Becoming a Divemaster, Part II – the academics

PADI divemaster - the exams, the knowledge reviews and the mapping

“The academics” – it’s not the most inspiring title and, truth being told, it’s not the most inspiring part of the DMT (divemaster in training) programme. But at the risk of sounding like your mother / boss / headteacher, academics are integral to most of what we do. When it comes to diving, they are quite possibly the most important bit. It’s a shame therefore that the academic portion of the divemaster programme is often overlooked. Dive schools are keen to sell the time spent underwater, the friends you’ll make and the skills you’ll learn, but often avoid spelling out the details of what the less glamorous classroom time looks like. So allow me to enlighten you.

A divemaster is the first on the rung of PADI’s professional ladder. This means that, once the DMT programme is completed, you are qualified to lead dives independently, which makes you resposnible for people’s safety. It’s therefore imperative that you have a good understanding of the practicalities and the physics surrounding scuba diving; not only will this make you a better all round diver, it will ensure that you’re able to respond appropriately to any potential problems and questions fellow divers might have. Whilst training to be a divemaster, you’ll achieve this level of knowledge by completing the following academic tasks:

1. The Divemaster Manual

For those who are considering doing your DMT, you’ll most likely have worked your way up through the PADI ranks all the way from Open Water, in which case you’ll be familiar by now with the infamous Knowledge Reviews that form the learning frameworks of all PADI’s literature. The Divemaster Manual is no different. Split into 9 chapters, it’s a comprehensive bible of all things scuba. Each chapter ends with a Knowledge Review which is effectively a short, open-book test. Whilst there are quick quizzes dotted throughout the chapters (the kind that show the answers in really small print at the bottom – my favourite) the Knowledge Reviews should be used as a chance to genuinely test your understanding so I’d recommend enforcing a ‘no peeking’ rule. I know, what a swat…

Becoming a divemaster - the academics

In the first 7 chapters, you learn the in’s and out’s of the working diving industry, and what a divemaster’s role is within it, specifically:

  • The role and characteristics of the PADI divemaster
  • Supervising diving activities
  • Assisting with student divers
  • Diver safety and risk management
  • Divemaster conducted programmes
  • Specialized skills and activities
  • The business of diving and your career.

Chapters 7 and 8 is where we get down to the nuts and bolts of diving – the science. This is the section I was most worried about grasping. It will come as no surprise that I consider myself to be more of an airy-fairy creative type than a budding theorist, and I only need take a look at a complicated equation or hear the word “physics” whispered in my ear to send me running to the hills. But, like it or not, physics, maths and biology are an integral part of scuba diving, and it’s imperative that divemasters have a good working understanding of all three. Damn. The final chapters of the manual are dedicated to ‘Awareness of the Dive Environment’ and ‘Dive Theory Review’, and focus in on all the most essential information such as decompression theory, buoyancy, the behaviour of heat, light and sound in water, and the workings of your dive equipment. It’s a lot to take in.

Dive cats in Roatan

Warning – divemaster academics may cause drowsiness

In all honesty, I found the wording in the manual hard to decipher. The use of metaphors and flowery language threw me off and jumbled the meaning of the science until it was difficult to pick out the raw facts. If it hadn’t been for the help of my instructors (and James) explaining things verbally, I think I would have struggled. But, as it happens, I got through to the bitter end, all 274 pages of it, and felt ready for the next stage.

2. The exams

So you’ve crammed in a lot of knowledge over the few weeks it takes you to work through all 9 chapters, and now you’re ready to have it tested. As with all PADI exams, this takes the form of a set of multiple choice questions – 60 based on chapters 1-7, and another 60 based on chapters 8 and 9.

This is also the time you’ll be reunited with an old acquaintance you thought you’d seen the back of – the RDP. If you’re anything like me, you grappled with the RDP (Recreational Dive Planner) during your Open Water, got your head around it long enough to pass the exam, and then relegated this somewhat obsolete bit of plastic to the back of a drawer and instantly looked into buying a dive computer. That’s because a dive computer can do what the RDP does 100 times better and 100 times quicker.

Becoming a divemaster - the academics

This table exists to help plan a safe dive – using it’s somewhat convoluted grid system, you can work out how long you can stay at a certain depth, how long a surface interval you need to account for in between dives, and how much residual nitrogen will be in your body at the end. The thing is, a dive computer does that all for you. Whats more, it adjusts its workings to your exact profiles, it alters and updates your no-decompression limits as you go, and it tells you when to do a safety stop and how long to wait until your next dive. All for a few hundred pounds. It’s little wonder therefore that the RDP has fallen quietly into misuse.

Becoming a divemaster - the academics

I put my faith in this little beauty every time I dive, but it’s a good idea to know how to use the RDP, just in case

However, PADI says that, like good girl guides, we should always be prepared. In the instance of a computer failure, being able to use the RDP is still a useful skill to have up your sleeve. And that’s why the exams include a healthy dose of questions which require use of the traditional RDP and the electronic eRDP to answer. What fun.

3. Mapping

Part of being a good divemaster is knowing the underwater locale better than you know the proverbial back of your hand (because, in all honesty, how well does anyone know the back of their own hand? I’m pretty sure I’d struggle to pick mine out in a line-up. But I digress…) In order to help other divers find their way around on a dive, you may be expected to draw them a map of the site. When I first found this out, I envisaged complicated drawings littered with compass bearings and kick-cycles, but in actuality a dive map need only be a simple drawing of the suggested route which highlights key points of interest of navigation markers.

Diving in RoatanI had a little help from my mapping buddy who knew a lot more about the local area than I did

The first step in creating a dive map, is to visit the site with a slate and a pencil and simply draw as you dive. For mine, I took the boat out to a site called Grape Escape (so called because the mooring line is tied to the eponymous sunken boat) and doggedly began a typical route out from the boat and back again. Recording topography, depths and timings as I went, I made up a crude sketch of what was sprawled out beneath me, and emerged with a sloppy but accurate depiction of the site I’d just covered.

Becoming a divemaster - mapping

Back in the shop, it was simply a case of converting this into a neat sketch on the whiteboard, and accompanying it with a verbal briefing. Considering that this was one of the activities I was most nervous about, so much so that it was the last task I completed, it was surprisingly easy to master. I found the boat during the reconnaissance dive without a hitch, and I passed the exercise with flying colours.

Map of Grape Escape, Roatan

While this might not be the prettiest map you’ve ever seen, it’s a more than ample tool for other divers to follow.


Fortunately, the academics don’t take up a huge proportion of the DMT programme’s schedule. There’s a lot of reading at first, and it’s rare to meet a divemaster who found the exams the best bit of the course, but if you tackle them early on, they give you a valuable head-start for the rest of the training. If, like me, you’re planning on going on to take the Instructor Development Course, it’s worth investing the time and energy in the academics now, as they’ll be rearing their heads again in just a few short months. Bring it on IDC, I’m ready for you.

Want to know more about becoming a divemaster? You can read what a day in my life as a DMT here, and watch out for the next instalment – the scenarios…

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