You watch me. Three words that you’ll use more than any others during your time as a DMT. As someone who doesn’t exactly shy away from the limelight, it’s fair to say I’m not altogether uncomfortable with being the centre of attention, which is a good job as training to become a divemaster puts you in the spotlight time and time again.
You. Watch. Me.
After all, divemaster is the first rung on the professional diving career ladder. Divers of all different experience levels will look to you as the expert to act as a confident, calm leader whilst underwater, to find and point out interesting marine life, to explain how things are done, and to answer questions about anything from fish identification to equipment malfunctions. But, most of all, you’ll be looked to as a role model and, consequently, your diving skills need to be inscrutable.
That’s why the DMT (divemaster training) programme includes the ‘skill circuit’ – 20 fundamental diving skills that you are required to perform at demonstration level, plus 4 basic ‘skin diving’ (that’s snorkelling to you an me) skills.
At some point in your training, you’ll have to go through all 24 skills in front of an instructor, who will mark you based on your clarity and thoroughness. You’re aiming for teaching-standard demonstrations which clearly highlight every step in the process, all the while remaining calm, confident and in control.
Skill 19 – removing BCD and scuba unit underwater
The skill circuit acts as an excellent trial run for leading dives, something that all DMTs are required to do at least once – or at least 5 times if you train with Coconut Tree. It’s here that you get to take the reins of responsibility in both hands and take charge of an entire dive. Starting on the boat, you’ll give both the boat and the full dive site briefings, giving your divers all the facts they need – where you’ll be going, for how deep and how long, what marine life they can expect to see, buddy and emergency procedures, etc. Once your divers are fully briefed, you’ll get them set up in their equipment and help them into the water. It’s here that you need to be able to take charge and show excellent leadership abilities, descending as a group and making sure they know to follow you throughout the dive.
As a guide, you’re also expected to point out a variety of underwater curios as you go. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and a giant eagle ray or inquisitive turtle will swim directly past your group, but often you have to work a bit harder to impress your divers. Developing a good eye for macro life will help you spot and show the smaller stuff that would otherwise go unnoticed, and is one of the things that sets a divemaster aside from a hobbying diver.
The hardest part of leading for me was navigating. There’s little need for compasses in Roatan as the reef wall runs directly North to South, so most dive profiles simply go out to the wall from the mooring, then follow it along before heading in and back again. Simple though this sounds, there’s very few distinguishing features to spot, and knowing when to turn relies more on intuition than any exact science. However, as the leader you are expected to guide an interesting, smooth and well-paced dive, so I made sure not to let my nervousness about getting lost show. Each time I led, I found my way back to the boat successfully, something that became easier with each lead. After 3 or 4 times, it began to feel like second-nature and I started to relax and enjoy guiding a group.
Throughout the dive, a good divemaster commands eyes on them a lot of the time. Whether it’s conducting a briefing on the boat, fielding questions on the ride home, or checking divers’ air underwater, there’s a lot of times you’ll be required to sit in the centre of a group’s attention. But it’s not all professional showboating. The DMT programme is also designed to test your physical skills.
The infamous stamina test is comprised of four speed and endurance events which test your fitness: the 400m swim, the 800m snorkel swim, the 100m tired diver tow, and the 15 minute float. Unfortunately, these skills also turned out to be a bit too public for my liking. Whilst I’ve already mentioned that I don’t shy away from attention, there are times when I’d rather just keep my head down and get quietly on with things. That includes anything that veers even close to ‘sports’ territory and, when it comes to fitness or races, I don’t appreciate an audience. Yes, I was that kid in primary school who cried on Sports Day and refused to run the egg-and-spoon race without my teddy.
Unfortunately, an audience is what I got as on the day of my stamina test, as the entire Coconut Tree team (along with what felt like half of Roatan) decided to pitch up on the deck with a couple of cans of beer to make an evening of it. Swimming is not a spectator’s sport at the best of times, but watching me huff and puff my ungainly way across the bay can’t have been entertaining.
Who’d have thought that such a beautiful bay could be the setting for such unrelaxing exploits…
Knowing that there was a small crowd of people witnessing what I found to be an embarrassing display of average fitness was a low point of the entire divemaster training for me. Whilst all the aspects of the stamina test are perfectly doable under normal circumstances, the fact that they are against the clock adds an element of competitiveness to the DMT programme that I loathed. One of the reasons I love diving is that, whilst some may argue it’s a sport, it’s one of the least competitive activities out there. Other than squabbling over who has the best air consumption or who needs the least weight, there’s very little you can compete over underwater. A good diver is made up of so many facets that are all too subtle to be ranked against one another in the main, which leaves everyone free to just get on with enjoying the experience.
The final skill in the divemaster programme requires you to demonstrate that you can remain calm and capable whilst diving even when under significant stress. The “stress test”, or equipment exchange challenge, is designed to do just that. In essence, it is a simple as it sounds. You and a buddy descend onto a sand patch where you’re required to switch equipment: mask, fins, BCD, everything. The only thing that you’re allowed to keep on is your wetsuit. Sound simple? Well then, throw in the fact that you’ll be buddy-breathing – sharing the same cylinder and regulator for the entire experience. On top of that, you can expect your instructors to stir things up a little. Literally. With sand being hurled in every direction, the visibility quickly becomes non-existent, and you’re left reliant on your sense of touch.
Since qualifying as a divemaster, I now have the ‘pleasure’ of being the buddy for new DMTs on their equipment exchange. Having done it in the sea at zero-visibility, I can confidently say that those who get to do it in the pool have it pretty good!
I pride myself on staying fairly cool underwater, no matter what’s thrown at me. I easily shrugged off my instructors’ attempts to throw me during the deep scenario, and have proven again and again that it takes more than my mask being ripped off my face or my air being turned off to freak me out. So I was pleased to find that the equipment exchange was just another example of taking things slow and keeping a level head. I surfaced at the end with full marks, pleased that I’d managed to salvage some kudos following the stamina test.
Ultimately, the skills section of the divemaster training are designed to fine-tune your skills and get you ready to work as a professional diver. For any DMTs going on to take their Instructor exams, the skills are an invaluable opportunity to practice and perfect your ability to teach and lead.
Interested in learning more about what becoming a divemaster entails? You can read my full series of ‘Becoming a Divemaster’ posts, which include information about the academics, the scenarios, and what a day in the life of a DMT looks like.
If you have any questions about becoming a divemaster or diving in Roatan, please feel free to drop me an email.