My SSI Divemaster Training in Malapascua, Philippines

As some of you might already know I am in love with scuba diving. My journey started in 2016 in Boracay, Philippines when with a group of friends we did our first dives and got our open water diver certificates. Although it felt like a real challenge at the time and there was a lot to learn, I was completely hooked. The fish and the marine life amazed me and our last (deep adventure) dive to Camia shipwreck left me no other choice but to dream about scuba diving again and again.

If you think about it, more than two thirds of our planet is underwater. There are thousands and thousands various kinds of fish, animals and plants in our lakes and oceans which some people never get to see and interact with. How can you go about your daily life knowing what we see every day is only a fraction of what is out there? And you don’t even need to be an astronaut – all it takes to open the door to this amazing underwater world is three days of training!

For those who are yet to make their first step (or should I say, first kick) I can only send words of encouragement, however, if you are reading this chances are you have already been there or might even be thinking about taking your scuba diving career one step further. In this post I will talk about the first professional scuba diving qualification – Divemaster. Continue reading to find out about my SSI Divemaster course in Malapascua Island, Philippines.

Divemaster course in Malapascua Philippines
Like it? Pin it! – June 2019

Open Water Diver to Divemaster

For the last couple of years completing divemaster training and becoming a divemaster has been one my biggest dreams. When I first started diving in 2016 Divemaster certification seemed like a distant dream (you need to have 40 dives just to start the course – whaaaat?) but as it turned out it had been closer than I thought.

Fresh open water divers before Divemaster course
Me (on the left) as a fresh open water diver back in 2016

Because there is a variety of different interesting specialties to choose from, many scuba divers opt for extending their knowledge and experience by getting further training. Most of the people get their Advance Open Water (PADI) or Advanced Adventurer (SSI) certificate first before getting specialties or moving on to become Rescue Divers (still a recreational diver specialty). I was a bit of an exception here because I knew that advanced open water course would only give me “taster” sessions of the SSI specialty programs. Instead, I wanted to take full courses and learn specifically what I was interested in instead of learning a little bit about everything.

My first full specialties that I completed were Perfect Buoyancy and Navigation (I had less than 20 dives at the time) followed by React Right, Rescue Diver (completed with 30 dives) and Nitrox. I actually never did my advanced adventurer course!

If you are one of the believers that PADI is the only scuba diving school out there and others are illegitimate you won’t be able to do what I have done (more about PADI and SSI in the next section) because PADI does not allow you to progress to Rescue without Advanced Open Water card. In SSI, however, the standards do not require you to be Advanced Adventurer to progress to Rescue and Divemaster. Some shops will argue differently, but feel free to challenge them on this and you should be able to win the battle. Keep in mind, however, that you will have to prove you have experience in deep diving and underwater navigation (specialties or deep adventures are both good evidence) and you will still require Rescue Diver Specialty and 40 logged dives to start the course.

Diver Stress and Rescue Unconscious Diver Evolution Diver Amed Bali
Andrius getting an “unconscious” diver from the bottom of the ocean during his Rescue Diver training – Photo by Kristina – February 2019

Having said that, I don’t think advanced adventurer (SSI) / advanced open water diver (PADI) courses are a waste of time. They are great, but that was just not the route I wanted to take. It might just be perfect for you though.

Note: If you do your advanced open water you will have to do what I call “taster” dives from 5 different specialty programs (NOT full specialties!). If you want to learn something really useful from your course I strongly recommend avoiding opting for Fish ID, Underwater Digital Photography and similar and instead choosing useful dives such as Deep (compulsory), Limited Visibility/Night, Navigation, Perfect Buoyancy, Nitrox or Dry Suit.

Nothing wrong being interested in Fish or Underwater photography though – just go fun diving and use your GoPro or other camera to film fish. Try finding those that you filmed or photographed in the fish bible that almost every dive shop has lying around. And there you have your tasters of Fish ID and Digital Underwater Photography.

Divemaster versus Master Diver

One of the most confusing naming conventions out there must be the Divemaster and Master Diver. To many people these are exactly the same, however, this is not true. To make it absolutely clear Master Diver is an experienced recreational scuba diver while Divemaster is the first professional qualification in scuba diving.

Some of the key differences between the two are that Divemasters are trained to guide other divers, carry out refresher dives and assist with courses while Master Divers are not. This is not to say Master Divers would not be experienced enough or able to do some or all of those things, it’s just that these people have not undergone through the required formal training to do so.

The most typical route to SSI Divemaster would look like this:

Open Water Diver to Divemaster flowchart
From Zero to Hero in a simple flowchart! – Chart by Andrius – June 2019

Note: Some dive centres offer “Zero to Hero” types of courses where you can opt for going from 0 dives to becoming a divemaster. These programs can be quite intense and might take anywhere from several weeks to a couple of months.

Divemaster SSI vs Divemaster PADI

An appropriate way to start this section would be to say that there are tens if not hundreds of dive schools around the world with some being more prominent and popular in certain parts of the world and some in others. The largest organization in the world so far is PADI (although I have heard SSI is catching up in numbers). It is the best known all over the world and therefore some people will almost religiously state they want to do their PADI course. And they won’t accept anything else but PADI.

While it would be difficult to question the legitimacy of this organization it must be said there are others equally as good (just not as popular yet) and as legitimate. What I mean by that is that majority of the diving schools structure their courses around the same international standards therefore your scuba diving qualification from a different organization is equally as likely to be accepted if you ever decided to fun dive or take a course with someone else.

I am only familiar with teaching materials of two schools (PADI and SSI) so I do not want to speak too much about others but I can, with absolute certainty, state that an SSI open water diver will be allowed to dive in a PADI dive centre and vice versa. As a matter of fact my open water certification is with PADI and everything else with SSI. I have just completed my divemaster course with SSI and there have been no problems whatsoever due to the fact my open water was done with PADI.

The reasons I prefer SSI over PADI are simple – my learning takes place and training is recorded online or on MySSI app. My logbook is on my phone and all my cards are there too so I am confident I will never lose them or forget them. I also love the fact I can read my learning materials on the app too so there is less paper to waste. When it comes to the material itself – it is almost identical between PADI and SSI. There are some minor differences in terminology (SSI Buoyancy compensator vs PADI Buoyancy control device for example) but that’s pretty much it. Oh, and SSI courses tend to be a little cheaper than PADI because there are no books in the postal system around the world!

Scuba diving divemaster divemaster
Scuba diving during my divemaster course in Malapascua – Photo by Marlene – April 2019

My SSI Divemaster course in Malapascua Island, Philippines

Now that we have clarified the pre-requisites for becoming a divemaster, tackled some confusing terminology and understood the differences between two major scuba diving organisations let us dive right into what to expect from your Divemaster course.

Theory

First of all, the duration of the course is likely to be at least four weeks although some dive centres might recommend six or even eight weeks. It depends on the experience of the candidate as well so there are no hard rules. My course took around five weeks in total, but that included a couple of days of fun diving to get me to 40 dives which is one of the pre-requisites.

Similarly to other scuba diving courses there is a theoretical bit where you need to read the theory and pass the tests and also the practical sessions (diving!) where skills are put into practice. To become a divemaster (from rescue diver) I had to complete two programs – Dive Guide and Science of Diving.

The theory is quite interesting although two modules are very different. Dive Guide is quite practical and is all about leading dives, managing peoples’ expectations and understanding the risks of diving while Science of Diving is quite dry and scientific. Both are equally important but I see some people loving one and absolutely hating the other. I did not mind either although I have to admit Dive Guide was an easier read than the Science of Diving.

There are no hard rules about how the theory should be done. My instructors were suggesting I get those done and out of the way as soon as possible so that I can focus on diving and that seemed like a reasonable idea to me. My theory and tests (90% minimum to get a pass!) were done in about two weeks.

Dive Sites in Malapascua Capitan Cillo
Kristina and I exploring a coral reef wall in Capitan Cillo – Photo by Marlene Martin – April 2019

Practical sessions (diving)

Diving for me started right from the first day and finished on my last day. Honestly, free unlimited diving is the best thing for someone like me who loves spending time underwater. There was a lot of semi-fun diving where I was closing groups, observing or assisting with advanced courses or working on various skills with my (awesome!) instructor Marlene. Some of it such as working with people doing “discover scuba” dives or open water courses, however, was quite hard work.

There was a number of things that I had to do during my course. Some of them were scored and some of then were not but the list was quite extensive and activities quite varied. These are some of the things divemaster candidates are expected to do during their training.

  • Swim and float tests – 400m free swim, 800m swim with fins and mask (both timed) and 15min unaided float (including last 2 min floating with your hands out of the water).
  • Demonstrating basic freediving skills with fins and mask.
  • Giving dive briefings (scored) to instructors or students.
  • Leading fun dives/guiding (scored).
  • Assisting open water, advanced adventurer, discover scuba and specialty courses.
  • Mapping.
  • Demonstrating rescue skills and towing fatigued diver (timed).
  • Demonstrating skills underwater (skills circuits).
  • Searching for and recovering objects.
  • Finally, exchanging equipment underwater (mask, BC, fins, weights) with one air source.

A couple of other things that most divemaster trainees have to do include the following.

  • Working in a shop – talking to customers, joking around with instructors and boat crew and having a great time.
  • Working in a shop and not having a great time – carrying tanks, washing equipment, etc.
  • Assisting boat crew on the boat.
  • Not partying the whole time, turning up on time and sober and generally being a reasonable human being.

Generally, none of the above are complicated but it is probably fair to say you have to have a professional attitude and be comfortable underwater to be able to do all of the above well.

Towards the end of the course you are at the point where your ability to self-help is reflexive. Your buoyancy is perfect or near perfect and your air consumption is great (<15 l/min – you don’t want to be surfacing because YOU are out of air quicker than your customers). You are not concerned about being able to solve your own problems but are focused on anticipating and preventing problems of others. You are physically and psychologically ready to take measured action if someone has a problem during a dive. Finally, you know your dive sites and are comfortable guiding/leading people. The last couple come with experience and there is not much you can do but dive more if you are not quite there yet. Your instructor will most probably let you know when you are ready to “graduate”.

I personally loved my experience as my course took place in a small dive shop in Malapascua Island in Philippines where diving is pretty much the only reason people come to visit it. When it comes to the shop we were right on the beach, the team was amazing and we had just enough customers so that I could go diving every day but not that many where it would feel you work in a scuba factory. The sites were mainly “macro” sites which meant I had to keep my eyes open to learn where to look for stuff, but we also had the popular Monad Shoal site where we’d go every morning to watch Thresher Shark performances. I have a whole blog post with cool pictures about dive sites in Malapascua Island which you can check out by clicking HERE.

Scuba Diving Divemaster Shark
Happy Divemaster trainee with a thresher shark – Photo by Marlene – April 2019

Divemaster training – is it worth it?

As I mentioned earlier this course was a dream come true for me so I was a little biased from the beginning, however, I feel I was really fortunate to have the amazing instructors working with me. Without these people it would not have been the same.

Five (or even more) weeks is a fairly long time so my recommendation to future Divemaster trainees is to do your homework before committing. Go ahead and talk to people, go fun diving with people and get a really good feel before signing on the dotted line. Do yourself a favour. You don’t want to hate what is supposed to be one of the most exciting and rewarding time of your life.

If you love diving and you find yourself a worthwhile place to invest your energy and time learning about and exploring the underwater world it will be exactly that – the most exciting and rewarding experience. It will be worth it.

PS. I hope this post is of value to you. However, if you are still considering doing your very first dive you might find Kristina’s (who was my very first customer!) post about her experience of Open Water Diver course or my post about Rescue Diver certification useful. Feel free to check them out.

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