In Defense of Divemasters

Several years ago, I was a PADI Divemaster for a destination diving resort in Belize. This was a fantastic job that encompassed all of the mythical concepts of life as a dive guide in the Caribbean. Warm turquoise waters, sandy beaches, palm trees, varied marine life, balmy breezes and good camaraderie amongst the divers. It was one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever held…and one of the most stressful.

What made this ideal job so stressful were not the multiple dives each day, working in a foreign country or even the divers that I was guiding. What made the job an ongoing terror was the expectation that I had become responsible for the safety and enjoyment of so many divers with such varied levels of skill. At one point during my tenure as a Divemaster, I alone was responsible for the safety and enjoyment of over 30 inexperienced divers…because my job required it!

This is the largest complaint (next to over-crowded boats) of resort Divemasters (or equivalent) and guest divers throughout the world. It is a complaint that is based on concern for the safety and well being of the divers, the reef, the marine life and the operators’ equipment. It is a complaint that is consistently being expressed throughout the world and yet, never resolved.

I was eventually promoted to the position of manager for the resort and became the beating board for irate guests, disgruntled Divemasters, frustrated boat captains and disgusted environmentalist. It was my duty to accommodate these difficult situation as best I could while continuously trying to convince the resort owner that more Divemasters were needed. The resort owners’ response came down to the argument that he did not wish to spend more money on a second or third Divemaster (about $300.00US a week). One morning, his lack of concern for the safety of his guests caught up with him…a diver died because there were too many divers in the water for the Divemaster to effectively control.

It takes no great leap of intelligence to realize that many dive operators are not concerned with the true safety and enjoyment of their guests, only with the mighty dollar. So I began to inquire about a regulation of ratios for Divemasters to divers. The response was simple: there is none. The Recreational Scuba Training Council has no ratio regulation, nor does any certification agency.

There are recommendations and requirements for such training programs as scuba reviews, local diving orientations and continuing education courses. Yet, no limits are set forth for the final duty of certifying agencies first professional rating: guiding divers on exploratory and pleasure dives. In fact, in the Second Quarter 1999 PADI Training Bulletin the following vague response to such an issue was presented:

"Maximum ratios for supervising divers calls for good judgment while considering several factors. PADI Professionals should evaluate the following before determining how many divers to supervise at any given time:

  • Environmental conditions

  • Familiarity with diver’s skills

  • Site familiarity

  • Diver comfort level"

Throughout the professional manuals of all certifying agencies, there are countless ratios set forth for Assistant Instructors and Instructors. These limits are set forth to help insure the safety of student divers through prevention. The most amazing fact of these ratios is that they are developed for controlled environments and training situations. But, for Divemasters leading certified divers in the uncontrolled environment of open water, only their own individual "good judgement" defends them.

So Divemasters are caught in an exceptionally difficult position, they are subject to the often-unrealistic demands from their employers while trying to perform their duties of guiding divers safely and enjoyably throughout dive sites. And with these extremes comes "burnout" and thus concerns of safety. These professionals have no standards to help them provide the best that they can to divers and dive operators.

When confronted with these concerns, both the RSTC and most training agencies respond with the statement that they cannot and should not regulate non-training dives. While this is true, they do have the right – and responsibility – to limit the number of divers any one Divemaster can be held responsible for during open water activities. But rather than take on this responsibility, these agencies leave it to the unregulated "good judgment" of Divemasters, or worse yet, the irresponsible discretion of dive operators.

A Divemaster is a professional in the hierarchy of a training agency and has earned the right to protect themselves and the divers that they are responsible for from unsafe diving practices while providing the best performance as they possibly can. This is the same philosophy behind the ratio limits of Instructors, yet Divemasters are not given this protection. But the RSTC and training agencies could help provide Divemasters and those that they lead on dives, with an underwater experience that keeps everyone safe and provides them with a sense of comfort. All it would take would be a maximum ratio limit of Divemasters to certified divers.

Of course, that is just my opinion…

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