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Does Experience Count?
BobHalstead - 4/29/2013 7:27 AM
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Category: Educational
Comments: 0
By Bob Halstead

I recently got asked to write 500 words in favour of the following proposition: -

“Should experience allow you to dive beyond your certification level?”

Since I believe that experience plays a vital role in diver safety, and because I have learned over the years (through experience) that some diver certifications are not worth the plastic they are stamped on, I was happy to participate in this worthy discussion.

Here is what I wrote – but there is, as you shall read, more to the story.

In the early 1990s it became illegal for me to dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland Health and Safety declared me to be a “Commercial Diver” because I was an underwater photographer, and sold some of my photos. They then declared it was illegal for me (and even Ron and Valerie Taylor) to dive, as I did not have a “Commercial Diving” certification. My past experience did not count with Queensland bureaucrats.

I had been certified as a Diving Instructor in 1970, and was working full time in the sport diving business running the live-aboard dive boat Telita – fortunately in PNG, not Australia. If I had tried to work in Australia I would have had to give up underwater photography or possibly pay a $60,000 fine or spend 6 months in jail. Or fork out $5000 or so to get a “Commercial Diver” qualification.

After seven years the legislation was repealed, but a lot of damage was done and elements of the “save my backside” culture that the rules created, still exist.

I thought that I had dived responsibly and safely and the Queensland Government should have asked me for advice rather than imposing ludicrous conditions on my diving. So I developed a profound contempt for those who proclaim immutable rules. I believe it is better to think of all rules in terms of guidance, not obedience.

If you have just been certified and taught to dive to 18m (60 ft) then it would perhaps be foolish to make your next dive to 40 m (130 ft.) – but is the only way to dive to 40 m (130 ft.) to pay more money, do more courses and get more certifications? Well, no, it is just one way. Other ways include being mentored in a dive club, or going on an adventurous live-aboard dive boat. But here is a thought for you – why is it that you have only been taught to dive to 18m (60ft.)?

When I ran Telita I encouraged guests to have at least 50 dives before they booked. This was to ensure they were at ease in the water and familiar with their equipment. We then introduced divers to all sorts of diving hazards, and showed them how, by learning skills, studying stuff, having the right equipment, and making realistic self – appraisals, they could safely experience increased risk, and expand their diving portfolio.

We applied this to specific dives but actually the divers were learning a METHOD that enabled them to make current dives, deep dives, dives with sharks, low visibility dives, blue water dives, all within their own comfort zones. For extreme dives such as those involved in Cave or Technical diving, taking a course might be the most efficient way of learning. But this was real life diving; we did not hand out certifications.

You gain diving experience not by doing the same thing over and over again, but by considering the dive situation, assessing the risks and knowing you have the skills, knowledge and equipment to overcome the risks. You make the dive, hopefully, but not impossibly, without incident – then, importantly, think about how you could improve. You inevitably develop a “Sea Sense” that no classroom can teach. And this you can then apply to your next diving situation.

Only reckless and stupid people make a dive to see if they will survive. Certified or not, ultimately diver safety depends on attitude and self-knowledge, and you gain that through experience.

So that is pretty much what I wrote; however the editor (guess which country!) had to put it past his legal department and they advised not to publish.

It did not take me long to realise that the whole concept of a Diver Certification had changed. It used to be that you took a dive course, passed the various stages, and the certification was a reward for your efforts and recognition that you understood the basics of safe diving. The certification was for YOUR benefit. You only needed one certification, and that became a license to learn more about diving. There was no certification soup, and no arbitrary limits requiring another, more advanced, certification. The basic certification was sufficient; dive shops would fill your tank, and let you join their dive trips.

It seems today that every different dive you do requires you to spend money, do another course and get another certification. These courses are no longer fun ways to learn, they are mandatory. Want to do a deep dive? Then you have to do a deep diving course first and get certified. A dive may be limited to “Advanced Divers Only”, where an Advanced Diver is evidently someone who has done 10 dives and has an Advanced Certificate. That’s Humbug.

And Governments are all too happy to go along. We now have special certification courses in Queensland for those wishing to participate in Scientific Research, If you are not certified, forget it. More Humbug.

One imagines that the certifying agencies strive to find not only the most effective ways of teaching diving, but also keep in touch with the way the sport has evolved away from the Navy diving characteristics that sport diving started with, to standards that reflect how thoughtful experienced sport divers actually dive today.

But what has actually happened is that some training agencies have committed to immutable rules of diving and the certification card is their way of demonstrating that they have covered these rules in their courses. If they change something then it can only be in one direction – to create more courses and more rules, not throw any out. They are interested in themselves, and covering their backsides. Could it be that the reasons divers are initially certified to only 18m (60 ft.) is to make them sign up for another course, or, if they go deeper, to transfer liability?

The certification card no longer represents the frontier of diving education; it represents instead a stodgy, fearful adherence to conformity and the past. It is actually a history lesson. I know this because we have discovered, through experience, that some of the things that are still taught are actually wrong (for example the procedure for a lost buddy, and the whole concept of No – Decompression diving) but there is resistance to any change.

The graduates of these agencies usually have a steep learning curve when they go out into the real world and do, say, adventure diving in PNG or Komodo, with really experienced divers. They are not well prepared, no matter how high their certification.

I know that is a bit provocative, but I think it is time to call the dive certification agencies to account. They have provided a convenient, if expensive and pedantic, way of increasing diver experience, but making multiple courses mandatory is outrageous. Perhaps they feel they have to do this because too many stupid people were being reckless, getting hurt and then blaming the instructor and agency, and probably the Government (Alas what happened to personal responsibility?).

But remember, please, I was around near the very beginning of diver training. What started as a responsible effort to ensure potential divers had the basic, essential knowledge and skills necessary to safely use scuba underwater, has now produced a type of extreme fundamentalism – where it is not even permissible to publish a contrary view that experience could count for more than certification.

That is a bit too precious for me.