Well, I’m sure that all you are wondering why I am writing about diving in St. John when I clearly own a diving center in St. Martin, but this blog will explain it all…
Chris and I recently went to St. John with our really great friends, The Wightmans. The Wightman family includes 8 people… that would be Tim (dad), Lisa (mom), Brad (11), Rachel (13), Alexa (14), Derek (15), Elyse (16) and Justin (17). How do we know the Wightman’s? Through diving of course. Chris certified Tim about 2 years ago and every time they are here on island they dive with us, we go out to dinner, and just spend as much time together as possible. As I told Lisa when we were in St. John “it’s like… I don’t know…. sometimes you just meet people and even though you don’t know them for very long, it is like they are just your soul mates. Like we were meant to be friends.” This (of course), almost made Lisa cry. It is true though.
So, when Chris and decided that we needed to take little break we thought that meeting up with Lisa and Tim was a no brainer. We hadn’t met the kids before, but when Chris and I were at the pool on the first day we saw six kids marching down to the pool like little ducks all in formation, tallest to smallest, and the first one looked just like Tim. Chris said “I think those must be the kids.” We waived tentatively, and they seemed to recognize us.
We spent the next day getting to know all the kids, and one thing they kept asking us about, over and over, was scuba diving. We planned a scuba diving trip with a company in St. John (I won’t mention their specific name) before arriving on this small, lush US Virgin Island. We weren’t sure how to pick a scuba diving center to go with, and this is something that I’m sure all of you go through when traveling to scuba destinations. I mean, how do you know it is a good one? How can you guarantee that when you spend your hard earned money somewhere, you will have a good time? Chris and I went by reviews on the internet, websites, and also the diving centers that actually emailed us back. I mean, it is incredible how many diving centers just never got back to us!
The kids are not certified so we booked 6 discover scuba dives and 4 two tank divers. Chris and I contacted the owner of the diving center and asked if we could just take the kids ourselves, use their boat and equipment and conduct the discover scuba dives ourselves. All of the diving centers that got back to us said no, but this particular diving center said that we could all go together.
Trying scuba diving for the first time is an exciting, yet also daunting experience. For me, when I remember my first dives, it is the unknown that is the scariest. So, Chris and I did our best to answer all and every question that we were asked. (And there were quite a few… “Will there be sharks?” “What if I get water in my mask?” “What if I have to throw-up?” “What does it feel like?” “How do you move?”) We even practiced clearing our masks in the pool before we went out.
So, the day arrives. All of a sudden the kids were quiet, as the “event” came inevitably closer and closer the questions ceased. We arrived at the center and we were asked to fill in paper work. Lisa had already completed all the medical questionnaires for the kids AND gotten all relevant medical releases signed (she’s pretty good like that 🙂 Chris and I signed our lives away it seemed like. (On a different note, that follows this train of thought… later that week we rented some small boats from the resort and we had to initial that we were aware of all the bad things that could happen to us. One of them was, and I quote “that water may be injected into your orifices.” YIKES!!!)
Anyway… the kids were then taken into an extremely messy room, sat around a table, and on a small tv screen in the corner of a room the PADI Discover Scuba Diving video was played. There were no instructors (bar Chris and myself) to answer any of the kids questions. They were easily distracted and I don’t know if they really watched the entire thing. But only we were aware of this. Then it was downstairs to get equipment. The equipment was terrible. The masks were made of horrible silicone that digs into your face and the fins were made of old rubber. Brad is the smallest and we couldn’t find any fins that fit him. The owner of the operation was clapping his hands saying everyone needs to get on the boat. “Hurry up, boats gotta go.” Poor Brad was looking really distressed as they continued to try and force his feet into fins that were either too small or too large.
“We aren’t leaving until Brad has fins. No diving without Fins. So the boat is going to have to wait!” I shouted out to the owner.
Finally they went into a back closet, found a pair that was new and hence more supple, that fit Brad just fine. Although Brad doesn’t have different sized feet, he ended up with different sized fins…. bizarre.
I felt like we were running around not knowing where we were going, what was happening, I didn’t have a BCD or a regulator. I didn’t know where the boat was, or how we were getting on the boat. It was unnerving and I have over 3,000 dives! I can only imagine what the little ducklings were thinking.
The boat had about 25 people on it, it is a big dive boat, not a bad boat really.
Then the friendly (again with the sarcasm) Instructor gave a briefing to the kids about the skills they would have to do on the way out to the site. With the roar of the engine it was impossible to hear anything.
I feel like I am writing a lot here, as for me every moment is emblazoned in my unbelieving mind, so I will try and be more brief from here on out.
The “friendly” instructor did not want Chris and I in the water with the kids. I don’t really know why. There were two instructors from the diving center that were allocated to our group. She said “from one instructor the another, you must realize that it will be really difficult for us to look after 10 divers in the water at the same time. So please, can you dive with the certified divers?” I thought back to my days at Stuart Cove’s when we would take 30 people to 100 feet. Not the prettiest thing, but c’mon, she was full of #$%!.
I felt like saying “there is no way in hell that I am letting these kids go out of my site, let along go underwater for the first time with someone that is clearly as incompetent as you.” Instead I just said “We’re going with the kids, no discussion.”
So, after arriving at the site they started getting the kids in the equipment and before I knew it, they were chucking them in the water. Tim said “Quick, someone get in the water as they are throwing the kids in with no one in the water!” I could hear the panic in his voice so Chris said “Sally, quick, get in!” I was in the water in a second, sucking like a maniac through the ancient looking regulator I had been given in order to get sufficient air. Then, I half towed, half pulled some dazed looking kids to the anchor line through some strong surface current to the front of the boat where the “friendly” Instructor was waiting.
(My brevity isn’t working so well, is it? Talk to Chris, I’m sure he will be sympathetic as he gets this all the time).
I think Rachel took her reg out to ask me a question, she said something like “Is it supposed to feel like….” and then all of a sudden we heard “PUT YOUR REG BACK IN YOUR MOUTH!” from the friendly instructor. Jeez Louise!
I went back for more kids and Chris came through with some more. By the time we got to the anchor line two of the kids were simply going down the line with no instructor. The bottom was at 30 feet. It was definitely jumping in at the deep end for the little ducklings. No shallow water start for them. Then it all gets a bit crazy, with no organization and the friendly instructors tank flailing around as her tank band had come loose Chris and I couldn’t believe it.
That is the thing. We do this all the time. It doesn’t have to be like this. It can be easy, it can be smooth and fun. But if you ask people to do the mask skill while holding on to the line, then they need both hands, which means they have to let go of the line, which means that they descend but they don’t have another hand to equalize with. Crazy. Brad had some trouble equalizing, the instructor spent like 2 seconds trying with him and then said “Do you want to swim around the back of the boat?” Brad said “Yes.” And then I realized that the instructor was descending. He was just going to let Brad, who is 11 and wearing potentially life threatening equipment, swim the 60 feet to the back of the boat in current all by himself. He didn’t even take his weight belt off. I said to Lisa “Do you want to go with Brad, or me?” There was no way Brad was going by himself. Lisa went with Brad, which means that she didn’t get to dive.
Alright, I really am carrying on now, but it was so appalling. The dive was actually nice. Chris and I were helpful (just like we said we were going to be) and we held hands with the girls and pointed things out, and checked people’s air. The friendly (still sarcastic!) instructor was a bit better in the water, and she may have even smiled to us at one point during the dive, or perhaps she just forced a fart underwater and I misunderstood! 🙂 I didn’t see any bubbles coming out of her…
The second dive was just as ridiculous as the first.
Here is the thing, and I tried to explain this to Lisa as well. Everyone is different. Just because we strap a tank to your back, give you some fins and mask doesn’t mean that you are all the same. People learn differently, the react differently and this diving center was treating all the kids, everyone, as if we were one clone. Brad needed to go slowly, Justin didn’t. Alexa needed lots of things explained to her, Elyse I think didn’t want to bogged down with too much information. Rachel just needed to be told that we would be there if she needed us, and Derek I think has secretly dived before. He was too good at it. Some people need to take their reg out and say “I’m scared” before going down. Some people need to go under the water, then come up and then go down again. Every situation arises and the problem with the experience that we had in St John was that we were just numbers. It sounds cliche, but we were totally just cattle being herded around.
Chris and I did send a full report to the owner, but they haven’t gotten back to us. Perhaps they will turn a blind eye to it and just keep going.
It is sad though, because the discover scuba dive is the first step into diving. If people like it, they get certified somewhere, then they buy equipment, and then they go diving. All of this means more money into the dive industry, it doesn’t matter where that first experience is, it should be a good one.
Ok, “Too many words in this blog, Sally.” I can hear Chris saying.
I would just like to end this blog by saying that we learned a lot from this experience. At the end of the day the amazing little ducklings did fantastic, even Brad was free diving by the end of the trip. Lisa, Tim, Chris and I went diving with another company and had a fantastic time, so if you are going to St. John and need advice, just ask me. It was such a great week. The best part… Alexa, Brad, Lisa, Tim, Justin, Elyse, Rachel and Derek.
(Sally wrote this blog 🙂 )