“A mind without instruction can no more bear fruit than
can a field, however fertile, without cultivation.”
How far do you travel for your favourite dive shop? Where would you send someone who asks you about getting Open Water certified? Are there closer shops you bypass for one reason or another? Is there a shop on an island somewhere or in a city on the other side of the country that you wish was in your town instead? Or are you stuck with a dive shop that is simply meh? And you make do? Now let’s apply this same question to instructors. Especially to advanced/technical instructors. I often get asked, “I live in XXXX and am looking to get certified in YYYY; who should I train with?” I am usually sorry to tell people that there aren’t a ton of YYYY instructors in XXXX town and that they should consider traveling to nearby or schedule a training vacation to an area that may be a drive or even a flight away. My own passion, cave diving, is an obvious one. There are only a handful of places around the world where one can train as a cave diver. Because there are only a handful of places in the world where there are caves. (And, as I have frequently said before, one should never even consider cave training with someone who isn’t doing it all the time.) But thinking more broadly, it should seem there is nothing preventing base technical training anywhere there is water. Except… Certain areas have certain cultures. Without belabouring the sometimes cliquish patterns of diving, there are naturally more benign manifestations of tribalism in our community. Isolated groups develop their own habits and philosophies. These may be right or wrong… but they are adhered to among the group. The seniors of the group are venerated and the newbies take their cues from the “elders.” And thus peculiar, frequently deviant practices are born and perpetuated. And they are remarkably hard to alter once they’ve taken root. The more isolated the group (either by geography or politics), the more quickly and radically divergent a practice like this can spring up and become the norm. Let’s imagine a scenario: There is only a single shop in a 100 mile radius that teaches trimix. Infrequently. The shop always uses the single site where there are appropriate depths for training. There are two instructors who teach at this level and they are the recipients of a constant feedback loop of being the best divers in the area. The only time they dive the training site is for class, thought they do a dozen or so deep trimix dives between them over the course of the year on vacations. If neither money nor time were any object: Would you rather train with these instructors? Or would you rather train with someone who is fun diving and teaching at that level constantly in a variety of conditions and sites? This is not to say that the former instructors are definitely bad. There are some damn good instructors that live out in frontier territory. Nor is it to automatically assume that the person who is trimix diving every day is definitely good. There are some godawful instructors whose gear never dries. But all things being equal - odds favour the latter. Which is why, when I’m asked, “I live in XXXX…” I may say, “Well, then you’re in luck, because there is someone I would recommend for you who operates a mile from your house!” But it’s not bloody likely. And so the recommendation for travel is more common. It isn't as if you have to journey to the heart of Africa or climb to the top of the Himalayas to find a meditating holy man. Or stand outside a monastery for three days and nights while the doorkeeper throws dinner scraps at you and curses at you to clear off, hoping for admittance. You might have to get on a plane and go diving somewhere nice. You poor, poor soul. This is still almost never welcome news. Travel costs time. And money. And energy. The sunk cost of travel puts additional pressure on ensuring that training goes well and is completed “on time” instead of encouraging a long-term mentorship model of learning. It creates the illusion that dive training is something that can and should be done inside of some well-defined window. So often people will continue, against advice, to search out someone local. It’s more accessible and convenient. Though, in the long term, it may not be as cheap as one might think. “Well at least they can issue the card and then I can sort out the proper way of doing things later.” I don’t even know where to start breaking down the flaws in this frequently applied logic.
Primarily… no, you probably won’t sort out the proper way of doing things later. Because you haven’t been shown what that even means. Maybe you'll get into some arguments with some people online about things, for all the good that will do. You’ll dive to that level a bunch under the impression that a better way of doing things will just mystically reveal itself to you. And it won’t. All that will happen is that by diving, poorly trained at that level, you’ll demonstrate to yourself over and over what you can get away with. Having gotten away with it (ignorant of what you’re getting away with because you’ve never been shown the right way) it will all just become normal. Safe-seeming. Perfectly appropriate. Justifiable. And surrounded by a bunch of people who have all been trained the same way you will find yourself perpetuating that culture.
Good training, it should be remembered, is not as simple as a good dive shop. Access to these two things is disproportionately important.
If you go to even the best dive shop and they don’t have the item that you want, they might be able to order it. Or you can order it yourself. Time is on your side because whatever it is you think you need nor how urgent it might feel, you don’t need it right this second. If you find yourself in a situation underwater where there is some skill or technique or problem-solving order required to get yourself out of a situation that has grown beyond your control… you need those skills NOW. And in that moment, having received substandard training, suddenly whatever the cost of having gotten properly trained instead will seem a pittance. If a diver is lucky and survives a close call or two then they may, finally, seek out better training. And, in so doing, wind up having to pay for the same sort of training a second time. They may have to unlearn years-old habits and muscle memory. They may need to replace gear they were advised was the best by someone they didn’t know didn’t know what they were talking about.
At some levels there are only a restricted number of instructors. Which, while it might seem frustrating when looking for someone nearby to take a class from, is actually a good thing. Not every instructor on the planet should be teaching Trimix or Cave or (in some extreme cases) even Advanced Open Water. At the more advanced levels of diving these skills should be subject to absolute refinement, and a rarity of instructors ensures that the population inhabiting the not-so-desirable end of the bell curve is equally as minimised. Fewer crap instructors available means diminished risk of crap instruction.
It might seem hard to remember that this is a good thing when you're trying to coordinate your schedule with the only person in the entire country who can teach Advanced Trimix on your particular rebreather. But would you really rather just be able to wander into any shop that offers $99 weekend Open Water classes and get assigned whoever is working that weekend for your Hypoxic CCR course?
No, I’m not talking shit about your instructor that you love and respect and have taken a million classes from. I’m just saying that if you ask me (or whatever other person whose opinion you are seeking out there in cyberland) for a recommendation, don’t be surprised or disappointed if I or they tell you that there are people who may be better equipped to teach you than your instructor. And that you may have to go elsewhere to train with them. You know mango trees need to be grafted? It’s true. It’s possible to grow a fruit-bearing tree from a seed, but takes decades and isn’t guaranteed. Most modern mangos come from a sapling that has taken a graft from an older tree. The scion (the donor tree) in this analogy is an instructor who knows what the hell they’re doing. The root stock (the hopeful sapling) is a diver seeking out good training. Sure, they can keep on growing in the middle of a wild field and they may or may not one day produce fruit.
Or they can accept training from the right person and flourish in a few seasons. And with good grafting from a variety of good donor stock comes cultivated diversity and husbandry of evolving ideas. Keep the ideological gene pool healthy, to mix a metaphor. Alternatively, they could accept a graft from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and either wither up immediately or possibly start growing guavas or something equally as useless.