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Recent diving deaths might have been prevented with better training

By Terry Morrison - posted Friday, 18 June 2004

The recent tragic death of an introductory scuba-diving student should be cause to re-examine the culture of present-day scuba tuition. I believe the current managerial/ marketing ethos that masquerades as a teaching system is designed to promote turnover and profit, not safe "teaching outcomes".

Since my involvement in the dive industry (about 40 years) there has been a steady decline in the industry's teaching standards where we now have whole flotillas of dislocated turtles - amateur, poorly prepared divers receiving diving certificates after inadequate short training courses (four days on average) - especially noticeable in North Queensland.

The difference between what is normal practice today and what was once the common practice for teaching lies at the heart of the problem. In the past (even just 10 years ago), teachers expected novice scuba students to be competent snorkel divers. Many instructors would use their own standards (which were more rigorous than the minimum requirements) to evaluate individual candidates. Most organisations required a swim test of at least 100 meters, any stroke will do. This minimum requirement was to see that people were water-competent. And just 10 years ago the course was at least ten days!


Instructors often conducted these swimming tests in ocean or river environments, not just in a swimming pool; the point being that people were expected to be competent with their "basic equipment" that is mask, fins and snorkel. Most ethical teaching schools assumed that if you walked in off the street, so to speak, you had to be able to show that you were a water-competent person.

These days, after four days training you are entitled to hire equipment and dive in the ocean! Of course, the standards are there but they are laughable; frequently given mere lip service. I was absolutely astonished to see a "doco" on SBS's Insight (a couple of years ago now) where an "Instructor," giving a test to a grossly incompetent swimmer said to her something like: "that's good, now just swim a little further and then we can start the course" - she was given an introduction to scuba but was not accepted for a course. She should have been told to go away and learn to swim- then come back.

In earlier times, people would go to diving clubs to learn diving, meet the members and proceed from there with some sort of mentoring club-based activity. Gradually, as the marketing aspects and the potential money-making opportunities became evident, dive shops eventually took over almost all training.

Today's instructors are often just dive-shop employees and there is tremendous pressure on the instructor to conform to the business requirements of the owner-manager. One of the consequences of tightened-up "standards for teaching" is that there are no longer any independent instructors. Instructors are unable to teach unless employed by the owner of the business (obviously some have enough capital to start their own business) and the vast majority of instructors are literally like serfs, employed to conform to the needs of the "entrepreneur". Hence, education of divers has devolved into a business activity rather than an educational exercise.

The teaching of diving requires repetition; especially under various environmental conditions including in a current, under changeable visibility, etc.  It should also require a proper rescue technique for a dive buddy. However, none of this is required in today's dumbed-down course - (there is a tired-diver tow "demonstration"). Apparently, this is all justified because the equipment is so much better and easier to use. It might be, but the student is the same old model, with emotional, psychological, and fitness issues. If anything, the average scuba diver is less fit than they used to be and in many cases not able to even snorkel competently in ocean conditions.

The problem actually compounds by two. It's always been an axiom, since the very beginning of diving, that one should not dive alone; one should have a buddy. But what good is a buddy if when things go wrong the buddy is not capable of looking after themselves, let alone able to help? Given that the current course structure does not require training in rescue diving - how could it when the course is four days- make sure you choose your buddy carefully.


Scuba diving is challenging, even though it may appear deceptively easy. It is an intensely physical activity that can require unusually heavy exertions and it demands discipline and repetition. We need to change the current culture of teaching people to dive; it is a recreational fun thing but it is not like bungee jumping, to learn scuba diving demands discipline - it also demands time - more than just four days!

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About the Author

Terry Morrison is a former professional SCUBA diver and dive instructor at various locations from Sydney to the Barrier Reef. He was Senior Vice President of the Australian Underwater Federation.

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