I miss diving.
Long time readers may have noticed that over the last few years I’ve been logging less and less time underwater. That’s not because my interest in diving has waned — far from it! It’s pretty much the same reason that many divers stay dry for too long. Work gets busy, bad weather provides a good excuse, and life gets in the way. While spending more time on Koh Tao became a major priority over the past year, my extensive diving history there meant I found myself less motivated to go fun diving than I would in a new exotic and exciting destination. Basically, I found myself in a diving rut.
In fact, over four months after I’d landed back on Koh Tao, I was shocked to realize I’d only been out on two fun dives! For shame. It was around then that a friend at Master Divers, a PADI dive school with a reputation for not just meeting but exceeding industry standards, piqued my interest over talks of a course I’d never even heard of: PADI Self Reliant Diver.
The Self Reliant course is a distinctive specialty, a specific kind of class developed by PADI instructors who have special scuba diving interests and expertise, in which source materials and curriculum are independently developed — thus, you won’t find them just anywhere.
Diving without a buddy? I admit, at first, it does sound pretty bananas. But occasionally, experienced divers may want or need to make a solo dive, or be independent from their buddy underwater. This can be the case for photographers, videographers, rescue divers, or dive professionals who can’t necessarily rely on their students to assist them in an emergency. Don’t worry, you don’t have to ditch your dive crew — the emphasis of the course is on self reliance both without or with a buddy.
As someone who once worked as an underwater videographer and now obsesses over underwater photography for fun, I was immediately drawn to the course — and I knew Master Divers would be the perfect place to enroll.
The night before I began the course, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Were they going to drop me off in the middle of the ocean and tell me to fend for myself, trial-by-fire style? (Spoiler alert: No. Duh.)
The next morning my fears were quickly put to rest as I met my fellow students — one, a professional underwater photographer originally from the US but living on Koh Tao, the other, an avid diver on vacation from Eastern Europe — and our British instructor Gaz. As a PADI Course Director, Gaz seemed obscenely over-qualified to teach us, but embraced the role with gusto. As both an advanced Tec enthusiast and passionate freediver, Gaz had a wealth of knowledge into the physiology of diving.
The next two days would consist of classroom time as well as three dives spread over two days — though Master Divers is quick to emphasize that they will never rush into signing someone off if they need more time to comfortably complete a course, which really makes it more of a guideline.
Up in the classroom, we discussed the potential risks of diving alone as well as the value of equipment redundancy and the necessity of back-up gear. We learned how to measure air consumption, plan gas requirements, calculate something called a SAC rate, how to plan independent dives safely, and how to use specialized equipment like sling tanks, SMBs and lift bags. In the water, we repeated drills on emergency situations I’d never even considered until our responses were drilled securely into our muscle memory.
It’s been years since I dove without my camera, but during this course, I didn’t even miss it (the underwater photos in this post are from the two ho-hum fun dives I went on in the months prior). I just had so much fun slipping back into the role of student again.
When I’d first sat down in the classroom and seen the vocabulary words Gaz had scrawled on the board — DSAT vs. Pelagic-2 settings, say what? — I’d wondered if I’d gotten in over my head. I don’t normally consider myself smart in these science-y, technical subjects, and so I doubted my ability to keep up in this course. Yet by the time we surfaced from our third dive, I felt confident and proud.
Who is this course perfect for? Photographers, videographers, and dive professionals, absolutely — but also experienced dive enthusiasts just looking to increase their underwater skill set, and those who might be interested in dipping their toes into the world of Tec. To enroll, you’ll need to be certified to the Advanced Open Water level and have at least a hundred logged dives. The 7,000B course fee with Master Divers covers everything including three dives, textbooks, all rental equipment and fees.
Considering Master Divers’ reputation for excellence I wasn’t surprised with the in-depth and high quality education I received there. These guys go by and beyond the book: Gaz was one of the most knowledgeable and experienced instructors I’ve taken a course with, and the shop itself was both organized and efficient.
Yet most notably, to me, is their strong dedication to protecting the delicate eco-system of Koh Tao. At the initial briefing, they offer a detailed list of green travel recommendations for the island, they provide on-site recycling, free water bottle refills and the use of their tupperware for takeaway to the regular beach and they organize regular dive site cleanups. They didn’t just slap “ECO” on the label — they are really living it. Also, a small detail, but it stood out — their instructors don’t smoke on the boats. As someone with extremely sensitive allergies, I appreciated this.
I walked away from this course with a new appreciation for self-reliance and a greater sense of independence underwater. Mostly, I loved the way it made me think, and challenged me to consider dive planning, equipment configuration and emergency preparedness in a whole new light. Am I going to be popping into the water for a solo shore dive anytime soon? Nah. But I will consider diving more conservative profiles and adding a pony tank to my gear roster, and I’ll feel more confident planning dives where I’m semi-independent from my buddy while we both focus on our cameras.
Taking a course was the perfect way to get out of a diving rut: it took advantage of less than ideal conditions, it helped me look at a familiar place in a fun new way, and it shook me out of my comfort zone by reminding me how much I still have to learn. I loved it so much, I signed up for two more — so stay tuned!
Are you a diver? What has your favorite course been?
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative.
Though I am very new to diving, this looks like something I would consider in the future, no matter how far away! Did you do the course in a pool or out in the ocean or in a lagoon? Great pics, BTW
We did it in the ocean! However Koh Tao has plenty of shallow, calm bays perfect for completing skills.
This terrifies me – but also inspires me! Well done for trying the solo scuba course and sounds like it was a great way to get out of the rut. I still have some more diving too before I’m at that level to go solo although my husband has no qualms about heading out by himself. But it must really help with confidence in yourself and your own abilities. Well done!
Maybe it could be a goal for you both to do the course together someday! I was a little bit anxious about this course too but left more confident than ever. Can’t recommend it more highly!
Glad you finally did a dive blog, really missed them. Best course so far has been rescue diver.
You’ll be pleased to know there are more ahead in the near future, then 🙂 I love diving posts too!
How awesome I have never been diving, hell I can barely swim
Everyone starts from somewhere! Happy to bring you along on my underwater journey virtually, for now 🙂
Alex, I always love your insight into diving classes! I’ve never dived before, but it’s definitely on my list. It’s super inspiring to hear about your journey and what makes you feel reconnected to the activity too. 🙂 Hopefully I get to take a class someday!
Thanks Amanda! I’m glad to know that even as a non-diver you enjoy this kind of content. Because there’s more of it to come!
This is a really interesting read, Alex. I only just got certified last year and have been trying to dive as often as possible – I absolutely love it, but the courses make me so nervous! I’ve never been super confident in the water, but diving has changed that a lot. I’m hoping to do my advanced sometime next year and have already worked myself up over the thought of it, though! So I don’t think I’ll ever take my courses this far, but I love to read your perpective on it all. Thanks for sharing 🙂
That’s awesome to hear diving has given you more confidence in the water — I feel the same way! I used to see the ocean as this big scary mystery but now that I know what’s in there, so to speak, it seems a little less spooky! I admit that I still do get intimidated by the vastness of the sea sometimes, but diving has definitely helped me make leaps and bounds.
First off, i would like to say an enormous thank you.
i came across you blog a couple of years ago while i was in such a rut with my life. i had traveled extensively for 6 years before hand. but when returned home i was lost. i was searching for something; after discovering your internet ramblings i made a decision. that decision has led me to be on koh tao for almost 2 years now and working as a videographer 🙂 so about ruts. for a little while ive been in one with diving. so im going to go back to being the student again. next year i will be studying marine and wildlife photography over 3 years. after discovering you those years back. you still inspire. thank you alex. would love to meet up and have a good old chat if youre still in tao?
Hey Brad! First of all, that’s such a cool story! What schools are you filming for? And where are you going to school? Sadly I’m back in New York at the moment… wish I was back on Koh Tao!
This looks really great – I haven’t been diving in ages, and I’m dying to get back in the water. I have my Rescue Diver certification but would love to spend a few months becoming a Divemaster and then delving into courses like this one. Thanks for the review!
I want to do my divemaster all over again… the whole experience was one of the greatest of my life! Think they’d mind a repeat student!?
Great post, thank you! We love reading your diving articles. We have a more detailed diving related question we’d love your opinion on, so we sent you an email instead of clogging up your comments 🙂 If you get the opportunity we’d love your feedback!
Hey there! Sorry, my inbox has gotten totally behind while traveling 🙂 I’ll do it now while I’m thinking of it!
I got my PADI last year in Honduras and it’s something I’m so glad I did. I’ve read a lot of your dive related posts because I think they are so inspiring. I love this one and always find your writing to be informative and helpful but in a subtle way.
I think I’d really benefit from this course because I’ve only ever been diving with my boyfriend and I’m kind of afraid to go without him. Thanks for another great read and some stunning photos.
Hey Bryony! You bring up a really good point. Sometimes we can get overly dependent on one particular dive buddy and it is very freeing — and fun! — to feel comfortable diving with a range of other people. I think this course would be a great step towards that! Let me know if you end up going for it, I’d love to hear how you get on. Good luck!
Truth time: I’m TERRIFIED of the thought of diving alone. I got a case of vertigo in a very cloudy and bumpy dive in Cabo once, got separated from my group, couldn’t find the way up (couldn’t even see my bubbles) and nearly had a major panic attack far beneath the sea!
Girl I feel you. When I dive with my friends (AKA other divemasters or instructors, mostly) we are all pretty independent of each other and every once in a while I look up and I’m like, oh hey there… I’m alone. Lol. Courses like this have definitely helped me keep the panic at bay in those moments.
Thanks for sharing! Didn’t hear before about self reliant diving but seems a good alternative indeed to stay in good diving form or photography/video. But I guess you need to own full gear, otherwise if rental you would typically have some buddies to dive with. In all cases seems like an awesome diving experience, would certainly dive with that school when we land at Koh Tao one day))
Yes, a sling tank or some sort of backup air is definitely key if you actually want to dive totally solo! Though what I like about this course is it focuses on independence even in a buddy group, which makes it applicable all the time.
With less than twenty dives under my belt, I’m not ready to start considering something like this. I’m proud to report that a month ago my buddy and I did our first solo dive. In the Netherlands, with sight less than 7m 🙂
Wow! That is something to be proud of, girl. Savor every victory!
So glad it helped you get somewhat out of your rut!
Still a long way off for me, and even then not sure if it’s my thing…
My favourite course unit would probably have be just our basic Open Water certification.
That first day, realising I could do it and in fact how comfortable I felt was amazing 🙂
Yeah, it’s a hard one to beat! You always remember your first 😉
I never realised this was a thing either! One for the bucket list I think! It would be so handy – as a blogger – to be able to hang around something long enough to get a good photo or video without the rest of my group getting annoyed with me!
Absolutely! That’s why a lot of photographers and videographers end up taking this course — we often swim to the beat of our own conch drum, or something like that 😉
Hi Alex!!! It’s been 2 years since I posted something on your blog! The last we “spoke” was me asking you about Swish and telling you about me starting on my OW course! *LoL* Here I am reading your wisdom on diving after I have been diving around Indonesia for the last 2 years and am now ready to horn my skills to be more independent! As I travel solo every where to dive, buddy system is a good idea but doesn’t mean I will have a good buddy. As experience builds up, I am keen to be more self reliant in my dive for the just in case moment rather than aiming to dive solo. I have been scouting around the world to take this course..preferably somewhere hot with warm waters 🙂 and Master Divers popped up quite often in Google search. I will be diving in Mozambique this August (full on diving along it’s 2500 km coastline! Yippy) and still short of the 100 logged dives by 20 (!) required by Master Divers. Thou I love the idea of doing the DM programme. I do not have the luxury of time to take 6 weeks off work. Reading the course outline, do you see any overlap on skills? Eg I read somewhere saying I need to have my own DSMB, knife, spare mask. To be honest, once I got my AOW, I picked up the rest of the skills while I was doing my diving rounds by asking DMs, experience divers to teach me. Do you know how strict Master Divers will be if I am “slightly” short of the logged dives? I found some dive centres in Bali doesn’t even asked for the 100 logged dives thou it is stated in PADI website and by all UK dive centres. I never been to Koh Tao so it may be a good excuse to go there and will need your recommendation on accommodation and places to go at some point!!! xxx
Wow Rachel what an amazing story — you go girl! Are you hoping to come to Koh Tao before August? If so, perhaps shoot them an email and see if you might be able to do the Self Reliant course with 80 dives. Considering your passion and experience, they may be able to make an exception. Let me know how it goes! Good luck!
Aye Alex! Great site, have really enjoyed your posts and writing! Heading solo to Koh Tao mid April, I’m padi certified but haven’t been diving since the blue hole a million years ago. I was wondering if the dive sites do a quick refresher before a dive, or would/should I take a refresher then do a separate dive? I’m sure I can figure it out along the way but wanted your expert expat advice! Ok byeeeeeee :^)
Hey Matthew! Dive guides definitely do a little site briefing before each dive site, but if you’re a little unsure of your skills I’d definitely do a quick refresher course in the pool before setting off to sea. That way you can really focus on enjoying the dives rather than worrying about what to do if your mask floods 🙂 Good luck!
Hi. Hope you have the time to answer. I guess I’m a little confused. I didn’t know PADI had this kind of course. The only agency I ever heard had something like this was SDI, their Solo Diver Course. I’ve seen many looking into technical diving before they had enough experience under their belts to make educated decisions about that kind of diving, but they do it anyway… I don’t think that course is a technical diving course, but if seems like people are forgoing experience over instant gratification.
So, when I learned how to dive, I learned about communicating with my buddy, not diving beyond the limits of my certification, how to share air with my buddy, and even do the swimming ascent to the surface exhaling all the way up. I learned that being in the same ocean but not close enough to your buddy to help lend a hand happens a lot too. From what you’ve said, it sounds like your original certification failed to teach you how to be a safe diver if as a Divemaster you, “are all pretty independent of each other and everyone once in a while.”
I never recall seeing Divemasters in the water by themselves, but it would seem like that would go against what you want to teach students. Divemasters and instructors that bend the rules are bad examples and if you work in a place where it is done and you are expected to do it, then that is dangerous — and all for the sake of a job.
As far as using this course as a gateway to technical diving, those guys don’t dive alone. If the Tech guys don’t dive alone, then why should a recreational diver EVER dive alone?
You also mentioned that the dive shop, Master Divers, goes beyond the book. I found out recently that PADI instructors use a checklist and cannot deviate from it, not to mention not let the student progress if they haven’t accomplished the skill they are on. So, if they are going beyond the checklist, they are not following the standards set forth by their agency. Now, I can concede that more training is better, however, if the instructor doesn’t follow the agency standards, even if they are offering more, and there are no consequences of those actions, what is that saying about those instructors?
To clarify, it’s not my intention to point out issues, but your story seems contrary to the way I learned to dive. With that said, I also have to show my instructor “autonomous confidence.” He described this as being able to get separated from the group and having the ability to safely and independently make it to the surface. To avoid panic and if it happens, manage anxiety. He said, “What good is all this training if only for it to go down the toilet by losing sight of your dive buddy?”
I also wonder if people are going to use this course to start dives together and when separated, complete their dives because they have a certification card that tells them they can. Seems to me if you start together, you finish together.
You also said you had fun in your DM course so you want to take it again as a newbie? Why would you pay again for training you already got? Was it lacking in some way? I had fun in some of my classes in medical school, but I would never take them again for fun, including, paying for it a second time. Wouldn’t the prudent course be to take continuing education and build on what you’ve already learned? I don’t know how confident I’d be with a DM that took a professional course twice.
I look forward to your responses.
Happy to address all your concerns here but I have to admit I’ve read your comment multiple times and I feel a lot of hostility towards either me or this course or both so I’m not sure anything I say will be well received, but I’ll do my best.
Yes, PADI does indeed have this kind of course. You can read more about it on their website! As you pointed out and as I wrote in my post, this is not a technical diving course but a recreational one. However, tech diving places a strong emphasis on self-reliance, which is the focus of this course. My instructor was an extremely experienced and highly trained tech diver who drew this parallel for us many times.
My dive education, from start to finish, has also focused on communication, following limits, and all the other basics you outlined in your comment. I strongly disagree with your assessment that my original certification failed to teach me how to be a safe diver — frankly, it’s kind of a rude assumption to make. I never once in this post referenced “divemasters in the water by themselves.” We were never encouraged to dive completely solo recreationally or to finish dives separately if we became separated from our buddies in this course. Just the opposite, in fact.
I will paste again what I wrote in my post regarding why someone may be interested in a solo diver course: “occasionally, experienced divers may want or need to make a solo dive, or be independent from their buddy underwater. This can be the case for photographers, videographers, rescue divers, or dive professionals who can’t necessarily rely on their students to assist them in an emergency. Don’t worry, you don’t have to ditch your dive crew — the emphasis of the course is on self reliance both without or with a buddy.” As I emphasized over and over again, the focus is self-reliance.
Moving on, I really don’t understand what point you are trying to make about Master Divers. It is a compliment to say they are meeting and exceeding the minimum standards set by PADI for their courses. I’ve been lucky to take several courses (like my Advanced Open Water) with decorated PADI Course Directors, many of whom added extra little lessons or skills or flair to their courses. The standards are there to ensure that each student receives the same minimum base to their education, but that doesn’t means all instructors should be check-list following robots. Every day, teachers around the world in every industry manage to meet industry standards while adapting material to both their teaching styles and their student’s learning styles.
To your final point, I meet enthusiastic divemaster trainers every week who are taking the course for fun, or to further their personal dive education rather than as a career step. Yes, it is a professional training, but it’s also an incredibly good time, an amazing way to meet new people, and a great way to go diving every day and to learn every day. I love being a student! I see nothing crazy about wanting to go to a new island, click in with an awesome new dive school, and do my DMT all over again!
I hope this clears up some of your concerns.
Thanks for the reply.
It’s interesting how just pointing out what I see, my opinion, and comparing it to what I’ve experienced is interpreted as an attack.
As far as Divemasters in the water by themselves, you write, “we are all pretty independent of each other and every once in a while I look up and I’m like, oh hey there… I’m alone.”
That seems to illustrate diving solo or ending up solo. Looking up to discover the divers you started with are not there means that communication and situational awareness failed. This is only my observation, but you said it yourself! If you could look up and you’re alone, especially if you started with another, this reinforces that you are not ready for a course that allows a diver to dive independent of others.
“I don’t see why that means all instructors should be check-list following robots. Every day, teachers around the world in every industry manage to meet industry standards while adapting material to both their teaching styles and their student’s learning styles.” I am not referring to other industries as I cannot confirm nor deny that their standards are being followed. However, PADI requires the checklist and does not approve of diverging from their teaching methodology. It is very possible for your instructor to find an agency that is inline with your instructor’s way of approaching teaching divers. But to make the decision on his own to deviate from standards is unprofessional. As an emergency room physician, deviating from established standards could get someone killed and in a lawsuit, find me negligent.
All these illustrations are presented to you so you might see that there appears that diving isn’t a career for you, but a place to go for fun. I understand that fun should be a part of diving, but where then is the professional in Divemaster? I’ve had a dozen years of post-graduate studies to be an emergency room physician, so I speak from experience.
Here are some statics from a recent survey that I hope you read over correlate to what I’m saying. In the end, you’ll do what you want, but if you can take any of this as advice, get off the thin ice. Someone is going to get hurt.
Human Factors in Scuba Diving
September 20-21, 2014
Gareth Lock, Ph.D. Candidate
Online Survey and Results
1,415 surveys started
10 weeks data collection period
n=332 (43%) didn’t have an ‘incident’
41% respondents were instructors
20% OC Tech, CCR, or CD/IT
Type of Incident Encountered, n=443
physically OOG on a dive: 6% less than 50 bar (500 psi): 26% (unplanned)
uncontrolled buoyant ascent: 8%
unplanned separation: 23%
mild/severe DCS: 8%
major narcosis (N2 or CO2): 6%
major equipment problem: 22% (the use of the equipment properly)
Type of Diving When Incident Occurred
OC Rec: 67%
OC Tech: 19%
OC Rec Instruction: 1%
OC Tech Instruction: 1%
CCR Instruction: 1%
The areas with the highest proportions where action had not been take were:
61.1% (n=2,164) who had not practiced dropping weights
28.6% (n=1,012) who had dived without practicing a safety drill
19.4% (n=687) who had continued to dive when below 50 bar (500psi)
17.5% (n=620) who had not had their own equipment serviced in the last 12 months
12.4% (n=437) who had dived beyond their maximum depth
Major Factors #1
error in judgment due to lack of experience: 36%
inexperience in that environment: 35%
poor and/or failure to communicate: 33%
unfamiliar conditions/environment: 28%
problems involving use of equipment: 24%
poor decision to continue dive: 22%
misplaced motivation (goal orientated diving): 22%
failure to use all resources (not using teamwork): 20%
lack of awareness of buddy leading to unplanned separation: 19%
normalization of deviance / external motivation factors: 19%
Major Factors #2
misjudged gas consumption: 18%
direct contravention of training: 18%
failure of ‘leadership’: 18%
incorrect weighting: 15%
poor buoyancy control (ascent): 13%
Heuristics (problem solving)
“normally OK, no need to check. trust me”: 12%
“looks fine to me”: 9%
“not really important”: 8%
Admittedly, I’m nowhere near as experienced a diver as Alex, but I have been a diver for 10 years now and while the thought of diving alone TERRIFIES me, there have been times when I have been separated from a group—like during tough swells in Cabo with less than 15 feet of vis where I was caught in a torpedo of fish and wound up surfacing alone because all of the group got split up simply due to environmental circumstances.
On another dive, I ran out of air early, and my buddy and I surfaced together, only the swells were huge, the dive boat was a tiny zodiac and the captain couldn’t see us. It took nearly half an hour for him to find us as we were but two tiny specks in one massive ocean, and it was terrifying.
Those two scenarios themselves are enough to make me want to take this self-relaint course simply to help quench that rising panic I felt in both cases.
You should definitely consider it Kristin! I think it would help anyone become a more confident diver. I really enjoyed the drills we did for scenarios I’d never even considered — I’ve never felt more prepared!
The comment of mine you quoted is out of context, in a reply to another reader in the comments section. Again I will repeat that I do not dive alone or out of sight from my dive buddy, though when I am diving with other dive pros and especially other photographers we are often out of arm’s reach from each other, which is exactly why I wanted to take a course on self reliance. There’s nothing to be scandalized by here. And it is really not for you to decide if I was ready for this course — it was up to the extremely qualified and well respected PADI Course Director who taught it.
I actually consulted with a PADI Instructor Trainer to address your concerns over PADI’s teaching methodology. They confirmed that as long as the instructor is not teaching ahead to material that is included in another course’s curriculum, instructors are welcomed to go, as I wrote “above and beyond” the checklist. They are not deviating from the standards. They are following them, and exceeding them.
Finally. I am quite shocked that you consider yourself qualified to wave me off from a career in diving simply because of this blog post (which, frankly, you widely misinterpreted.) Again I feel the dozens of instructors and mentors I have worked with over the past eight years are surely more qualified to judge that than you. Taking this course was a demonstration of my interest in becoming an ever more educated and safety-proficient diver. There’s no thin ice for me to get off. But there is a high horse you might want to consider coming down from.
Hi I’m a Padi Staff Instructor and as you can see from my Padi number (#76959) I’ve been around teaching for awhile.
I’ve worked on Kho Tao staffing IDC’s with a 100% sucess rate and you dosn’t seem to have the full knowlegde of how the Padi system works.
The Padi system and General Standards are an evolving system.
I was involved in a change of the standards for 9 years ago during an IE there Padi accepted the way that a certain exercise was thought locally at Kho Tao as a safer way and more effencient way tog conduct the exercise and the Kho Tao way bevare the new standard at IE’s (Instructor Examination).
So standards are subject to change if they can be improved.
I’m not a diver and I love reading these dive posts it really makes me want to give it a shot again. Years ago I sign up to get certified and never even completed the practical portion but I’m getting excited about giving it a shot again.
Go for it Sandy! I’d love to hear about it if you do!