We all know that we get what we pay for, but sometimes we can’t resist what appears to be a stone bargain. That can be a serious mistake when it comes to scuba-diving, however. SIMON PRIDMORE reveals some of the tricks that could be our undoing
I have lived in south-east asia for a long time and, although I no longer run a scuba-diving operation in the region, I know a lot of people who do. I have been out diving with many of them over the years, for both work and fun.
There are thousands of dive operations in South-east Asia. Some are very good and provide an excellent, safe and highly professional service.
Others, as you might suspect, are not so good and are best avoided.
As is the case almost everywhere people dive, there are no governing bodies in the region that inspect dive-operators to verify their standards or performance, nor is any penalty imposed for negligence that results in divers coming to harm.
Each year many diving accidents take place, some of which are directly attributable to inadequate safety procedures, but it is unusual for the dive operator responsible to go out of business. So you have to choose carefully and well.
Over the years, friends planning a dive holiday in South-east Asia have asked me for recommendations, and I usually respond with a list of operations from which they can choose.
They then narrow the list down to two or three dive-centres or dive-boats, write to each and make their choice based on the response they get.
Everybody wins – the visitors get some great diving, and the good operators get some well-merited business.
It doesn’t always go so well, which of course is why this is the subject of this month’s Techniques column.
Two dive-industry pros, former colleagues, came out to Indonesia a while ago to go diving. They told me what they wanted to see, and I gave them a list of the relevant sites and suggested a few operators in the area. A few weeks later, I wrote and asked how the diving had gone.
“Terrible,” they said. “We booked a three-tank trip out to the sites you recommended. When we arrived at the dock, they tried to get us to agree to a change of plan, but we insisted on going to the places they had promised.
“This led to a big argument between the divemaster and the boat captain.
“After the first dive, on the way to the second site, the boat ran out of petrol, so we spent an hour bobbing around in high waves, waiting for someone to bring out a jerry-can. The lost time meant that we did only two dives instead of three. We asked for a refund but they refused and blamed us for the problems they’d had.
“Oh, yes, and while we were hanging out in mid-ocean trying to avoid being sick and getting sunburnt, we were chatting with the divemaster and he admitted that he had actually never been out to these sites before.
“Nor was he really a divemaster. Our trip was actually part of his divemaster training. The whole thing was a dreadful experience.”
I was horrified, and asked them which of the operators I had suggested was responsible for this disastrous day.
“Oh, none of them,” they replied, “we thought all the places you recommended were really expensive, and it was hard to choose which one to go for. So we decided to wait until we got there.
“Soon after we arrived, we met a guy on the beach and he offered us a great deal. We checked his website and everything looked OK, so we went for that instead.”
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.
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.
Read more from Simon Pridmore in:
Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver
Scuba Professional – Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations
Scuba Fundamental – Start Diving the Right Way
Scuba Physiological – Think You Know All About Scuba Medicine? Think Again!
Scuba Exceptional – Become the Best Diver You Can Be