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by Victoria Brown
Header Photo by Leo Grower, Ocean Leisure
The sound of escaping air whooshing through purge valves tears through me. I consider the impending hours I will be standing in front of the compressor, filling the cylinders as my group of divers is using their air supply as ammunition stocks for their new air guns. Sorry, I mean regulators.
I am dressed in my wetsuit, with my diving instructor hat on, loudly addressing the rowdy crowd of teenage boys, attempting to gain silence and get their attention. Futile, as you can imagine. In a bid to appear in control, I try again in a firmer voice, this time individually name checking each member of the group, none of whom are paying attention to me over the buzz of activity. I walk around the buddy pairs conducting final checks, repeating the pre-dive safety mnemonic to the group (that seems to slip their minds from week to week), ensuring the strict sequences are executed, sorting tangled hoses, and tightening the cam bands of BCDs worn by the next generation of divers.
The crowd of excited boys yells gas pressures to the instructor on surface support duty, and they waddle carefully in their fins toward the edge of the pool to get ready to make their giant stride entrances. This is Kid’s Club, and it is more than fun. Once I’m happy, I step into the water and all eyes are on me. I mutter the weekly joke about how cold it is in the 28°C/82°F pool and go on to instruct the divers to enter the water one by one.
In the next moment we are sinking into the magnificent azure of a hidden world in search of adventure, treasure, and marine life that we discussed just an hour ago during the dive briefing. In reality, the azure comes from the colored tiles that are creating the turquoise hue, outlined by darker navy blue bordering the lanes along the 25 m/82 ft length of the pool. The only marine life are the clumps of hair, rouge plasters and lost sparkly earrings missing their pair, glinting in the bright glow of the strip lights in the roof.
Ages 13-18, and amongst their school peers, the kids are concerned with looking cool and in control during their brave pursuit of the underwater world. The group is competitive and this helps them to up their game and achieve mastery in their skills. Any slight feelings of apprehension are put aside as they try to out hover each other in sweet trim and give the OK sign every few moments to their buddy.
Colour Me Child Diver
My first experience diving with children was when I began diving. As the youngest, keenest, and last member of the Brown family divers to experience diving, my family members were my trusted companions. In hindsight, I learnt the importance of looking after other divers from them. Of course, as a new diver I erred on the wild side with little regard for or understanding of safe diving practices. I would laugh until my regulator fell out and use my air up trying to gain some sort of semblance of neutral buoyancy as I darted around discovering new species of fish and corals. I was never left alone to my own devices. They kept me safe and away from danger, they always had my back (and my SPG in view), and they never constrained my exploration through underwater play.
As I edged out of my teens and into my 20s, I was teaching recreational courses every week. My first diving job was at a dive centre in London that ran a whole variety of kid friendly diving experiences, from “bubblemaker” parties to junior open water courses, via the PADI Seal Team. I immediately began instructing the kid’s courses, and I adored it. As a young female instructor working in a busy London dive center, I was relieved to have an audience that never questioned the level of experience I had in comparison to my age.
Teaching groups of kids brought a whole world of imagination and joy to diving that reminded me of my early days learning to dive. I felt a great sense of achievement every time I had the opportunity to lead a diver underwater for the first time and reveal the secrets of the deep. This feeling was heightened by the great enthusiasm of youth.
Hogwarts On Helium?
Nowadays, I run a scuba club at a south London boys’ school. It is magical. The school is mega, it feels like Hogwarts, and is set in stunning grounds. The facilities are excellent too, a large heated pool, hot showers and free cups of tea in the staffroom.
Each child has a unique personality, and it is this powerful individualism of each of my students that defines our communication in lessons. There are the loudest characters who want to catch me out and interrogate me about non-diving related issues in front of their buddies. Then there are the divers who ask a thousand questions, the quiet ones who listen, and the ones that do not! From the less sporty ones who persist in mastery of the skills we conduct in training to the ones who appear to already be born to dive, they all come together to share this extreme experience.
Despite the liveliness of some groups, as the time nears for open water qualifying dives the groups tend to knuckle down as their thoughts turn toward cold water, and they consider the severity of possible situations if things go wrong. Concentration and attention are increased tenfold during the final confined water training sessions. The divers are all there to learn now, their natural competitiveness subsides, and the team begins to work together.
Occasionally diving instructors are not keen on teaching children, for they are uninterested in what is perceived as ‘babysitting’. I find I have endless patience for the wee diving ones and find their spirit enchanting. Kids are not for the faint hearted. It is not the same as teaching adults, although I can recall a few occasions that maturity might be confused with age.
It is important to consider that they are not just smaller adults. They have shorter attention spans, and more quizzical questions arise; tactical explanations are a necessity if I want to successfully guide kids into diving. I learn so much from interacting and diving with the kids and appreciate their vivid originality. I also enjoy the challenges posed by some wonderful questions in class that spark awesome discussions.
Inspiring the NextGen
Sometimes teaching theory can be interrupted by the excitement of getting in the water, but it can also be more rewarding than the diving itself. Delivering a lesson in a firm, precise, and comprehensive manner can help. So can shorter, fun bursts that include a clear explanation of value, repetition where possible, and a lot of patience. I have a cool story to drop into at every moment, so when daydreams replace concentration, and students drift out of the classroom, sharing a gripping tale of an underwater adventure that I have had certainly grabs their attention
And another thing: when I hit waterside, ensuring that the kids have well-fitted equipment is essential. Smaller cylinders, kid-sized BCDs, well-fitted masks and smaller mouth pieces on regulator second stages and snorkels are critical.
One thing you learn when you spend time with children outside the water is anything that can happen, will happen. Introduce water, depth and equipment to the mix and it really gets exciting. There is not a moment you can safely take your eyes off the young students. You need eyes everywhere. Topside rules are check, check, and check again.
To me this is not a chore, it is part of the fun. The intense excitement is infectious, and when a group goes underwater to take their first breaths, it feels great watching the wonderment behind their eyes. I love asking the kids about how they feel and what it was like, and what they thought about.
Being a role model for my groups is incredibly important. I want to demonstrate how to be safe, have fun, and share experiences and adventures with their friends. Enabling the children of today to take the reins of tomorrow is going to change the future.
Imagine the possibilities as future underwater explorers and ocean advocates that learnt under your instruction go on to discover places where no one has ever dived before, or reverse the effects of climate change, or make more divers to protect our water sources.
Victoria Brown is a PADI Diving Instructor, Commercial Diver-Surface Supplied, and Technical Diver. Based in London, UK, she works as a freelance Content Creator for Suunto, Deeperblue.com, and Midlands Diving Chamber.
A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR
Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.
by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert
“To err is human” Alexander Pope
In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.
Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.
Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.
Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.
By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.
[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]
So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.
The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.
Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:
Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.
My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.
The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!
Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.
I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact).
To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.
Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:
- PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
- Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
- Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.
Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.
These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]
Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:
- Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
- Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!
Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!
Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.
Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.
Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729
Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)
Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING
Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”
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