Where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose.
The start of my commercial diving journey began near Wichita, Kansas. I was 25 years old, and I had recently completed my associate’s degree in Fire Science working with the local fire departments. I was living at home at the time, working part-time out of a grocery store in a seafood department.
I had spent the last six months applying for work with various fire departments around the country with no success. The open positions to qualified personnel ratio was about 1 for every 500. And after doing several ride-alongs with different departments, I had conversations with fire captains that ended with sentences like “You might get hired on, but you can expect to be waiting another year or more.”
The turnover rate is very slow with the fire department, and after hearing that on multiple occasions along with a few other factors, I started looking for alternative work that would pay better than my previous $8 per-hour wage at the grocery store.
Discovery First: Where My Interests Lay
Rescue or exploration. That’s where I’ve kept my focus.
I like being outdoors and meeting new people, I’ve always favored hands-on work and I enjoy learning new skills. During springtime I’d often find myself with a few of my friends flying down back roads in rural Kansas chasing behind a recently spotted thundercloud with a reported cloud rotation; we enjoyed the risk-taking elements of storm chasing, but for me exploration came first.
Photography was a big interest of mine for several years, and combined with a childhood of watching National Geographic documentaries, I was very eager to jump at the chance to explore new places, especially if they were off the beaten path or hidden.
Beyond Wheat Fields: Into the World of Diving
Still very interested in the fire department but unwilling to wait another year to “potentially” get a position while working retail and living at home, I began looking for a job that might allow me to travel, pay me a livable wage and let me venture farther than the vast wheat and corn fields of my home state.
I wasn’t even aware of commercial diving until I stumbled across it on an internet search. It peaked an interest with me, the more I read about it the more I thought that this was something I could do.
I saw diving as a challenge.
It was a completely different world than what I was used to, and many of the skills I’d learned from the fire department seemed to be applicable to diving too: EMT training, ropes skills and some of the introductory mechanical and construction aspects. The idea of being paid to travel, and even the prospect of living or working overseas excited me greatly.
I would spend the next two months poring over forums, videos, online comments, and personally emailing many different sources for information into the diving world. I wanted to know life as a commercial diver, and what certifications and schooling I would need to jump into this work.
Systematic Research: Maritime Certificates
First, I read about American certifications for diving.
The ADCI (Association of Diving Contractors International) was needed for me to work in the US, and of course being interested in global work, I needed to know what other certifications I would need to work inland or offshore internationally. The ADCI is recognized in the states but not internationally. For that, I would need to find a school that offered both the ADCI and an internationally recognized accreditation.
Big 3: International Diving Certifications
The three major global certifications a person can obtain:
- Health and Safety Executive (HSE): United Kingdom
- Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS): Australia
- Diver Certification Board of Canada (DCBC): Canada
Matching Diving Schools
I needed a school that offered one of these certifications.
I began by comparing the length of courses for various schools with the certifications they offered, along with their respective locations and backgrounds. Schools also ranged greatly in price from $5,000 to almost $40,000 from start to finish.
The cheapest schools seemed to teach the basics and would be just fine for someone wanting to work in the Gulf of Mexico or local companies along the shore, but there were only a few schools in the US that offered international certifications, and those that did offered the DCBC certifications.
So I started with those schools.
Splashing into Social Media & Forums
I began by asking dozens of people through YouTube, Facebook, and various forums about the schools’ reputation and whether the costs were justified by the training. I got a wildly different response depending on who I asked, but the general opinion was that I needed these certifications to work internationally, so cost, quality of training, and certifications were my main focus, along with length of the course.
Right Criteria: Narrowing My Search
I had just finished two years of schooling, and I didn’t want to spend more time than needed getting my diving certifications. I had the chance to personally fly out to visit the Divers Institute of Technology (DIT) in Seattle, Washington, and talk with staff and tour their facilities. That school offered the American and DCBC certifications I needed.
I was heavily leaning towards the school in Scotland because my conversations with several different people on diving forums led me to believe that the United Kingdom’s HSE certification was more desirable to start out with if applying for work in Europe and parts of Asia. I called The Underwater Centre and discussed the differences in certifications, and they seemed to confirm for me that the HSE was the way to go for work in Europe.
Interestingly, based on my conversations, it also seemed that the HSE certification was compatible with DCBC and ADAS standards. But people coming from the US or Australia are required to take a kind of compatibility refresher course in order to obtain the HSE certification and work in the UK.
My Mind Made up: CDA Technical Institute
Despite all my focus on Scotland and connections with people in Washington, I chose CDA because it was a faster paced course – two months shorter than DIT. Plus, it was still in the states not far from some of my relatives.
Far from the cheapest school, it costs almost the same as DIT but offered the international certifications I wanted. It also offered a Dive Medical Technician certification course, and its military structure seemed like more of a challenge than some of the other schools.
I was ready to dive into something new.
One Month in & 30 Feet Down
Fast forward a month, and I am now attending CDA.
The first few weeks introduced us to the maritime industry, the standards and expectations of the school, the equipment and the terms we need to know. We have been diving down to 30 feet and stayed in hyperbaric chambers down to 60 feet. The students all come from pretty diverse backgrounds, and there are several international students.
About 80% of the school is composed of prior military, and some of the training locations we use are also used on occasion by special forces units and the FBI for dive training. I get the impression that this school is very well connected in the diving world – particularly with military connections.
Dorms Versus Apartments
No school is perfect, and CDA has its flaws. For example, I would recommend looking at living in the apartments nearby rather than staying in the dorms on campus because with each new class there seems to be new sicknesses spread around.
For the first month, I lived in the dorms and was hardly able to clear my ears diving because of it. After moving out to our apartments the living conditions have improved, and it costs less than living on campus.
Fitness Fun: Exercise
One bonus CDA has over many schools is their fun, morning fitness program. Every class day, we do physical training that is either dry or wet. It usually involves several dozen pushups, squats, flutter kicks, jumping jacks, and lifting weights, or swimming several laps against a strong current in the Trout River with fins for about 45 minutes, just north of the college campus.
The first few times we actually got to dive in the Trout River were pretty amazing.
It’s an odd experience being almost 30 feet underwater and looking up to see light above you and complete darkness below. You can’t see your hand in front of your face at the bottom of the river; there’s zero visibility in those brown waters.
They had us doing downed diver drills which simulate rescuing divers from the bottom, and they also had us assembling pipe fittings underwater.
Much more to come in future months: Starting next week, we’ll begin to do longer dives and more complex tasks.
Quality Education…for a Price
CDA is definitely not on the cheap side. It’s my opinion that they mark-up most of what they sell the students here considerably.
But we are learning, and the instructors are usually very informative and willing to spend the time to help us with any issues we have during or after class. I am excited about the DMT program CDA offers, and I look forward to taking that course in the next few months to get my dive medic certification along with recertifying my lapsed national EMT certification.
Where the Dark Water Leads
As a kid dark water always scared me a bit. The unknown, and the prospect of being pulled into it scared me. And strangely, I think that is part of what motivated me to make such a change and choose to come to this school.
I wanted something that would challenge me to face my weaknesses and overcome some of my fears.
The Wide Ocean of Opportunity
Once I graduate, I’ll decide between inland and offshore work. Both have pros and cons, and I have yet to make up my mind.
I am very intrigued by the prospect of international work, and if there are openings in Asia or Europe, even Africa or the Middle East, I will jump at the chance to work internationally for a while (depending on the details). I don’t know that a management position is a focus for me at this point; I am willing to go through the tending phase and work for the chance to be a full-time diver.
I see myself as a complete novice, and once I graduate from CDA I don’t think I’ll have yet earned the right to call myself a professional diver until I gain some experience. That is what I’m looking for: The chance to gain experience and knowledge in this trade while making a good wage and hopefully, having the freedom to potentially travel and live abroad for a while.
Once I’ve gained experience, I’ll consider the other, more obscure diving jobs in the nuclear or HAZMAT diving fields. I’m very interested in the photography aspects of diving, exploration or environmental survey type positions. Mixed air and saturation diving also interest me, but I feel that those options are a ways off.
So for right now, I’m focused on getting through this schooling, getting that first job, adapting to the work conditions, and doing the best I can at it. It seems like an exciting field with plenty of opportunities for those who seek them out. That, by itself, excites me.
I feel that it’s time to dive into something new, get my feet a little wet, and get in over my head.
Ethan Cromwell has done extensive research and comparison into commercial diving schools and is currently attending CDA Technical Institute as a student.