|S P E C I A L F E A T U R E S |
PADI Diving : An Intern Navigates out of her Comfort Zone
by Joanne Scharer
Although technically a “free” frequent flyer award ticket, my flight from Portland, Oregon to Beef Island Airport, British Virgin Islands was not without cost.
The early 6:40am departure, the two-stop connection, and particularly the 10-hour overnight layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico made me wonder for a brief moment if my frequent flyer mile obsession could use an overhaul. Wanderlust can demand some inconvenient, although I prefer to call them “adventurous”, travel arrangements.
Until the urge to see and experience those far away, often times only heard or read about places, subsides, the inconveniences of free flights won’t deter me.
Granted, spending the night on the carpeted but nonetheless hard floor of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, San Juan, probably wasn’t the best way to spend the eve of a Divemaster Internship in the BVI, but I prefer a firm bed anyway and my stubborn budget consciousness simply would not allow spending future travel funds on 10 hours in a hotel.
After nearly 24 hours of travel and a restless night, I barely noticed the subdued, at least compared to the eager taxi drivers, peppery dark haired man standing to the side holding a placard with "Joanne" on it.
Somehow, we found each other and despite my relief in discovering they did not expect me to begin work that day, my month long internship began.
Sail Caribbean Divers opened its doors in 1999 as the scuba diving branch of Sail Caribbean which has been sponsoring summer adventure camps for teenagers in the BVI for over 27 years.
After seeing an ad for the internship program and requesting more information, I received an email with an attached “first contact” letter from Mike Rowe, Course Director.
Unfortunately, my email program originally deemed the message spam and it took me a while to dig it out from underneath the cadre of emails offering me all kinds of body size adjustments, notices that I’d won some hocus lottery, and other interesting subject lines that spammers must spend hours conjuring up to slip through the latest and greatest “spamkillers.”
Fortunately, I did find Mike’s email and a few months later found myself immersed in “a unique first hand experience with the inner workings of a Caribbean Dive Center.”
Earning my PADI divemaster certification in Dahab, Egypt in June 2006, only to return to Oregon with a certification but no plans or even an idea of how I wanted to use my newly acquired status, I wanted an opportunity to literally and figuratively test the waters.
The Diving program offered just that sort of experience, not to mention an opportunity to escape the dreary late winter and early spring months of the Pacific Northwest.
Thirty-days of natural vitamin D (courtesy of the sun), working hard (believe it or not), meeting new people, learning new things, and taking myself outside of my comfort zone was unique enough for me and all I had to do was come with “an eagerness to experience and contribute to the operations of a very busy PADI dive center.”
So what makes SCD’s program so unique?
FOR ME IT WAS A WHIRLWIND, BUT INTENSE OPPORTUNITY TO ACTUALLY WORK AS A FULLY-FLEDGED DIVEMASTER.
Yes, sunshine, warm water, pristine beaches, and tropical breezes were some of the ingredients of the job—perks for sure—but it was not all fun in the sun; I worked harder than I had in years.
There is more to working in the dive industry than seeing the sights and sharing fish stories, and what I appreciated about my experience was that everyone from interns to full-time veteran staff did their part in all aspects of the business.
I was involved in everything the full-time staff did including guiding divers and snorkellers, assisting with courses, operating the compressor, maintaining boats and equipment, coordinating the delivery of rental dive and watersports equipment, gaining retail experience, and operating the satellite base at Cooper Island.
Not only did I truly participate in each of the above named activities in one way or another, I also felt treated like full-time staff.
From other internship programs I had looked into, this truly did seem unique and worth the gamble-- even hauling tanks, cleaning the head, and scrubbing the boats to “showroom” condition was worth the effort.
“Lines and fenders ready, Captain,” someone would shout as the boat slowed and the crew prepared the boat for docking, an important but sometimes seemingly unnecessary formality as the seasoned crew was usually snapping to it, working together like a well oiled machine.
“Stern on, spring on, bow on,” we’d chime as we safely stepped from the boat to the dock to “take a wrap” and then await the captain’s instruction.
“Ease the bow, take in the slack, good, tie it off,” the Captain would say as we docked at Village Cay Marina (http://www.villagecay.com/ ) or Cooper Island (http://www.cooper-island.com/ ) to pick up guests.
Having been “boating” with my family since before I was school age and being a water skier since age five, I thought I knew boats or at least had some boating experience.
Well, I learned quickly that handling a 20-foot ski boat on serene lake waters is completely different from crewing a 26-foot much less 46-foot “dive vessel” in rough seas, temperamental unpredictable winds, rafting with other boats to pick up divers, or helping the captain dock at a less than optimal slip at the marina.
Starting work my first day, my coworkers patiently showed me how to tie the fenders to the boat, to cleat, to prepare for and hook a mooring ball, etc. The coordination of these tasks required a structure and timing unfamiliar to my tendency toward wild abandon and chaos…training my mind to embrace method without the madness was a challenge.
Although, I never quite felt I mastered all the subtleties of knowing when and how to do what, my feelings of inadequacy dissipated some, as my confidence grew and things started to become second nature.
“I make it my duty to take people out of their comfort zones at east once a week,” Ian, my captain of the day and the Operations Manager, commented as I confessed my nervousness at being charged to lead a group of experienced divers on a dive that was uncharted territory to me as well.
Being a visual person, my generally reliable sense of direction relies on memories of buildings, road signs, and names of businesses, etc. Even traveling in other countries where there is little to no English signage, I’ve been able to find my way back to my starting point, even if I didn’t necessarily make it back on the same exact route.
UNDERWATER NAVIGATION IS QUITE A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
There are no nicely posted street signs or named buildings and “keep the reef on your right shoulder” while trying to read the compass, count fin kicks, or account for the current or surge don’t necessarily bode well for finding that particular destination on a dive or returning to the right boat.
That large turquoise blue parrotfish that was nibbling away at a large piece of coral 20 minutes ago, did not cooperate and has taken his meal elsewhere.
Normally, I enjoy exploring and even getting lost, but leading others on potential wayward journeys on a limited amount of air doesn’t allow for much error so suddenly the ruthless pressure I tend to put on myself mingles with performance anxiety—that is enough to make a diver seasick.
As I made my great stride entry, trying to remember to breathe and trust myself while praying to anything or anyone I thought would answer, Ian said, “You make your own luck in this world girl.”
Emerging from the water giving my “OK” sign, I instructed the divers to head toward the front of the boat to the mooring line for our descent, did the standard pre-dive “OK” check, gave the thumbs down descend signal and said “Let’s go for a great dive.”
Fortunately (or luckily), as we swam along the Coral Gardens dive site at Great Dog, the airplane I was supposed to find came into a hazy view and I felt my whole body release into a new comfort zone. Swimming through and around the airplane, I felt a giddy sense of accomplishment (despite the rather large barracuda keeping an eye on me) and a bubbling trust of my instincts underwater.
From my perspective, one drawback to working with a busy dive center is not having as much of an opportunity to connect with people, to get to know someone beyond the short dive or snorkel trip.
DIVING LIKE TRAVELLING, IS A SHORT LIVED EXPERIENCE
Diving, like traveling, is a short-lived experience to some degree and I often felt a sense of loss when our guests would be putting their shoes on at the dock when it seemed like just moments ago they were wondering why we were asking them to take them off.
But even during those stressful hurried moments, there is that one appreciative or excited diver that makes it all worthwhile, or even the dive itself, or offering a word of encouragement to a frightened guest who isn’t quite sure she’s up for the oceanic voyage on an apparently much more vulnerable vessel than the enormous cruise ship.
In fact, perhaps one of my greatest pleasures during my internship was having the opportunity to show someone a world they hadn’t experienced before.
One particular morning, the schedule had me as crew for the snorkel excursion scheduled for one of the visiting cruise ships.
Admittedly, being on the dive boat was my first preference, but this particular day I felt simply grateful to be out on the water. After passing out masks, fins, and snorkels as needed, the crew gave the typical demonstration on how to don the snorkel vests (required by the cruise ship) and then offer lessons or tips to those who hadn’t been snorkeling before or wanted some extra guidance.
I don’t recall having too many volunteers or people willing to raise their hands and admit they were beginners, but on this exceptionally bright and blue skied morning at the Caves off Norman Island, I had the opportunity to “teach” a tentative elderly British woman how to snorkel.
De-fogging her mask, pushing the soft hair out of her face so her mask would seal properly, and helping her put on her fins before jumping with her into the refreshing water, felt like holding the hand of an eager wonder filled child ready to experience something new.
We rested our elbows on the purple boogie board as I showed her how to hold her head, to look slightly forward instead of straight down, how to clear her snorkel, and how to kick gently along with her fins while resting her arms and hands comfortably. The lesson didn’t last long as she got the hang of it quickly and swam off to be with her patiently waiting husband.
Near the end of our allotted hour in the water as I swam along the shore keeping an eye on our snorkellers and listening for the 3 blast “return to the boat” signal of the boat horn, I noticed her seemingly entranced by something underwater near one of the caves.
Tempted to stop and see how she was getting along, I decided to leave her at peace enjoying her new found skills. It made my day to see her smiling as she climbed up the latter, the last one out of the water.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE THE 'INNER WORKINGS' OF A BUSY PADI DIVE CENTER?
Perhaps it’s sitting in on the daily 7:30am morning meeting, being privy to discussions about the events of the previous day, jokes, laughter, concerns for others, grievances, lighthearted teasing for comic relief or a rallying boost of encouragement to face yet another busy day.
There is no such thing as a typical day at a busy dive center. Granted working 10+ hour days in the hot sun often only with a rushed break seemed standard and certainly proved exhausting and somewhat overwhelming but not necessarily a hazard of the job, as my usual restless nights of endless thinking and passing the hours hoping sleep will come were non-existent during my internship.
I’d crawl in bed at night with a cup of tea, the well-worn pages of my latest book, and feel my body melt into the baby blue sheets of my bed without the slightest worry that sleep would elude me.
Also, I learned that corporate-like hour long lunch breaks just don’t seem to exist in the diving world, so I tried to take advantage of any moment to take a rejuvenating breather, either watching the clouds pass making the 15-minute trip from Hodges Creek Marina to Cooper Island or en route to a dive site…meditating on what I called the “boatbow” or the rainbow formed by the sun hitting the wake of the boat, etc.
Surprisingly, on those welcomed days off, I missed work and my coworkers; wondered what I’d miss when they were heading out on the boat and what the great blue would surprise them with that day.
In hindsight, I believe that while learning and experiencing the inner workings of a busy dive center gave me invaluable tangible lessons and knowledge. The 30+ days I spent in the program taught me some inner lessons in a less practical but certainly not less important way.
Every day brought a new challenge, something new to learn about myself, about working with others, about relationship, about trying, trying, and trying again.
SOMEONE ONCE TOLD ME THAT FAILURE IS ONLY SUCCESS GIVEN UP ON TOO SOON
Someone once told me that failure is only success given up too soon and I know that I will always remember Kevin’s response to my angst about giving a dive briefing, “we are going to set you up for success, not failure.”
Being someone who has set the bar too high only to raise it again, the idea that I can set myself up for success, even if falling on my face and messing up is a part of the path, gave me a new perspective toward life and myself!
Having lived and worked in the diving industry in the BVI there are a number of excellent dive centres there. Among them, Scubabvi.com offers personalised, private diving for single or exclusive small groups, contact kate at scubabvi.com for more information.
Joanne Scharer is a PADI Divemaster, freelance writer, explorer, world traveler, former public policy wonk, and forever looking for a new adventure. She can be reached at jscharer at earthlink.net.
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