By Alex Brylske
Recently I saw an ad from a dive center proudly announcing, “Learn to Dive in only three days!” It’s not that big of a deal, given that many dive centers have for years been offering programs to train divers in as little as four days (normally over two weekends). But it got me thinking about how much diving has changed over the years, and whether it’s all been for the good.
To provide some perspective, when I learned to dive — at least when I got around to getting formally certified — training involved three months. Indeed, for 12 solid weeks I had to spend three hours on Sunday mornings in the pool and three hours Wednesday evenings in a classroom. That’s 72 hours, and that’s before I went anywhere near open water.
While the classroom was a challenge, it paled in comparison with the pool training. First, anyone in the class who could not swim a quarter mile without stopping, and swim the length of the pool underwater on one breath, was told to leave. Then it took three weeks of intensive “skin diving” training before we even saw our first scuba tank. Not that tanks were any relief from the sadistic training ritual. For example, our scuba exercises included ample no-mask drills, and an exercise called “station breathing.” In the latter, one fewer tanks than there were students were first arrayed on the pool bottom. Then, wearing only mask and fins, we had to swim from tank to tank giving up the air supply once it was approached by another diver. The culminating pool training exercise was a session beloved by my instructor and his staff called, threateningly enough, “harassment.”
Fast-forward 40 years. Today, students are lucky to receive more than a dozen hours of contact time with their instructor. And, in my view, anything that smacks of challenge has been all but eliminated from the curriculum on the assumption that we don’t want to stress student divers unduly with unnecessary or unrealistic knowledge and skills.
The rationale, of course, has been to make diving more fun and accessible to more people. Perhaps it would be simpler just to issue folks a C-card with their birth certificate and be done with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those dinosaurs who think diver training has gone to hell in a handbasket. First and foremost, the data on diving accidents just doesn’t support this conclusion. As measured by fatalities, diving is demonstrably safer today than when I started.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that it appears that we haven’t achieved our goal of getting more people into the sport, at least nowhere near the number we had hoped (especially young people). Yet, given that this campaign to make learning to dive easier has been going on for 30 years without success, you’d think we’d start looking elsewhere for a solution.
Now, as a disclaimer, I have to admit that as someone once responsible for the educational programming of the world’s largest diver training program,
I played no small part in the move to simplify diver training. (The pejorative term used at the time was the so-called “short course.”) But what I also have to admit is that it appears that I was wrong in assuming easier training would equal more divers. The logic was there but the experience seems to have proven otherwise. And I think that I know why.
Looking back over the three decades since the “short course”
controversy began, I believe that we missed one important point: In learning to dive there is value in significant face time with an instructor. Sure, we can make a person comfortable enough to fulfill the certification requirements in only a brief exposure, and maybe even motivate a percentage of them to continue diving after their training. But I don’t think we instill any strong passion for diving in the vast number of trainees simply because we no longer spend enough time with them to gain the requisite comfort, and establish the necessary social relationships with other divers and in the diving community. As a result, while we might certify more divers today than in the past, that hasn’t seemed to translate into more active divers.
I’m not yearning for a return to the old days of station breathing and harassment training, but I do think we should consider swinging the pendulum in the other direction for a while. We certainly have nothing to lose by trying. Three days to get certified? Maybe. Three days to become a committed diver? I have my doubts.