Choosing your Technical Instructor: Explorers & Educators

By: Allison White

As in every aspect of technical diving, choosing the right instructor should involve careful consideration and sound reasoning. Can this person teach me what I need to know? Do I agree with or can I learn from this person’s diving philosophy? What is this person’s teaching experience? How often does this person do the type of diving that I am hoping to learn? These are all very important questions that may take some time and research to satisfactorily answer. Technical students are often tempted to skip this time and research by basing their decision on one unrelated factor: How well known is this instructor?

Notoriety in any given realm of technical diving often stems from accomplishments in exploration. This is especially true of cave diving. Many divers wanting to take a cave or cavern class look for an instructor who is known in the cave diving community as an explorer. This explorer may be someone who dives sumps, surveys and maps virgin caves, sets new records for depth or time, discovers new cave biota, or researches the geology or hydrology of caves. The student is choosing this person to be their instructor based on these accomplishments, or often simply on other divers opinions of this person’s diving skills. However, these are the qualities that divers should consider when choosing a dive buddy, not an instructor.

When choosing an instructor, especially a technical instructor, divers should consider a person’s instructional skills, as well as their diving skills. While it is important that the instructor is an accomplished diver in the type of diving that they are teaching, have a strong passion for diving, and dive regularly, the student needs someone who can effectively teach them to safely achieve a knowledge and passion for technical diving of their own. This may or may not be an explorer.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario.

I am a technical diver looking for a cave instructor. I am considering the following three instructors. Instructor A is a famous biospeleologist who has been cave diving for 40 years and still travels internationally at least four times every year to conduct cave diving expeditions for research. Instructor B is not as well known in the cave diving community. Instructor B has been teaching cave diving for fifteen years and also teaches a wider variety of technical diving, including wreck and ice diving. In the past five years, this instructor has done 50 cave dives, 45 of which were for instruction. Instructor C is also not as well known and has only been teaching cave diving for five years. This instructor doesn’t teach as many other specialties as Instructor B, but has done over 300 cave dives in the five years which they’ve been teaching, only 100 of which were for instruction.

I could choose any of these instructors and get a certification card.

However, more than a card, I want to really learn about cave diving. I want to be as safe and informed as possible. I also want an instructor who can make me excited about cave diving. Instructor A is obviously very passionate about cave diving and has more experience in it than the other two instructors combined. However, I can’t find any information about his activities as an instructor. Other divers have only told me about his accomplishments as an explorer, and his website is focused on his scientific findings, though it does mention that he is a cave diving instructor and accepting students. I finally find a previous student of his and they tell me that while they learned a lot about biospeleology from him, he left most of the diving instruction to his graduate student, who was a divemaster. Despite being a famous scientist with an obvious passion for cave diving, Instructor A does not appear to have any passion for dive instruction.

Instructor B appears to have a great passion for dive instruction. His website is exclusively an exhibition of the various courses for which he offers instruction and is plastered with pictures of him diving with previous students. However, when I ask around the cave diving community, I don’t find anyone who has been cave diving with him for fun. I do find several previous students of his, all of whom assure me that he was a very thorough instructor and very few of whom ever went cave diving again after certification. Instructor B has the opposite problem from Instructor A: while he is very passionate about dive instruction, he has no apparent passion for cave diving itself.

Instructor C appears to be passionate about both cave diving and instruction. Many of the other cave divers I’ve spoken with have been diving with her and have nothing but high praise for her. I’ve also talked with several of her previous students, all of whom are still active cave divers and didn’t hesitate to share the many things that they learned from her. Her website is a balance between the instruction that she offers as well as her personal cave diving experiences, and has plenty of pictures of both. In the same amount of time, she has been cave diving six times more frequently than Instructor B, and two-thirds of her dives have been just for fun. After speaking with her on the phone, I discover that this instructor also shares many of my personal diving philosophies and has even more insights to offer. Even though she is not a famous explorer, Instructor C is clearly the best option among the three instructors for me to gain the knowledge and passion that I need to proceed.

Technical diving is often much more involved and dangerous than sport diving.

It is imperative that students gain the information, passion, and experience that they need to become the next generation of safe and active technical divers. To achieve this is the responsibility of both the student and instructor. In order to ensure that you get the most out of your passion for technical diving, you should always be willing to spend the time and effort required to find the right instructor to help you get to where you want to be.

By Allison White TDI Full Cave Diver AAUS Scientific Diver

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6 replies
  1. Steve Martin
    Steve Martin says:

    Good article from TDI. I do agree a lot with what it has to say, however something not mentioned is the quality and standards of the instruction given and how important the environment is that it’s given in. Even instructor C doing lots of cave diving and teaching does not necessarily mean they are teaching the best level of cave training. I think another huge important factor is where in the world you take your cave training course, this makes a huge difference, time spent in the water per training dive is crucial. For example training dives in Mexico are around 50 minutes for intro level cave dives and 90 minutes for full level cave dives (that is actual time spent inside the overhead environment). This is per dive, the shallow depths allow huge amounts of time to work with students inside the cave, learning cave related skills and absorbing what the environment has to teach them as well as the instructor. I recently visited Florida and got to dive quite a few of the training caves commonly used there, I found that the time a student will get per cave dive is much shorter mainly due to the diving conditions and making a suitable learning environment for a student is much more challenging, you have to deal with flow and much deeper depths both meaning you have much less quality time per dive to instruct divers in the cave environment (I would say at least half as much time). Now you could take 16 days instead of 8 day to earn a cave certification but I doubt that happens and still a quality 8 day course with more time spent inside the cave per dive is in my opinion time better spent. My take home point of this post is divers looking for cave training should also think about all the things in this article plus the actual training time you will get inside the cave each day as that combined with the right instructor will make all the difference. This video backs up exactly what I am saying and a must watch if your also wondering what you should be learning during your cave training course – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH48Lgwek6I

    Reply
    • Carlos Aguilar
      Carlos Aguilar says:

      LOL… you can’t refer to your own work, Steve… 😉

      I do agree with you. Time and quality make all the difference in the world. I look at it this way. If a good instructor prepares the student well, then continued experience will build ability, confidence, and competence.

      Reply
  2. Izzy
    Izzy says:

    This article raises a very important topic, which is the choice of a technical instructor. But the answer to it is too simplistic: a balance between explorer and educator. This could have been written in a paragraph. The matter is much more complex than this. The record-breaking tech instructors are perfectionist divers who teach how to be prepared to perfection, before getting into the water and after leaving it. Surely they are not the most patient and friendly educators, but what you learn is much more than “enjoy” your course. On the other hand, I experienced an enthusiastic cave dive instructor, teaching for years, diving all the time, who couldn’t wait to get into water and, therefore, had no time to waste teaching the perfection of preparation. So when things eventually got wrong under water, he lost his temper. A great educator? Not at all!

    This article focus a lot on “what” the instructor does, i.e. the amount of teaching, diving or inspiring. When in fact, that doesn’t tell us at all about his/her skills as educators. The fact that a instructor has a lot of students or is passionate, doesn’t prove he/she is equipped with the best know-how on that course or on how to handle different people. I knew passionate instructors who charged less for a course and so they got tons of happy, certified students; only later I found out I was missing very fundamental skills he didn’t teach me. I also knew instructors who only thought top divers from around the world, because he himself was a great diver, but his ego was too big to understand a student’s issues and help him get pass it; so you make one mistake, you’re out.

    The problem is, you won’t find any of that by looking reviews online (people don’t bad-mouth their instructors), talking to the instructor (who is unaware of his/her own shortcomings) or checking his regular activity… There is no simple answer to this problem, and indeed is a big problem. It can cause a good diver to quit (like it happened to a friend of mine) or to shake a diver’s confidence to a point where he/she doesn’t want to do tech at all anymore (like it happened to me).

    Reply
  3. Christopher Painter
    Christopher Painter says:

    Maybe I have this perspective because I’m stuck inland with a small tech community… but one of the things I would look for is an instructor who has created a community of divers that demonstrate good judgement and dive skills. It stinks to get certified and then not have anyone to go diving with on a regular basis.

    Reply
  4. Carlos Aguilar
    Carlos Aguilar says:

    Very nice. I actually teach this to Open Water students but expand upon this premise to include another couple of ideas. What was described were the virtues of the instructor, what you’ll learn, and sometimes what you’ll pay. I don’t want my students to think the instruction was great because they had a spectacular time, I want them to know it’s great because they know it will keep them safe.

    The aspect I teach comes from the phenomenon of Who’s the Barber, here?. Please watch the video and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The moral of that story is that divers will inevitably run into instructors that will tell the student, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years!” …and because of this, you shouldn’t question what I’m telling you.

    We’ve all seen those divers that we can’t explain why the are so bad, and I’m guessing it’s from following orders or copying what they’re seeing. Diving equipment has changed tremendously, instruction is different, and lastly standards have changed. Anyone telling another that their skills, advice, and abilities from 30 years ago should supersede today’s or common sense, needs to find another instructor.

    Yes, it’s not always this black and white, however, I’m training divers to become autonomous and once I’ve cut that proverbial umbilical cord, they have to be able to make decisions without the assistance of the instructor; me… If they can’t do that, are not willing to do that, or believe that the instruction they may get elsewhere will never do them wrong, then they’re not ready to be on their own.

    Sure, this is subjective but if something doesn’t look or feel right, IT’S NOT RIGHT for them…!!!

    There are times when an instructor has to push a little more to get the reluctant student to get to that next level, but anxiety from the student shouldn’t be a roadblock, it should be a speed bump that tells them to slow down… It’s not something they can’t do, but something that will make them a better diver because they won’t put themselves or others (including the instructor) at risk.

    Anxiety can be learnt to be dealt with. Stop, Breathe, Think, and Act. If panic sets in, there’s nothing that can be done except to bolt to the surface. We must fix the issue first, where their at — underwater. The surface is their final destination.

    Reply

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