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How to Choose Your Dive Training

How should you pick a diving instructor? Taking a scuba class is NOT the same as buying a loaf of bread! Though both items involve bubbles. British instructor and wreck and cave diver Rich Walker outlines some of the things you may want to think about when deciding what’s next on your training agenda and who you want to do it with!

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By Rich Walker

There’s a funny thing about taking a scuba diving course; it’s not the same as buying a loaf of bread. If you don’t like the bread, you buy a different type the next day or choose another bakery. It’s basically a recurrent cost, and you can try the type of bread that strikes your fancy on any particular day.

With a scuba diving course, whether it be an open water course or an advanced technical curriculum, most people will only ever take that particular class once. After all, how many people do you know that have done two open-water courses? 

So how should you make decisions about your training?

I think that before you can answer that question, you need to take a step back and decide why you’re looking at training in the first place. If it’s because your friends, or local dive store, or some guy on the internet told you that you need to take the “advanced technical helium rescue specialty (sidemount version)” because that was the next step on your pathway to becoming an awesome diver, then do yourself a favor and stop everything. It’s time for a reset.

Conversely, a good strategy when looking at further training is to think about the kind of diving that you’d love to do. It might be a World War II wreck dive in the cold waters of a Norwegian Fjord. Maybe it’s a reef in the Philippines with unparalleled biodiversity. It could be a cave system deep in the Mexican jungle with pristine formations and endless visibility. Your imagination is the driver in this process. Read magazines and books. Follow the footsteps of other explorers. But be sure to have an idea of where you’re going. 

In other words, set yourself a goal.

Photo by Kirill Egorov.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Once you’ve got a goal in mind, it’s time to look at the skills you’d need to learn in order to do that dive. Now it’s often said that “you don’t know what you don’t know” so how are you to work out what it is that you need to learn?

Most diver training relates to either a particular environment or a type of equipment.  Some environments that you encounter would include caves (or other overhead environments), deep diving (including decompression diving), or cold water.  Equipment can generally be simplified into open circuit (back mounted), open circuit (side mounted), or rebreather. 

Now you should look at your intended goal and try and work out what skills are needed as well as what equipment would be most appropriate to make those dives. I find that I switch between all three equipment configurations on a regular basis, depending on the tool I need for the job. But choose the right equipment for your goal. 

Backmount open circuit equipment is great for diving to a depth of 50-60 m/164-197 ft. Don’t get hung up on the exact numbers. You can argue about the precise depth on the internet. Beyond that, rebreathers become much more efficient. 

Sidemount is seful in small, overhead environments. It’s not so good if you need to carry a lot of gas. People will tell you they can dive deep on sidemount with lots of stages. You can. But there are better ways. 

A sidemount diver in Mexico. Photo by Sun Eun Kim.

You can dive shallow on a rebreather too. But open circuit is simpler, cleaner, and cheaper. You can also dive very deep on open circuit. But most people would now agree that rebreathers come into their own for deep diving. 

Decide what tools would be best for the goal you want to achieve. 

The Right Stuff

Next, you will want to connect the tools that you will need with the right kind of training. Most agencies have a course that will fit your requirements. Deep, sidemount, cave, whatever. But don’t forget, as a general rule, you will only take a single class at the level you need, so it’s important to take the right class. So now you need to do some homework. 

At this stage it’s worth highlighting a very important point: you should never consider taking a “deep air class” or any other variant. Any project that is deeper than 30 m/100 ft will be much better using helium in the breathing mixture. It’s easier to breathe, reduces narcosis, and is ultimately a much safer gas. If you “need” to take a 50 m/164 ft air class before progressing to another level, then look elsewhere for your training. 

Now that’s out of the way, have a look at the instructors that are offering the kind of training you need. There are a few criteria you can use to evaluate your potential instructor. Remember they are there to do a job for you, and you should check their credentials in the same way you would expect to be checked if you were applying for a job. 

Do they have the correct experience?

I once gave a talk to 30-40 dive professionals and shop owners. I was delivering a piece about how project diving could help build a community of active divers that would help their businesses flourish. I asked them to put up their hand if they’d dived within the last two months. Half of the hands went up. I asked them to leave their hands up if those dives had been “personal” dives, i.e. not teaching. Sadly mine was the only hand still in the air. 

Photo by Julian Mühlenhaus.

Make sure that your instructor is doing “real” dives. And that those dives are aligned with your goal. That way, you will be able to gain valuable experience from your instructor that is more than just the content of a slide presentation. You should be looking for an instructor that can provide value above and beyond the course standards and help you build the skills that you need to achieve your goals. 

Book a Day

The easiest way to find out if you have the right instructor is to book a day with your potential candidate. You might need to pay a coaching fee for this, but if you explain where you’re heading and what your goals are, the instructor might waive their fee. But don’t expect it. 

Take the time to talk to them. Find out their history. What were their goals and how did they achieve them? This is part of working out if your potential instructor is the right sort of diver to learn from. 

Make sure that you get to dive with them, too. I’m going to tell you some secrets about this process now. Some inside information, if you will. Pick some skills that you already know, but maybe need a little refinement. Don’t go for brand new skills. This way you have the advantage that you more or less know what you’re doing, and you have the capacity to evaluate how the skills are delivered and taught. Now, have your potential instructor help you with these skills.

Clear Briefs, Demonstrations, and Personal Skills

Listen carefully to the dive briefing. Is it exactly clear what your potential instructor wants you to do and how the dive will be conducted? This is crucial when it comes to learning new skills. If you don’t know what’s expected of you it will be much harder to learn the new skills. 

Take a good look at how your instructor looks in the water. Do you want to look like them? If they are kneeling down to do a skill or not in precise control of their buoyancy then how effective do you think they can be at delivering the skill to you?

Did they demonstrate the skill? Is it how you would like to look? If it doesn’t make you think “Wow! That was well done,” then maybe they’re not a good match for you. 

But what should you be looking for? Instructors should be in complete control of their position in the water at all times. They should be neutrally buoyant and able to position themselves wherever they need to be to be effective. They should always be able to communicate with you, the student, and be in a position to give help and feedback if needed. 

Photo by Peter Gaertner.

The demonstration should be clear and slow. It should highlight the important points that were mentioned in the briefing. It should act as a trigger to your memory to help you when you perform the skill yourself. 

When you’re doing the skill how does the instructor work? Are they looking at you and giving you feedback? The instructor should be helping you to get better, and there is no more effective way than to explain how to improve while you’re underwater. Right there in the moment. Their signals and communication should either be intuitive and obvious or have been briefed beforehand. They should know common student problems, so you should expect that they have a repertoire of instructional signals to use when teaching. 

Not providing in-water feedback is something to be concerned about. Without it, if you don’t get a skill right in the water, then you will need to make another dive to correct it. Which is pretty inefficient when you think about it. 

Debriefing Skills

Not all things can be fixed underwater. So a debrief is a critical final step of the process. The debrief should reinforce and encourage the things you did well but also give you a pathway and solutions for how to improve on the next dive. Solutions need to be specific. By this, I mean things like, “Keep your head up when sending up a marker buoy. It will help you stay referenced on your team and environment” or, “Make sure your backwards kick is slow and precise. Too much power will make you unstable.” 

Feedback like, “That was awesome, you just need to practice more” is all too common. If it was “awesome,” then it wouldn’t need more practice. And if it needs practice, what exactly are you supposed to do? The same thing over and over? You need a solid, practical solution. And you should expect one from any instructor you are going to employ. 

The final thing to consider is, do you enjoy spending time with your instructor? They should not feel like your “best friend.” There needs to be a professional relationship, rather than a friendship, as they may have to deliver some firm feedback to you at some point. If you’ve been best friends for four days, then it can be psychologically challenging when your new friend gives you some tough love. The counterpoint is that you should be able to enjoy your time with this instructor. They should not intimidate you, speak down to you, or make you feel bad about yourself. If they make you feel like that, again, find another instructor. 

If you go through these steps and follow the advice, you are very likely to choose a good pathway for your diving. Remember though, your goals are the foundation for all of this. Without them, you will wander from c-card to c-card, and one equipment configuration to the next, and not really achieve your dreams. 

Get clear on your goals, and go achieve them!


Rich Walker learned to dive in 1991 in the English Channel and soon developed a love for wreck diving. The UK coastline has tens of thousands of wrecks to explore, from shallow to deep technical dives. He became aware of GUE in the late 1990’s as his diving progressed into the technical realm, and eventually took cave training with GUE in 2003. He began teaching for GUE in 2004. 

Walker is an active project diver, and is currently involved with the MARS project in Sweden, and cave exploration in Izvor Licanke, Croatia. He is also chairman and founder of Ghost Fishing UK. He is a full time technical instructor and instructor evaluator with GUE, which he delivers via his company, Wreck and Cave Ltd. He sits on the GUE Board of Advisors, and several other industry bodies. 



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Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.



The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Additional Resources:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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