“All right guys, get your weight belts on. Don’t bother suiting up just yet but make sure your weight belts are on properly. Right-hand release and all that.”
I wanted to ask, “why are we putting our weight belts on?” but before I could, all hell broke loose. The DMTs were flailing about in the water calling for help, our instructors were yelling that we needed to jump in and save them and that we’d better be moving faster as there were people drowning. Frantically grabbing a PFD, throwing my mask on, and buckling my fins, I jumped into the water, eager to get away from the insults coming from our instructor’s mouth. Stupidly still wearing my weight belt.
This is a classic move with rescue students and having made the mistake once, I’ll never make it again. But that was the first in a series of frustrating exercises that made me question whether I should be working toward divemaster certification. Almost everything I did those first 2 days I felt that I had failed at. I didn’t remember to use my legs to hold down a diver who was shooting uncontrollably to the surface after dropping her weight belt; I couldn’t take myself to the surface at a safe rate of ascent using only the addition and subtraction of air in my BCD, let alone bring another person with me; I was slow to get my gear on and enter the water during the timed test of that very skill; I was consistently the last one in the water to save a “drowning” DMT because I inevitably fumbled with my fins, rattled by the stress of instructors berating us. Clearly I had no right to be pursuing a professional level of dive certification. I went home each day mentally exhausted, beating myself up for my inadequacies.
By the third day, there were things I was good at – keeping a rhythm with rescue breaths while removing all necessary gear from the victim and myself; making eye contact underwater with a panicked diver and providing a calming presence; and, well, that’s all I can think of. But by day four, I was actually getting the hang of things and starting to regain a bit of confidence. Regardless, being deemed a rescue diver at the end of that day bewildered me, surely I needed to be better. When I expressed this to one of the DMTs, she empathized, saying she’d felt the same way but reminded herself that imperfect care provided is better than perfect care withheld. A valid point but not particularly reassuring.
After rescue training, I had a few days to enjoy some fun diving, sleep, spend time with Jen, and catch up on Utila nightlife. But then my first week of divemaster training began. At UDC, DMT programs begin every Monday and the first eight days follow a rigorous but reasonable schedule of classroom and in-water sessions and workshops. There were four of us in my class and we were joined at times by two others, each who had missed certain sessions in an earlier week. Twice more I wondered whether I had any business being there. Once, during our first skill circuit, and once when studying for a test.
In PADI-land, a skill circuit is a set of 24 tasks that every open water diver must be able to perform and that divemasters and instructors must be able to demonstrate with exaggerated ease. I completed my open water certification in 1997 with SSI, a different training organization. Many of the same skills were necessary but others were completely foreign to me and of those that were familiar, I hadn’t performed most since the 90s (people don’t generally simulate breathing from a free-flowing regulator for the fun of it). So the first time I had to remove my mask underwater as a DMT I immediately inhaled water through my nose. Trying to demonstrate removing and replacing it with a sense of calm felt impossible. Amazingly, my near panic wasn’t the reason I failed the demonstration of that skill but I wasn’t surprised that I’d need to repeat it. My discomfort with breathing sans mask made me question my choice but when I next had to remove my mask and this time swim around for thirty seconds before replacing it, I wasn’t the least bit bothered. My body remembered what it was doing and my insecurity passed. As for that test, I haven’t thought about physics since high school, before that 1997 open water certification. Without help from Jen and our instructor candidate roommates, I would have failed. Thank you Zach and Jordan!
After those eight days, we were each turned over to our mentors with the expectation that we would manage the remaining requirements on our own schedules. I immediately took a break. My back was aching, I felt a cold coming on (a debilitating ailment for a diver that I needed to avoid), and I wasn’t ready to jump into assisting a class. When I was ready, I found myself running off the dock and pretending to drown, hovering an inch off the bottom pretending to be unconscious, swimming in circles in panic, and otherwise in need of being rescued. Being a DMT on a rescue course is fun: it’s a chance to try doing things wrong, to watch divers struggle and improve over a course of days, to cement skills learned as a student. By the end of it, I felt like I’d earned my rescue diver certification. My only true regret about the time I spent as a DMT is that I didn’t assist on more rescue courses. Alas, bad weather that kept everyone out of the water for days and our own schedule prohibited me from doing so.
The rest of my time as a DMT was relatively uneventful. I worked on my dive site map with two of the guys from my class, passed my rescue assessment and swimming tests with strong scores, gave an appropriate dive briefing, easily tied the necessary knots for search and recovery scenarios, led both certified and open water students on dives without losing my way back to the boat, assisted open water students in confined and open water sessions, and survived the oft-dreaded equipment exchange. I won’t lie, that part wasn’t fun but my fellow candidate and I got through it. After that, all I had left was my snorkel test.
A snorkel test is essentially a hazing ritual, welcoming divemasters to the professional ranks of SCUBA diving. In some parts of the world it involves costumes, running around in circles, jumping in the water, and any number of other ridiculous behavior but there’s one thing that’s always consistent: chugging alcohol through a snorkel while wearing a mask. The night of my snorkel test was the night that UDC opened a new bar, complete with a barbecue and a dance party. The turnout was much greater than a normal snorkel test night: instructor candidates enjoying a few hours off from their rigorous training, recently certified and fun divers merely passing through Utila, people from other dive shops, and the usual cavalry of UDC staff, DMTs, and hangers-on. There were seven of us slated for a snorkel test that night, including two of my original classmates and the woman I’d done my equipment exchange with. There were only three sets of torture-devices so no more than three of us could be up at once. I was first.
Following a gentle “roast” from the instructor who’d seen me through my rescue course and mentors many of the DMTs, we donned the snorkels and received the famed “words of wisdom” to stick a finger up the mask. Some people think this is cheating, that being able to breathe defeats the purpose of the entire event but I disagree. Large quantities of liquid are poured down a snorkel and consumed as quickly as possible until the divemaster leans forward and calls an end to it. The night wears on, often after a quick puking break, and memories are made. I’ll always share a bond with Jason, with whom I went through rescue and divemaster training, but now I know that in addition to the PADI-dictated requirements, I have something in common with nearly every other divemaster in the industry. There’s something oddly comforting about that, don’t you think?
I’m grateful to the amazing staff at UDC for taking me all the way through my divemaster certification, providing such great instruction and mentoring, and making me part of the UDC family. A number of the friends I made there will be back on Utila this spring and although I’m looking forward to where we’ll be in March, a big part of me wishes we could change our plans and join them. Becoming a divemaster is so much more than ticking off the necessary boxes and even if I never get work as a DM (although I hope to!), I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
When I look at my diving the day Jen and I arrived in Utila and compare it to my diving when we left, I see improvement in my buoyancy control, a reduction in weight that I use, increased comfort level in tight spaces, a dramatically improved ability to spot creatures and unique fish, and so much more. Some of this would have happened simply by diving as much as I did. But only the work I did as a DMT made me truly comfortable with underwater navigation, leading other divers, and dealing with problems underwater. There will always be ways to improve my diving and I’m committed to doing so. Our travels keep us away from the water for at least the next two months but I hope that’s one of the longer stretches we’ll have without blowing bubbles.