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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. 



Cave

Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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