Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#145: Are You Re-Certifiable?

The recent dive-related death in Catalina's Casino Point Dive Park caused me to revisit a few concerns about the SCUBA certification process. They center around a diver's original certification course, physical fitness for diving, and recent diving experience. It is not that unusual to find divers donning their equipment (usually rental) and entering the water after long periods of being in "dry dock." During some dives on the cruise ships, I have had to accompany divers who openly stated the last time they dove was 5, 10, 15 or ____ (fill in the blank) years ago.

Now I consider SCUBA diving to be a pretty safe sport if done with adequate training, experience and the proper precautions. I'm not one of those extreme sports enthusiasts and have no desire to push my life to the limits... and possibly over the edge! I doubt you'll ever see me jumping out of a plane (I used to have great difficult just getting into one). Age has brought the wisdom that youth did not possess. After all, when I first arrived on Catalina in the late 1960's, I never thought I'd live to be older than 30 (after all, you couldn't trust anyone that age, remember?). Good thing I didn't bet on that!

My first experience with SCUBA was during the winter of 1961-62. I wasn't certified back then. For the next seven years I did sporadic diving without any certification, although much of it was in a diving helmet on a hookah rig in shallow water. I didn't get certified until I arrived in California, a pioneer state in SCUBA and one that learned early the need for certification. Thanks to the old Catalina Island School, I went through the rigorous three week certification regimen of the Los Angeles County program which gave me an excellent grounding in the sport.

Keep in mind that in those days most divers did not have a submersible air pressure gauge (SPG), buoyancy compensation device (BCD), or alternate regulator (octopus) much less a dive computer. I guess in a way we were lucky that we survived given the primitive state of equipment. One thing we did have was much better training than exists in most certification programs today. Of course the L. A. County program was, and still is, one of the top ones in the country. From it evolved other programs like NAUI and PADI. The lack of rigor in many certification programs today is especially glaring since there is so much more knowledge about diving and much more equipment to master.

I decided to post a new "thread" (discussion topic on an Internet site) on about a subject I think is important to consider. The triggering episode was the recent death, but it was just the culmination of a series of similar events over the past few years. My concerns were based on the following two considerations. Almost all SCUBA certifications are lifetime and have no expiration date. The LAC certification card ("c-card") I earned in 1969 would allow me to SCUBA dive today, whether or not I'd ever stepped into the water since that year! The second consideration was that as a diver (or any normal human) ages, they often get out of shape and are not as physically fit for diving as they were when first certified. Of course that could hardly apply to moi, could it? A third issue is the relative lack of rigor in many (but not all) of today's certification training programs.

I feel that a diver who fails to do a minimum number of dives over a defined period of time (say 30 dives over the past three years, about the number one would expect of a diver who did one dive vacation a year) should have to be recertified. Divers whose logbooks indicate a sufficient number of dives within the time period would not require it. I also feel that a diver who is being recertified under this program should undertake some test of their physical fitness, perhaps a 200-300 yard (or maybe a "26 mile") swim.

My post on ScubaBoard regarding this re-certification program has already attracted over 5,000 viewers in a week. However, it met with substantial resistance from the SB members. Quite frankly, I was surprised. Some felt I was trying to create a government entity to become the "SCUBA police" despite the fact I never mentioned (or want) government intervention. Others felt it put their "God given right" to SCUBA dive at risk. Many felt it was simply a matter of personal responsibility... despite the fact that rescues of inexperienced and out-of-shape divers often involve risk to the rescuer and in the event of failure, heartache to family and friends. At this point, according to one poll posted in response to my discussion, 67% of SB members do not feel there is any need for recertification of inactive and unfit divers.

I suggested that since ScubaBoard members were avid divers, only a small percentage of them would even be subject to the re-certification program I was suggesting. I created a poll to see what the numbers might be, and to date less than 6% of SB members would be candidates. I felt, based on their objections, they either did not understand the concept I proposed, or they just felt any further restrictions were totally unwarranted. Yet, these same members often take "re-certification" programs to maintain their driver's licenses, indulge in extreme sports like sky diving and even maintain their professional career status.

Some SB members pointed to what they felt was the root cause of the problem I describe... poor initial training. There is no question that despite increased knowledge about diving and a lot of new equipment to master, most courses today are watered down versions of the SCUBA instruction given decades ago. In part this is due to an attempt by certain agencies to broaden the market for SCUBA, bringing in many people who are not as committed to diving. One sees this in the "intro dives" offered to resort visitors, cruise line passengers and others. Such divers may decide they absolutely love the sport and seek certification, while many others only undertake a few resort dives in their lifetime.

I think all able and interested residents of, and visitors to, the island should experience the undersea world first-hand. Of course an excellent alternative is to "dive dry" in front of your TV set while watching my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD! If you are considering a SCUBA certification course, make sure it is a rigorous and in-depth one. I know the instructors here on the island are quite professional, and often require even the so-called "optional" skills to be mastered before they'll certify someone. And if you are already certified, but haven't been diving in a few years, or are now a bit out of shape from those long nights at the Chi Chi, Marlin Club or ________ (fill in the blank with your preferred watering hole... mine is the dive park), seek out a refresher course before you dive again. Be safe, enjoy the summer!

© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

What divers and free divers looked like in 1969 when I was first certified here in
California: my students and a much younger me (R) in the waters of Toyon Bay.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia