Sunday, March 04, 2007

SAFE Scuba Diving?

Yes, it is possible.

Feel I have to add my share of spiel to the recent scuba diving related accident nonsense that's been raging in the press the previous week. Its not old and it'll happen again.

1. Scuba (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) contains inherent risks like most sports do. The risks levels are increased because of one's dependency on compressed air* in a virtually airless environment (underwater in other words). It is otherwise no more dangerous then roller blading or bicycling in my opinion.

* not oxygen as most people including our oh so credible press likes to believe and thus misleading everyone else into believing the same. btw, i have written in to ST before to correct this error but to no avail. If one breathes pure oxygen (100% O2) as implied by the term 'oxygen tank' then one would suffer from oxygen toxicity by suffering a central nervous system convulsion (your brain goes kaput) at a depth of around 5 to 6 metres depth .... and you die.
Basic scuba courses take you down to 18M, advance courses typically around 30M, specialty courses to 40M and technical courses down to 150M (but you look like a christmas tree going diving at this level).

2. It is ridiculously cheap to learn scuba diving in Singapore given the unethical levels of competition for the consumer dollar. Plain mathematics alone will tell anyone who investigates that intro scuba courses following PADI, NAUI or SSI guidelines are almost impossible to perform when including a weekend trip to nearby Malaysian islands. SGD $400 per student does not even really make break even for the week's operations not to mention the running costs of an actual dive shop in sky high priced Singapore. But this level of being 'unethical' is due in large part to consumer behaviour as we all well know. Besides having the two words 'business' and 'ethics' usually does not make sense in a sentence or a paragraph unless it is descriptive like this is.

3. Based on point 2 above one 'way out' is through economies of scale. Most scuba certifying bodies have an instructor student ratio of 1:8 in very controlled conditions (very shallow water with no current or in a pool). A smaller ratio of conditions are not so stable/suitable. Some 'scuba schools' in Singapore exceed this since there is no regulatory body nor can there be one everywhere where scuba diving is possible (basically anywhere where you can haul your gear & tank and where there's water).

Ratios exceeding 1:8 typically require a certified assistant. The former part of 'certified assistant' is usually questionable.

Cancelling dives due to perceived uncontrollable risks by the operator / instructors usually ends up pissing off the customers who are double quick to complain and run to CASE. The flip side is for an instructor to take someone down in the water when it is flowing at 3 knots. Not very fast in a boat but unstoppable when you're a human being underwater ... even with fins.
Yes yes, some induhviduals can swim in or against a 3 knot current with jet fins but those are rare and certainly not new divers. Or when a storm is about to break knowing that there will be swells of up to 6 feet causing the boat (and launching/recovery platform) to continuously be in an exaggerated up/down motion.

4. Still based on point 2 above the other way out is to cut corners. By sending down students into the water with 'certified' assistants first while the actual instructor supervises the 'dive' from above water.

5. Not all instructors are the same in terms of training, exposure, experience, communication, discipline etc. This is a human given. Some instructors are on their first few classes out in open water (the sea. confined water = pool or very shallow sea bay where there is no current), others have been there so long they believe they've seen all there is to see. Some instructors demonstrate skills well underwater but may not be so articulate in the classroom. Some vice versa. Sometimes it is a language issue - CL2 instructor, EL1 student or vice versa or any other possible combination you can think off including the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. And occasionally there are requirements for a HK3 instructor also (that's hokkien for you). Instructors are not perfect. But neither are their charges.

6. Not all students truly are there to learn scuba diving and not all students go to any kind of course with the right attitude. The third kind of student, other then those who really want to learn are those who are there for the sake of someone/thing they love/adore - i.e. doing it for wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/dog/turtle/etc. Some students simply do not respond to instructions well both above and underwater period. The most difficult instruction for guys to follow is: hold onto your buddy's arm to stay close when you first descend and hit the bottom. It applies to some gals also when their buddies are guys they do not know. FYI, STDs are not transmitted by arm contact and neither is pregnancy caused.

7. New or trainee divers (consumers) typically go for the lowest price. Sometimes even haggling even more without realising the true cost of operations for a diving outfit. Some shops give in to the pricing requirements by customers. Some shops kick off with ultra low pricing but wind up after half or a year. I leave it to your imagination what can happen in this scenario when ultra low prices are de rigeur.

6. Combine the five points above and we have a recipe ripe for disaster.

* * *
To be fair here are the components of a proper introductory scuba diving course from PADI as is typically conducted in Singapore, you go figure the true costs:

Open Water Diver Course Components in terms of cost:

1. classroom for at least 6 to 10 hours (split over 2 evenings usually and depending on whether students have pre-read the required material or not though usually it is NOT). OK, this can be conducted in someone's home at a higher cost to the instructor to get there with a bootful of diving gear to show and tell but the other requirements below are typically non-negotiable.

2. 1 to 2 or more pool sessions with rental of scuba tanks and gear (depending on student and ratios and whether students breathe easy underwater or struggle - smokers' have an advantage here since they already regulate their airways typically very well but in the diving world non-smokers outnumber smokers, just like in real life)

3. course book (to be owned by student) copies are usually not allowed (i know this is about $60 a piece) - new PADI regulations attached your actual certification card (called PIC) with each new book. Therefore you have to buy a new book to get certified. No borrowing from your friend/cousin/cat etc.

4. course video / vcd / dvd purchased and owned by shop

5. necessary equipment for theory lessons (white board, video/vcd/dvd player, tv or PC/laptop)

6. instructor fee for 4 evenings (3 to 4 hours each evening for 2 theory lessons, 2 pool lessons - then we hope like hell that everyone passes at the first go because in the typical Singaporean schedule there is no time for RT or revision if you don't know what RT means)

7. transportation for diver(s) and instructor to Malaysia (tioman / dayang / redang / perhentian etc) - ConV or minivan typically takes 9 to 11, if group of 13 then the shop loses some money. include Singaporean and Malaysian toll fees here as well to get true cost.

8. rental of dive boat (share or wholely rent but some equivalent arrangement) for the whole weekend including for use as transportation to and from the dive islands (about 4 hours of diesel run one way on the fastest boat in good weather for the nearer islands) [cutting cost here is easy, just overload the boat beyond its official capacity] -- dive boat rental typically also includes scuba tanks, weights, petrol for running human use grade air compressors [cutting cost here is also easy, just don't change the air filters so often]

9. full board for saturday night and half day on sunday (that's usually an aircon bunk style room with meals)

10. instructor fees (may have to include certified assistant's fees also depending on group size / comfort levels) for the weekend; includes instructor's boarding

11. rental of diving equipment for the weekend (a typical full set of gear excluding tank ranges from about $800 to you name it - lesser then that and you're playing with your life)

12. diving insurance / trip insurance if the operator is a disciplined and caring one otherwise you're on your own here

13. certification card (actual certification card will be mailed to you about a month later); for PADI this alone costs AUD $45 methinks.

14. storage of records by the shop in case of future accident

15. operating cost for the shop (let's assume the dive shop is a welfare society and does not operate for profit here)

16. yes, some of us will argue that if it is indeed a ratio of 1:8 then most of the costs are defrayed into 8 parts therefore lowering the overall induhvidual cost. honestly, do you go for any course(s) with 7 other friends at any given point in your life that is of your own choosing? all at the same time if you're all holding onto normal jobs (working from 8.30am to about 10pm everyday)? I've found out a long time ago that waiting for anyone to join you to do something just basically procrastinates the whole affair which typically ends up being called off. If you're gonna do it then Nike!

17. some/most instructors will 'pass' a student because the student is a paying customer. not because the student is fit for certification. few instructors will dare to 'fail' or not certify open water (beginner) students because of this perceived and real 'monetary' relationship. FYI, most scuba instructors (not dive shops or operators) in Singapore are lucky if they make enough to cover their own equipment and pay the house bills every month, zero savings potential and certainly not a decent salary. Still very far even by GHSS survey standards of $2,750 average a month.

* * *

Diving is a very nice, relaxing and interesting sport or you may choose dives that are more adventurous. There are high risks associated with scuba diving if the student is not well taught or if a diver chooses to ignore the basic and advanced teachings. Or if a diver does not go for a refresher after a long period away from diving gear and rules.

An accident in Sipadan in 2006 springs to mind. The divemaster (below level of instructor) will turn on your air tank for you just prior to the dive. It is your duty to double check that your air tank is fully turned on and that you do indeed have enough air for the planned dive. This diver actually turned OFF the air while double checking and leaving enough airflow for breathing at a shallow depth (rule is turn on all the way and half turn back to prevent jamming, this diver turned off all the way and half turn back) went ahead with the dive. At 20+M this diver 'suffocated' due to the inability of the air cyclinder to deliver air at that operating pressure (we can go into Boyle's law and all that fancy stuff but I'll leave it for the actual lecture) and shot to the surface holding a lungful of air (from 20M, a lungful of air would depressurize and expand to 3 times its original volume). The diver was rushed to Tawau Hospital and warded for observation for near drowning and for lung over expansion injury. Fortunately that diver is alright except for the near drowning.

Lung over expansion injury: your lungs tear due to over expansion but you do not feel pain because there are no nerves in/around your lungs. blood enters your lungs through the tear and you drown in your own blood / any other gunk that happens to be around in your chest cavity. there is an intermediate stage called mediastinal emphysema where you literally cough blood like in kong fu movies.

The cardinal rule of always diving with and staying near your buddy was broken. The diver was unable to locate the buddy. Whose fault is it? I would say both divers.

On further questioning it was found out that the diver was actually only certified to dive to a depth of 18M as stipulated by training but most resorts let you do what you want anyways since you are a paying customer. Over and above that, this particular diver's last dive was actually the last of the basic training dives conducted some two years prior to this trip. Futhermore this diver's other friends knew very well that this diver's certification was only for a certain level yet the proceeded to allow dives that exceeded this diver's training.

And like just any old life, any activity is risky in and of itself, I do believe the stats will show that one stands a higher chance of being in a vehicle accident (or in Singapore's case being hit by killer litter) and leaving this world then by scuba diving.

Rule No.1 : Breathe Continuously.

Please be a SAFE Diver: Slowly Ascend From Every Dive

Just don't take the cheapest course there is. We get what we pay for at the end of the day.

For SCUBA the easy way out is also the quickest way out of this world.
Go enjoy the underwater world! It is truly amazing and peaceful!