cave diving warning sign
By erik

How to Choose a Cave or Technical Diving Instructor

Cave and technical diving are quite different from recreational diving, and as such, so are the instructors that teach these highly advanced scuba diving courses.

There are several things you should always consider before you choose your instructor, and this guide will hopefully help you choose wisely.

  • Is your instructor an active diver?

    • This is probably a bit of an odd question. If he/she is an instructor, obviously they are active divers, I mean, they are diving all the time, right?  Well, not really. A lot of instructors pretty much only dive when/while they are in course.  You could say that they’ve lost the passion for it.  Maybe they are churning out one course after another, and the last thing in their mind is to go diving on their day off. SO be sure that you ask about their actual experience diving.  Are they involved in any exploration projects? Conservation efforts?  What kind of dives or which sites really get their engines going?  If they won’t answer or you get an answer that is too vague or ambiguous well, I suggest you turn away.
  •  How many courses do they do every year?

    • Ideally, you want an instructor that is actively teaching courses at the level you want to train in. With TDI, all instructors are required to actively teach at their highest level on a regular basis, otherwise, we lose that level.  Again, an instructor who is teaching [for example] 3 full cave courses per month might have a lot of experience teaching, however, there is no time in there for him/her to conducts dives of their own and actually go out and expand their skills, explore, and have fun.
  •  What is their failure rate?

    • Nobody wants to fail a course, and I assure you no instructor likes failing a student, but it does happen, and it should happen. Technical and cave diving are both highly demanding activities that require a lot -both physically and mentally-, and as such, not everybody is built for them.  An instructor that has a really high failure rate is most likely doing a few things wrong him/herself.  A very high failure rate either means that this instructor is not properly screening their students, or is not adequately teaching them, and expects them to be perfect with minimum effort on his/her part. On the other hand, a 100% passing rate means that the instructor is probably just handing out cards.  We are educators, not magicians or miracle workers.  And like I said before, not everybody is meant for this type of diving.
    • Me personally, I have a failure rate of around 5-10%.  However, keep in mind that even though someone might fail a course, it doesn’t mean I wash my hands of them.  No. I will try to do everything I can to make sure the student is able to get over whatever is keeping him/her from passing.  However, there is an issue with attitude.  If you don’t have the right attitude for cave or technical diving, even if you have the highest developed skills ever known in the diving world, you will not pass until you get your ego and/or attitude in check.
  •  How long have they been diving at this level?

    • Here you should ask how long they have been diving. Not how long they have been teaching.  Let me expand.
    • A lot of instructors become instructors with very little actual diving experience. I am talking maybe a year or 2 after certification and a mere 100 logged dives.  This is a trend (commonly known as “zero to hero”) that is unfortunately even invading the technical and cave diving world.   We’ve seen instructors who have been diving at a full cave level for less than 2 years, and somehow managed to become cave instructors at some level (be it cavern, intro or even full cave!).  Regardless of how many dives one can log in a 1 or 2 year period, it is my opinion that they still lack actual real-world experience.  They’ve never had what I like to refer to as an “Oh, Sh-t!” moment.  So how can they teach you if they themselves just passed the same course you are planning on taking such a short time ago?
    • I think that an individual should have no less than 5 years of experience and several hundreds (if not more) of dives at the level they are planning on teaching before even considering the possibility of becoming an instructor.  Otherwise, it just seems like they are trying to enlarge their ego, and are jumping from one certification to the next.  Again, this is my opinion, and yours could differ, but I do believe you deserve better than to get “trained” by someone who doesn’t have enough experience yet.
  • Is the price too cheap?

    • Technical and cave diving are expensive activities.  All the equipment you need to do the dives you will train for will come with a price tag in the thousands (if not tens of thousands).  While the majority of instructors love what we do for a living, we still have bills to pay, mortgages/rents, taxes, food, equipment repairs, etc., so a good course comes at a price.
    • When a course is really cheap (and for technical and cave diving, anything less than $200-$250/day is really cheap), you have to ask yourself where those savings are coming from? Are corners being cut? Are you getting maybe just some really short dives just to meet standards so that the day ends early and the instructor can be home early and kick back? Are they properly servicing the equipment they are using or the equipment you are renting?
    • A good instructor values their time, training and experience, and obviously, that is reflected in the price of a course.
  • Do you “click” with your instructor?

    • Interview your instructor. After all, when you first make contact, your instructor is also interviewing you.
    • Every instructor has a different style, some are really laid back, some are tougher, with a no-nonsense approach to things, and some have a bit of a combination of both styles.  Most instructors are able to switch styles depending on the needs and personality of the students.  Some students require a bit more laid back approach to things, while some others need a bit of tough love.  Regardless of teaching style, we all, at some point have to get tough to get a point across.  This does not mean that we are trying to be jerks, quite the opposite. We have to get tough because when you are on your own, planning and conducting your dives with your cave or tech diving buddies, the environment you will be diving in will be a lot less forgiving of mistakes.
Cave Diving Courses
By erik

There is no substitute for proper diver training

It seems like every time I log into my favorite cave diving or technical diving forums or even facebook, I see news about someone who was not trained for cave diving, attempted to go cave diving and died. Many of those have happened at some of the most challenging sites in Florida’s Cave Country.  Caves like Eagle’s Nest that not only are overhead environments (like all caves) but super deep as well. Such sites are challenging even for the most experienced of cave divers.  Yet untrained people attempt to do these “pinnacle dives” so often that it seems to be becoming the norm.

 

I’ve been diving caves for over a decade and doing deep technical dives (whether on air or trimix) for about as long. However,  I sought out training before attempting to do these dives because I knew that I didn’t know enough not to do something that could jeopardize my safety or that of those diving with me (also known as “something stupid”).

I took many courses. Technical diving courses, cave diving courses, technical cave diving courses, you get the idea. I took those courses from different instructors because as much as I enjoyed learning from each one, each one of them had something special, and each one of them helped shape the cave diving instructor that I am today.  But this post is not about me or what a great instructor or great diver I am.

So what drives someone who isn’t trained on a specific form of diving into doing it? My best guess… EGO.    They probably feel that they are above taking that cave diving course because they have been diving for x amount of years, and there is absolutely nothing new that some instructor could teach them that they don’t already know.  They probably feel that by taking a course they are admitting to the fact that they are not good enough.

Learn proper cave diving

Well, I hate to sound like a complete jerk, but you aren’t.  At least not yet.  That is why you train.  That is why we all train.  To better ourselves.  We train and we practice to become better. Better athletes, better scientists or better divers.  You don’t start college knowing everything about your major, right? Heck, you don’t even graduate knowing everything about it.  Just because I had bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and biochemistry when I graduated didn’t mean I knew everything.  Then I went to graduate school and got advanced degrees, did research for many years, and became an expert in the field of my studies. But it took practice, it took training and it took persistency.

Same thing when I started diving nearly 3 decades ago. It took much training, practice and will to become a good diver.

Some of the better known diving agencies have seriously dumbed down their courses. You basically get your certification just because you paid and you showed up. It doesn’t matter if you demonstrated proper diver skills (and by that, I don’t just mean that you know how to clear your mask and regulator while kneeling on a sandy bottom) and attitude.  This is also the root cause of the problem.  People are not getting proper scuba diving training at the most basic of levels, and are getting certified without earning a certification because it seems is not in the best interest of the dive shops to train good, independent divers who will not need a divemaster or instructor to babysit them the whole time, or instructors start the course, and they know they will not be conducting the checkout dives, so they do the bare minimum, and let the one who will be conducting the checkout dives deal with the mess.  This holds true not only in tropical destinations, but everywhere.

Sometimes people go for the cheapest course, or the best deal.  Well, as a good friend of mine always says, “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” A good scuba diving course at any level should not be cheap. It shouldn’t break the bank either, but it should not be cheap.  When you think of all of the costs associated with giving a quality course (good equipment, good instructors, tanks, boats, fuel, pools, materials, etc), plus the costs of doing business (rent, taxes, utilities, etc), you have to ask yourself where the corners are being cut to offer such cheap prices.

But I seem to have gone off on a tangent.  Back to getting properly trained.

Proper training courses are not only necessary to get the knowledge you need to make well informed decisions regarding your future dives.  They give you the necessary tools to build up your skills and get experience so that in time you can do those dives you see people posting about on social media.  Earning a full cave diver certification does not mean that you are ready to take on the most challenging cave dives, and start exploring caves. It means that you have demonstrated mastery in the skillset (and yes, that includes attitude) required to conduct dives at the level of a full cave diver, but should be cautious enough to start out slow.  That is one aspect where we as instructors sometimes fail our students.  We sometimes do not emphasize the fact that although they are now full cave divers (or divers at any level), they should continue to learn from every dive and build up their experience. The certification is a ticket to continuous learning at an independent (i.e. without an instructor) level.

What will happen if people continue to disregard the need for training? Well, we will see more deaths, and with that, we will see either government regulations (we do not want that!), sites closing down (we do not want that either!) or both!

So please, get proper training. Research the instructor that you want to train with. Evaluate yourself before signing up for a course so that you know that you are fully ready for what lies ahead, and most important, ask yourself why you want to do it.  If it is to blow up your ego, then stop right there.  Diving is not a competitive sport.

Sidemount Diving Playa del Carmen
By erik

Sidemount Diving – the whole story

Sidemount Diving – the whole story

Unless you’ve been living in the International Space Station for the last 8-10 years, surely you’ve heard of sidemount configuration.  Surely, you’ve even seen a few divers using this configuration.  Over the next few paragraphs, I am going to give you a bit of a rundown of what this is.  Let’s  start…

 

How did sidemount diving start?

Sidemount diving is by no means a new thing. It was started by British cavers back in the 1960’s. When they were doing exploration in sumps, they needed equipment that was light weight and small enough to get past tight underwater passages that lead to the next dry section of the caves.  Needless to say, carrying around back mounted double tanks, was not an option. Since the dives were not long, and the dives themselves were simply a way to get from point A to point B, the harnesses were somewhat crude, had no buoyancy control, sometimes they didn’t even carry fins. They simply needed a means to attach a tank and a regulator to themselves (outer thigh) with a belt and a cam band and that’s it.

In the 1970’s, Florida cave divers refined these crude systems, added buoyancy control and made the systems so that they allowed them to do extended exploration dives in the Florida caves.   The tanks were moved up from being attached to the thigh to being attached at the hip, then up the torso. This allowed for improved trim which in turn allowed the divers to do their dives with more comfort.  They continued to improve on their system individually as there were no commercially available harnesses at the time. Everything was DIY.

In the 1990’s we saw the first commercially available sidemount harnesses.

The early part of the 2000’s saw the boom of the sidemount configuration.  The Armadillo Harness was developed, and many of today’s harnesses follow that design. It had bungee anchoring for the tank valves. a bottom routed inflator on the wing, buttplates, etc.

From the mid 2000’s till now, a myriad of harnesses have been made commercially available, with many divers still embracing the DIY ethos.

So what makes Sidemount Diving so special?

Sidemount diving to many, is more than a simple configuration of equipment. It is an entire philosophy for diving.  Going a step beyond DIR (albeit without the dogma attached) of only taking what is absolutely necessary on a dive to make yourself as streamlined as possible with very little chance of getting snagged or tangled on a cave line, and being able to pass through small restricted passages in caves (keep in mind, this configuration was originally thought out for cave exploration).  However, it goes far beyond that.

Sidemount diving allows the properly trained diver to improve his/her trim, buoyancy and air consumption.  It allows some of us who may be getting a bit older or who just don’t want to walk around with big heavy tanks strapped to our backs  to kit up in the water and get out of our gear in the water as well with ease.

As each tank is independent from each other, gas management does become a bit more complex, but emergency management becomes safer and easier because we have access to the valves right in front of us.

Now the beauty of sidemount is that you do not necessarily have to carry two tanks. You can sidemount a single tank, or even multiple tanks for technical diving.

I myself have been diving for over 25 years (about 10 of which I have been doing cave and technical diving)… I wish I had discovered this configuration sooner!

 

Should I take a course to learn sidemount diving?

While you can probably pick up the basics of sidemounting on your own, it is important that an instructor teaches you all the nuances of diving in this configuration.  After all, you’ve trusted an instructor to teach you other aspects of SCUBA diving, correct?

Most SCUBA diving training agencies have a sidemount program.   TDI, SDI, IANTD, SSI, PSAI and even PADI have sidemount training programs. Some are good, and frankly, some are just atrocious. In my opinion, the best way to learn proper sidemount techniques is to take a course with an instructor who is an expert in sidemounting.

How do I know good vs bad sidemount techniques?

Allow me to illustrate. Obviously, the faces of these subjects will be blurred to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Let’s start with the bad…

horrible sidemount  Terrible sidemountwtf sidemount bad sidemount

 

Notice in all of these pictures, the tanks are completely out of whack… Even though the trim on the first 2 photos is ok, the tank position is just horrible!  This happens because as Aluminum tanks empty, they tend to become more buoyant so tanks need to be repositioned to prevent looking like this.  Also, in some, you will notice horrible hose routing due to improper regulators, and improper hose lengths.

 

Now let’s look at some good examples of proper sidemounting techniques.

sidmeount instructor sidmeount instructor good sidemount

 

If you notice on all 3 of these pictures, tanks are in-line with the body, hoses are properly routed, valves are pointing inwards and first stages are protected by the diver’s body. This creates a neat, streamlined configuration.  Mind you, all 3 of the photo subjects are experienced cave and sidemount instructors.

 

So what is the best sidemount rig for me?

There are many sidemount harnesses and wings. Some are manufactured by very large equipment manufacturers, and some divers choose to make their own rigs. Some of the most notable commercially available systems are the Razor Harness, the Ultimate SM Harness, the XDeep (in its Classic, Rec and Tec variants), Apeks WTX-25, Hollis SMS50 and the UTD Z-System.  These are all sidemount specific rigs that are proven and tested.

Then we have several other rigs that are not sidemount specific such as the Hollis SMS (75 &100 variants), DiveRite Nomad (several variants) amongst others. .

There are several differences between these systems. For starters, most SM specific rigs use harnesses that are custom sized and wings that provide lift only in places where lift needs to be provided. They have no extra rings, clips, or unneeded accessories (there are exceptions though), whereas multi-use rigs can be used for sm, single tank backmount or double tank backmount. They have massive wings, loads of extra stuff that is really not needed in most sidemount diving scenarios. They can also be quite cumbersome and large. Especially if you are diving with Aluminum tanks  (as is the case with most tropical diving destinations).  Not to say that they don’t have a purpose and a use with steel tanks for example (but even that can be done with SM specific rigs like the Razor and Xdeep Tech).

I don’t personally endorse any one brand. But I can tell you what I use (Razor SM system with Apeks DS4 regulators, and I have an Ultimate SM harness with a DECO 20lb bladder, as well as Razor harness with a UTD Z-Harness).  So it is very important that when you choose an instructor for your Sidemount Diver Course, you choose one with experience with different systems. Not just one, and that they don’t just advocate one particular training system and brand of equipment.

 

It doesn’t matter if you are going to progress into techinical diving or you wish to stay completely recreational after your sidemount training. Getting proper training is the best way to ensure that you will be a well rounded sidemount diver!

 

For more information on sidemount, recreational, cave and technical diver training, visit our websites Beyond Diving- Playa del Carmen and  Cave Diving in Mexico.