Author: Christan Hubo – Feel4Nature
As a PADI Course Director Ulf has already reached the highest career level of a PADI Instructor. In this interview Christian Hubo finds out about the typical day of a diving professional.
1. When did you start diving and why?
I started in the 90s. I was on holiday in Egypt and tired of hanging around on the beach and in the hotels. Suddenly someone asked “Would you like to do a try dive in the pool?“
So we did a very nice try dive, and I started my PADI Open Water Diver course the next day. For me it was the beginning of a new passion: from that day on every holiday was a dive trip. I started to dive in Germany and did a lot more training – up to the Divemaster course. As a PADI Divemaster I started to help out in a local dive shop and it was there that the idea of becoming an instructor was born.
2. Did you think about turning scuba diving into a career from the beginning?
No. But after my very first open water dive I was brainstorming with my girlfriend about how we could combine diving with our jobs. We were not even considering becoming instructors –we were just impressed by this incredible experience. In those days I worked as a strategic planner in an advertising agency and she was a trainer for communication skills. In fact we were thinking about things I offer today: a combination of team training on one hand and diving topics on the other.
3. Why did you decide to open your own diving school in Essen and how did you find the experience?
To be honest, I never set out to open a dive center in Essen. It just happened. All I wanted was to dive and to get away from my former job as a manager in the advertising industry. And suddenly from nowhere we had our own dive center, and guess what: it was a successful operation! We became a PADI Five Star facility in the shortest possible period of time and we had hundreds of students to teach to scuba dive.
If you were to ask if I would do it again… I don’t think so. Too much retail, too many competitors, not so much good diving. Essen is perfect for running IDCs. We have an airport nearby and course logistics are great. But In my opinion diving is a lifestyle – and to live that kind of lifestyle in a dive center somewhere in the middle of Germany is not an easy thing to do. I only know a very few people who can… my friend Frank from “Franks Dive Center“ in Mülheim is such a diving enthusiast.
4. Why did you decide to go to Thailand and open a Dive Center there?
Well… the original plan was to go to Tanzania and help build the “Beach Crab Resort“. The visa stamp was already in my passport and we’d already celebrated our farewell party with friends. But then I got a phone call from a friend of mine in Thailand saying that the former PADI AP Regional Manager, Rick Ray, was looking for staff for a brand new dive center in a high class resort on a wonderful Island of Phuket – Koh Racha Yai.
I already had strong links to Thailand; I’d worked there as an IDC Staff Instructor for a couple of months every year. So it took only a few emails – and three weeks after the first call I was on a plane to Bangkok.Looking back it was the right decision: years later I saw on a TV documentary that they still had no electricity in the resort in Tanzania – I do not think that this place would be the right place for me.
The dive center on Koh Racha Yai was the dream of every dive professional: top location, top dive sites, very good customer base from all over the world – everything your heart desires.
But, on the 26th December 2004 the Tsunami destroyed everything: the hotel, the dive center – even the dive site in front. But life goes on. I had to restart, and opened a new dive center on the island of Phuket. And there I got the great opportunity to work with some very good Course Directors and learned a lot about teaching other instructors and the dive business. Finally I went to Kota Kinabalu and became a Course Director myself.
5. How was your time in Thailand as a dive center owner?
You get a different view on a country and its people once you live and work there. The typical friendly and positive attitude the Thais have towards tourists changes a lot once you are an expat and you sometimes have to deal with a level of bureaucracy. On the other hand I met beautiful people there and had a chance to experience real friendship – even after the Tsunami when everything was a mess. We had to fight for our living and had a lot of relief projects to work with as well. We rebuilt dive spots as well as helping fishermen to rebuild their villages and lives.
Looking back I was really lucky to work in a wonderful country, with a lot of wonderful people in an almost perfect surrounding for diving. In the end it was a lifetime experience I will always remember!
6. Over the years you’ve stayed loyal to PADI as your organization. What do you like about PADI and what do you think could be different?
In every IDC I tell my candidates that PADI stands for “Professional Association…“ not for “Perfect Association…“. Nobody is perfect. But I think PADI is quite close!
In fact for a student diver the certification agency doesn`t play a role at all. For the student, the instructor, their attitude and their teaching skills is what matters the most. But for a professional things are different. A professional needs an organisation with top support and with an outstanding educational system.
PADI is still the leading organisation in the dive industry – and in all those years I couldn`t see anything better for me.
7. As a PADI Course Director you’ve trained many instructors in recent years. Do you believe that you really can still make money in an instructor’s job?
I believe that you can make money with everything you really love to do.
But as a dive instructor you need more than good training and a professional attitude: You have to be ready to go to where the customers are! If you try to make your living as a PADI Instructor somewhere inland far away from attractive dive sites and a good infrastructure for divers you will face a lot of problems.
And of course you need to stay up to date. If you don’t know anything about the trends and news in the industry you will not be seen as a real professional.
8. Many divers dream to travel the world as an instructor with the cliché “work where others are on vacation” – do you think that is realistic and achievable?
Absolutely! But you have to be aware that the focus is on “work“ not on “holiday“. If you keep that in mind then there are many options for a PADI Instructor to work in the most beautiful places on earth.
9. What are the requirements for a diver who wants to become an instructor?
The most important thing is a passion for diving and for teaching. If you do not love to share your knowledge you won´t be a good instructor. I think a good instructor should inspire their students as well. And of course they need a solid knowledge and skills on a high level and should understand and respect the PADI Standards.
I know there is a lot of discussion about the prerequisites for becoming a PADI Instructor. 100 dives is not what we call “very experienced“. But people should not forget that these are minimum standards. And I do not think that it is the number of dives that counts.
My average candidate has about 200 dives. Most of them have a profession and working experiences and they want a twist in their lives or at least in their diving. I try to help them to achieve this!
I always tell them that following a successful IE the work starts: the new instructors have to learn how teaching and professional diving really works. I always recommend team teaching. That gives them a chance to get into the job and learn from more experienced instructors.
10. You’ve probably stayed in contact with your IDC candidates – how many would you guess work permanently in the diving industry, or even work as instructors abroad?
There’s actually many of my former candidate working as instructor, dive center manager, dive center owner or tour guides all over the globe. They are in Mexico, Thailand, Egypt, Maldives, Bali, Curacao, Gozo, Mallorca, Crete – they teach on the AIDA and run dive centers in Spain and in Germany.
I would estimate that about 30–40% of all my candidates do earn their living as a dive professional. For the rest, being a PADI Pro is a nice hobby.
11. Do you have any tips on financing – are there any possibilities of grants?
Yes. But it depends on the specific situation of the candidate. There are so many options – from money from the EU to local support funds – I can help to find a solution for almost everybody. In Germany, “dive instructor” is officially seen as a profession and so candidates can use a lot of support programs to help finance their IDC. But as I said before: it depends on the specific situation as to which program to choose and how much money someone can get.
12. Are you also still diving recreationally, or is instructing enough for you?
I still love diving. And I try to dive frequently. Right now I am very enthusiastic about several aspects of technical diving – I love to learn and experience new things and cross the borders.
13. Do you have a favourite destination for scuba diving and what was your best experience underwater?
I don’t have a single favourite! I just came back from Spain where I did some very nice dives in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Sipadan or the Similan Islands are awesome.
But sometimes, a dive in the Ruhr river close to the place where I live can also be amazing. You can find artefacts from world war two or remains from criminal activities like weapons, empty cases and so on there. Really exciting.
When I am not on an IDC or doing other courses I enjoy every dive. Even if there is nothing special to encounter – I still love it.
Ulf teaches his IDC (Instructor Development Course) in Essen; he is a successful PADI dive instructor having gained experience with his own diving schools in Germany and Thailand.
Christian also completed his IDC to become an instructor and further training to IDC Staff Instructor with Ulf Mayer and since then has regularly stayed in touch and completed one or two projects together, too.
You can find out more about Ulf Mayer via his website.