Scuba Feature

Among some of the more conscientious dive instructors, the principal criticism of certification programs is that they don't provide adequate realistic preparation for an emergency. "With the right training, you can't blame anything on a gauge, or equipment, or a buddy," says Kenny Broad, an instructor for the National Association of Underwater Instructors and the Professional Association of Dive Instructors, two of the largest certification agencies in the U.S. "And the right training is simulated-stress training."

Hard-nosed training regimens have been a casualty of the industry's growth, says Tom Mount, a founder of the National Association for Cave Divers and a dive instructor for 31 years. "I think over the years you've had a softening of divers' standards in a lot of ways," he says. "There's a lot of emphasis on `diving should be fun,' rather than an emphasis on rigorousness. It's a good thing that a lot of instructional techniques are no longer in the sport, such as harassing of students underwater. But something like stress management shouldn't have been left out."

For example, Mount says, he augments his basic certification class with a simulated emergency situation in which a diver runs out of air far more than an arm's length away from the buddy. Where most classes have the two diving buddies swim a couple of laps in a pool side-by-side while sharing one regulator, Mount has the buddies begin apart from each other and forces one with an air problem to swim the distance to join the other diver with the functional air supply. This exercise, Mount says, better illustrates what it feels like to run out of air and get to the other diver while maintaining composure in a stressful situation. Says dive instructor and charter-boat operator Rick Smith, considered by many to be one of the best instructors in Miami: "People who have ten things wrong [with their equipment] shouldn't have any problem surviving. I've seen someone hit the water, get a little water in their mask, and come up screaming."

Several dive operators and dive instructors also agree that if Allen and Figuerola were as obviously inexperienced as Allen says, then Lady Cyana III's captain made a questionable decision letting the two go alone, particularly on a day with forecasts for some rough weather. "The very best divemasters, the very best instructors, the very best charter-boat operators aren't the ones that do these great rescues," says instructor Kenny Broad. "The best ones prevent these accidents well before they turn into accidents. If prevention means don't let them get into the water, don't let them get into the water."

Rick Smith, who estimates he's trained 6000 people and taken out tens of thousands for dives, explains that in most cases the warning signs should leap out at the trained dive pro. "After a while you can tell who's going to be shaky. The person that's taking a long time to go in, the person asking questions they shouldn't ask, like, `Are there sharks around here?' That person is really telling you something by saying something else. The person who puts on their regulator backward is telling you something by not telling you anything." (South Florida dive professionals, it should be noted, express surprise that an accident of this nature occurred on a Lady Cyana Divers vessel and praise the shop's safety track record and dedication to the sport.)

Many dive operators say that on more than a few occasions, they've prevented certified divers from going in the water, or have assigned a mate to a diver for the duration of the dive. "I can't tell you how often I've had to do that," Smith says. "The unfortunate thing is a person can get certified who really isn't able to go out there and do a rigorous dive."

Dive-boat operator Chuck Norwich tells a cautionary tale about reading the warning signs before an accident happens. In the Seventies, he says, a teacher from Sweden would visit the United States every year and go diving in Florida. Norwich took the woman on his boat twice, but both times she ran out of air down-current and drifted away from the group - both violations of diving's golden rules. The next time the woman called Norwich for a dive, he refused to take her. "That week I saw a small article in the newspaper," remembers Norwich. "The woman drowned in a diving accident in the Keys."

The infrequent diver invites much debate among certification agencies and scuba experts. One side suggests mandatory recertification for a certified diver who hasn't been diving in a while. That idea isn't unanimously popular and was voted down last year by the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Tom Mount, a critic of the idea, suggests that instead of mandatory recertification, dive operators should emphasize the strict documentation of all dives in the diver's log book. With a well-maintained log book, a dive-shop owner or boat operator would know how often someone has dived, where the dives took place, to what depth, and with whom. A dive professional could decide whether to serve the person, or whether to provide refresher lessons and guidance as needed.

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