Unfamiliar dive? Use a divemaster

Divemaster Mario Roman Arreguin readies scuba gear in Cozumel.
Divemaster Mario Roman Arreguin readies scuba gear in Cozumel.

Is it a good idea to use a divemaster during your scuba diving trip to the Keys?

Unless you are an experienced and currently active diver who is familiar with the location and type of diving you will be doing, the answer is probably yes.

I have been diving about 40 years and an instructor for 31 years. I use the services of a divemaster when I am diving in a dive spot where advanced training or experience is needed and when I am diving with a large camera and it is helpful to have a dive professional for navigation and safety and to point out potential good images to photograph.

When I am not diving in the Keys, one of my favorite diving spots is the island of Cozumel Mexico, which has remained a great dive destination even with an influx of cruise ships and tourists.

The dive sites, especially the wall dives, are spectacular and most of the reefs are filled with soft and hard corals and all manner of sea life offering great photo opportunities.

During my last two visits, I dived with an operation called Aldora Divers. It uses several small, fast boats with limits of about 4-6 divers on each boat, makes efforts to put divers with similar skill levels on the boats and has a very professional staff.

Aldora Divers provides certified qualified divers with high pressure steel tanks holding the equivalent of 120 cubic ft. of compressed air (the standard aluminum tank holds 80 cubic feet) enriched to 32 percent oxygen for the deeper dives and 36 percent oxygen for the shallower dives. The air we breathe at the surface has about 21 percent oxygen. The higher percentages of oxygen in the tanks allows longer dives when strict depth and time limits are followed.

The first dives are usually 80 to 100 feet deep – sometimes along underwater walls that drop off several hundred feet. The current can be swift. There are swim-throughs that can be confusing to navigate.

The dives are all led by a divemaster who monitors the divers’ air consumption to make sure they don’t run out of air. The divemaster also monitors depth and time limits to reduce the possibility of decompression sickness (the bends, which occurs when the increased nitrogen a diver accumulates breathing gas at depth turns to harmful bubbles) and navigates the dive.

My first dive was with a group mostly made up of scuba instructors. Did we feel embarrassed because we were being led by a divemaster? No.

None of us would have thought about conducting the dives without the divemaster who has been diving the Cozumel reefs nearly on a daily basis for 20 years.

Toward the end of my Cozumel dive trip, I dived with some less experienced divers. No problem. After the newer divers had used up the air in their tanks to the mandatory minimum, the thoughtful divemaster, Mario Roman Arreguin, stayed underwater with me, one-on-one, picking out great photos opportunities and even posing for me on the other side of a swim-through for the image that accompanies this column.

Keys’ dive operators have coast guard licensed boat captains and on larger boats mates and divemasters. They help with gear, explain the layout of the reefs (often with detailed maps), suggest how to do the dives based on current and location on the reef, and how to safely get back on the boat-especially if the waves may be high.

Prior to leaving the dock the captain or mate go over the boat’s safety features such as first aid and oxygen equipment, life rafts, how to hail the Coast Guard in an emergency and how to use the fire suppressant equipment. They also cover amenities (such as drinks, water and snacks), and the use of the head (restroom). They make sure divers have all needed equipment and that the equipment is working before the boat leaves the dock.

Because many of the dive sites in the Keys are shallow, most dive operators don’t require divers to use a divemaster unless a diver is new or inexperienced in ocean diving.

They do, however, require the use of a divemaster when the dive will be beyond the diver’s certification level or experience and for young divers (such as 10 to 12-year-olds certified as junior open water divers).

Divemasters in the Keys are provided complimentary, or for a small charge depending on the shop. For example, some of the shops tend to cater to repeat experienced divers or groups being trained that don’t need or want a local divemaster’s services.

Many divemasters in the Keys have years of experience and are also skilled SCUBA instructors or boat captains. They love to dive and to share their love of the ocean and the reefs with visitors. I have made friend with folks from all over the world while leading dives.

Do you need a divemaster?

As mentioned at the beginning of this column, it probably is a good idea to use the services of a professional if you are a new diver, it has been awhile since you dived, you are unfamiliar with your dive buddy, you have never dived in the ocean, or you have not done the type of planned dive under close supervision.

There are other things to consider.

▪  Will your dive partner practice good dive buddy practices starting with a predive safety check? How will you keep track of each other’s location and air supply?

▪  Have you practiced low-on-air and out of air procedures?

▪  Do you know what to do if you get separated or lost?

▪  How good are you or your buddy at underwater navigation and dealing with currents? (I have seen some inexperience divers dive with the current and surface a long distance from the boat after getting lost.)

▪  Do you have a dive computer, underwater watch and compass.?

▪  Do you have appropriate signaling devices such as an inflatable signal tube, mirror or whistle?

▪  How about a cutting tool in case you get tangled in fishing line?

▪  Have you evaluated your buddy’s physical condition and state of mind? What if you or your buddy has a problem or emergency?

▪  Have you considered or practiced emergency procedures?

▪  Have you practiced what to do if the other diver gets tired or panicked?

▪  Have you dived the type of dive you are planning (i.e. deep or dive on the exterior of an underwater wreck)?

What is a divemaster and how is he or she trained and certified?

The divemaster rating is generally a professional level SCUBA certification just below the instructor certification ranks.

Certification agencies have stringent requirements.

To enroll in the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) course an applicant must have advanced open water and rescue diver certifications, medical clearance signed by a physician within the previous 12 months, emergency first response primary and secondary care course completion (CPR and first aid) within the last 24 months and significant diving experience including documented experience in underwater navigation, and deep diving.

The training and academic education requirements are strenuous.

Divemasters must complete water-skills exercises, dive skill workshops and assessments, rescue assessment, various practical application skills, and pass academic quizzes and a final exam on subjects relating to diving including physics, physiology and decompression theory. They also must meet criteria for professionalism.

An important aspect of training for prospective divemasters is to be aware of divers that may need extra attention with their equipment and/or behavior, both on land and in the water. In other words, divemasters balance the roles of guide, counsellor and supervisor.

Divemasters in the Keys usually have gained experience through internships with training organizations or by working on dive boats. SHAPE \* MERGEFORMAT SHAPE \* MERGEFORMAT They know the dive sites, water and weather conditions and how to help keep you safe while having a great time.

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.