Wednesday, March 21, 2018

An evaluation of diving off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Not the act of diving, but the logistics of diving and what you need to know

UPDATE: 3/26/2018 @ 7:55pm

I've decided to add a program called Open Water Traveler PRO to my available courses. It will include: the Educational Component, Pool Sessions, and One Day of Diving all locally. For the diver that's planning to travel to tropical locales and want to complete their certification dives at their dive destination, but will only need one day and two dives at their destination. It's faster, better than any traditional referral, and the student will also get to experience diving in the Pacific Northwest! 

I came up with this idea in order to add the extra level of education the student needs as well as give the student a clear and concise understanding of what they should be getting. If they don't get what they are expecting, they'll still be prepared above and beyond those that arrive at their dive destination without any open water experience.

Additionally, if the diver had already planned to do two days of diving, this will bring them up to 6 logged open water dives. More dives is always a good idea.

Isla Mujeres is a small island in the Caribbean Sea, about 8 miles off the Yucatán Peninsula and coast of Cancún, Mexico. The island is almost 4 1/2 miles long and a little over 2,000 feet wide. While it's not my intention to sell the island to travelers thinking of their next Mexican vacation, the island is not terribly overcrowded, the diving is pretty good, and the people are friendly. Click HERE to download several maps of the island that include:
  • Getting to know Isla Mujeres
  • Hotels and rental properties
  • Downtown attractions
  • Downtown restaurants
  • Restaurants around the island
  • Attractions around the island
  • and a "Golf Cart Tour"
My girlfriend and I stayed in Cancún and took the bus to the ferry terminal and rode over. It only takes 15-20 minutes and several of the boats are catamarans making the trip relatively smooth. We decided to do several days of diving. The dive shop offered a three day package of six dives which took us to several shallow reefs, MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte), and a couple of wreck dives.

The first two days of diving were pretty good. I don't have the stomach I used to as a kid so I always recommend taking a seasickness pill or two for the boat rides to the dive sites. The horizon is often in view and if the wind isn't blowing too forcefully, the ride won't be that rough. 

I was quite surprised at the size and details of the statues but the amount of sea life on the shallow reefs was the most impressive part of the dives. With relatively shallow dives in the 30 feet range it was easy for me to do 50+ minute dives and even finish with a sizable amount of gas left in my cylinders. These dives weren't particularly difficult however as I'll talk about a little later, I would have preferred a little more structure and organization around the dives.

There are lots of dive shops on the island so I did a little work to research what I wanted from them, the price I felt was adequate for what we got, and where we got to dive. As expected, the owner of the dive shop was friendly and helpful and the Divemasters were eager to please.

I planned this dive trip a little differently as we had other plans on the mainland and since our entire trip wasn't going to revolve around diving, I felt that this would be a great opportunity to take as little equipment as possible, see what rental equipment would be provided/offered, and have a perspective on the experiences that many of my students would have when off to their dive destinations as "referral divers."

We took our own regulators, dive computers, dive masks/snorkels, weight belts, dive lights, octo/console keepers, wetsuits, an SMB, a finger spool with line, and an underwater video camera. We rented BCD's, tanks, weights, and fins. While I expected that the equipment would be exceptionally older, they weren't as old as I thought they would be. 

So, let's talk about my experience, what I expected to happen, and what I really wish would have happened. 

Paperwork. We started our trip with a very limited amount of paperwork. We were not asked to show our cert cards or logbooks. The trip before this in July of 2017 to the Channel Islands was similar. The dive boat told us that it was our responsibility to have the appropriate training for the dives we were going to do. While this would have made sense if the introductions to the dives sites were a little more detailed, since the dive sites of the day were often decided at the last minute, divers wouldn't have had the opportunity to choose different days, dive sites, or opt out if conditions were not within their comfort zone. As a note, the paperwork was not certification agency paperwork.

Ironically, while I am pretty comfortable and capable of extraordinary diving conditions, as I get older I prefer to go a little slower and expect the quality of the dives (and conditions) to supersede the number of dives. When students tell me where they are going to complete cert dives (referrals), I feel that a more thorough plan is going to be part of their educational process. While I wasn't caught off guard, so much of the day on the water went faster than I wanted it to and have to admit that I took way too much for granted that I never do when I organize dive trips, excursions, and certification dives!

Rental equipment. While tanks and weights aren't traditionally taken when traveling, some of the things I teach my students (and that I will be modifying for my lessons) were off or incomplete. The tanks did not have current hydrostatic inspections (hydros) after the manufacture dates and there was no visual inspection stickers. I don't know what Mexico's laws on hydros are of what the shop's position on visual inspections are... While I was able to see the compressor that was used for air fills, I didn't inspect it or make it obvious that I was giving it a once over. While I didn't think about asking to see a certificate of inspection testing the air for contaminants from an outside agency, it will be on my list.

The BCD's were somewhat modern, non weight-integrated, jacket styles with standard inflators. I didn't do the BCD inspection I teach my students as they assembled our gear for us. I did move the BCD's lower as they were too high for my liking but that did get their attention. In one instance, the tank strap was not fed through the last slot on the plastic buckle. The octos hoses were bent over and fed through one of the d-rings on shoulder straps. 

The weights weren't standard uncoated lead weights but I think they were originally in kilograms but were not legible. They assembled the weights on our weight belts. The reason I brought our own belts was to make sure of an appropriate length I insist on. Belts that are too long present the risk of being tucked in and belts that are too short are difficult to ditch in a hurry.

While my girlfriend got full-foot fins on all three days, I got heel-strap fins but they did not have boots for me. They gave me neoprene socks. As expected, the fins did not fit well and rubbed off skin on my heels and the top of my toes. Suffice it to say I will never travel without my own boots and fins ever again! I never did in the past and perhaps I thought things would be different. I had the same experience in the past so to expect that anything was different was short-sighted. The last day and last dive my girlfriend thinks that the full-foot fins she got were the wrong size.

The boat. The boat was an open body fiberglass boat with an outboard motor and a standing station for the driver. The driver stayed with the boat during all the dives but I don't think he was a boat captain or had any experience outside of personal or on the job training. I did not ask. The boats do have to follow the harbors and beaches recommendations on departures. I believe the owner of the shop told me that a harbor master used to be in charge of this but it is now the responsibility of the the Mexican Navy. There were not life jackets on board; no emergency oxygen; no AED; the assembled BCD's and regs laid on the bottom of the boat and each other every time we hit a wave; there was a radio on-board. I did feel that we were going too fast for the trip out to the wreck on the third day. I got sick on the boat after the first dive. My girlfriend and I did not do the second wreck dive later that day.

Dive briefings. While I'm not sure that the Divemasters had an emergency action plan, I would lean on the side of "NO" as it was not part of briefing. The briefing talked about where we were going to dive but was lacking a formal "BWARF," "SEABAG," or "START" (PADI, NAUI, and SDI's dive briefing acronyms). We did get the hand signals for all of the sea life we were going to see and it seemed that the Divemasters were ringing their noise makers continually as they pointed out the fish. I'm proud to say I think we saw everything on the cards below!
If I was briefing the dives we did they would have started at the dive shop with an introduction of everyone to each other and then: 
  • Site
  • Environment/Emergency
  • Activity
  • Buoyancy
  • Air
  • Gear 
I'm proud that my briefings for open water divers are easily a couple of hours long. My perspective is that my students have never been in all that cold-water gear, wearing 70lbs of equipment, in 50 degree water, have ever dove in the Puget Sound, and there are special considerations about the dives we are about to undertake. While none of the divers on our Isla dives were completing certification dives as students, I knew nothing about them, their experiences, training, number of logged dives, and I never asked to see their logbooks! 

When I look back at everything that happened during the three days with our dive shop (not disclosed on purpose), I have to be honest and say that I blew it! With that said, if I was this complacent, even though I know I could have take care of myself and my girlfriend in the event of an emergency, I was never inconspicuous about being an instructor. I always like to think that I'm "on duty" but the reality of this experience is that I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. If I didn't want to and I'm the barber, I can guarantee that my students would not either!

Evaluation. I have an open water weekend in three days and while I will cover everything needed, it makes me really wonder what my referral students are experiencing on their open water weekends. I think it's fair to ask if everything needed is done, and while those are my general expectations, I can't control what other instructors and dive shops do. I feel comfortable sending my students that meet my standards to their dive destinations, however if my recent experience is any indication of what is out there, I might need to do more. I think a checklist for them to follow has potential however there is the possibility for an adversarial response from those that receive them. 

Here is a video of complete equipment assembly and testing that I teach at the pool and expected that I would do at the dive shop in Mexico...

If you are traveling to an international location, please read my blog, "Checklist for Referral Divers for their dive destination. What you need to know when you're completing your dives internationally."


JCA Elite Scuba Blog said...

Student response #1

"When Jessica and I dove in Cancun and Isla Mujeres we thought the dive culture was below the standard we have come to expect as Northwest divers. We are both experienced divers and were able to work through our issues but I fear new divers would have been in real trouble in situations we encountered.

The company I dove with didn’t bother verifying certification.

We did both wrecks off Cancun which sit at about 90 feet and usually have heavy current. The first wreck we had 1 guide for too many divers of varying skill. With several groups diving the same site I saw people move off to the wrong group and the guide struggled to manage all of us.

We also rented gear rather than brought our own which was a mistake. Jessica’s rental air gauge was broken on a night dive in heavy current at 80-90 feet depth. We cut the dive short at 20 minutes when she noticed it wasn’t working properly.

On 1 of our dive days the company failed to send the boat to the dock to pick me up at the scheduled 7am. I wasn’t able to reach anyone until 9am. When they finally came and got me they just threw me into another group of divers scheduled later. Again too many divers including inexperienced divers for 1 guide.

In addition to our experience I have met someone here in Washington who was only open-water certified (certified to 60ft), and doing their first real dives after the class. They told me they did the Cancun wrecks (80-90ft) in rental gear. His BCD inflator stuck open and he had an uncontrolled accent from depth, got bent and had to go to decompression chamber. He never dove again and never plans to again.

I want to emphasize our guides were good. From my perspective they were working for an irresponsible company."

JCA Elite Scuba Blog said...

Student response #2:

"When Nichole and I went to Belize last year it was much the same. One of the other divers bcd wouldn’t hold air and did the dive anyway. We also had problems with them preparing our gear; not putting weights in either of our pockets, having the 1st stage the wrong direction etc. Also on the second dive of the day the o-ring on Nichole’s tank was blown and they didn’t even have spares on board, luckily I carry enough spare stuff to supply the whole boat 🙂. When we dove in Hawaii out of Kona it was much better they were very thorough and checked certs and even wanted to know your last ten dives. I guess they are worried about lawsuits still."

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