized minute wrasse (Minilabrus striatus), but also grow to be as big as the 2 meter long Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus).

Portrait of a Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)

picture credit: Gunnhild Sørås

Most people know and love to see the Napoleon wrasse on a dive. A large and majestic fish that appears to carefully inspect divers with its googly eyes as it slowly cruises by. Napoleon wrasses have a single fin that runs continuously along its back (like a Mohawk); a characteristic feature of wrasses. Look carefully next time at a bird wrasse (Gomphosus varius) – you will see that same dorsal fin as the Napoleon, albeit on a smaller scale.

Bird wrasse (Gomphosus varius)

Brian Gratwicke (Wikimedia Commons)

Similar to the Napoleons, many wrasses appear as though their heads have been tattooed with Maori art. Intricate patterns radiate from their eyes in stunning colour schemes and patterns. Admire this artwork the next time you swim close to a red-breasted wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus) or a moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare).

Face painting on a Red-breasted wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus) and a moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wrasses are a family found in great abundance across reefs. Perhaps a key to their diversity lies in their versatile diet. Wrasses leave no part of the reef unexplored. There are wrasses that eat fish, some that graze algae, some that crack open crustaceans and molluscs, and others that suck out worms and coral. A few chase after plankton in the blue.

There are also those that follow other fish, almost like a shadow, watching closely to see what hidden treasures are revealed when these hunters are at work. Look out for the small checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus) hungrily tailing either a triggerfish upturning rocks or goatfish that is stirring up the sand in hope of nabbing a quick crab or clam. What would you call this- Clever? Lazy? Freeloading?

A checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus) waiting to see what goodies the yellow-margin triggerfish (Pseudobalistes flavimarginatus) stirs up!

Photo credit: Bernard Dupont (Wikimedia Commons)

By virtue of their choice of cuisine, some wrasses play critical roles in the functioning of coral reefs as an ecosystem. I am talking about the unassuming but industrious blue-streaked cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus). Cleaner wrasses feed specifically on parasites, dead tissues and mucous, found on bodies of fish that do not want to keep any of it. In the process, cleaner wrasses have set up some of the most phenomenal symbiotic relationships that can be observed while diving. These wrasses work in pairs or in small groups and work extremely hard to look for fish that are looking to be cleaned. A single cleaner wrasse on duty, working 4 continuous hours, cleans up to 2000 ‘client’ fish. Starting up and running a cleaning station successfully is no joke for these finger-sized fish and there is a lot that we can learn from observing them. (Watch out for our upcoming post- Business lessons from a cleaner wrasse partnership.)

A blue-streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) working on a Napoleon wrasse with a keen eye.

Picture credit

Of all the wrasses that we might come across commonly, we are likely to underestimate the anchor tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) the most. The anchor tuskfish is named so, for its tusk-like canines. These sharp teeth when unleashed, transform the otherwise delightful-looking wrasse into a predator that every hard-shelled animal should be afraid of! Tuskfish can spend hours trying to dig out clams, carry them over to specific spots on the reef where they whack them repeatedly against specific rocks until the shells crack open and are ready for the devouring. Tuskfish are the first wild fish to be documented using tools.

I would like to end this showcase with one of my favourite wrasses of them all. It is one that some of us have probably witnessed, doing something so bizarre, in a span of one second, that no one but you and the wrasse will believe that it happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Epibulus insidiator or the slingjaw wrasse!

Watch this space for our next  showcase on the underwater lives of the Incredibles.

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Should i learn to scuba dive - Get certified?

Should i learn to scuba dive – Get certified?

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Should i learn to scuba dive – Get certified?/ Why get certified when you can do a DSD

Most visitors who come to the Andamans do try an introductory scuba program such Try Scuba / PADI Discover Scuba Diving and find it an amazing experience.     But many of them are not aware that there is also the option to become a certified diver, the benefits of doing so or even how easy it is to get certified.

Let’s talk about the 2 basic options for beginners:

Option one to a introductory scuba diving program, be it the very basic Try Scuba or the more immersive/experience-rich PADI Discover Scuba Diving, which is designed to give people a taste of scuba.  There is a dive professional in the water with you at all times, who is responsible your safety during the program.

Option two is a certification course, aka the PADI Open Water course or PADI Scuba Diver course: these are designed for people who want to take up this amazing sport in a more in-depth manner, and who want to keep exploring the oceans in different parts of the world.   It consists of 3 elements:  academic development, skills practice and ocean dives.   At the end of this, you get a certificate which is valid for a lifetime, and which lets you dive anywhere in the world.

Sounds like a lot of work, right?    I mean, you can dive as is without that certification card, so why go through all the trouble?   Why not just do more introductory scuba experiences wherever you go?

Well, yes, you can.  Nothing wrong with that and many people do just that.

However, the intro programs are all designed to be just that – intro.   While the instructor does handle your safety in such cases, there are several things that the instructor cannot do for you.   So all responsible dive centers conduct the Intro to Scuba / Try Scuba / PADI Discover Scuba Diving programs in locations where the conditions are benign, predictable and as much within the instructor’s control as possible.

For first timers, these is still a marvellous experience – virtually everyone who tries scuba for the first time comes out having experienced the “wow” factor.

But… the “wow” becomes “OMG I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT WOWOWOWOW!!!” when you get certified:   it is yet another level of amazing when you are able to go deeper:  the kind that sinks its claws into you and makes this a passion that you want to indulge in regularly, just like going hiking in the mountains or on safari trips.

It is surprisingly easy to get certified – you complete your theory at home, using online learning.     Skills training takes 1-2 days, 2-4 hours per day, leaving the rest of the day free for other sightseeing.    Then you do 4 dives over 2 days, again each day’s sessions lasting about half a day.    And you are done.    You don’t have to be a fantastic athlete or great swimmer either – basic swimming skills are required, average fitness (ability to walk 1-2km) and, in the event of pre-existing medical conditions, a doctor’s clearance.     So in 3-4 days, you can earn a license to explore the magic of the underwater world, whereever you go.

If you live in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore, you can even do your skills training there over a weekend – thereby requiring just 2 days to get certified!

Can you scuba dive if you can’t swim?

Can you scuba dive if you can’t swim?

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SCUBA DIVING IN THE ANDAMANS – FOR NON-SWIMMERS

One of the most common question we get from people coming to the Andamans and wanting to try scuba diving (or even from people who want to try diving in their home city) is: “I don’t know how to swim – can i try scuba diving?”

Can you scuba dive if you can’t swim?

The answer is:  yes, you can

To get certified as a diver, you need to know basic swimming (ability to float or tread water for 10 min, swim 200m unaided/300m with mask-fins-snorkel). However, to do introductory scuba diving program such as Try Scuba or a PADI Discover Scuba Diving program, swimming is not required.

So what is the difference and why?

The introductory scuba diving program, be it the very basic Try Scuba or the more immersive/experience-rich PADI Discover Scuba Diving, is designed to give people a taste of scuba.  There is a dive professional in the water with you at all times, who is responsible your safety during the program.

The certification course is designed for people who want to take up this amazing sport in a more in-depth manner, and who want to keep exploring the oceans in different parts of the world – it is designed to create divers who are trained in diving procedures and skills, including safety/emergency procedures, and who can dive without professional supervision.   As such, swimming is a requirement.

So why do people go through all this trouble to get certified?  Can’t they just do more introductory scuba experiences wherever they go!

Well, yes, they can.  Nothing wrong with that and many people do just that.

However, the intro programs are all designed to be just that – intro.   While the instructor does handle your safety in such cases, there are several things that the instructor cannot do for you.   So all responsible dive centers conduct the Intro to Scuba / Try Scuba / PADI Discover Scuba Diving programs in locations where the conditions are benign, predictable and as much within the instructor’s control as possible.

For first timers, these is still a marvellous experience – virtually everyone who tries scuba for the first time comes out having experienced the “wow” factor.

But… the “wow” becomes “OMG I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT WOWOWOWOW!!!” when you get certified:   it is yet another level of amazing when you are able to go deeper.   That’s when you get to have experiences that match what you see on Nat Geo.   And for that, certification is indeed required – as is swimming

Review: Mares Pure SLS BCD

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Review: Mares Pure SLS BCD

Note:   The BCD reviewed in this unit was purchased by us before being reviewed.  We did not get any special discounts or other considerations for the review.   All the gear we review is based on our personal experiences and we will NEVER recommend a product that we do not believe in – we exist to serve our guests, not manufacturers of scuba equipment.

Review Mares Pure SLS BCD

They say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, nor can you get an old diver (speaking metaphorically, of course!) to try on new gear.    Well, Frodo, my golden retriever proved the first adage wrong and now the pressure is on me.

Some background:  though a process of trial and error, I figured out my ideal gear configuration in the late 90s, and have seen no real reason to change it.     When it came to recreational BCDs, my preferred brand has always been Seaquest / Aqualung – and that confidence has been time-tested:  even today, we use Aqualung BCDs in the dive shop and recommend them without reservations to people looking to buy BCDs.

While we are also a Mares distributor, I have never recommended Mares BCDs so far.   A chance conversation with the Mares distributor got me thinking about why this was so.       While I am a big fan of their masks, fins (Quattros rock!) and wetsuits, I have never been a fan of their BCDs:  I found the entry-level ones to be lacking compared to Aqualung, and higher-end ones to be needlessly fussy and generally, the range to lack the same robustness as Aqualung.

But at the same time, this experience is also quite dated.   A lot of things change in that time, and if we are going to recommend gear, we owe it to our divers to make sure our recommendations are based on a broad and up-to-date set of personal experiences.

As it turns out, I was looking to get a new recreational BCD for myself anyway, as my old Aqualung Balance, while still serviceable, was getting a bit tatty after 9 years of (ab)use.   So instead of getting the Aqualung Dimension I had been lusting after, I looked up the Mares catalog and picked a Pure SLS BCD instead.  I sent the money over and a few days later, I had the BCD in my hands.

And now, here is a review of the BCD, based on several months of ownership and diving.

Note:  Before going further, I encourage readers to read the following Buyer’s Guide on How To Select A BCD.

SPECIFICATIONS

 The Mares Pure SLS BCD is a mid-end BCD in the Mares line, lying below top-range BCDs like the Quantum and Hybrid, but above more basic models like the Prime and the Rover.

The Mares Pure SLS BCD, with the folding pocket opened

The Mares Pure SLS BCD, with the folding pocket opened

The Mares Pure SLS BCD has the following specifications:

Style:   Back-inflation BCD with a central, rigid backplate
Lift:  18kg
Weight:  3.9kg
Streamlined
Swivel shoulder buckles
Weight integrated:  Yes, with visual confirmation
Trim pockets:   Yes
Adjustable waist strap
Customizable and travel friendly
Fabric:  Cordura 420
MRP:    Rs 38,250
Our price:   Significantly less (of course) 🙂

On paper, this is a very well-specced BCD.      But what does that mean, in terms of usage?   Read on.

FIT/COMFORT/FEATURES

 A BCD must be comfortable.   That’s a very, very essential and non-negotiable requirement.  If it doesnt fit properly, you will not enjoy the dive.   And that is why most of us dive, right?   So what are the elements that go into fit?

The BCD should sit comfortable and snugly tight around the waist, the shoulder straps should be comfortable and the tank should be stable.  And nothing should pinch or bite when you wear it.

On this count, the Mares performed very well.    The padding on the backplate at the contact points (upper and lower back) made for a very comfortable wearing experience, with the pressure evenly distributed and no extraneous materials adding weight.

The BCD comes with the standard sets of releases and clips.

It uses a buckle and webbing system to tighten at the waist, as opposed to a more traditional velcro strap system.     Some people prefer the velcro as it is easier to attach and loosen-  after years of diving with a harness, I prefer the buckle-and-webbing system, as it allows you to really modulate the snugness of the waist band.  It takes a little longer to get used to, but is well worth it, in my opinion.

On an entry-level BCD, the velcro makes more sense to avoid confusion (and a resultant unhappy outcome) with the weight belt buckle.   But as this is a weight-integrated BCD, you are likely not going to be wearing it with a weight belt.   So it makes sense to have that buckle there.   Mares has paid attention to the details here.

The D ring is used to tighten or loosen the waist strap

The D-ring is used to tighten/loosen the waist strap

The BCD also comes with the traditional chest clip (in case your straps are too far out on your shoulders) and the 2 quick releases, one on each shoulder.

Thankfully, the shoulder clips are the swivelling type – these improve the ergonomics and comfort significantly by allowing the straps to follow the natural curves of your torso.  This means no pulling, pinching or biting in the shoulders.    It’s a small thing but once you get used to it, you’ll notice it every time you dive with a BCD with regular quick-release clips.

The swivelling clips at the shoulders allow the straps to follow your torso’s natural curves

The BCD also has 2 clearly-marked emergency air dumps – one on the usual right front shoulder and the other on the right bottom.     Both come with large handles which are easily located by touch – an essential feature (if you do lose your buoyancy and are going up, you want the emergency air dump to be VERY easy to find).    The air dumps allow for a surprising amount of modulation – many people, once they get used to their BCDs, use the rear air dumps to adjust their buoyancy on the fly:  it is more convenient than bringing yourself to a more vertical position, raising your deflator hose and releasing the air.      Some dump valves allow this more easily than others – thankfully, the Mares is one of them.

In terms of attachment points for accessories – you get lots!   The Mares Pure SLS has D-rings in the following locations:

  • 2 sturdy steel D-rings, one on each shoulder
  • 1 plastic D-ring at the bottom of the right shoulder strap
  • 2 steel D-rings on top of the weight pockets
  • 2 steel D-rings at the bottom front of the BCD, under the weight pockets
  • 1 plastic D-ring at the bottom of the wings, at your lower back (for attaching SMBs or even a jerry-rigged crotch-strap)

If you need more D-rings than this, you should be in a submarine!

In addition, there is a rolled-up pocket underneath the right integrated weight pocket, which you can unroll to expand.  This has a surprisingly amount of capacity and is fairly useful.    In yet another nod to sensible ergonomics, it doesnt open via zipper – there is a velcro strap and a D-ring, allowing for one-handed opening of the pocket

Folding pocket - notice the d-ring and velcro release

Folding pocket – notice the d-ring and velcro release

Carrying pocket opened

Carrying pocket opened

One minor area where I felt the BCD missed out – attachment points for the SPG and octopus.   Now, my BCD came with a 2-hose retainer clip, so you could (and I did) use this to attach both the SPG and the octopus.

But I am a big fan of looping the octopus hose on a retainer around the right shoulder – this puts it in a very convenient position to grab and deploy in one smooth motion.   On some Aqualung BCDs, you can slip a loop of the octo hose into the BCD sleeve itself – other BCDs have a bit of elastic there which serves the same purpose – providing a place to loop the octo hose.  Similarly, a small loop of velcro around the left weight pocket could have provided a suitable point for retaining the SPG.

The Mares Pure SLS lacks either of these.  Yes, you can use a clip (or 2), but it isnt as neat a solution as having the retainers built into the BCD itself.   Yes, I agree that this is a very minor issue but for a BCD that otherwise has a lot of nice litte ergonomic touches, this one would have been very nice to have as well.

BUOYANCY, LIFT & STREAMLINING

I am a big fan of back-inflation BCDs.   I find them to be significantly more comfortable and allowing for better trim than jacket style BCDs.   Yes, they take a little bit of practice to get used to, especially on the surface, but the payoffs are well worth it, in my opinion.

The 18kg of lift is more than ample for most kinds of diving, from tropical warm water to cold water.     The downside of most large-lift back inflation BCDs is that the wings can often be too large and flap around in the water even when not full, thereby adding to the drag.   The Mares Pure SLS comes with a neat little feature:   elastic bands sewn into the edge of the wings, which pull it in closer when deflated.

Use of bungee cords in wings has always been a contentious topic among tech divers, but the implementation here is very sensible:  it doesnt so much compress the wings, but merely pulls the edges in close.   So in the event of a leak, it will not compress your wings and cause them to lose air faster.

Even small reductions in drag can have massive payoffs in ease of swimming and reduced air consumption, so this is a very nice and under-rated little touch from Mares.  Well done!

The bungees runs along the length of the wings and hold the edges close to your body, thereby preventing it from flapping around in the water and adding drag.

The bungees runs along the length of the wings and hold the edges close to your body, thereby preventing it from flapping around in the water and adding drag

TRAVEL FRIENDLY

This is not an ultra-light travel BCD.

Mares states the weight of the BCD as 3.9kg, but on my scales, it showed up at over 4kg.   That’s a fairly chunky BCD, compared to some of the lighter travel BCDs like the Aqualung Zuma.   Also, due to the rigid backplate, it doesnt fold up into a tiny package either.

But my general approach is – first, the BCD should be suitable for diving (features, comfort, trim).    Only once you short-list a list of candidates which meet this requirement should you worry about weight.

There is no point taking a lighter travel BCD with you if you dont enjoy it in the water.   Now obviously, all else being equal, you want the lighter BCD.    But 2kg more isnt the end of the world – it is very easy to pack a 20kg bag which has all your  dive gear as well as clothes for a 7-10 day dive holiday.   So dont sacrifice your primary usability for this reason.

STURDINESS/RELIABILITY

The BCD is made of Cordura 420 fabric.

Now generally speaking, I am a big fan of 1000-denier BCD construction, as that fabric not only lasts forever, but also retains its color for a very long time.    Lower-denier fabrics tend to fade faster – or atleast, used to.

That said, 1000-denier fabric is becoming harder and harder to find these days, except on top-of-the-line models, while 420 and 840 denier fabric is becoming increasingly sturdier and fade-resistant.    Certainly, Cordura 420 is certainly a very robust fabric and the popular choice for a lot of gear intended for rugged use.   So from that point of view, there is certainly nothing to fault.

Given that most BCD owners are not going to have their BCDs going out daily, 350+ days in a year, and the improvement in quality of 420 or 840 denier fabric, the choice of fabric is probably less of a determining factor these days.

Long-term reliability of the BCD remains to seen, but so far, everything looks to be quality – from the zippers to the clips to the stitching.

High quality zippers, sturdy hardware and quality stitching on display

High quality zippers, sturdy hardware and quality stitching on display

TRIM POCKETS AND INTEGRATED WEIGHTS

Getting comfortable in the water requires not just good buoyancy but also good trim.   Buoyancy is relatively easy – but achieving good trim requires finding the proper location for your weights, so that bring your center of buoyancy and your center of gravity together.   Since each of us varies in height, weight and body type, this requires the ability to move the weights around.

As I mention in the article on “How to Choose a BCD:  A Buyer’s Guide”, I strongly recommend that someone who is buying a BCD pick on with both integrated weights and trim pockets:   these 2 features on your BCD gives you a lot of options in terms of how to position your weights and thereby achieve good trim.

The Mares BCD has both trim pockets AND integrated weight releases, as is standard for most BCDs in this price range.     However, there are a few key differences between how Mares has implemented them, versus most others.

For one, the Mares weight pockets are removable.   This is fantastic for those of us who dive with 3mm wetsuits and dont use a lot of weight – if you are only diving with 1-2kg of weight, you may decide to put it entirely in your trim pockets and remove the entire weight pocket system, thereby streamlining your gear more.

Secondly, the trim pockets are almost in line with the weight belt.   Honestly, this one surprised me when I saw it.   The whole point of trim pockets is to allow a diver to move some weights higher up, moving his center of gravity towards his head and thus countering a tendency for the legs to go down.     Having trim pockets in line with the integrated weights, as opposed to higher up (around the shoulders) seems counter-intuitive.

There seems to be a greater tendency among manufacturers to do this, though.   A couple of Aqualung BCDs also have their trim pockets near the floating ribs, as opposed to around the shoulders.    The proof of pudding, for this, of course would be the diving.  [Spoiler alert:  I went in fully expecting it to be an issue but much to my surprise, this turned out to be a non-issue.  More on this later.]

Lastly, the Mares weight system has a locking mechanism.     As with all weight systems, the release is a Quick Release action which can be operated with one hand – you grab the weight system’s handle and pull, and it comes out, allowing you to ditch it if you have an emergency.     That is to be expected – you want the emergency release system to be as simple as possible.

However, unlike most integrated weight systems where you just jam the weight pocket back in to replace it, Mares has adopted what they call a “Slide and Lock” system.    When replacing the weights, you have to pull the handle out into “unlock” position.   Then after you insert the weight pocket into the retainer, you have to push the top of the handle to “lock” it.   When it is locked, the display tab in the weight system shows Green.   If it is not locked correctly, it shows as Red.

The weight pocket showing with the Slide & Lock mechanism (the red/green part)

The weight pocket showing with the Slide & Lock mechanism (the red/green part)

Accidental ditching of weights due to improper replacement is one of the more common failure points of integrated weight assemblies.     And obviously, depending on the amount of weight dropped and the diving situation, the outcome of this can be very dangerous.

What Mares’s locking mechanism does is remove this risk.   Take a look at the 2 photos below.     In both cases, the weight pocket looks visually secure, right?    However, in one case, it can just slide and fall out whereas in another, it is locked in place.  A quick glance at the BCD’s weight system window will tell you which is which – green is go,  red is danger.

A properly-locked weight pocket - the weight will not fall out accidentally.

A properly-locked weight pocket – the weight will not fall out accidentally

An improperly-locked weight pocket - even though the pocket looks secure visually, it isnt locked in and the weight can fall out when diving

An improperly-locked weight pocket – even though the pocket looks secure visually, it isnt locked in and the weight can fall out when diving

IN THE WATER

All the features in the world are meaningless when it comes to how a BCD handles in the water.  And not to put too fine a point on this – the Mares Pure SLS blew my mind, that’s how great it was.

As someone who is used to diving with a backplate/wings, I am used to my rig being exceedingly solid and stable.    Every recreational BCDs I have used to so far falls short in this area – admittedly, we are not talking about a huge difference and I can adjust to it very easily:  but it is there and I do notice that difference.

Well, until now.   Between the swivelling shoulder harness, comfy back pads and a convenient tightening mechanism for the waist band, the Mares Pure SLS wrapped around my body like a cocoon and felt as solid/stable as my backplate rig.     In simple terms, it felt that my body and the BCD was a single unit, as opposed to me being inside a BCD.      Did this change my air consumption or make me a better diver?   No.   But it just felt a lot nicer.   And that is not insignificant.

Despite the tank cut-out not being curved, the tank is remarkably stable on the back, and not at all prone to moving

A view of the back of the BCD:  despite the tank cut-out not being curved, the tank is remarkably stable on the back, and not at all prone to moving

The second thing that took me aback was the trim.    My legs tends to be very prone to sinking and i generally need to move some weight closer to my shoulders to counter this.  Given what i wrote earlier about the trim pockets being inline with the weight system, I was expecting it to be hard to achieve neutral trim.

But right away, off the bat, it felt as though this BCD has been designed specifically for me.    I got in the water, i turned to a horizontal position… and i stayed there.    Again, getting this with a new BCD is something that usually takes me a few dives to get right and often involves doing things like adding 1kg to the tank band.   But not here.   Right away… NAILED IT!

I have to admit, I did not expect that.   I am very, very finicky about my trim and this is the best level of fit and trim I have gotten from a regular recreational BCD, ever.   And truth be told, I still don’t understand how I managed it with trim pockets around my waist when i struggle to do so with trim pockets around my shoulders.   I can only guess that Mares has taken the overall trim of their BCD into account when deciding where to put the pockets.   While I obviously cannot speak for everyone, I’d venture to guess that if it works for me with my absurdly bottom-heavy natural trim, it should work well for most people.

From an operational and ergonomics point of view, the BCD worked as expected – the inflator hose, the emergency releases, the quick release clips:   all did their job as expected from a BCD in this category.      The buckle-based weight belt was was an improvement over other BCDs, as described earlier.

Deploying the storage pocket was also much easier than on a jacket-style BCD.   In most regular BCDs, the storage pocket is around your ribs and the zipper is just under your armpits – with even a moderately-thick wetsuit, it is very difficult to reach and operate this zipper.   The zipper for the storage pocket on the Mares was around the hips and so very easy to deploy.   Big win for ergonomics.

Lastly, we come to the weight pockets.    Here, my response is a little mixed.    When i first used the BCD, I didn’t realize Mares had a special locking mechanism  (what?   RTFM?   We don’t RTFM and we don’t stop to ask for directions either).   So i pulled out both the weight pockets to test the release tension and slipped them back in when i was done – at which point, they promptly fell out as soon as i let go, causing a few seconds of entertaining acrobatics while i retrieve them.   Doh.      It took a lot of futzing around before i managed to replace them securely.

Once i came back to shore and had a chance to examine the mechanism, it made a little more sense and I got the hang of it after a couple of tries.  That said, I am still somewhat ambivalent about this.

Many dive manufacturers, including Mares, have at times made pointlessly complicated stuff that, while well-engineered, tries to provide solutions to problems no one really has (anyone remember the Mares Hub?).      This system is definitely a little more complicated to replace – and while it may give a clear positive indicator when done right, it is also prone to being done wrong if you are not careful.     Is it really needed?

On the other hand, I have to admit – my opinion is clouded by the fact that I show weight belt and integrated weight removal/replacement on a regular basis while teaching.   I have decades of muscle memory built up on how to do this, and changing that is something that i dont like to do without good reason (and Frodo also hates moving from his particular spot under the fan and will bark if I leave something there that prevents him from doing so.   Hmmm).

However, for someone who doesnt have that pre-existing muscle memory, who will not be ditching/donning weights on a regular basis, this may not be a bad idea.    There is one extra step when you attach the weights to the BCD, that’s about it – and if that step reduces the risk of the weights falling out by accident, that’s not a big deal.

Besides, if this weight system bothers you, you can always get rid of it and replace it with an aftermarket, more-traditional integrated weight system, such as the one used by Halcyon.   It’s a fairly minor issue, really – I don’t see it being that much of a bother to anyone.

SUMMARY

Regardless of manufacturer,  I have always felt that the mid-end range is where real value resides as far as BCDs go.     At this price level, you get all the essential features that let you truly dial in the BCD to achieve perfect trim, and none of the excessive bells and whistles that add to the price but are of dubious value in terms of actually improving your diving experience.

The Mares Pure SLS reinforces that.     Yes, I have some minor quibbles with it, but those are just that – minor.  When it comes to usability, comfort and trim, this is one of the class-leading BCDs out there with lots of small features that add up to one impressive package.

PROS:

  • Very comfortable
  • Reliable integrated weight system
  • Best trim and stability I have ever discovered on a recreational BCD
  • Several small features that improve ergonomics and usage experience

CONS:

  • Heavy (although that probably contributes to the excellent trim and stability)
  • Slightly finicky weight pocket
  • Lack of built-in retainers

Recommended?   Definitely – this joins our select list of Recommended BCDs.

A caveat – trim is a very personal issue, and we always recommend that you try out BCDs yourself in the water before you buy.   If you are coming to the Andamans, or live in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore, you can try out several of our BCDs for yourself before you buy.

Scuba Diving Careers in India

Scuba Diving Careers in India

Posted by | Articles, Blogs, scuba careers, Scuba Diving Careers in India, Scuba diving Courses | No Comments
One of the most common questions we get asked from people is about the scope of career options in diving, especially in India.
Makes sense – would you rather be stuck in an office in an unsatisfying job that leaches away your soul, while you dream of the 2-3 weeks of vacation you get each year when you can finally go diving?   Or would you rather dive daily and then spend your ample free time doing other exciting things?   Yeah, thought so, too.    But let’s face it – for most of us, the dream job also has to meet a bunch of practical requirements as well.
The purpose of this article is to talk about what the career options in diving are – in subsequent articles, I will also cover what sort of lifestyle dive pros lead.    Keep in mind that this article is focused on sport diving only, not commercial diving (underwater welding, construction, etc).
10 years ago, the world of sport diving attracted a handful of daring individualists who were willing to take a plunge into the unknown (pun not intended) and see where their passion led them.    These days, however, diving is growing rapidly in the country, with dive centers opening all across the country (including in some extremely unlikely places).   And that means there is a very high demand for qualified dive instructors.
Scuba Diving Careers in India – This can take many shapes and forms:

 1/  Divemaster:

The Divemaster is the first professional level in the recreational dive industry.   As a Divemaster, you lead certified divers in their diving activities by providing logistics and support, on-site guiding and being an added layer of safety.  You can also assist Instructors in teaching their course.    Most industry insiders agree – Divemasters tend to have the most fun, as they get to go diving at a location’s best sites along with the customers.

Time to go from beginner to Divemaster:   45+ days (although more time is recommended)*
Approximate expense:   Rs 125,000 – Rs 150,000 **
Typical salary range:    Rs 15,000 – 35,000***

2/  Assistant Instructor:   

This is the next level up from Divemaster – as an Assistant Instructor, you can independently teach some sections of various courses.  In addition, of course, you can do all the tasks that a Divemaster can.   Usually, most people rush from DM to Instructor – but we feel that spending time as an Assistant Instructor is a great way to develop your teaching skills.   That way, when you become an Instructor, you are really ready to hit the ground running (or hit the water swimming, as it were).

Time to get to AI:   7+ days*
Approximate expense:   Rs 25,000 – Rs 40,000 **
Typical salary range:    Rs 25,000 – 40,000***

3/  Instructor:

This is the highest level of dive professional (well, there are categories of instructors as well, but we can ignore that for now).   As a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor (or comparable rating), you have the highest responsibility of all:  you can teach people to dive and issue them certification cards to that effect.  In other words, you can now introduce others to this sport that we all love.    You can also teach additional advanced-level courses, all the way up to Divemaster, actually.     The responsibility on you is higher – and commensurately, the pay also tends to be higher

Time to get to Instructor:   20+ days to complete the pre-requisites, 15+ days to complete the Instructor Development Course*
Approximate expense:   Rs 165,000**
Typical salary range:   Rs 35,000 – Rs 65,000***

4/  Non-Diving Positions:

Yes, surprisingly, there are non-diving positions to be had in the scuba industry.   Like any business, there are a lot of other ancillary functions which are essential to the smooth functioning of the industry and in many of these positions, it helps to be a diver even though you are not actually going to be diving.    Some of these tasks include:  scuba equipment sales,  equipment technician, business development/sales, customer relations and marketing, dive travel, dive resort management and more.   And for those of you interested in working in the industry but without moving to a remote destination – many of these jobs can actually be done while working from your current location.
So how many of these jobs are there, anyway?   Quite honestly, it is hard to give a definite number.     But at the time of writing this article, there are nearly 80+ dive centers in the country, and the sport has not even started to enter its boom phase.   So the opportunities are there – certainly, we are always on the lookout for good instructors, not just in the Andamans but also in the various cities, and so is virtually every other dive center that we know.
And with this industry growth comes the opportunity to carve out a larger role for yourself, as well – making this not just a job but also a potential career.   So don’t just in your office cubicle dreaming about a fun, active lifestyle – go ahead and take the plunge!

Note:

*This is the minimum time to complete the pre-requisites and also the training course for that level
**This is for the training only and is meant to be indicative only – prices vary from location to location.  It does not include meals, stay, personal expenses
***This varies by location, experience, specific role of the candidate, other skills that they bring to the table, etc.
The author, Vinnie, is India’s first and most experienced Instructor Trainer, with over 10 years experience teaching instructor candidates, nearly 20 years as a dive professional and over 25 years as a diver.
Go Pro

How to pick a dive center when doing your Divemaster program

Posted by | Andaman scuba diving course, Articles, Blogs, Scuba Diving Andamans, Scuba diving Courses, Training | No Comments
The Divemaster course is a great step forwards for divers looking to become a part of the dive industry – as a PADI professional, they become part of the largest association of dive professionals in one of the coolest sports on (or is that under?) the planet, with employment opportunities all over the world.     The sport is just starting to take off in India and there are tremendous opportunities all over the country.   So obviously, for someone looking to become a dive professional, this is a very critical step in their professional development.
Even if someone isn’t looking to work as a dive pro, the Divemaster course allows them to really expand their horizons when it comes to their dive skills and involvement in the sport.    And either way, it is a fairly large commitment of time and effort – and a not-insignificant amount of money either.
So here are a few things to keep in mind when picking a place to do your DM program.
The next most important question is something you ask yourself – why are you doing the DM course?     Is it because you want to work in the industry?   Is it because you want the personal satisfaction of having that black professional’s card?   Is it because you want a break from work?    Or is it because you just want a few weeks of discounted diving?    Each of these are perfectly valid reasons – this is a sport and you get to make the call on what you like, and what you want.   But in each of these cases, you need to be absolutely honest about why you are doing the course.
Let me go use a college analogy:  just as the same degree can be taught very differently in a liberal-arts college vs a technical-focused college (or even two similar types of colleges), so too the DM course can be taught very differently across dive centers.    So you need to make sure that a dive center’s teaching philosophy is in line with your expectations above.   For example, at DIVEIndia, our focus is on preparing qualified dive professionals who are ready to work at a dive center (most often our own!) afterwards.   So our training has a very heavy emphasis on diver control, safety and also in assisting instructors (if you can handle students, you can handle certified divers), as well as in developing judgement, decision-making & professionalism (which occasionally translates into a little ’tough love’ from an instructor :)).    For candidates who are looking to get a month of relaxed diving for free, this is not a good fit.   But given how virtually all our Divemaster candidates who want to work in the industry have gone on to do so, we are obviously doing something right in our chosen area of focus.
Another thing to keep in mind that the Divemaster course is going to be very different from any other program that you have done so far.      Till now, every program that you have done consists of a set of skills you have to learn, which is a binary state:  either you know the skill or you don’t (simplifying a little – there are different levels of learning, but we dont need to get into that yet).   The DM course also has quite a few areas that are similar (theory, watermanship, dive skills), but these are only a small subset of what makes a professional.      Just as with any other job, there are a lot of soft skills that make the difference between a good dive professional and a mediocre one.   And those are the skills that are harder to grade:  how do you score “decision making” or “judgement” or “professionalism”?   These arent attributes which you either HAVE or DONT HAVE – they are skills that are constantly evolving.
The impact on this depends on what your goals are – if you are planning to work in the industry, then you want to develop your judgement, decision-making and professionalism.    So you want a dive center that will customize the program to some degree to cater to your strengths and weaknesses.    On the other hand, if you are looking for a break from work, then it may be better to do your course somewhere where it is taught in a standardized manner to groups of Divemaster Trainees (DMTs), so there is a more social and group aspect to the training.     Again – no right or wrong:  whatever fits your needs best.
Furthermore, what is the training philosophy of the dive center?   For example, at DIVEIndia, we generally go well beyond the minimum requirements for candidates, customizing the training as per each person’s requirements.   But, as we explain during the initial orientation, we expect DMTs to be more proactive about their learning, and to question/challenge/ask, as opposed to passively waiting to be hand-fed everything they need to know.     No matter what the personality of the candidate, there is a certain baseline we expect all candidates to achieve, but when it comes to the ceiling, that is set by the DMT and his or her interests and drive.   We feel it is a good preparation for life as a dive professional, and that’s how we operate.   For someone who isnt comfortable with this, a more “standardized” approach may be more appealing.
Continuing the training philosophy approach – every person has their own style of working.     A large part of being a good and effective working dive professional (Divemaster or Instructor) is finding your own style and continuing to develop and refine it.   For that to happen, you need to be exposed to different instructors and see how they do things, so you can pick and choose.   You need to be able to question them – why did you do it THIS way and not THAT way?    And you need to have the freedom to absorb elements from each instructor and create your own approach.     Does the program let you do this?
Another point to consider is – should you do the DM course or do an internship?   Depending on how the program is structured, internships can sometimes cost more or less.  Some dive shops trade off the DM program in  exchange for labor – you fill tanks, load/unload the boat, clean gear, etc.   In such cases, the training costs may be offset – and this is a good option for people looking for a bunch of inexpensive dives.   Other dive shops (like us) charge more for the internship – our internship includes 40 dives, but these are training dives and the candidate is not working as shop staff.       Hence the difference – again, a matter of training philosophy.
So should you do a training internship or not?    The barebones DM course meets the minimum requirements (which are fairly thorough, to be clear) and is a good option for those who want a DM card for personal reasons, but for those looking to work in the industry, we always recommend an internship – usually, these programs are a lot more immersive in nature than just a barebones DM course.  And because you are better assimilated in the dive shop, there is a greater scope for informal learning.  Lastly, those soft skills i mentioned earlier:  those always improve.   The more experience you have, the better you get in those areas.   And the better a professional you become.
There are also a few nitty-gritty type of questions to ask – what is the experience level of the  dive center and the instructors, how many dives are included in the package or internship, what are your specific roles and responsibilities?    This last part is especially important if your goal is to get in a lot of discounted dives – there are dive centers where the DM course is traded off for free labor:   DMTs get to lead dives and in exchange, they load/unload the boats, they fill the tanks, clean the gear, etc.    Again, for someone looking to get a bunch of cheap dives in, this may be a better fit than a program like ours, for example, where the emphasis is not so much on “fun diving” as on “learning” (although hopefully, both “fun” and “diving” are involved-  otherwise, why are we doing this???).
Lastly, there is also the question of what agency to go with.    If you are doing this for personal reasons, find a dive center whose philosophy matches yours, and a good instructor who will be managing the program – agency doesn’t matter.    If you are doing this tog et a bunch of dives in, find a good location where you will enjoy the diving.    If you want to work in the industry, or freelance when you travel, then your 2 main choices are PADI or SSI.   In the absence of any specific reason for one agency or the other, our general recommendation is PADI (and to be clear – we used to recommend this even when we were both PADI and SSI), for three main reasons:  (1) there are a lot more PADI dive centers than SSI dive centers, so odds of finding a job are higher if you go with PADI,   (2) as an SSI dive pro, you have to be affiliated with a specific dive center;  as a PADI pro, you can work independently  and (3) if you want to be multi-agency qualified, it is cheaper to first become a PADI pro and then cross over to SSI (especially at the instructor level).
You’ll note that we didn’t mention money.    This may come across as self-serving, but money should be the last thing you look at this level.    Do you pick a college based on tution?   So why would you devalue the quality of your professional training?   Even if you aren’t planning to work as a dive pro but are doing this for personal reasons, you should still make sure you find a good fit between your requirements and the dive center’s philosophy first (even those 3 months of fun diving for free can start to get tedious if you are expected to dive every day, without days off, and are working from 5am to 7pm daily).       That is not to say money isn’t important – for sure, if you have a few equivalent options that are equal in all respects except money, go for the cheaper option.    But your initial selection should not be based on money.   Picking a bad fit to save a little money will result in a bad experience and a waste of time and money, not a savings.
If you have read this article, odds are good that you are either planning on doing your DM program, either now or some point down the road.  Hopefully, it gives you a few pointers on what to look for, when it comes to selecting a dive shop.   Feel free to chime in on our Facebook group with your thoughts on this.