Have you ever dreamed of packing in the day job and heading to a beautiful tropical place where you spend your days showing and teaching people about the magical underwater world?
From the day I first started scuba diving in Colombia back in 2004 I did exactly that: dream, dream, dream! Back in London, I'd spend hours on the internet (when I was supposed to be working) looking at diving destinations all over the world and researching how I could make a living out of diving. However, over the years my priorities changed and London life got in the way; I got a better job, I bought an apartment, and I lost track of what was important to me. It ended up being another ten years before the dream became a reality in 2014, and I finally took my instructor course.
I left the UK in 2012, after quitting my job and selling most of what I owned. I backpacked around South and Central America on my savings and when I needed to start making money I enrolled in a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in Guatemala. I got a job in a school and taught English there for a while and truly loved my job and also the picturesque town of Antigua where I lived. But I craved being back by the ocean, even though, by then scuba diving had become more of a distant dream. I can remember even feeling a little scared at the prospect of getting back in the water after so long.
Utila – Honduras
However, when my contract at the school ended and my best friend came to visit, I finally started making bubbles again! We decided to go to Utila in Honduras, which is one of the cheapest places in the world to take diving courses. She did her Open Water certification while I did a Scuba Review (where you go over most of the Open Water course skills again) and then my Advanced Open Water course. It had been years since I dived, but I have hooked again immediately!
We had an amazing experience all round on Utila. The diving was incredible with regular sightings of spotted eagle rays, turtles, and the odd whale shark in the right season. And of course, you can't go to Utila without partying a little, or even a lot, if you embrace the spirit of the place! We ended up stayed a lot longer than planned and even started a mini Jell-O shot business and shared a Carnival boat with Miss Utila 2014, but that's another story…
Internship vs Paid Course
So, my mind was made up. I knew I wanted to dive. Every day if possible! My dream of being an instructor was re-ignited. I started researching different dive centres and looking into the options. The prices varied a lot, depending on what was offered in the way of a number of dives and what was included, and there were even free internships for longer durations. I needed to take the Rescue course, Dive Master course, and then IDC (Instructor Development Course) and I only had around 30 dives so I needed to get as much experience as possible!
I soon realised that a lot of the places that offer ‘free' internships expect you to work long hours for several months to pay off the price of each course. If you weigh up what you would be earning as a qualified Open Water Instructor, it usually isn't worth it. But that's assuming you find a job easily, which isn't always realistic. It not only depends on your personality and ability, but also on the location, the season, what languages you speak, etc. So, you could argue that it's worth it for all the guaranteed diving and teaching experience. These internships are also great for those who can't afford the cost of the courses. However, I decided to splash out and pay for my course, to get qualified as quickly as possible.
If you want to keep it lowkey and just wanted to try out a beginner underwater experience, you can try out an underwater scooter. It's easy to use, portable, and electric – you don't need to be an expert to explore under the water!
Choosing Dive Centre – Playa Del Carmen
As I was already in Central America, I didn't need to travel very far, with the second-largest barrier reef running from Mexico all the way down to Nicaragua on the Atlantic side. I chose Playa del Carmen as it seemed to be a vibrant place with lots going on as well as amazing and diverse diving options (more about that later). As soon as I arrived in Playa I upped my research and started visiting all the different shops that offered the courses up to Instructor level. I should emphasise how important it is to do your research thoroughly as it really makes a difference to your learning experience. I'd done all my courses with PADI so far so I chose to do the rest with them too but there are other agencies including SSI and RAID as well.
I was looking for a very professional atmosphere and wanted to be part of a busy centre where they could guarantee I would be diving as much as possible. I also wanted somewhere flexible enough to let me take days off when I wanted in order to enjoy Playa del Carmen and the surrounding areas and to spend time with friends when they visited. It's important to think about what you want from your experience and if you're doing it for fun or because you want to work in diving afterwards, in which case choosing a reputable dive centre rather than the cheapest option is definitely important.
I was really happy with the dive shop I chose. They replied to my emails promptly and arranged a meeting for me with the guy who ran the Dive Master program so he could show me around. It was really professional and I felt like I was taught very thoroughly. The IDC felt a little like being back at school some days, and everyone soon learnt to be punctual and to keep their wits about them with the strict course director. You certainly got an earful if you stepped out of line! But that was fine with me as I wanted to take it seriously. It certainly wasn't the cheapest course on offer but I was totally happy with what I achieved. It the space of three months I racked up over one hundred dives, got a ton of experience, learnt how a dive shop works, dealt with customers on a daily basis, made loads of friends, and had the best fun.
Life As A Padi Open Water Instructor
So, in December 2014, ten and a half years after I first discovered my love for diving, I finally became a PADI Open Water Instructor! I kicked myself that I hadn't done it years ago!
Since then I've done a lot more travelling and diving around the world and have worked as a freelance instructor in a few different places, however, I always seem to end up back in Playa del Carmen and it's where I now call home and plan to for the foreseeable future too. There are many reasons for being here, but the diversity of diving options is what does it for me.
There are beautiful shallow reefs, teeming with life, which is perfect for beginners and there are deeper reefs for more advanced students. In the winter you can dive with bull sharks and in the summer you have the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks off the coast of Cancun. Cozumel is just a short boat ride away from where you have some of the most stunning coral formations in the world and where you can see nurse sharks and the biggest lobsters and crabs I have ever seen. If you venture about four hours south you get to Mahahual from where you can visit Banco Chinchorro; an amazing atoll 30km from shore where you can dive untouched reefs and also spot huge crocodiles in the mangroves.
However, probably one of the most unique benefits of living in this area is diving underground in the caves. This area of Mexico has thousands of cenotes which are natural limestone sinkholes that filled up with water thousands of years ago. They provide access to a maze of underwater passages with incredible formations that divers can explore. They're great for swimming and snorkelling in too, but for me, the magic lies deeper where you get to glide through the underwater caves, with the help of a torch to see where you're going, to discover the exquisite beauty that lies beneath. Any certified diver can experience this, as long as they're diving with a qualified cave diver.
So, what's next? Well, I've dived in many of the cenotes but when we get to the point where it warns that only fully certified cave divers can enter, I'm aching to be able to explore further! To do so you need to take several courses. It's a risky business venturing further and further away from the surface (and being able to breathe naturally!), and you certainly wouldn't want to get lost. It sounds scary, but it doesn't need to be dangerous if you're well-trained, adhere to the rules, and keep within your limits. I'm aiming to be cave qualified by summer, so watch this space!