Through the looking glass
The life of a dive guide may seem enviable, and in many ways it is. But for all the highs there are many downsides, says Tim Coote - not least the creeping boredom that drives people to dangerous extremes. He offers his own guide to guiding

We used to call them teabags - take them to the water, get them wet, let them stay in for a measured time, get them out, put them into a suitable place and forget them.
     This time there were 10 of them. All qualified divers, who had proudly shown their logbooks and plastic qualification cards to the dive guide at the beginning of the charter just a few hours ago. Some of them held medical certificates under my nose. One insisted on showing me that his regulator had been serviced just last week and another announced that he wanted to see a shark, a school of dolphins, a manta ray and a whale. My job had begun.
     The first task of the professional dive guide is to evaluate each diver psychologically, then to see who is the apparent group-leader, then to establish who really holds the reins and, finally, to make it clear, albeit diplomatically, that for the duration of the charter, the dive guides word is law.
     The price for being a lazy dive guide may very well be coming up from a dive with one group to find one of the other group lying on deck, frothing blood at the mouth and surrounded by friends, some of whom have rescue badges sown onto their wetsuits, all waiting for somebody to do something. Those who can, do, those who cant wear badges!
     Our charter boat had anchored to the buoy on Jackson Reef. Perfect timing. It was slack water and the divers, after the five-minute briefing, were heading for their gear.

I was drinking my habitual cuppa, sitting on the transom quietly watching the kitting-up. My gear was lying under a seat, ready. Like all professional dive guides, I needed two minutes to be dive-ready. The teabags, I knew, would need probably the best part of half an hour.
     It was going to be a classic. One, I noticed, was having some trouble strapping various knives to his wrists and ankles. His girlfriend, as she kitted up, was gradually becoming pinker: pink mask, pink suit, pink gloves, pink BC with a pink whistle and even a pink regulator.
hspace=5      There was another one who needed help with everything, and who was constantly swearing about the gentle swaying of the deck. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
     And then there were the two wagglers. After taking 25 minutes to get their gear in place, they stood facing each other, looking like a couple of Christmas trees.
     They proceeded to give each other an in-depth lecture on their respective diving equipment, from mask buckles to octopus regulators, and what the other one should do in an emergency. In the space of 15 minutes they must have covered every situation in every diving manual. Another eye on those two.

After a second cup of tea, I put my own gear on and proceeded to check everybodys air supply. My own buddy check of the other divers I had done from the transom.
     The two wagglers were still at it. By now, they had reached the stage of flare guns and butterfly regulators. As it transpired, they were professional instructors, and felt, in their own way, responsible for the entire group and, apparently, the world.
     They were about to show us what they were capable of.
     One of them, apparently satisfied that his partner would be able to offer appropriate assistance in the event of disaster, now stood on the side of the boat, put his mask in place, regulator in mouth, gave several OK signals to the world in general, and leapt into oblivion.
     Not having held his mask, and having forgotten his fins, there was a great deal of thrashing around in the water. His buddy, not wanting to be left out of the proceedings and being the good buddy that he was, picked up the missing fins from the deck.
     Then, with his own fins on, he attempted to traverse the width of the boat. He obviously had the loose idea of throwing the forgotten fins to his buddy, who was now heartily swearing because his mask had come off and gone deep six.
     It wasnt quite over.
     As the finned buddy struggled sideways across the boat, his mask steaming up, he tripped over one of his fins, flew forward, knocked the knife freak over and violently released the fins, which went sailing over the side to join the mask.
     There was more to come.
     The knife freak, obviously not wanting to be outdone, pulled out all the stops to show us what he could do. His BC, reg and tank were apparently too heavy to be put on out of the water. So, struggling under the weight of the twinset with pony bottle, he proceeded to cast the whole lot into the sea, with the idea of following it and putting it on in the water.
     When the sea is calm, as it was, that isnt a bad idea. However, its always a good idea to pump some air into the BC before it is thrown overboard.
     That was when the pink peril began to cry. No problem. The dive guide was able to retrieve the rashly discarded equipment.

This might all seem mildly amusing, but this is daily reality for the hundreds of dive guides who populate those areas of the world where sport divers from every country want to spend their holidays. I have often been told that the life of the guide is paradise on Earth, and while it is true that this small group of individuals do understand the meaning of freedom and independence, the work is often dangerous, difficult and demanding.
     The road to becoming a competent guide is a weary grind. The word competent is not a throwaway statement, and for those who aspire to join this group of elusive expats, it must be understood that your diving skills have to be perfect.
     The only way to reach this level is to train very regularly, to dive at every opportunity, to study all there is on diving and to train yourself in diving emergencies, both in theory and practice.
     For example: how many weightbelts can you carry How do you bring a diver to the surface safely How do you deal with a panicking diver at 40m What is multi-level diving Can you dive solo, properly
     Can you operate a small boat in any conditions Can you make instant decisions How long do you need to kit up In warm water you should not need more than three minutes from start to dive-ready, with equipment check. In colder climes the time should not exceed five minutes, including drysuit.
     What is an equipment check exactly, and what is really important Are you capable of diving sometimes five or six times every day For how long can you free-dive What is the best method of using an octopus regulator in the real world And, perhaps most important of all, what is meant by readiness for response
     Essential reading for the would-be sport diving pro is Safety and Rescue for Divers from the BSAC and the PADI Divemaster manual. You must know both books so intimately that you are able to quote at length from either.

You must never forget, for example, always to do a headcount before the boat leaves the dive site. The worst can happen!
     The life of the professional dive guide is perhaps not all it seems from the tourists point of view. That isnt to say that it isnt enjoyable. For a lover of the sea, its the perfect occupation, to know dive sites intimately and to experience an almost personal relationship with the animals under water.
     For the diving instructor its the stuff of dreams, and it offers a kind of escape for those who have spent their lives trying to be part of a society into which they dont really fit. For most dive guides, its a combination of all these factors.
     To all the major diving agencies, the subject of solo-diving is regarded as an activity some way to the left of witchcraft, and is regarded by many an expert as heresy, never to be discussed. To the dive guide, it is a daily necessity.
     A line has to be passed through a wreck, or the boat has to be moored to a submerged buoy, or the anchor has to be checked. On one occasion at night, I was sent over the side in a storm to check the fastness of one of our three anchors. No problem getting in, but getting out again - that was a test of ability!

Finally, a word of warning to all those professionally qualified diving instructors who feel they would like to have a go at being a dive guide. There is an insidious trap into which dive guides can fall, and the more experienced the guide, the easier it is to fall victim - to your own ability.
     Boredom is a real threat to the veteran guide. If I felt that a group was competent enough to be allowed to dive alone, and many divers are indeed competent, I would leave them to it and swim off alone at a tangent to the reef and out into blue water.
     This is naturally the place where the big pelagics run; swordfish, whales, marlins etc. But because there is no point of reference in the blue, it is essential that you have your depth gauge permanently in sight, and your neutral buoyancy must be like a sixth sense.
     If not, you can suddenly find yourself in 80m or more, and sinking. Thats when things can get very stressful very quickly!
     Jean-Pierre, a good friend of mine, stemmed the boredom by diving solo to extreme depths at night.
     There is a military jet that was shot down during the Israel-Egyptian war in the Sinai. It crashed into the sea and today lies in 100 metres. Jean-Pierre was able to tell me on which side the aircraft had been fighting, because he had seen the roundels on the wings!
     One day I learned that he had been on a charter boat with a group of sport divers. He had said goodnight to the company, and was missing in the morning. He was never seen again.

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