Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How many students in open water scuba diver class are too many...

Many traditional educational classes include a practicum, lab, requires group participation and a presentation. Scuba diving education is similar. After the educational component from which the student learns about the physics and physiology of scuba diving, the underwater environment, techniques, about waves, tides and currents and much more, students go to "confined" water or the pool. The instructor demonstrates the skills that the student will repeat. These new in-water skills introduce the student to the equipment, how it operates, how to manage the skills necessary to operate it, and even how to overcome innate anxieties or fears the new student may have. Breathing underwater is not a natural process, but with practice becomes easier. Some skills, like mask clearing are easier for some students than others.
After the student has demonstrated to the instructor that they understand the principals of the skills, can adequately show them to the instructor, and after numerous dives, the student becomes a diver. There is a lot of debate as to what level the student should be able to demonstrate the skills. Some say that the student should "master" them before moving on to the open water, but I think "mastery" of skills takes longer than most realize. Before my cave certification, I thought my buoyancy was pretty good. When you have only inches above and below you in which to move without kicking up silt and disturbing the ceiling, a "mastery" of buoyancy is truly required. With that being said, if the student had to master skills (like buoyancy) prior to receiving their certification, confined water and open water would be very much longer than they currently are. The average student could spend six to ten hours in the pool and their open waters dives, depending on location, could be as short as twenty minutes. I've seen instructors that limit certification dives to fifteen minutes. I have to say, and I'm sure most will agree, in an hour of water time, mastery is impossible! 
 As I mentioned, "adequate" is really a better word describing where many students get to by the end of their class. There are several factors that influence this as well. How many students are present at one time during pool and certification dives is really my focus. As with most other programs, often, class is taught for the "lowest common denominator." That is really disappointing. What does that mean? It means that within the bell curve some will do poorly, most will do adequately, and some with do very well. Even if only two were doing poorly, the extra attention needed to bring them to adequate means that the instructor's attention is devoted elsewhere. The other two that are doing very well are often not given as much attention as they deserve because the outward appearance is that "they got it." An inexperienced instructor could consider the students that do very well needing less attention. This is a mistake. At this point, it works out that now 50% of the class (if 8 are attending) are now falling behind. This is unacceptable. The student deserves more!
In my opinion, class size should never be larger than four students at a time. Even when students proceed with ease, keeping an eye on four divers is precarious. Once the student is ready for the open water, they should posses the skills and confidence necessary to make a safe ascent to the surface where they would establish positive buoyancy and wait for the instructor with the other three to arrive. Needless to say, I know that every instructor has had at least one experience where they looked back for a student and they weren't their. In the early days of teaching, that shot of adrenaline that suddenly shot through my veins caused me to think of the worse case. Today, I have far greater confidence in my students as a NAUI instructor than I ever have. That momentary anxiety never manifested in an accident or a student getting hurt, but it goes to show that in large groups an individual can disappear in two kick strokes in the low to no visibility of the Pacific Northwest.
I decided that this meant I take one or two students out at a time. NO EXCEPTIONS. Coming to the assistance of one diver is precarious but two is difficult. I want the student to have lots of water time. That can mean shorter dives, but more of them. It could also mean doing longer dives and still more of them. The greatest benefit to the student that the instructor can do is to say to them, "you need to dive more with me before I issue your open water scuba diving certification." Additionally, I always recommend that these new divers limit their depth to sixty feet while they practice slow and steady ascents and descents, learn to manage their gas and dive time, and start to get the hang of good buoyancy.
I am not just an instructor, but I am a mentor. I encourage new divers to come to future open water weekends (which are free) and meet new divers, come dive with me on a regular and ongoing basis, and let me find dive buddies for them with a little more experience that I know and trust. Trust is earned in scuba diving. "Trust me" dives have gotten divers injured, or worse. Its a sad fact that some push too hard and too fast and want to do it all before they are ready for it. Recently, I had a student tell me they want to go cave diving. Not cavern diving, but full cave. While the enthusiasm was great to see, what bothered me was that they thought they were emotionally ready for cave. Cave skills are quite simple. Cave attitude is not. That means that "gung ho" has no place in cave, let alone in any type of diving. Patience, practice, confidence, and dives takes time. Years.
So what do large classes and really mean? Large classes are often predicated on the "funnel verses tunnel" system. Hope that if enough students go through the program that the dive shop will get more gear sales. I'm lucky to find dive shops that I partner with that share my perspectives. "Dive, dive often, and when you're ready for gear, we'll be here." And when they do have large classes, they have Divemasters in the water to be an extra set of eyes. I've never taken a technical dive class that had more than three people in it. A technical diving specialty doesn't preclude the chance of accidents, but my experience is that technical instructors require a higher degree of competence. Similarly, most technical classes require additional gear and are often more expensive. My advanced technical training classes costs ranged from several hundred to over two thousand dollars each and the trips to get to those locations ran into the tens of thousands. This is not to mean that spending lots of money is a key factor in safety, but few are willing to pay these costs without the devotion to scuba diving.

The last thing that I have to mention is the lack of many instructors to get their students to get to know each other. I've seen instructors take the group out as a whole, descend, surface in fifteen minutes, swim back to the shore, and dive over. I have to ask what experience they got from that. To make matters worse, the instructor is often away doing other things during the surface intervals (on the phone, on the internet, hanging out with their friends) rather than interacting with their students and making sure that no one is feeling alone and left out. There are divers that dive alone, but for the most part, divers want to talk about their experiences, share them with others, and be part of a community. I can't emphasize enough how setting up equipment, briefings, finishing two open water dives, and logging dives should take the entire day. To that point, I've seen divers with the look like "no one came to my birthday party," sitting alone by themselves, waiting for the torture of this experience to finally be over.

Learning to scuba dive used to take months. It was an arduous journey of trails and exhaustion. Much of the standards have been cut short or all but thrown out. Ask any diver that learned fifty years ago and they tell you stories that mimicked "military-style boot camp." I say all this with trepidation, but I care. I care about my students, I care about their safety, and most of all, I want them to continuing loving this sports their entire life. With drop out rates statistically reaching 80%, learning to scuba dive is not a great financial commitment but it's an emotional one. Please devote a year to decide if you like it. Let your skills develop and dive a lot. Try to dive one weekend a month. While that's only half of what I really want you to do, I will feel better knowing you have been practicing those important skills I taught you and your hours in the water has turned into days in the water (or better).

Safe diving my friends.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Friday, January 9, 2015

To dive or not to dive the Oregon Coast Aquarium...

...that is the question. Here's why.

I brought several divers to the aquarium about a year ago. As the leader, their instructor, and friend, it is my obligation to make sure that everyone is safe. As much as we all want to have fun, safety must come first.

I was really looking forward to it, too. What I saw really disturbed me. What happened bothered me even more. It was like the divers were being herded through like cattle... There were too many divers for the staging areas; too many volunteers that only had one responsibility which meant that none of them communicated amongst the rest of the volunteers; and when it was time for a supervisor, none were to be found that could make any executive decisions.  

I'll leave out the details of the logistics of getting to the aquarium, getting in, where to go and the like out as those are not relevant to the issues I had with the diving portion of this experience.

If you aren't aware, you are not allowed to bring your own gear. You can bring your own mask, but that is all. All the gear is chosen for you by volunteers. Many of them were divers, but when it comes to fitting and sizing others, they have very little experience. I understand that a perfect fit doesn't have to be a priority, but some were in equipment that was just totally wrong for them. The issue of fitting and sizing becomes a concern as will be seen in some of the following narratives. There were plenty of each in all the sizes, but sizing variances due to manufacturer made a big difference. Additionally, many of the new divers that had only rented equipment before just didn't know what size they wore. It had always been picked for them at their local dive shop where they rented.

BCD sizing was first. A proper fitting BCD is important. A proper fit ensures that the BCD holds the tank firmly to your back, keeps the tank properly attached so it doesn't fall out, allows easy reach of the airway and power inflator, and in some instances is the place that the alternate air source, octopus, and/or instrument console are attached. Lift capacity was not a consideration for those that were in drysuits. Weight integration was not an issue as all wore weight harnesses. No fittings, bolt snaps, plastic quick releases were on the BCD's which meant that octos, and instrument console were left to dangle. While it is very likely that monitoring gas pressure, depth, and dive time was the least of anyone's worries, not having the octo in a location that can be easily accessed, deployed and used or shared surely is. Octos that are dragging behind the diver, dragging through the sand, are rarely there when you need them. 

Next was the weight harness. As this was a DUI event, DUI weight harness systems were used. If a diver had never used one before, explanation of ditching the weights was adequate but fitting was not. When I started to proceed to adjust the harness to be in it's proper position for me, I was told to not adjust it. I was told that the harness was to sit low on my hips. There are several issues with this placement. The first is the center of gravity and pivot point. For those in a drysuit, it would meant that the low fitting harness would keep the diver's legs so low that they would very likely be in a vertical position. Most divers I witnessed were. Divers that dive in this position will be very likely to have propulsion issues as well as are very likely to be dragging their fins all over and on the habitats. Most were. The biggest issue about having the system so low was the angle of the divers arms to the dump handles. In order to maximize leverage to pull the weight pockets out, ones arm must be as close to the body as possible and as close to 90 degrees as possible. As the harness drops and the angle increases, the ability for the muscles in the arm to pull the dump handles diminishes. It is very possible that one might not be able to ditch the weights at all. For recreational divers, ditching weight is a critical part of an emergency buoyant ascent. I couldn't understand how all the "DUI Reps" that were there didn't know this and why I had to fight to get the harness in the place that I wanted. It was such a battle that I almost didn't dive until someone just said, "let him put it where he wants." Later, that person told me that one of the reasons that they wanted divers in that position was to avoid drysuit runaways. Since this event gave divers the opportunity to try out drysuits, they might not have had a lot of experience in one. Modifying gear configuration in order to keep a diver's feet down to avoid a runaway is not a justifiable alternative to proper fitting and proper training and comfort in a drysuit.

Drysuit fitting was simple and quick. Most suits sizes fit divers adequately. After our drysuits were on and we were showering off (to keep bacteria from entering the aquarium tanks) we were reminded to use the BCD for buoyancy and only add enough air to the drysuit to relieve squeeze. I guess I should probably just nodded my head and stayed quiet, but I said that I use my drysuit for buoyancy and this individual went off about all the reasons why this was wrong. Without starting a debate about the pros and cons of each method, suffice it to say he was not a drysuit instructor, not a scuba diving instructor, had not logged over a thousand dives in his drysuit, and had no technical diving experience (particularly as a cave diver -- the type of diving that requires the best buoyancy techniques).

The equipment was completely assembled by the volunteers. A lot of it was assembled adequately, but personal preference played a varying role from setup to setup. I could see that some of the systems were being set up in a general fashion and that others were set up as they would had done for themselves. When the time came for me to check the equipment, confirm that the tank valve was on, the tank was full, the tank strap was firmly connected, the BCD height to tank was appropriate, I was told to "Not touch the equipment." Now I can understand if someone changed something that could effect safety, but checking your gear and checking your buddy's gear is part of the pre-dive planning that I teach all my students. Not being allowed to touch the gear was ludicrous.
After the gear was assembled, it was brought into the area near the tanks. During this waiting period, I asked about the safety divers and emergency procedures. I asked what their protocol was if there was an accident. Why? Because a part of every dive briefing includes one. No one could tell me who would call 911; who would bring emergency services to that area (if they could even find it); who would identify who was in need of help; and most of all how to get divers out of the water (the entries and exits are usually precarious rock entries -- not a place that the diver can be "dragged" out -- like from a beach and on the shore). There was so much going on and so many people moving around and doing their own thing, that I could easily see that a diver could have an issue in the water and no one would be the wiser. It was quite noisy in there and not very well illuminated. A diver calling for help could be lost in the background noise and easily missed as they slipped below the surface.
Once we got in the water, a guide was present while the divers explored. I didn't see much of our guide, but upon leaving the aquarium I did see a diver in a different tank on his back struggle to right himself while the other diver in the water was occupied elsewhere. The regulator was in the diver's mouth and eventually they righted themselves, but the "guide" could have easily looked up to find that the diver had drowned.

I haven't looked into the statistics of accidents at the aquarium during these diving events, but I bet they are low to non-existent. Perhaps a fall or a slip... Whether or not anyone has ever been hurt, I find that I cannot recommend that anyone attend this event and dive at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The event is poorly managed, there are too many people that don't know what is happening around them, and in my opinion, it's just too dangerous. Visit the aquarium, but don't dive in it.

Were these experiences solely my own? Was I having a bad day and making mountains out of mole hills? I asked several others that had dove the aquarium before about their experiences. Most enjoyed the experience but didn't see what I saw. A few of the more experienced saw things they didn't like, but didn't say anything nor voice any concerns at that time. They did their dives and went home. Some even said to me, "that's not my problem." I can't help but wonder how many new divers just went along with what they were being told to do regardless of how they felt about it. I ingrain in my students that any diver can call off or end any dive for any reason. If they feel that anything doesn't make sense to them, ask questions about it. I didn't hear any of the divers asking questions that day. I saw these issues... I know that many others did too.


JCA Elite Scuba

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Children learning how to dive in the Pacific Northwest

Believe it or not, kids often do better in scuba diving education because they haven't grown up with preconceived notions about the water, the equipment, or what it takes to be a scuba diver. I've taught kids as young as ten and all of them have surprised me. I've taught more adults, but often the roadblock to advancing is deeply rooted in anxieties that are often unjustified. I know I can't tell a diver to ignore fears, but when I tell a kid that a particular fear is something that they don't need to worry about, its, "oh, okay." They might tell their parents that they feel uncomfortable, but they get reassurance two-fold; from their parents and me.

Adults have fear of drowning, fear of sharks, fear of being left on the open ocean, fear of equipment failure, fear of running out of air, etc... The kids' responses are the best:

Fear of drowning (When I ask them what happens if they take the regulator out of their mouth underwater): "Duh." Yep, that look of, "are you serious?" "Do I look stupid?" I never have to tell kids to not take the regulator out of their mouth and just keep breathing. To them, it's just common sense!

Getting eaten by sharks: "Cool." I don't have to remind kids that a person is twice as likely to be killed by a vending machine than eaten by a shark. When they ask me if I've ever seen sharks and I tell them, "yes," it's always, "Cool." "What did you do?" "I swam up to them." "Whoa..." "That's what I want to do."

Left out in the open ocean: "Does that mean I don't have to do chores?" Fantastic answer!

Equipment failure (equipment failure is rare; accidents are typically diver error -- so when I ask what is the easiest way to make sure everything is in good working order before getting into the water): "Buddy check."

Running out of air: "That's what the SPG is for. I like air." I ask, "How much?" They answer, "A lot."

Confidence is a huge advantage for kids. Parents regularly promote their children's abilities and emphasize doing their best. Isn't it amazing that adults seem to forget that or back track as they get older. We start doubting everything. Kids learn that the activity becomes natural with practice and doing it often is a reward. They focus on all the cool things that are going to happen and not on what is very unlikely to happen.

We can learn a lot from kid's perspective on learning new things. There is a perspective about diving in the PNW -- "If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere." I really believe it. Not only are the conditions variable, the weather unpredictable, and a lot more equipment necessary, but the water is cold.

Scuba teaches responsibility, focus, attention to deal, relaxation, team work, and patience. Get your kids diving early and watch how those traits are carried forward into other activities and shapes them into confident adults.

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