In this edition, we meet dive professional, technical diving expert, accomplished writer and X-Ray Mag columnist Simon Pridmore, to find out his motivations for writing his Scuba series of dive books, and how his books are different from other dive books on the market.
How did your Scuba series of books come about?
In the late 1990s, I was generating lots of articles for dive magazines and Action Asia editor Robert Houston asked me if I could collate the articles into a book, which he would then publish. We were going to call it “Safe Diving.” For a variety of reasons, this never happened, but those chats with Robert were certainly what put the idea into my head. It would be a long time until I actually got around to it though.
A lot of people write articles. Why did Robert think yours could be turned into a book?
He said he particularly liked two things about them. First, they were not trying to sell anything or promote the methods of any particular training agency. And second, they bypassed the traditional training “pyramid” that divers have to climb in order to obtain more advanced knowledge. Instead, my articles were deliberately revealing all the tips, tricks, science and concepts that researchers, technicians, dive professionals and technical divers know, making the knowledge available to everyone, no matter which certification card they held.
What made you take this approach?
During the time, I was running my dive centre in Guam. I noticed that many of the people who came to dive with us, even those who were quite experienced, always tended to make the same mistakes and lacked key skills or information that would make them better divers. It was obvious that training courses were failing in some way and that the problem was systemic. So, I thought I would try and fix that by putting the knowledge out there in what I hoped would be a readable, entertaining and accessible form.
What was wrong with existing dive training manuals?
I identified three issues. First: they were only designed to instruct and were not much fun to read. So, divers tended just to skim through them and not retain very much.
Second: as course schedules became shorter, instructors had less time for teaching, so they focused on water work and topics that featured in quizzes and exams, hoping that divers would read their manuals to learn everything else. And that was not happening.
Third: the training pyramid is highly effective from a marketing and business point of view, but it only turns out fully skilled and informed divers if they reach the top and not many do. Most just complete lower-level courses and may not even be aware that further knowledge, which would help them become more competent, even exists. They believe they already know all they need to know. Dubbing new-ish divers as “advanced” and “master” does not help.
Were you not worried that, by giving people the knowledge they needed without them having to take a training course, you might be taking business away from instructors and dive businesses?
I thought long and hard about this. In the end, I decided this would not be the case. After all, nothing in a book can match the benefits of working with a dive instructor in the water, learning to apply knowledge practically and being assessed and guided on skills improvement individually. I hoped that, on the contrary, by revealing what there is to learn by doing further diver training—that is, that it is not all just a cash-collecting, card-issuing exercise—I might actually drive business to dive centres and instructors instead.
Do you think that has happened?
I do. Judging from numerous reviews over the years, saying things along the lines of “...having read Simon Pridmore’s book, I have decided to take up XYZ diver training…”, it seems the books have had a positive effect in that respect. Something I am very happy about. Win-win all round!
This explains the motivation behind Scuba Confidential and Scuba Exceptional. What about Scuba Fundamental and Scuba Professional? You must have had other things in mind when you wrote those.
I did. Diver dropout has always been a huge problem for our sport. Many people take a try-dive experience or even complete a full beginner’s course, yet never dive again. You meet so many people who, when they hear you are a diver, say something like, “Oh yes, I tried that once. It was not for me.”
Of course, scuba diving is not for everybody but the statistics for the number of people who do a try-dive—a diving experience—and then go on to get their beginner’s certification are terrible. It is far fewer than one in ten and closer to one in a hundred. There are similar horrific statistics worldwide for the number of people who take a first dive course and never do a second. Which, as you need a second certification to be taken on dives deeper than 18 metres, suggests that, in fact, these people are never diving again.
Why do you think that is?
The problem is that people wanting to learn to dive usually have no idea what they are getting into. There is a communication disconnect between the diving world and the non-diving world.
A great example is the question: “Do you need to be able to swim before you take a scuba diving course?”
A non-diver will probably reply: “I do not know but it does not matter. If I need to be able to swim, I am sure my dive instructor will teach me.”
The dive shop sales staff will probably fudge it: “It is not a big deal. If you can make it up and down the pool a couple of times, that will be fine.”
The instructor will say: “This person cannot swim properly. I have hardly got enough time to teach them to dive, let alone teach them to swim too. Anyway, I do not have swimming instructor qualifications.”
And the dive centre owner will say: “They have paid their money and they expect to pass the course. Make it happen.”
Of course, any experienced diver will shout: “Of course, you need to be able to swim! Comfort in the water is crucial. If you cannot swim well, you will never make it as a diver.”
So, that is why you wrote Scuba Fundamental?
Yes, as far as I could tell, nobody had ever written a scuba diving book for non-divers. My idea was to arm them with all the information they need in advance, long before they even walked into the dive centre.
They would be able to read about what to expect from the course and the sport, and judge if it was something they were capable of and wanted to do.
They would know how to prepare, what equipment to buy, what to look for in an instructor and so on. Scuba Fundamental does not teach you how to dive, but, if you read it, follow the advice and then take a course, you are far more likely to become a long-term diver and not just have spent your money for nothing.
And I suppose you wrote Scuba Professional for a similar purpose?
Yes, exactly! Instructor dropout is a major issue too. Too many divers spend thousands of dollars on training to become a scuba instructor. They pass the exam and get their card, but never renew their certification after it expires at the end of their first year. What a waste of time and effort!
Again, as I see it, the problem is poor communication. Even as a diver, how could you ever know if you would be suited to teaching scuba or what it is actually like to work in diving. It looks like it is so easy, just hanging out, laughing and joking, taking people diving and giving them a good time. But, of course, it is our job to make it look like that. The customers just see the duck above the water drifting serenely along. They do not see all the paddling that is going on below.
So, in Scuba Professional, I try to fix this problem and make potential instructors aware of things like: the qualities and mindset you need, what an instructor course really teaches you, the challenges you will encounter and how to turn a job opportunity into a long successful career. In this last respect, of course, Scuba Professional is also designed to be a useful tool for existing guides, instructors and dive shop owners.
Scuba Physiological is a different type of book altogether, is it not?
It is. A friend who designs decompression tables told me about a book he had contributed to called The Science of Diving. He said it had not sold very well and sent me a copy. I saw immediately why it had not been successful. It had been written by scientists for scientists and was very hard to read. But it had some incredible information on decompression, narcosis and what happens to our bodies when we dive, much of which I had never seen before. So, I asked the editors if I could try and rewrite it for a less expert readership. They agreed and Scuba Physiological is the result.
So, in a nutshell, that is what the Scuba series is all about—making the knowledge accessible to everyone. What’s next?
I am now working on Technically Speaking, which will include all the talks I have delivered at technical diving shows over the years, as well as take a detailed look at where technical diving came from and how it developed. It is an interesting exercise—looking back at an important part of my life and considering it from a historical perspective. I am not that old, how can it be history already?