I SAT ON the examination table, waiting for Doctor John. Looking around the room at the old anatomy charts, faded malaria posters and photographs of the man over the years; the kidney dish stuffed with cigarette ends. No BUPA here. The queues outside his quiet practice testify to the islanders' trust in him. They say that if you're run down by a bike, shot or stabbed, then Dr John is the man who is going to save you. He'd been the one picking the bullets out of the shot waitress. I'd been lucky enough to turn up on a tranquil afternoon and got an appointment within 30 minutes. In he walked, Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to the waist (to hide his gut, he said), Guevara-esque beret atop his greying mop of hair; faded cargo shorts and a pair of glasses kept around his neck with a length of transparent tube from an oxygen cylinder or similar. The dachshund he'd arrived with was out back somewhere, yapping in the sunshine. I'd heard the Doc had been here awhile, and read an article from a magazine which was pinned to the wall while he prepared a few bits for my medical. He's a laconical character, and has a reputation for partying harder than most half his age. And with his access to and knowledge of pharmaceuticals, then why the devil not? I'd actually seen him in Tree one night, using a nasal spray every fifteen minutes...I'm pretty sure it wasn't for a cold. Beechams doesn't make you dance like a madman.
He asked me how I liked Utila. He wasn't surprised my answer was so negative, as he said things have changed quickly here. I bemoaned the low average age, and said the choice of women for a single man my age was limited. He chuckled and said he didn't let that bother him. I've seen the evidence to back that up, too. Asking where I was diving, and hearing my answer, he muttered "Hmmm...The Factory" I laughed. The shop was churning out a high volume of divers, alright. He rated a few of the instructors there, but was dismissive of the attitude and ability of some of the others. I concurred. "So. You're taking the instructor course and getting the fuck off the island?" he asked as he listened to my heart with his stethoscope "Good plan." Over the last 3-5 years, he told me, the reefs had suffered from being over-dived and heavily over-fished. It'll take decades to even start to recover. Pretty depressing when I was going to be spending the next two months diving here. Cursory examination over, I thanked the Doc and left.
My main problem with the way the diving system works is that it only takes 100 dives to become an instructor. That is fine, as long as the candidate has experience in other areas and diving conditions. The fact that someone can go from novice to instructor in one easy diving location doesn't sit well with me. Utila and Koh Tao are the biggest training bases in the world, with the least testing conditions. For a new instructor to be able to qualify as a Drift Dive Specialty instructor here, when there are hardly any currents around the island, is a bit of a joke. If they went somewhere like Pulau Weh in Indonesia, they'd be as green as the people they were supposed to be teaching when they submerged in her ripping currents. So is that safe for the student? I think not. I shadowed Juicy, one of the shop's best instructors on one of these courses, and the drift was simulated. They were shown how to deploy a marker buoy which a boat captain would use to follow the divers' location, but didn't get the chance to try this themselves. What's the point? As we made a three minute saftety stop before surfacing, the newly-minted English instructor along with us was unfurling his DSMB as he swam beneath us. Without looking up, he deployed and inflated it...sending this orange rocket shooting up through our group. Had this caught on anyone's gear, they would have been dragged to the surface...not the safest situation. Juicy and I exchanged a knowing look. This Englishman, Ed, was one of the biggest loudmouths on the island; the type of instructor who wears it like a badge, walks round with his shirt off all the time, and sports a dive computer for bed. He surfaced last, and everyone, students included, gave him a sarcastic round of applause as he tried to untangle the lines of his and Juicy's markers. "How not to deploy an SMB on a drift dive" I said to him. I don't think he liked it a bit, especially coming from a Divemaster. But he should be setting an example to students, and a good example at that. I was to see a lot of iffy instructing from the newbies over the next few weeks, and practices which go outside the standards set by the organisation we work for. I saw students belittled and sworn at on some occasions. Some dive staff tend to look down on new divers, but everyone has to start somewhere...and seeing people get a thrill out of their first dive excites me. If it doesn't then you shouldn't be in the job. My instructor had the patience of a saint, as I was all over the place on my first Open Water dives. Very few are naturals. So I'll be patient, too.
I'm not going to bore you with the details of the instructor course. In a nutshell, you take lectures about the business of diving, the commercial side of things and the like. It can be tedious for someone like me who just wants to dive to travel. I'm not interested in money beyond the amount it takes for me to live somewhere exotic and dive every day. The teaching side of the course was obviously more fun. There are two parts of teaching someone to dive: Confined Water, which is where skills are learned and practiced in water shallow enough to stand up in, and Open Water, where the skills are repeated on a deeper dive. Instructor candidates get marked on their ability to demonstrate the skills in a controlled and exaggerated manner for a student diver to follow. We are also marked out of 5.0 for teaching scenarios in each environment. Points can be lost for not briefing correctly, not demonstrating properly etc and a minimum of 3.5 must be achieved to pass. There are also five written examinations to pass in Physics and Physiology, Environment and Equipment and more. The worst part for me was Classroom Presentations, as I've never been a fan of public speaking, especially when you have to look like you know what you're talking about. So there's a lot of pressure. No pun intended.
We had a pretty good group, with various backgrounds and experience. Even the HDIs (Hundred Dive Instructors, as I call them) were pretty good in the water. Emotions were up and down day by day if any of us seriously balls-ed up a mock exam or in-water presentation. The group got tighter and more supportive by the day, and things were going pretty well. Then the fly in the ointment turned up. Kate was a middle-aged, naturalised Canadian, originally from island. She knew everything about diving, and how we should teach. This, despite failing her last Instructor Development Course. After our first few Open water presentations, we were open-mouthed at her diving skills (or lack of). Surely, if you're going to teach someone to dive, you should be able to actually do it yourself? She was all over the place. Clueless. Surely our staff instructors were going to see how bad she was and tell her she wasn't ready for this? In the event, this was exactly what happened. A few of us, concerned that she could make a mistake while playing the role of a student for another candidate's exam, and therefore cause them to fail the course, had a quiet word. We were assured that this wouldn't happen, and just to concentrate on her own performance. It was a weight off our minds.
After ten intensive days, during which we all improved, it was time to meet our examiner. In walked The Dude from The Big Lebowksi. This guy even dived with his baseball hat turned around, wearing a shirt and shorts instead of dive gear. Bizarre. After a quick introduction and brief on the next two days of examinations, we were given our skills to present, and topics for classroom presentations. Mine weren't too bad. The most nerve-wracking bit was when they split us into three groups. No-one wanted to be in Kate's group, and thankfully they lumped her in with the divers from the other shops, only one of our group thrown in to suffer with them. So off we went to prepare.
We'd been told that the hardest bit was over, and that the final exams and tests were a walk in the park compared to our training. They weren't kidding. The staff had prepared us very well, I can't fault them at all. Especially our two main instructors, Simon and Suzy. So I was a bit surprised when our group of six was in the water a mere 24 minutes for our Open Water tests. We take the role of instructor in turn, and our peers have been briefed to make deliberate mistakes for the skills we've been assigned, common ones that new students make. If we spot them straight away, and make the student repeat the skill to the standard required, we move on to the next. In the course, the instructors had made things difficult for us, and we'd each had to deal with three or four students. Now, if we spotted the first problem straight away, The Dude made a scissors sign with his fingers to cut the exercise, and moved on to the next instructor. It was that easy. Disappointingly easy, in fact. A lot of us agreed that we might as well have just handed over the money at the end of the course? It felt like an anti-climax for many of us after the standards we'd achieved. How can you possibly tell that someone will make a competent instructor after seeing them in the water for 24 minutes, 4 of those minutes actually teaching? The sour icing on the stale cake was the fact that Kate had passed...we were gobsmacked. But then, anyone getting in the water with her in future would likely ask for another instructor if they didn't have confidence in her; I couldn't see her getting work anywhere, either.
So The Factory had churned out another load of new instructors, and were prepping the next batch. The wheel goes around, the money changes hands, and instructors like me try to temper their disillusion with the thought that they'll be living in a beach hut on a remote island someday soon; living a simple life, introducing people to a sport they live for and then watching the sun go down with a joint and a cold beer. This period on Utila has been a small price to pay for that freedom and lifestyle. My friend Grumpy had warned me before I undertook the course "Leave your personality at the door, and pick it up on the way out..." Wise words, Iain...wise words.