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.


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