Diving courses – price vs. quality
or “Why good training costs money.”
By Ivo Kalushev, leader of the ATI Cave Exploration Team in Mexico
and owner of the DivingMexico cave diving school (http://divingmexico.com)
NOTE: This is mainly from a cave diving perspective, but equally applies to the state of the recreational diving industry. It is a personal opinion.
Well, I finally have to write this. During the years we have seen it all – people who think they can be cave divers but can’t learn and complete the courses. People who are already certified “cave divers” but can’t swim. People who say they are “explorers” but have not laid a single line in a cave (and can’t). Explorers who lay telephone cable instead of a line. But something far more disturbing is happening in the past year and it has to be addressed – the quality of cave diving education in Mexico is plummeting and accidents are starting to happen, which should not happen.
We came here nearly five years ago from 25 years in exploration speleology. When we came to the cave diving scene in Quintana Roo the situation was relatively healthy – there were good instructors, the prices were fair and the training was OK, generally. You could still “buy” certificates, but it was not that common. How far we have come in such a short time… Now these who offer truly quality training are just a few, the prices of courses are unsustainable, there are a lot of new instructors who have absolutely no idea about cave diving or about how to effectively teach.
It all came to our attention because our diveshop has a peculiar profile and strategy. We work mostly with EU Speleology organizations, we offer specialized exploration training and we are the only facility in Mexico which does courses spanning more than a month. And we are at the top of the price range. We have a policy of not publicizing the courses we do and have access to private sites which are not used by other dive schools. This keeps us quite removed from the scene, but something strange started to happen over a year ago – instructors from around the world and also local instructors started contacting us to discreetly request additional, real training, knowing that it would not be posted on Facebook. And then, slowly, the whole picture emerged. We have done courses with sidemount instructors who can not do a simple back kick, we have taught a number of cave instructors how to correctly calculate thirds, among other things. We even saved one “Cave IT” from outright drowning during exploration. The situation is beyond belief.
What finally made me sit and write this was a ‘negotiation’ we just had with an European recreational diving instructor and diveshop owner from a new agency, who demanded that we guarantee him A-Z cave diving certification on his first trip to Mexico, in February. It was not just a nice exchange, it was a demand for a written guarantee. This same person is already advertising future trips to Mexico for training and guided cave dives without ever having been here. Guys, this is too much! This is dangerous and life threatening – it is a suicide or an outright murder waiting to happen. We told him “No”, but someone, here in Mexico, will take him and will sell him his certification.
Why quality training is expensive
On the part of the diving instructor five things are needed for quality training:
- Adequate supportive infrastructure and logistics capacity (equipment, vehicles, good dive sites, etc.)
- Ability to effectively communicate and teach
- Motivation to teach
All are equally important. If just one of these is missing, you can not have a quality diving course, period.
The accumulation of knowledge is expensive and takes time. The accumulation of experience is more expensive and takes much more time still (in the area of cave diving, additionally to teaching experience this means extensive cave exploration experience as well). The adequate infrastructure for a good dive school is insanely expensive, we are often talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. And all this is just the easy part – the necessary human qualities of an effective teacher are still harder to find, as such a person has to be able to effectively and simply communicate ideas and knowledge, and he/she has to be able to understand the students and to pinpoint accurately the actual origin of every mistake, so that people can truly learn. This is a rare gift and instructors either have it or don’t. Most don’t – the exceptional teachers are few and far between.
And then we come to the actual motivation to teach. One is truly motivated only when something feels justified – when the energy exchange is equal. In other words – if I have put all the good years of my life and all my resources in learning a craft to perfection I will feel inspired to pass it on to someone who is equally respectful and interested. Then I will go out of my way to teach, then I will go way above and beyond what is expected to impart knowledge. I will make sure that knowledge is transferred to my students. And I will make virtually certain that they will be able to tackle any diving task in the future – with additional training if needed.
All this costs money, because money is the way we exchange energy on the most basic level. If someone is willing to invest in his/her education, this means that this person is serious enough. We will have his full attention, and he will have ours. This person will learn and will become better.
Now we see cave diving instructors here who are working hand to mouth. People who are effectively so poor that they would do anything to just pay the rent. We see cave diving courses for 120$/day and even much lower. What can you do with this? You can barely survive. These people have invested years in training and now drive cars which barely run, use equipment which is 20 years old, and they sell certificates because if they don’t, they are out of business. They are not motivated to teach – even the few who know how to. How can these instructors afford to develop themselves? How can they buy new equipment? How can they feel inspired? They can’t. They think just about the daily expenses, they have no space to think about anything else. If they don’t compete with the low prices, they are out of business. This folks, is unsustainable. We are witnessing the death of cave diving education.
All this is a vicious circle. It is very complicated – this situation produces new instructors who have not been trained well, they in turn know so little that it is very easy for them to assume that there is nothing to teach and that all they need to do is just to sell the fucking cards. New agencies come with their “Instructor Trainers” who have zero idea about the complexity of real cave diving and who have been to Mexico just a couple of times for a few days. I have had to teach one such IT recently how to lay a line, and have had to save another from a panic attack during exploration. Guys, you HAVE to train as cave divers in Mexico, not because we are here, but because the damned CAVES are here. Underwater cave systems with this level of complexity do not exist anywhere else. We are here because of the caves, it is not the other way around. Wake up. Folks die because of all this, they die every year.
Why the quality of training matters
We have reached the point where people can not even understand why quality of dive training matters. Why should we train in stages spanning months and years when we can get certified in a week? Surely, we can figure it out by ourselves afterwards. No, you can’t! No one can, it is not that simple. The way you are presented a certain idea, the way you are trained, this is the way you will dive – for the rest of your life. The way you dive will determine the things you can do and the risks you will be able to tolerate. The things you can do will slowly shape your future, and your life – they will bring joy, sadness, changes. A simple cave diving course will shape your whole perception and your whole life – it may even be responsible for your relationships, for everything further down the road. This is not some New Age theory, this is how life works. Everything we do and especially the way we do it has far reaching implications.
Now, what happens when we chose this 150$/day cave diving course? We will get an instructor who smiles all the time, tells jokes, plays the clown for your satisfaction – someone who’s only focus will be to make you feel good and who has gotten to the point of begging for this money without even realizing it. He will have ZERO motivation to push you, to make you learn. Possibly, he doesn’t know that much himself – his world is small. None of the knowledge and skills which require a real effort from you will be imparted or taught, even if your instructor knows them. You have just gotten yourself in a different game – we have not yet reached the point where you are just handed the card in exchange for money, but we have to go through the motions for a few days – all with the mutual understanding that in the end you will get what you want, the instructor will get his/her money and everyone will be happy. You get your Facebook pictures, the plastic card which actually costs 20c and then if you are intelligent enough, you will know within that you are not prepared to do any serious cave dive. If you are not intelligent enough to realize that… well, as it has been said, the universe may be finite, but the same can not be said about human stupidity.
Now what will happen if you have enough respect for your own growth and do your homework in researching trainers and actually pay these 250$-350$/day for a quality cave diving course, even if it is very hard earned money? You will get an instructor who has invested a LOT in his own development – years and decades of sustained effort and resources. He will recognize that you are serious and will be equally motivated to give you all the knowledge and experience he/she can impart, time allowing. You will be using current, well maintained equipment. You will be breathing gas from a trusted source. You will not be spared the difficult parts of training, you will learn how to do things others are not even aware of. You will NOT be guaranteed your certification, but if you earn it, together with it you will earn the self confidence of someone who really trusts his own skill. On top of that you will be given a lot of additional information and training which is not usually a part of a normal agency cave diving course. You will be able to do dives others don’t do, safely and confidently. This experience will open endless possibilities for the future – in cave diving you will be able to confidently contemplate the prospect of even doing cave exploration at one point – one of the most liberating endeavors of the human spirit. Your life will be infused with a sense of true accomplishment, which will shape everything. You will gain real respect – even your day to day plans for the future will be different, as you will plan different kinds of diving trips, will dive with different sort of people who also have this self respect. Your life will expand, it will not be stuck. In the end you will even realize that the stupid plastic card means nothing – that how we approach our time on Earth means everything.
So, compare these two cases – which one is yours? Free world, free choices. But if we want the best for ourselves and for others, it is good to chose wisely.
Warm regards to all my diving and non-diving friends
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