About five months ago, I made the decision to attend CDA Technical Institute (CDATI).
I wanted to obtain the entry-level certifications I would need to begin a career in commercial diving. I had spent the last two months prior researching several other dive schools; in fact I flew to Washington to tour the Seattle dive school Divers Institute of Technology, and I made phone calls to the Underwater Centre in Scotland.
I chose CDA Technical Institute in Florida.
CDA Technial Institute’s Physical Training: My Wakeup Call
It was at 0600 when I was awakened by the screeching sound of alarms going off all across the warehouse where we were assigned our sleeping quarters in the CDATI dorms.
Each small room was divided by walls, but they had open ceilings, so you could hear the occasional chatter of the other students around you. The entire place housed close to 70 students.
Not yet fully awake, I remember stumbling out of my bunk and rushing to get dressed. We were told to meet in the front courtyard of the school soon – physical training (PT) began at 0615.
I made my way downstairs through CDATI’s main building and out to the front of the campus. It was cold and still dark out when the lead instructors met us and had us line up by class, single file in columns.
They started by having us do several stretches and warm up exercises. So the day began. Dozens of push ups, squats, sit ups, flutter kicks, jumping jacks, and several pull-ups later, we were released to get cleaned up and go to breakfast until 0745.
Breakfast consisted of some combination of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, potatoes, and biscuits depending on the day, as well as a salad bar with yogurt and fruits.
Our Morning Muster: Jumping into Classes
After breakfast the school enacted a “morning muster” for all students: we lined up behind our class supervisors and stood at attention for the raising of the American flag, then the lead instructors gave a brief statement to the students before releasing us to go to class. It marked the beginning of the class day.
We chowed down during our lunch break later on and tried to take advantage of our short 10 minute breaks throughout the day.
This all continued until 1700, when students were dismissed. The classes gathered again for our “evening muster,” followed by the daily lowering of the American Flag.
Welcome to CDA Technical Institute.
This is the basic outline of your next 4-5 months while attending school here if you choose to live on campus.
Lights out at 2200.
CDA Technical Institute’s Program: Rigorous
Jumping into commercial diving school isn’t a vacation. It requires intense study, individual effort and determination.
During my time here, quite a few students dropped out. Some leave due to injury or medical problems, others simply didn’t show up on time for class or PT – CDATI is strict on punctuality. Some students panic under the water or feel claustrophobic in the hard hats.
I would suggest you do a lot of reading and preparation before you decide to attend a diving school because that will mentally prepare you for what is to come.
Mind Games In & Out of the Water
On the subject of cleanliness, here’s a fair warning: when you’ve been told to stay hydrated all day by drinking tons of water and you are in the middle of a 4-hour dive, you don’t get bathroom breaks.
Also, sand has a tendency to get inside the wetsuits, and if they aren’t rinsed out at the end of the day it can lead to skin abrasion and rashes. Pulling on a dry wetsuit early in the morning only to discover hundreds of tiny rocks in it is an unpleasant experience.
A lot of the challenge in commercial diving school is finding the willpower to get back in the water when you really didn’t feel like it. And there will be days you really don’t feel like it. Especially if you attend school during the winter; the water freezes you to the core.
Many of my PT days were spent in the river early in the morning, swimming against a fairly strong current while being splashed in the face by the student in front of you who is desperately trying to outpace the water.
I think it is a mental game more than it is a physical one, but being physically fit will definitely help you out here. I’ve seen more than a few students drop out of the school because they weren’t fit enough, or they weren’t mentally ready to put up with the discomfort or inconvenience of the work, or the course itself.
Academically speaking, CDATI can be challenging.
But many subjects taught are entry level basics, and most students make a passing grade. I thought the medical and diving physics portions were the most educational and probably the most difficult aspects of classroom learning. There are several other subjects like rigging, dive history, industry terminology, and the types of oil-rigs and dive vessels used that are fairly straightforward.
My Review: CDA Technical Institute’s Strengths & Weaknesses
CDA Technical Institute: Shortcomings
During the course of our education at CDATI there were many things I appreciated and enjoyed. A large portion of our learning came from practical hands-on application of diving. We also had a diverse group of instructors from various backgrounds teaching us.
As a potential student, you should know about a few things the school doesn’t emphasize about their program:
I felt that five months was a bit drawn out for what was actually taught at the school, as some aspects were repetitive. We were told that what we learn at CDATI is only the entry level portions of the industry, and much of what you will learn as a commercial diver will come with experience on the job site.
It’s a Business, Not a Handout
Any student considering CDATI needs to realize that like all dive school programs, this is a business. They provide the entry level education and certification needed for you to get hired in this industry, but their program is set up to make money.
Your payments will go toward a variety of aspects in your learning:
- Dorms & Meal Plan (optional)
- Dive Equipment
Besides the dorm and meal plan, these are payments that you’d give to any dive school you attend. However, you may also pay a premium for a dive school’s reputation. CDA Technical Institute is recognized internationally.
Wrong Portrayal of Commercial Diving Jobs
The reality of a commercial diving career requires more time and work than what I felt the CDA Technical Institute’s website portrayed.
Something explained to us early on was that graduating commercial diving school does not automatically make you an offshore professional diver. The industry works much differently in the real world.
Once you graduate from CDATI, you will receive the certifications that allow you to work as a “tender” offshore. You’ll be certified as a diver as well, but the majority of offshore companies do not hire new graduates to become divers right away, they require a considerable amount of work as a tender be put in first. Think of it as a sort of an apprenticeship program that lasts six months to several years before you “break out” as a full-time diver.
Working inland is a different story, where most tenders end up splashing in their first month of work. Usually the hours aren’t as long and the pay isn’t as high inland, but there are exceptions and jobs can vary quite drastically from company to company based on experience and location.
CDA Technical Institute’s Underwater Welding Program: Not Comprehensive
Underwater welding is a big selling point for CDA Technical Institute, and I believe I speak for most of the students when I say it was one of our biggest letdowns.
When we began the underwater welding portion of our education at CDATI, we spent a day watching a PowerPoint lecture on welding terminology. We were also allowed a dive using underwater cutting tools.
Shortly afterward, our instructor told us that we would be tested soon on our underwater welding proficiency.
“Tested?” we asked. We hadn’t even practiced.
Some of us had never even welded before this school and had only completed two days of topside welding at CDATI prior to this.
Out of five months of schooling, they gave us each 45 minutes in a tank of water and 16 welding rods to attempt to make a nearly perfect weld, and only one test attempt. We had no experience prior, and we were given no hands on training whatsoever.
Most students failed the welding portion and left the school without the underwater welding certification. That is CDATI’s “comprehensive underwater welding program.”
CDA Technical Institute: What it does Right
Regardless of these shortcomings, I would still choose CDA Technical Institute out of all other US dive schools for a number of reasons.
Solid Instructors & Staff
The instructors at CDATI have a wide range of skills. My class came to greatly respect several of our instructors for their efforts to teach us the course material; some even stayed after hours and off the clock to assist students that were struggling.
Strength through Tough Training
The PT program makes you a better diver.
Some students could barely swim on day one and were much stronger swimmers by the time they graduated. The Trout River itself is a challenge with its occasionally strong currents and its zero visibility waters.
Equipping for Commercial Diving Future
If you are willing to apply yourself here and study, you will learn what you need to know to grow in this industry. The EMT/DMT course (which is separate from the diving course, and an additional month of training) was particularly interesting to me.
Our instructors were very knowledgeable, and if you opt to take the extra training you will learn much more about dive medicine. You’ll work with hands-on experience, focusing on real patients at the nearby hospitals and do ride-alongs with the Jacksonville Fire/Rescue squads.
Commercial Diving Job Prep
Inland Versus Offshore
A few final thoughts. Both inland and offshore diving have their perks, but depending on who you work for and where, they can require you be on a boat, an oil rig or on the road for weeks at a time. Inland work in the US often requires long road trips while living out of hotels, but usually provides more normal hours and steady work.
You can expect to work many more hours and lots of overtime in offshore work. CDA Technical Institute prepares you for 12-hour work days, but the reality is often many more hours of work each day offshore, which amounts to more pay, but without the steady hours and often much less sleep.
Discomfort: Endurance is key
As a student at CDATI you will be uncomfortable.
The dive helmets won’t fit right. You will almost certainly get sick as we share helmets, and once someone gets sick it spreads quickly. Almost every day you will be covered in dirt and sweat. You will stand for hours under a hot Florida sun in high humidity and battle mosquitoes and sunburns.
The water is dark at the bottom of the Trout River, there will be times you cannot see anything. Morning PT doesn’t stop just because it’s raining or there are mud puddles on the ground.
You may be harassed by wildlife and fellow divers (it happens).
Commercial Dive School Reality: Where Help Comes
Help is given here to those who ask for it, and it won’t always be offered to you first, so ask. I don’t say these things to discourage you, but to challenge you, and to paint a more realistic picture of the diving industry and the school for those of you considering this as a career. It may not be a great selling point, but it is the truth.
I’d rather see a hundred divers graduate and love what they do, than a thousand that quit after the first month because they didn’t realize what they were getting into.
If you look at these things as challenges to be overcome and you’re flexible enough to adapt; if a little hard work and a lot of patience does not scare you away, and you are willing to literally dive into the unknown, then it can be a rewarding and worthwhile investment which offers many unexpected perks.
Welcome to the world of commercial diving!
Written by Ethan Cromwell. Ethan is in his mid-twenties from Kansas, and he recently graduated CDA Technical Institute. He is pursuing a commercial diving career.