Dive Master Training: Problem Solving

Yesterday was a hot mess of a boat set up with lots of instructors telling me conflicting instructions and by the time the boat left, I was pissed off and ready to go home.

I hate being micromanaged and bossed around. It sucks. That’s the hardest thing about being a DMT at 40 instead of 26. 26 year olds are more accustomed to being talked down to and they handle it better. The one thing I wanted more than anything yesterday was to have someone say “Are you in the middle of something?” before they told me to do something else. I mean, if I’d been sitting at the table, hanging out and playing on my phone, by all means boss me around. But when I’m buried in the tank room, with fins under my arm, putting weights on a belt with a full tank standing in the doorway because I have to grab it on my way out the door, rest assured that I’m not just screwing around. I have an agenda and a purpose and probably a time limit because the boat is waiting for me so they can leave. And even then, at least ask me instead of telling me.

Today’s boat set up worked out much better and then we dove Hole in the Wall, which is a really deep dive, with a full boat and a couple different instructors leading different groups.

At the last minute, Da Bull put me with Rick, a new AOW student who historically had trouble with buoyancy and was what we call a “breather,” someone who goes through air really quickly and has to end every dive early. Under those two conditions, Rick was the worst case scenario for a deep dive with a lot of craggy swim thrus but he really wanted to do it and his instructor thought he’d be ok.

Da Bull took me aside and said “Rick is your responsibility. Keep an eye on him, help him manage his buoyancy, handle any problems that come up and when he runs low on air, do a safety stop and bring him up.” Babysitting customers who are breathers or have buoyancy issues or need some hand holding is a common assignment for DMTs in our shop so none of these instructions sounded like a problem.

From the beginning of this dive, Rick had a lot of trouble with buoyancy and he also had a tendency to charge forward and get separated from me. Normally I’d just keep an eye on him but there were a lot of single file swim thrus on this dive and I kept having to hold him back to keep him from separating other buddy teams or running into other divers. He finally calmed down a bit and did fine until the end of the dive when we were coming out of a swim thru and immediately going down into a cavern entrance and I held Rick back to keep him from running into other divers but by the time we got to the top of the swim thru, the group was gone.

I had never dove that profile on the dive and I didn’t know where the cavern entrance was, so I went the wrong direction and by the time we got to the top of the reef, there was no sight of anyone. We looked around for bubbles with no luck and then I had to make a choice. The rule if you’re separated from your buddy is you look around for one minute and then you do a safety stop and surface. If both divers do that, chances are good they’ll find each other on the surface. However, we were a buddy team and I’d been given responsibility for Rick and while I was pretty sure the same rules applied, it would mean Da Bull leaving his group in the cavern and surfacing to find us.

Fortunately we were really shallow by that point and I had a surface buoy. We both had plenty of air so we spent a few minutes looking around, figuring we couldn’t be that far off but after about 5 minutes I didn’t want to keep him down in a place where I wasn’t familiar and didn’t know how get out of. So I brought us up, our boat captain found us and we got on the boat and several minutes later, Da Bull came up with his group.

Da Bull and I talked afterwards and he emphasized that a separation like that also means a one minute look around and then surface. Da Bull had actually surfaced looking for us in case we were in real trouble but when he didn’t find us on the surface, he went back down to get the rest of his divers. He wasn’t angry because the last thing he remembered telling me was that I was responsible for Rick so when he didn’t see an emergency on the surface, he assumed I was taking responsibility. He also said that I couldn’t be expected to know the dive site since I’ve never dove that profile before and it was a bit tricky since there were just enough divers that we couldn’t see Da Bull at any point in those swim thrus.

I learned A LOT from this one experience.

I was proud that I didn’t panic and Da Bull seemed to think I’d made most of the right decisions under the circumstances. I felt bad for cheating Rick out of a longer dive but I opted to keep him safe over giving him a longer dive and I think that was the right choice. Had I to do it over again, I would have paid more attention to the map during the dive briefing so I knew where the cavern entrance was and I probably would have come up sooner and met Da Bull on the surface so he didn’t worry.

But no matter what, everyone came up and we can all dive again at a future point. At the end, that’s what matters.

Dive Master Training: Equipment Exchange

There’s nothing on the list of DMT requirements that scared me more than the equipment exchange, unless it’s the prospect of leading my first dive.

The Equipment Exchange goes as follows: in water too deep to stand, two people descend and exchange fins, mask and BCDs and then take a short swim together all the while buddy breathing.

Buddy breathing is an emergency technique where two divers share one regulator. One diver takes a breath and passes the regulator to the other. The second diver takes a breath and passes it back etc.

I did some buddy breathing during my Rescue Diver course and it was awful to be under water without a regulator in your mouth waiting for someone else to take a breath. Just a short swim around confined water passing the regulator back and forth made me anxious to the point where I wanted to rip it out of his mouth. And that was a non-emergent swim with nothing else going on.

Buddy breathing during the equipment exchange makes it a stress test pure and simple, because there’s no realistic scenario in which two people will exchange all their equipment under water. However, DMs and Rescue divers need to be able to handle stress and nothing gives you stress like not having an air source.

Additionally stressful is the fact that DMTs are only supposed to get 5 minutes to discuss strategy before undergoing equipment exchange so all important information like how many breaths each person will take, what’s the signal for “GIVE ME THE REG,” the order of the exchange and what to do if problems occur has to be agreed upon in 5 minutes.

I did this exchange with my fellow DMT, a European girl I call Betty Blue. We definitely got more than 5 minutes worth of strategy largely because it’s impossible to be in a shop full of DMs and former DMTs without hearing stories of their equipment exchanges and gleaning advice from their experience. We also needed more time to talk because Betty Blue doesn’t speak English as a first language so all verbal communication takes a little longer.

Here’s the advice we got from DMs that I’ll pass on to any future DMTs reading this post:

1. Go into the water wearing each other’s equipment so that you exchange into own gear. It makes the exchange much more comfortable.
2. Go down heavily overweighted. It will keep you stable in any current and keep you from getting knocked around as much.
3. Go as slowly as possible. This isn’t a timed test.

I was terrified of the prospect of this test and no amount of thinking about it or planning for it made it any better. When Betty Blue and I finally got into the water and got our 5 minutes to discuss strategy, we decided to exchange fins, then mask, then BCDs and we established a signal for “STOP” that either one of us would use if we were stressed. When the STOP signal was used, the other person had to immediately stop and we’d pass the regulator back and forth until we’d gotten enough air to be calm.

Despite our hopeful strategy, the first round was awful.

All I thought about was air. I started by sucking in two big breaths and handing the regulator to Betty Blue and then tried to take my fins off while exhaling. We got our fins exchanged but the pace got more and more frantic and I got more and more fixated on air. I breathed slower and deeper than Betty Blue so she’d already be tapping my hand for the reg before I even got my second breath. Then I’d started to panic a little and even as I handed it to her, I just wanted to snatch it away.

About 20 seconds in, Betty Blue got frazzled and passed me the regulator after exhaling. That meant she had no air in her lungs so she immediately wanted the reg back before I’d even gotten a chance to take a breath. I took half a breath and then she pulled the reg out of my hand and it was downhill from there. She took a breath, I needed the reg, she started freaking out, she handed the reg back to me, she tried to take her mask off and then shook her head and shot to the surface.

So, I sat on the bottom and waited. I couldn’t surface because if I surfaced and then we came back down and continued, the best score we could get was a 2. I had to sit there and wait and see if she came back down. But she didn’t. Finally, the Seal surfaced to check on her and she was crying and saying she couldn’t do it. The Seal tried to reason with her to no avail so he came down and motioned for me to come up to the surface.

I spent 5 minutes convincing Betty Blue that she could do this. I did think she could do it but I also needed her to do it because if she couldn’t complete this exchange today, I’d have to go back into the water at some future point and do this all over again. And I wanted it over with.

Betty Blue agreed to try again and I emphasized that we had to go even slower and we had to stop whenever there was even a little bit of stress. Nothing was as important as air and if it took us all day to complete this exchange, then that was fine as long as we were both getting enough air.

So, we started over from the beginning.

The second round was much better. We stopped after every exchange and just breathed. Once we got into the rhythm of passing the reg back and forth, it was easy. Inhale deep, pass the reg, exhale slow and take something off. Pass pieces back and forth, get the reg, inhale really deep, pass the reg, exhale slow, stop, breathe, take off something else. Once we got it, we had no trouble. The last piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to get Betty Blue’s BCD on her while keeping our shared reg from tangling around her and then we went for a short swim and then we were done and we got a 5.

There’s no elation like passing this test, I’ll just tell you that. It’s a pure adrenaline rush to finish and have done well.

Skills and Stamina Tests: Completed.

A hot mess of a night dive

I’ve been so remiss about posting. I promise to get better about that. Cross my heart.

Meanwhile, here’s a small window in my diving life tonight.

I did a night dive tonight – sigh. I hate night dives. I know… I know… there’s cool stuff! It only comes out at night! It’s dark! It’s fun! Whatever!


I went out with Da Bull and a family that’s been diving with us for a week. Between you and me, I just… wish they would leave. I don’t care for them, on the surface or under it. I don’t like how they talk to each other, I don’t enjoy the way they can’t listen or follow directions and diving with them is like corralling chickens.

At any rate, we got them off the boat, finally, and then I turned into the biggest freaking hot mess getting in the water. I tossed in my gear  so I could gear up in the water, leaned over the side of the boat and dropped one of my fins. Then I had to jump in with one fin in my hand, grab my other fin, stick them under my arm and chase down my gear  with my small ineffectual feet as it floated away in the current.

Once I caught it, I had to figure out how to proceed. Put on my gear or put on my fins? I was wearing 2 wetsuits and 10 pounds of lead and had no fins so every three seconds, my head went under water, which would seem to argue for the fins.

I tried holding onto my gear to keep me afloat and putting on my fins, but didn’t have enough hands for that. Then I tried sitting on my gear and putting on my fins and couldn’t quite manage that balancing act either because as soon as I leaned down to reach my foot I fell off my gear. Then I had to get into my gear, in current while holding onto my fins, switching them from hand to hand and eventually that worked, by which point I had to get my fins on in a hurry so I could kick back to the group by which point I was out of breath from all the struggle and was sure I looked like a total idiot.

Got myself mostly under control, worked my flashlight out from my BCD pocket, turned it on and got 10 feet under and it died and wouldn’t turn on again. Had to chase down Da Bull to get his spare light at which point I felt something weird happening at my left elbow and realized that my safety sausage had decided to unroll itself and trail behind me. Had to juggle my flashlight while I rolled it up in the dark, feeling for the Velcro and trying not to drop the reel at the same time, keeping one eye on all the rest of the flashlights that were taking off away from me and about the point that I finally attached it to my BCD, I realized why I was having so much trouble seeing. I’d lost my hair tie realized I’d lost my hair tie and my hair was going everywhere so I tried to tuck it under my mask strap and checked my air and realized this whole struggle had cost me 200 PSI in about 10 minutes.

This is also the dive that Da Bull informed me he thinks I’m overweighted by like a billion pounds. He says I dive kicking upright and it’s inappropriate for a DMT. He’s not wrong. He softened it slightly by saying that I have low body fat and dense muscle so I need less lead than your average woman my height. I think in the history of my life I’ve never had anyone tell me I have low body fat so I should probably marry him immediately. Regardless, he came up behind me at a certain point and inflated my BCD for me.


We saw a bunch of octopus and bioluminescence for days,  but who cares after all that, right?

100 dives today

I’ve seen a lot of Open Water students come through the shop in the past few weeks and watched them fumble around with their gear, put their regulators on the tanks upside down, barrel up and down through the water, inflating their BCDs to bursting and then plummeting onto the sand. At the end of the dive, they pull out their little logbooks, open to the first page and document everything, asking about depths and times and what the name of the dive site was again. I’m sure they look around the shop at those of us working here and wonder how long it takes to get to the point where they could set up a tank in their sleep, dive for longer than 30 minutes and stay neutrally buoyant without crashing into something.

I still remember my very first dive 4 years ago up in the Pacific Northwest. The water was 46F degrees, I wore a dry suit, my fingers were practically frozen despite my gloves and the water was so cloudy that we couldn’t see further than 5 feet in any direction. I pulled out my old logbook and looked at that first dive and for the description I’d written “Crappy visibility. Overweighted.” That pretty much says it all. I didn’t get into exclamations points until my third dive (buoyancy!) and I didn’t dive in warm water until my 10th dive when I dove Seal Island in San Carlos, Mexico. I vividly remember those early Mexico dives because I saw my very first wild seahorse and I got to dive with sea lions zooming around me like golden bullets. I’ve never gone back to cold water.

I did my 100th dive today. The Caribbean sea was flat, the sun was shining, the water was the deepest blue with visibility for days and I can now hover at any depth without effort. My dive skills are a far cry from my beginning open water days but I can look back and see that journey from there to here. What I can’t remember, even though it only ended a few weeks ago, is what it felt like to be a fun diver.

Back in the day when I was a fun diver (lo those 3 weeks ago), I never ever worried about anything except myself. I rarely set up my own gear, I kept an eye on my diving buddies but I didn’t pay them a lot of mind and if pressed I couldn’t tell you how many other people were in my diving groups. I just didn’t pay any attention. I remember my divemasters from various dives, I remember sights and animals and wrecks and cool caverns but I took very little personal responsibility for my diving and I was lucky enough to have uncomplicated diving experiences where nothing serious happened.

I’ll never get to dive like that again. If there’s one thing that’s changed in these weeks of DMT training, it’s the way that I approach diving. Every time I get in the water, I’m thinking about the group I’m diving with, how they dive and where they might need help. I’m thinking about my technical skills, my air consumption, my buoyancy and where we’re going (more or less in that order). I’m trying to learn dive sites and marine life in case I ever have to lead dives in these places or answer questions. I’m trying to figure out how a DM manages to put together a dive profile that suits the site and the abilities of the group, figures out where they’re going and how to get back to the boat, lets all of that go enough to look around and find cool stuff and marine life that the diving customers might otherwise miss and does it all within an hour or so without GPS or talking (two things I can’t generally can’t survive without when I’m on the surface).

It’s a lot of stuff to learn but mostly, I’m adjusting my mindset. I’ve let go of the idea that it’s just me, in the water, doing my own thing and letting someone else handle everything else. Now I’m training to be that person that handles everything else. From here on out, whether I work in the dive industry or not, I’ll never just be a fun diver. I’ll always be paying attention and that means I’ll always be somewhat responsible. It changes everything.

Could your DM actually rescue you?

I think the rescue certification is the most important one a DM can master. In my limited experience diving with DMs in several different countries I can say with certainty that there are some to whom I’d happily entrust my life and others I wouldn’t trust to get my cat out of a tree. I’d prefer to dive with the former because let’s face it, anyone can find fish and no one needs a DM to do a safety stop. Ideally fun divers get a DM that knows the local area and the local wildlife, someone informed and fun and adventurous but at the end of the day if there’s someone in trouble or missing, they best hope their DM knows what to do.

I took the rescue certification pretty seriously and spent several hours absorbing information from the book reviews and videos before we even got into the water. The Seal and I also had a conversation about how Good Samaritan laws don’t exist in Honduras (or Asia) so rescuers are advised to do everything they can until medical personnel show up and then they should leave the scene and keep their names out of paperwork. It sucks but this could prevent a rescuer’s good intentions from blowing back on them if things go south. We also talked about the practicalities of rescue diving on this island and how our procedures might differ slightly from the book and how best to make my open water scenarios as realistic as possible. I emphasized that it would do me no good to practice the rescue scenarios in the book if they weren’t practical to our diving. They might help at a future point but right now, I want to know what to do while I’m here if (GOD FORBID) something were to happen.

The book had a lot of information to absorb and it was much easier (and more fun) to get in the water and actually put some stuff to the test. I did confined water work with the Seal and Goldilocks, who tagged along to be my missing and distressed diver. The first dive was underwater problem solving so they came up with as many ridiculous scenarios as possible, which was like diving with a couple of puppies. I looked over twice and the Seal was head first in the turtle grass, once with his equipment totally off, and once with his mask on backwards.  Golidlocks had disconnected hoses, her weight belt and several different clips so I spent about 20 minutes putting them both back together before Goldilocks disappeared to be a missing diver.

Finding someone underwater is scary work, even when it’s practice and you know they aren’t really dead. The search patterns involve a lot of things to keep track of all at once (compass turns, fin cycles, etc.) overlaid with the urgency of minutes passing and the potential effects on a missing diver. I can see how rescuers need to take care of themselves first because it’s easy to freak out.

We went out in the boat for open water skills and before I could get my gear on, Goldilocks went overboard and I had to rescue her. I was so annoyed because she even warned me that she’d been unprepared for her skill test and had two people jump overboard while she was half dressed and I was STILL unprepared when she jumped overboard and I was only half dressed. That’s what I get for not listening. She got pretty bruised up from getting hauled into the boat (which I think an actual unconscious diver might not mind so much if they end up breathing at the end of it) and it was a good lesson for me about leverage. Even little people like Goldilocks are hard to maneuver up a boat ladder in choppy seas when they’re dead weight.

I then “rescued” a dive bag as a missing diver after the Seal gave me a few hints from my pointed questions (“I think he never went deeper than 40ft and I’m pretty sure he said something about liking crevasses…”). Goldilocks and I split that one up, she counted fin cycles and I managed the compass, which made the whole process much faster and it only took about 12 minutes of my allotted half hour.

Overall, the water skills were easier to put into practice than to read about in the classroom. A lot of it is common sense but all of it requires knowledge of the local laws and procedures. I think my big lessons of this course are to stay in good shape, ask a lot of questions, know how to operate the oxygen equipment and hope I never never never have to put any of this into practice.

EFR and Rescue Diver Certifications

I actually don’t start my DMT yet.

I came to the island with my AOW (advanced open water) certification and needed to get my rescue diver and Emergency First Responder certifications before I could be considered for DMT. Fortunately, this is a common scenario and I think at least half of DMs show up for their DMT and need to get several certifications before they can even begin their training. The advantage is being able to train and work in the same shop and under the same instructors for several weeks at a stretch. The disadvantage is not getting any variety in instruction because you’re working with all the same instructors and also not getting time between certs and instead blazing straight through.

Because I’ll be out here on the island for 5 months and I have loads of time to get my through my DMT, doing everything with the same shop is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. But not everyone has that same kind of time flexibility and in that case I’d recommend (if possible) getting a rescue diver cert and then diving for a while in as many different places as possible before going on to a DMT. Not only does this make you a more technically adept and flexible diver, because you’re used to diving in all kinds of conditions, but it also gives you the advantage of working with several different shops. All shops are different, countries have different standards and expectations and attitudes towards local ecology so divers with a lot of travel experience have a more expansive view of the dive industry than ones who dive primarily in one country or with one shop. I haven’t done a lot of diving but I have been diving in multiple countries so I know how much things can differ place to place.

As to the EFR course, I would highly recommend that all you future DMTs get a CPR certification so you don’t have to endure the EFR course. The EFR video is silly and outdated with a crazy obsession with “barriers” like latex gloves and pocket masks, it’s expensive compared to a CPR course, there’s nothing in it that relates directly to diving and any medical place that offers CPR courses will have better practice equipment (dummies and what all) than most dive shops.

Despite the hassle, my EFR was one easy day compared to Rescue, which was several days, the first of which was LONG and spent mostly reading, watching videos and taking exams. The last part of the first day I did some confined water skills with the Seal (a quiet mild mannered British man with decades of diving and instructing experience and hidden personal depths…). He tested me on self-rescue stuff like tired diver tows, mask removal, gear exchange, buddy breathing etc.

Our gear exchange was a hot mess. The Seal took his gear off with no trouble, of course, but as soon as I took my fins off they floated away. The Seal surfaced and chased down my fins while I held onto his gear. Then he came back down and I started to take my gear off when the Seal’s mouthpiece fell apart. He tried using his alternate but it wasn’t working properly so he took it apart under water to check the diaphragm but something still wasn’t right. He tried removing the alternate and switching mouthpieces underwater, which still didn’t fix it but worked enough to get him through. Watching him calmly problem-solve a malfunctioning mouthpiece underwater was instructive in itself and probably eclipsed whatever I might have learned from gear switching.

We did some buddy breathing switching back and forth on my regulator, which freaked me out. I have a ways to go before I can take my reg out and just hang out under water. Every time the Seal handed it back to me I’d put it in my mouth and take a giant gulp of air. Swallowed a lot of sea water…

On the surface, the Seal gently (subtlety) made a comment about how a calm attitude is the main DM skill to acquire. Learn to not freak out. Assume that there’s some solution and fix the problem because freaking out solves nothing.

Got it. Still need a lot of work on that.

Next post will be Rescue Diver Day 2: less reading and more diving. Always a good scenario.

For DMTs, the first day is a test

First days are scary. There’s no predicting who you’ll meet, what they’ll want, how you’ll get along or what will be expected.

My lesson #1: When you’re new, everything’s a test.


I chose The Dive Shop on the basis of a friend’s recommendation and I’m coming in cold. I don’t know anyone, I haven’t dove with them before, they don’t know me and it could be the best or the worst 5 months of my life. There’s no telling.

I’m sure my day included multiple tests of which I was unaware. If I were an experienced diver watching a new DMT come into the shop, I can only imagine the things I’d be assessing. But I passed the first test, which was “Do you want to do the first dive or do you want go around the shop and learn the ropes?” For a person who lives to dive, this is an easy choice. For a person (me) who likes to know everything about everything so they can always make informed choices and rarely make mistakes and they know all the variables before they jump into something new, this is a hard choice. My instincts said ‘hang back, learn the ropes and go in slowly’. Instead I chose to dive.

The right choice is dive and my advice to future DMTs like me is: Always dive if you’re given the choice. The academics and the shop and the getting comfortable will all be there later. When you get a chance to dive, do it. Not only will it make you a better diver but it also gets you respect with the people you work with. Who wants to work with someone who doesn’t choose to dive when they can?

My first dive was a “fun dive” with a fellow DMT who is a month into her training. Let’s call her Goldilocks. She’s not yet at the point of leading dives so this was a training dive where she had to give staff members a briefing and then take them on a dive where they made as many mistakes and bad judgment calls as they could safely make in hopes that she would catch them. They dropped their weight belts on the sand, disconnected air hoses from their BCDs, separated and made her chase them, wandered off and gave her conflicting information about their air supply. It was the best first dive for me because I got to see what I’m going up against and also had all the pressure taken off of me because everyone was focused on her.


Goldilocks did a great job, chased everyone down, fixed equipment underwater, got buddies together and never lost her cool. She also led the second dive, which included Da Bull, a big DM who arguably has the most experience in the shop and is the most fun person to dive with because he’ll show you all the exotic tiny things and weird out of the way places you might miss otherwise. About half way in to the dive he noticed that my mask kept fogging up (a chronic problem for me no matter what mask I use) and he picked up a piece of dead sea sponge and motioned that I should use it to clean my mask.

I thought, “oh, perfect. I’ll do it on the boat.” I started to put it in my BCD pocket when Da Bull shook his head and pointed at me. He meant, do it now.

It wasn’t really a request so I took a deep breath, squeezed my eyes shut and took my mask off underwater, which I’d never done before. There was an instant disorientation because I couldn’t see and had to remember to only breathe out of my nose, had to clean my mask by feel and had to maintain some buoyancy and keep from shooting to the surface or crashing into the ground. I did well for a few seconds until I started thinking about it and then I breathed in through my nose and freaked out. Just a little. It took me about 2 seconds to get my mask back on and clear it and then I was fine.

My mask stayed clear for the rest of the dive (that’s your ocean tip of the day: dead sea sponge on the inside of your mask) and Da Bull grinned around his regulator and spread his hands out like “see what you were missing??”

When Goldilocks found the boat for the second dive of the day, there was a small celebration on the surface to which another DM said “When I first started DMing, I would think “f*ck the dive, I found the boat!”

Navigation underwater is hard. I know exactly what she meant.