Crystal Clear

Posted on December 16, 2018


Crystal Dive Koh Tao is the third biggest dive school in the world. When I bought my plane ticket to Thailand, I wasn’t actually prepared for how big a beast this operation is. Despite its size, it runs like a well-oiled machine. At least from the outside.

My year working as a fledgling instructor has been tame in comparison to my last two weeks here. The BVI was a kids summer camp where the dive boat was full but nowhere near the numbers I have witnessed here. Honduras was practically dead. On good days maybe eight fun divers and two students. On others….no customers at all. I’ve had an eclectic experience of working with different nationalities, ages and diving in different oceans; that’s been invaluable. But I’ve been frustrated as hell with how slow I’ve collected certs.

The volume of tourists coming off the ferry in Koh Tao means the catchment number is huge. Crystal’s best asset is its location. Smack bang on the beach and next to the pier. We get walk-ins; pre booked divers; total novices and those curious about the underwater world who’ve never even considered diving before. Everyone is sold on price and bags of enthusiasm. It’s among the cheapest place in the world to learn to dive just because of the sheer number of people. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

I arrived on Dec 1st and the next day I did four fun dives on a boat that was having a quiet day…. 50 divers. Roll calls on the boat are crucial so no one gets left behind in the water. Every Crystal Dive Koh Tao instructor is allocated a position on the boat for their students/divers. It’s all written on a white board on the lower deck. The boat leaves twice a day. In the morning at 7am the deepest dives are done, returning around 1130/1145. In the afternoon at 1200 the divers visit shallower sites and return around 1630/1700.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of teaching when I arrived. I was told they don’t hire freelancers. That’s the rule, no exception. There’s a process you have to go through before you’d be considered, if you haven’t trained under them.

“You can come and join us and team teach,” said one of the course directors to me, during a conversation on the phone while I was in London.

“But how would that instructor feel me taking their certs, if they’ve been teaching?” I quizzed rather naively.

“Asha they are seasoned instructors with hundreds of certs. It’s their job to ensure standards are maintained in teaching. We don’t know what you’re like in the water, or how you teach. It’s how we run things. It’s a way for you to learn and gain experience and get your 25 certifications,” he continued.

Twenty-five is the magic number for any Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI). If you’ve got five specialties that you can teach (mine are: deep diving, navigation, marine conservation, enriched air – Nitrox and equipment maintenance) you are a Master Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDT). The caveat is that title only kicks in once you have evaluated 25 full certifications under your instructor number.

I arrived at Crystal Dive Koh Tao with 7.5. The half was because an Open Water student in Honduras got sick and then the tropical depression came and it wasn’t safe to go back into the water. Wind, waves and surge. He couldn’t finish the course and I had to give him a referral.

It’s taken six months for me to actually teach the beginners certification, Open Water. I started back to front. Typical: Emergency First Responder and Rescue, then Advanced, then Open Water. I have now qualified as an MSDT in just ten packed days. Crazy! I’m averaging nine students a week. If this keeps up I’ll smash out the cert numbers by the end of my January deadline.

Team teaching has been insightful. It’s great to see how other people communicate skills and the methods they use. Handling a class of six is no easy task. It only takes one student to disrupt the rhythm and that can delay things catastrophically. Theory is done in one afternoon for Open Water. All confined water assessments the next day in the pool – that’s 50 skills. Then dives 1-4 in the ocean over two days.

How much input you contribute during team teaching will depend on the instructor and whether you can prove yourself in the classroom and under water. Trust and professionalism are key.

This week we had one student who couldn’t breath through his mouth…not even on land. He would exhale but wouldn’t inhale. I was asked to work with him in the pool for longer. Holding onto him I tried to get him to calm his nerves. I could feel his whole body shaking. This was someone clearly terrified. He couldn’t face breathing underwater for more than 30 secs. He bolted to the surface, clawing at the mask to get it off his face. For some people diving is just not for them. He tried again the next morning but eventually threw the towel in.

The school also has an eco dive team that monitors an artificial reef it started in 2007. It’s implemented good environmental dive practices at Crystal Dive Koh Tao that are mandatory on check-in. The pieces of “junk” and sculptures that have been sunk so coral can attach and grow is at a site aptly called Junkyard. I’m hoping to see what else they’re involved in as the weeks progress.

There’s a sister school called Isla Tortuga which is aimed at the Spanish speaking market. All their clientele dive with us. Crystal Dive Koh Tao also offers courses in German, French, and Mandarine. The Chinese market is booming. Some customers want to learn in English but there’s a big number that want to learn in their mother tongue.

As a Londoner diversity is something that makes me feel at ease. I love seeing and meeting people from all over the world. The bar at the school would give the lobby of the United Nations a run for its money. Customers and staff usually gather around 1800 after gear has been washed and stored and log books signed.

What I like more than anything is the age of staff and interns – they range from young and green to veteran and experienced. The days are flying by and before I know it, 2019 will be here.