People choose to travel for many different reasons: to see new sights and marvel at the wonders of the world; to meet people and make new friends; to give themselves the time and space to heal from the pain of loss or heartbreak. My list of ‘why’ was long and complex, but right up there at the top was the chance to learn something new, to challenge and test myself.
With half a decade passing since my university days, I was aware of just how sluggish my ‘learning’ muscle was becoming. Of course I learned things over my five years of work, lots of things in fact. I picked up new skills, became well versed in the nuances of office culture, and eagerly rose to new professional challenges. But the problem was, once I’d mastered something new, I’d start to feel just a little bit bored, unfulfilled.
This was the driver that lead me down the road to professional diving. Not only would I be learning a whole host of new skills – communicating underwater, teaching, the art of perfect buoyancy control – I’d finally be putting the sleepy corner of my brain that was responsible for acquiring new, academic information back into action.
The divemaster was a chance to focus on the former – to master the skills. During my three months of training, emphasis was placed on becoming a better diver, improving my underwater skills and learning the ropes of how a dive shop runs. There was an academic element to the training in the form of a couple of exams which I found relatively challenging, but it wasn’t until I began the instructor training that my foray back into education would really begin.
The Instructor Development Course, or IDC as it’s known in the trade, is a 2 week intensive training programme that takes everything you’ve learned as a diver so far, and uses that as foundations upon which to build a skyscraper of new information. A return to education was what I wanted, and boy did I get it.
The first day of the course, bright and early at 7am (it would later transpire that this was to be something of a lie-in), I skipped down the road to the dive centre, socks pulled up and pony-tail swinging with all the nervous excitement of a kindergartener on her first day of big school. On my back was my shiny new PADI rucksack, packed full with enough reading materials to stock a small library. These were thick, heavy books full of complicated words like ‘erythrocytes’ and ‘zooaxnthaellae’ that I didn’t really understand, but I was raring to start getting my head round them.
The IDC itself is split into two sections – academics and in-water practical scenarios – and, fortunately, the academics take up a healthy chunk of that split. I say fortunately because it soon transpired that I’d be needing the time to get back into the swing of traditional learning once again. Picking our seats at the desks that were to become our home for the next week, I hadn’t anticipated the mental and emotional rollercoaster that I would be going on in the time it would take to get from cover to cover of the course curriculum.
The idea behind the IDC’s academic section is to present all the information in a host of short presentations. We’d then be given homework and tested the next day on how much had sunk in. Whilst the theory of this is perfectly valid, I began to realise after a couple of hours that I might just have rose-tinted the notion of ‘traditional academic learning’ somewhat. My memory had conveniently brushed over the times I’d caught a quick nap at the back of the lecture hall, unable to muster the necessary enthusiasm for Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight for the third hour in a row. Or how the need to remain silent and still for more than a couple of minutes brings out a naughty streak in me that sees me doodling, passing notes or generally ‘disputing the class’. Or how I’m horribly stubborn and impatient and bit of a perfectionist who will explode into a fit of frustrated internal fury if I get something wrong. But these traits from my school days were still there and, after the realisation that the academic section of the IDC was far from child’s-play dawned on me, I started to get nervous about the prospect of failure.
The academics are split into 5 sections: Physics, Physiology, General Skills and Environment, Equipment and the RDP (Recreational Dive Planner) It was the former of these that took up the most of my attentions, and my apartment quickly became wallpapered with Post-Its designed to help the information stick.
Mastering this information is important for two reasons. Firstly, you must pass all the exams with at least 75% to pass the Instructor Exam (IE). Secondly, and more importantly, you will then go on to teach this information to others. Simply memorising enough to see you pass the exams is not good enough – once you’re in a teaching role, you need to be the one on the explaining end of these scientific gems of information. It took a lot of cajouling my brain back into shape before I felt comfortable with the wealth of new information that I’d taken in, but by the time the academics drew to a close I was proud to see my academic engine back in gear as I passed the mock exams with flying colours.
The in-water scenarios
Finally, blinking in the sunlight as we emerged from our classroom after long days and nights of relentless study, we were ready to get wet. The in-water section of the IDC focuses on how to teach students and how to spot and correct potential problems or mistakes. There’s a very didactic formula that PADI prescribes for this process and, after a couple of test runs, is something that most people become comfortable with quickly. The format goes like so: brief the skill at the surface, demonstrate clearly underwater, allow each student to attempt the skill and identify and correct any problems, and finally praise and debrief accordingly at the surface.
During the IDC training, the group took it in turns to role play different underwater problems. One by one we’d be assigned the role of instructor, given a skill to brief before being sent underwater out of hearing distance while the course director briefed the rest of us – the ‘students’ – on what our problem was to be. We’d then ascend as a group where the instructor began their demonstration. Like ducks in a row, the students would watch obediently before taking it in turns to repeat what they’d just been shown. And, surprise surprise, each of them would then make a rookie error. These could range from something glaringly obvious – like spitting the regulator out while trying to clear their mask – to sneakier mishaps that were harder to spot – such as forgetting to blow bubbles when the regulator is out of their mouth. Upon spotting the problem, it was up to you to correct it and, once the student had met the performance requirements, give them a high-five or a fist-bump and move on to the next. Finally, once everyone had had a turn, the group went up to the surface for a quick debrief.
It was kind of like an underwater Cluedo; whenever it was my turn to be the instructor, I’d descend to the bottom of the pool determined to sleuth the assigned mistakes and call the culprit out on their wrongdoings. As I debriefed my group of shambling students, I’d triumphantly reveal the errors I’d spotted in a manner that Agatha Christie would have been proud of – “it was Mr Oates, in the pool, with the water in his mask!”
In fact, if it wasn’t for the ever-looming pressure of the whole thing, it would have been ridiculously good fun. But there was a downside – the threat of a 1. A score of 1 is given if your conduct is perceived as dangerous or particularly substandard, and an overall 1 results in an instant fail. Whilst you do get the luxury of a remake if you score a 1 in the confined section, the terror of missing a problem or allowing someone to do something potentially dangerous is something that lurks at the back of every IDC candidates mind and adds a layer of stress to an otherwise enjoyable scenario.
Once we’d mastered this process in the pool, we then graduated onto open water. Here, the exact same process applies, but there’s one crucial difference – you don’t get a remake in the open water section of the exam. If we’d been nervous of the dreaded 1 before, it was nothing to the feeling of ascending from a dive, terrified that you might have missed a mistake. In addition, the water in the harbour where we did our practice runs was murky and cold, making it even harder to spot problems.
It was during the in-water training that it began to dawn on me that I would be responsible for people’s safety underwater as well as just their education and enjoyment. Even though the days were long and I’d return home as shrivelled as a prune after hours of submerged practice, I’m glad that the IDC is a thorough as it is. Because once the exam is passed and you’re out in the real world, you’ll be thankful for the rigorous preparation you received.
After two weeks of gruelling work, tears, tantrums and laughter, the IDC was complete. Looming ahead of us like a storm cloud was the Instructors Exam (IE) which would determine whether all our hard work and practice would pay off….
Interested in taking your diving to the next level? You can read more about the process of becoming a divemaster in my earlier posts, or get in touch if you have any questions about training or working in the dive industry. Stay tuned for my post about the IE itself, coming soon…