Well, you’ve got your dive certification card. You’ve even taken a few advanced classes. You’ve dropped some serious cash on a nice pile of shiny new dive gear and you find yourself under the water someplace just about every weekend or moment of free time you can get. This scuba diving gig is really a lot of fun and now you are thinking about making it a career as opposed to a hobby.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You may be wondering, exactly what sort of career opportunities are there for a scuba diver? How is the money, working conditions, and openings for advancement? Well, let’s peel the crust off this turd and get right into the tasty, juicy center, shall we?
On the outside it looks cool. Work at a dive shop, be surrounded by all things scuba all day long, dive all the time. Maybe even get a choice gig at some far away tropical island where the reefs are just outside your front door. The water is always warm and clear. Yeah, about all that. As you might expect, especially if you follow this blog, I am the burster of bubbles and crusher of dreams. Don’t blame me, reality is what it is.
The truth is you ain’t going to find a job as a, “scuba diver”. Anytime you see something like a bunch of divers helping astronauts train in a big pool, (before Hopey McChange gutted the space program), or when you see photographers or scientists out doing cool stuff under the water, they are not scuba divers. They are scientists, photographers, engineers, and technicians who needed to learn how to dive in order to do the jobs they do under the water. Scuba diving is nothing more than a necessary skill they had to pick up in order to get more accomplished. They are not what you would consider pure professional scuba divers.
Even those hard hat divers who go down and weld things or work on underwater structures, (some of the most dangerous, difficult, and best paying jobs out there) are actually welders and repairman who again, had to learn how to dive in order to do their jobs.
But you aren’t thinking of any of that stuff are you? Nope, you are thinking about getting into the sport diving industry because that is where all the cool, glamourous high paying jobs are. Okay, so what are your choices?
To start off with, the sport diving industry at it’s most basic level is no different than any other retail industry, just wetter. You have your retail stores all over the place and more where the diving is hot. These retail operations may be small stand alone stores, small chains with stores in different locations, or full blown dive resorts located in exotic spots. Above them are the gear manufacturers and distributors, and of course the certification agencies. But here is one sad fact: The sport diving industry has been stagnant for years. It has had virtually no major growth. It is a niche sport and doesn’t appeal to the masses like other recreational sports. It’s sort of like sky diving only in the opposite direction and with fewer crutches. Sport diving is hot in places like Florida, California, even Texas, but virtually non existent in North Dakota or someplace away from warm, clear water. Now the industry is not without it’s innovations and advancements in technology. The advent of Nitrox diving which uses different gasses other than regular air to allow a diver to stay down deeper and longer have come mainstream. Waterproof electronics have made for some real cool underwater gadgets. And the safety aspect is always at the forefront. But the bottom line is the sport diving industry only appeals to a select few and as a result, it suffers from very slow growth. As for what kind of work a person could find in the sport diving industry? Here are some choices, such as they are:
Retail in a dive shop: This is where I started. It looks cool from the outside but the reality is your days are filled with mind numbingly long, boring hours. As with any retail operation, first and foremost, you will need to know how to sell stuff. If you can’t sell, you won’t be there long.
Now I have to say at this point, if there is one real positive I got from my 9 year career in the dive industry, it’s those bastards taught me how to sell, better than any other sales training I have had since. Look at it this way, you are going to have convince somebody that they are not going to drown, not going to be eaten alive, going to have to go through a lot of training, spend about $5000 on a bunch of gear, and only go diving once or twice a year. You’ll even be selling air! “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”, is the phrase we used. It’s a tough sell and I tip my hat to anyone who can competently sell sport diving. For you employers out there looking for sales weasels, if a prospective employee lists dive shop sales in their resume, snatch them up quick. After selling dive equipment, selling anything else is simple.
Anyways, in addition to selling, you will be doing all the usual routines of any other retail operation. Stocking shelves, doing inventory, all that boring busy work. You’ll be cleaning the shop, filling air cylinders, if your facility has a pool you’ll be taking care of that. You might get into gear repairs, something I did a lot of. Many of the manufacturers will run clinics on how to fix and repair their products and you would be doing yourself a favor to go and learn all that stuff. It may not translate into money but knowing how to repair your own gear can come in real handy.
If your shop runs classes you will probably wind up helping there. Getting all the gear ready for the students pool sessions and then cleaning it all up afterwards. Same if your facility is running dive trips. In other words, you’ll be doing everything associated with diving, except diving itself. That is, until you start running some trips, then there are the added duties. Maybe it would be a bit more clear if I explained a typical week I had at the shop I worked at. And this is a very common schedule. Keep in mind this was in Daytona Beach where the closest decent diving was 3 hours away…
Monday through Saturday, be at the shop 8:00am til 6:00pm. doing all the stuff I just described. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, stay after shop hours to help with classes. These classes ran until around 10:00 at night by the time you finished and closed up shop. Sunday was your day off, but, there may be a dive someplace. In our case, we would go to Ft. Pierce which was 3 hours away for some diving. So Sat. night around closing you would get all the dive gear that was being rented along with other customers gear and load up the trailer, along with about 20 or so air cylinders. Sunday you meet at the shop at 0-Dark thirty, load up the van and head down I-95. Get to Ft. Pierce, stop for some breakfast, then onto the boat. Load it up and run the hour or so it takes to get to the dive site. Dive for 3 or 4 hours, come back in, reload all the wet smelly gear back into the trailer, and head off someplace to eat. Then a long 3 hour drive back to Daytona getting in around 7:00 that evening, sometimes later. Unload the trailer, and enjoy the rest of the day off. Monday morning, 8:00am, you are back at the shop with your first job of cleaning up all that gear. Needed to get something done personally? Not on this job.
Other trips were worse. A weekend in Key Largo involved leaving on Friday afternoon and returning late Sunday, a 6 hour drive each day. These trips were grueling because as the trip leader and guide, it is up to you to coordinate everything, make sure everyone has all the gear they need, make the motel and boat arrangements, take care of any unhappiness with the people who are on the trip, and it really helps if you bring back the same number of people you left with. Safety is always at the top of the list. Many times, you may not even get to dive yourself as you will be taking care of others and making sure they get into and out of the water safely. Many of the trips I took had a majority of brand new certified divers who had never even seen the ocean let alone been under it. There is a lot of stress involved.
The pay for all this work? Factor in all the extra hours and stuff and you are less than minimum wage. Benefits? You get to say you work in a dive shop, and maybe get some discounts on gear.
Well, maybe you’ve been able to stick it out, like I did, for a few years and now you want to take a shot at being a scuba instructor. I tried, and failed, twice. It’s not an easy thing to learn and there is lot to learn. You need to be in top physical condition and be ready to handle any number of emergencies. Liability is high and pay is low. How low? The average scuba instructor can’t afford to buy their own gear low. You’ll be dealing with brand new prospective divers and all their issues. The only diving you’ll be doing will either be in a pool, or at the same old boring training spot where you do your check out dives. When not running a class, you’ll be back out on the sales floor selling gear. Sometimes, if you are in the right situation, you might even get a small commission for any sales you generate, but that is rare.
Another option? Maybe you are sitting there with a big wad of cash and looking to start a business. Hey! I know! Open up a dive shop. It’ll be great. Um….how about no. If you want to make a small fortune in the dive industry it’s really very easy. Start with a large fortune.
Starting up a dive shop is tough. It’s going to take a lot more money that you think. You’re gonna need a retail floor, repair facility, classroom, maybe a pool or at least access to one, a big honking air compressor, and of course all the displays and lines of gear to stock it. Few dive manufacturers have exclusives on who can and can’t carry their lines so you can probably pick up some choice gear brands. But it works the other way too. Everyone else may be selling the same gear too. And I ain’t just talking other dive shops. Down here in the Keys you can walk into the Publix grocery store, get your meat, your milk, your bread, and pick up a mask, fins, and snorkel, along with a lobster tickle stick, gloves, and lobster gauge. People don’t give a shit where they get their gear, as long as it’s cheap, or free.
Dive gear has a huge markup and as such, it’s pretty easy to undercut somebody else with price. If you are an up and coming store and have expenses to cover you’ll be trying to get full retail for your wares while the discount chain down the street who also carries clothing, surf boards, and other things, can afford to cut their prices to razor thin margins. No matter how good the sales training may be, you are going to lose sales to price. You then must make the decision to get into a price war and hope the volume sustains you, or hold your prices and throw the professional angle out there. The classic, “Buy from us because we care more about you than they do.” It seldom works, but it gives you a nice warm fuzzy while you are filing for bankruptcy that you didn’t sacrifice your principles over discount pricing.
In addition to all that competition you will also have a huge liability factor involved. Warranted or not, scuba diving is perceived as a dangerous sport by the people who matter, the insurance industry, lawyers, and juries. One accident can bring down a thriving dive business overnight so safety is going to be your number one concern, even over profits.
If you do decide to get into the dive shop business you might consider doing some research before hand. What is the competition like? Is it seasonal? The smart dive places that aren’t located next door to the reefs, don’t rely strictly on sport diving to make their money. They add on other lines to augment their dive business. Maybe adding snow skiing, or some clothing lines, or paddle sports. Think Bass Pro only on a smaller scale and you get an idea of what I am talking about.
The bottom line on all this? From the outside, the sport diving industry sounds real cool to be in, but the reality is, it’s a business suffering from stagnant growth, high liability, and low return on investment in time and money. Pay scales are low, hours are long, and turnover of personnel and business is high. When I was in the business, working the rep gig, I saw nearly 10 % of the dive businesses close every year, and get replaced by new ones. Hate to burst your bubble on this one but that is my take on the whole industry based on what I went through…just kidding, I love bursting bubbles.
So…I believe I killed enough electrons on this subject for the time being. Over the past few posts I talked about my own personal history and experiences in the sport diving industry, covered the basics of what it takes to get certified and what sorts of gear you need, and a little bit on career opportunities in the sport diving industry. As always, being as this is just a small blog, I’ve barely touched the surface. There is a lot more to know and learn about sport diving than what I have covered here, so if this is a sport you are interested in learning, get out there and find out more about it. Go online and search for dive forums. If there is dive operation nearby, go hang out and ask questions.
And by now you may be wondering if learning to dive is worth it? Based on what you read in this series, you may be getting second thoughts. Well…
Yes, of course it is worth it to learn to dive. Despite all the negative things I discussed here in terms of making the mistake of getting into the industry, the bottom line is that scuba diving is one of the more exciting and thrilling adventures you can add to your list of life experiences. If you have the chance, and are willing to put the time in to learn properly, diving can be a lot of fun. Even if you are a hardcore minimalist you don’t have to load up on tons of expensive gear to still enjoy the sport. (Hey, all that money you don’t spend on possessions could finance a once in a lifetime dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef). Getting the training, and then going into a totally alien environment and seeing all the cool stuff down there is definitely worth it. Those are memories you will never forget for the rest of your life.
While I wish I had taken a different tack with my diving history, I don’t for one minute regret getting certified and doing what diving I did. It was a life long dream that I was able to achieve. How many life long dreams have you been able to achieve so far?
As always, thanks for reading this series and following the ManateeFritter. Now on to new stuff.