Anywhere in the world, scuba-diving businesses that run their dive-trips properly have similar costs, work on a similar profit margin and ask a similar price. If you are offered a trip for significantly less than the going rate, therefore, it’s likely that something will be missing.
A corner or two will have been cut somewhere. You get what you pay for and, if you pay less, you will get less.
It is often easy to see where the cheaper operators are saving money. For instance, liveaboard cabins might have bunks instead of double beds, and buffet lunches instead of a la carte meals. Land-based dive-centres might be using ancient trucks instead of comfortable passenger vans and have rusty, faded old gear for hire instead of new models.
A trip on a large boat with many divers and a high staff-to-diver ratio can be expected to cost less than a personalised trip on a smaller boat with your own dive-guide. This is all above board. You know what you’re getting, and can choose according to your budget and needs.
However, some operators also save money in other ways that are less easy to detect – as my friends discovered to their cost.
Not all “divermasters” are equal.
The fact that someone is introduced as your “divemaster” does not necessarily mean that they have a professional qualification. Divers pay to be guided and looked after by an expert, but a corner-cutting operator might give the job to somebody who is unqualified, has little diving experience and so can be paid a lower wage.
In this case it seems, the “divemaster” was actually paying the operator for the privilege of working. You won’t know what’s going on unless the subject comes up in an unguarded moment of conversation, or your divemaster’s poor skill-set raises your suspicions.
Another thing that some corner-cutting dive-operators do to reduce their costs and enable them to offer cheaper prices is charter what could best be described as “taxi-boats”, instead of professional dive-boats.
The taxi-boat’s only function is to get divers out to the sites and back home again, so the captain charges the dive operator a low fee for the service.
This fee does not include fuel. The dive operator is expected to supply this, based on the sites the divers want to visit and the captain’s assessment of how much fuel is required.
The corner-cutting operator will oblige, but will deliver only exactly the quantity of fuel requested, not a drop more.
In the event of anything unexpected taking place, such as the guests refusing to accept the operator’s bait and switch tactics regarding the sites to be visited, the boat runs out of fuel.
The taxi-boat captain and crew might even be wearing the operator’s T-shirts, so they look like a dive-boat team, but this is just a device on the part of the operator to make you think you’re getting a better service.
The truth is revealed by the crew’s actions. A knowledgeable, professional crew will be handing out weights, helping set up cylinders, stowing away gear properly, watching the ocean and advising the divemaster on the best way to dive the sites that day.
They will be helping divers with their entry and exit and staying alert for other boat traffic and divers surfacing early.
On a taxi-boat, either the divemasters will be doing all these things or nobody will be doing them.
Techniques to take away
In locations where there is good diving, a glut of dive-operators and no official oversight, expect that intense competition will produce corner-cutting, and be wary.
Trust that, if several well-known, well-reviewed (and highly recommended!) dive-operators offer a similar price for a dive trip, then that is probably the right price.
Know that cheaper prices always involve corner-cutting of some sort, even if you cannot see it, and that this corner-cutting is likely to be prejudicial to your safety.