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Don't Trust Me

**Reprinted from The Dive Bum 1/16/17**

“Usually we don't do this dive with students.”

“Just stick with me.  You'll be fine.”

“Now, I know it's a little deeper than you're supposed to go, but…

Original Sin

There is a lot possibility lingering on that ellipsis, ominously fading like an old TV tube.   Every OW student has heard (or bloody well should have heard) warnings against “trust-me dives” very early in their career.  But the effectiveness of that warning is almost immediately diluted by a mixed message when the very person who cautioned against it immediately takes their student on a trust-me dive.  After all, isn't every dive with an instructor, well past your previous limits, a trust-me dive?   In any well-taught class divers are brought well past their comfort level.  As they should be!  Ideally a diver should be challenged enough in class that they struggle a bit.  Then they should be encouraged as they overcome these challenges, growing more and more proficient and comfortable with their new skills as they are practiced.  Ideally. There is plenty to say about how the sport is being over-sold as super-safe and how so many classes are nothing more than a high-five and a card swipe away from a certification.  While there are important points to be discussed there I would like to keep focus on that single, inappropriate message that is conveyed across the spectrum of dive training in every class and on every mentored dive. From day one, as they embark on their own private sea hunt, divers are taught, “Don't follow anyone too far on a dive… except for a dive professional.” It's not explicit... but the lesson is embedded in the training methodology and the paradigm of the recreation. (Yes. I said "paradigm." Sorry, I even googled a thesaurus for a better word, but there isn't one.) Not only does the "Don't follow anyone but an instructor" message hold true across the spectrum of difficulty of courses, it holds true across every level of diving, from Discover Scuba Diving, to Rescue, to Advanced Wreck Diver, to Hypoxic Trimix Instructor.  Just as you watch the flight crew when an airplane hits turbulence to gauge whether you should freak out (well… I do anyway) you always look to your instructor for cues on whether what is happening falls within the scope of “normal.” That first time an instructor asked you to remove your mask underwater, in addition to the obvious (being trained how to remove your mask underwater), you were being trained to trust the dive professional.  With your safety.  With your life.  And that lesson is reinforced again and again over the course of years as you progress through your training.

I have had friends engaged in some of the highest levels of recreational dive training who were asked to start dives with inadequate bailout for their rebreathers.  Some were asked to perform skills that weren’t briefed or in the materials, or brought to places where they knew from the academics they weren’t supposed to be.  I have had friends who are longtime dive instructors who, during work for other instructor ratings, get asked by their ITs to do something that gave them pause.  But they followed through with what they were asked to do. The instructor knows best. But what if they don't? What if the instructor is having an off day?  They have a head cold and are having difficulty both equalizing and paying attention, but they had to work today because, frankly, calling out sick as a dive instructor is often not an option for a variety of reasons?  They are hungover and not really thinking about their charter?  They are under mandate from the dive shop to make a specific dive or certification happen no matter what the skill level of their divers?  They are, basically, just a crap instructor that doesn't know their ass from a blue hole in the reef? These are not stretches of the imagination so wide they are a strain, are they?  Instructors are fallible people who, just as often as not, became dive instructors either as a hobby, because they were sold the training by a predatory system, or because they are misfits who couldn't do real work.  We’d all like to hope that every instructor, DM, or guide is as rock solid a diver as there is in all the oceans of the world, but we all know that’s not true.  If you’ve been diving for more than a year or two you have a crappy instructor story of your own, don’t you?  If you really want an ear-full, go ahead and say, “So, standards today, huh?” to room full of active instructors and then just watch the fireworks. But these are the people that divers all over the world trust with their lives.  Just as often as not divers who don’t know any better.  Just as often as that divers who SHOULD know better, but have been raised in the system that has been training them from the get-go that the dive pro knows best and it is your responsibility as a less experienced diver to trust them absolutely, as though they know all the arcane secrets of scuba.  You want to hear the secrets of scuba? Confessional

Around the south side of Oahu, on the very southern tip of Hawaii Kai, there is a sea cave in the rocky shore just west of Hanauma Bay.  The dive itself is stupendous; the entrance to the cave is the size of a two car garage in about 50 feet of water.  It opens to a large and beautiful, gently sloping room that ascends into a shallow area where the rock ceiling has fallen in and created a sinkhole of sorts.  The enclosed room is often full of napping sea turtles and reef sharks, the skylit room is often schooling with spotted eagle rays playing in the surge.  Hawaiian Monk Seals are not uncommon.   Inaccessible by land, the only way to dive here is for a boat to cut its engines only a few feet from what can loosely be called “shore” and unload all divers into the water QUICKLY.  Because this patch of coastline faces directly into thousands of miles of open Pacific Ocean, on even the calmest days the waves will, in brief minutes, push a boat up against sheer cliffs that will make short work of completely destroying it.  So, once divested of divers, the boat needs to move away ASAP. This is all to say this is a fairly advanced dive.  Divers must be ready to backroll and immediately submerge to get away from both the propellor and the the surface conditions.  The cave, while not challenging overhead, is still overhead, which is subjected to constant surge and has every square inch covered in sea urchins.  The skylit room can also be considered overhead because, though it is only 10-15 feet deep, due to the constant surge and the jagged edges, it is by no means a safe place to surface.  The dive terminates as a drift dive, where the group needs to swim some distance away from the cliffs, into open water, and surface on an SMB to be picked up. It is an amazing dive, and well worth all the hassle.  That’s if the winds, the tides, and the surf cooperate enough which is, maybe, 1 out of 20 times you might try for it. I, myself, have brought people who were really not up to the challenge to this spot.   I had a zero accident rate… but I’m not proud of that. Doing the same dives over and over and over again can sometimes wear on you as a destination instructor.  So when the conditions are such that you can do something unusual and a bit exciting you look around the boat and you try to gauge whether your divers have the skills to safely participate.  If the majority of the boat is obviously not capable you sigh about the missed window and you go back to that same well-worn site.  It’s when only one or two people on the boat are on the edge where you start negotiating with yourself, or groupthink among the crew starts to set in. “Well,” you think, “That person actually managed to set their gear up inside-out, hasn’t been diving since a hip replacement, and is already seasick here at the dock… but they have all their own gear and they’re wearing an Amphibious Outfitters t-shirt, so they’ll probably not just a cert.” “I dove with him two years ago,” says your coworker, “I am pretty sure he'll be fine.” “We’ve got three DMs on the boat, one of us will just stay right with them the whole time,” perhaps another coworker suggests. “Yeah,” says the captain, “We’ll get them off the boat first so they’ll have a little time if they have trouble getting down.” “Super,” you’ll all pat yourselves on the back for being so clever, “We’ve got a plan!” Yes.  A shitty, shitty plan.  Meanwhile the person who is slowly turning green as they’re filling out release paperwork has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what they’re in for, or how much danger they’re about to be in.  They don’t know that they’ve just been signed up for a dive that is WAY over their head when the crew comes back to the boat and announces, “We’ve got some good news for you guys!  We’re going to be able to get out to a site today that is really something special!” I like to think of myself as an extremely safety conscious dive professional.  I did then, too, though, even though I was wrong. Perhaps it is simply because I am always striving for safety consciousness I will always feel bad remembering these dives.  Being able to reflect on these past mistakes, hopefully, enables me to more capably make the right call and makes me a more safety-focused instructor.  But I will always wince when I think about having allowed myself to fall into that venus flytrap of dive planning where I thought I would be able to keep people who shouldn’t be somewhere safe. With a tight squint and a cock of the head it could be seen, in hindsight, as though I was right.  I pulled a couple of people directly out of harm’s way on that very dive and on a handful of others on a few different occasions.  So I WAS able to keep people safe.  But was that really skill on my part… or, let’s be honest, was it just luck? I'd say the later. Skill would have been saying, "Let's just stay inshore" earlier. I would very much like to say that I was being pressured by the dive shop, or that the customers were insisting that they go to that site and I reluctantly agreed under duress, or even that I simply didn’t know better and brought people to that place because I was incapable of recognizing the dangers myself.  But those things aren’t true.  I brought them there of my own hubristic will because it was the dive I and my coworkers wanted to do. How many times around the world does this happen… every day… right now?  How many people are about to giant stride off a boat and go someplace they don’t belong with someone who shouldn’t be taking them?  How many divers are actually being taught the nuanced difference between a swim-through and wreck penetration?  How many people are going 30 minutes into deco when they’re only certified for 15 because they’re with their much more experienced friend who is a trimix instructor who says, “What’s the big deal?”


The lesson I took away from the narrow escapes from danger over the years both to myself and to the people in my custody (by any proportions of luck, skill, and help) was that I need to start being more careful as a guide.  I recognized that I needed to stop giving in to either social pressures, work pressures, or to my own desires; I needed to look at things objectively and say, “No, that’s not what we’re doing” when that's what needs to be said. But I’ll always worry that the damage I did by participating in those sorts of dives was in the creation of a potentially ticking time bomb. More importantly than what I learned, what lessons did the divers under my care take away from those dives? I’d counsel folks after the dive about proper weighting or drift diving technique.  But on top of being framed by the friendly banter of a vacation DM, these were almost always vacation divers. It doesn't do any good to demand "Who are you trying to kill, dumbass, you or me?!" It wasn't their fault for being somewhere they didn't belong, it was mine. Further A) they didn’t really recognize the true scope of danger they were in and B) as far as they are concerned, they were handily pulled out of whatever level of danger they perceived by their DM. That is what scares me.  Because while I was there to help them in the moment, my doing so just further reinforced the exact problem I’m talking about.  Implicit faith in dive professionals. Worst yet: I’d brought them into overhead!  No, this wasn’t Cenote Jailhouse, but how prepared are the majority of divers to make that distinction?  They followed their guide into overhead and they came out safe… ergo: overhead can be safe for them, even without the expensive class shops try to sell them. They trusted their DM… the DM helped them out of trouble on a dive that they were obviously prepared for because the DM wouldn’t have brought them otherwise!  I mean… obviously… right? I wonder… no… I fret and worry like crazy about whether accident victims knew it going in.  With dread I imagine their anxiety over the dive plan as they start their descent thinking, “I’ll be OK.  The DM said so.”  I can almost hear the hissing reg of their elevated breathing rate as things started to go south and, alone inside their own minds, they start frantically to think, “This is going to be OK, this is going to be OK!”  I imagine even these early facets of the avoidable tragedies one can read about and I shudder.  These are, and no exaggeration, the things that keep me up at night. With this thought I beg all divers: don’t always trust dive professionals blindly. There have been a spate of accidents recently (though this is not any sort of recent phenomenon) where either an unqualified or underqualified diver was killed doing something which, from a more experienced viewpoint, may have been no big deal of a dive, especially because they were under the supervision of a guide or an instructor.  But for these divers it was not only a big deal, but it was well beyond them.   Sometimes they are pulled from places they had been before, perhaps during training.  Sometimes these were places which the divers were led to believe were perfectly safe by word-of-mouth or by advertising.  Cavern tours spring to mind.  As do the memories of a dozen conversations with people who have gone to a blue hole and, with a wry smile, admit, “The DM brought us down to 150 feet!  But it was only for a minute.”  And so many stories about people trying to do these goal-based pinnacle dives that they talk an instructor friend on bringing them or signing them off for. These things are not OK.  All the training you have had drilled into you that the instructor knows best… is wrong. An easy trick, at any level, for folks who are working upwards through their dive careers to avoid this fallacy: don’t take all your classes from one instructor or even one shop.  Getting lots of different viewpoints and philosophies can help to balance out any blindspots or outright shortcomings that a single mentor has or that may exist within the culture of a single shop. Most divers have heard the refrain, “Any diver can call any dive at any time for any reason,” and most technical divers will know the rest of that phrase, “without fear of repercussion.”  If the instructor/DM/guide/mentor/whoever is giving you a dive plan that sounds sketchy, that is a good reason to call the dive at the surface. As either a dive pro, as a student, simply as a diver: when the little angel and the little demon appear on your shoulders to weigh in on the plan, listen to the angel.  Even if… ESPECIALLY if the angel is yelling to you that what the instructor is telling you is safe is NOT safe. Also, if you need to twist a dive pro's arm into letting you do something or bring you somewhere, chances are that little angel is hollering at you to knock it off. Listen. And if an instructor, any instructor, is suggesting that you do something patently unsafe, something that gets your own, personal little spidey-sense tingling, please talk to other instructors about it. Ask around whether this is known behavior. This sounds more like I'm trying to burden lay-divers with all the responsibility in the world than I mean to; my intent is, rather, to empower and to point out that all divers can make a positive contribution to the community! Now say three hail marys and go diving.  Or whatever; just go diving and be safe.

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