Here’s a question for you; do you regularly use inland dive centres in the UK, and if you do, do you enjoy the experience?
To clarify the question, I’m not talking about the quality of the water (usually cold and murky) because that is something that the dive centre operators can do little about (and the lack of visibility has a lot to do with the hapless students who form the bulk of the clientele).
No, what I am asking about is, do you feel welcome? Do you feel like a valued customer? If you had to rate the service you received would you give it a ten-out-of-ten (tick, gold star) or one-out-of-ten (could do better)?
I regularly take students to a number of UK inland dive centres and while some are excellent in this regard, some are abysmal. Rather than being treated as a valued customer, more often than not you are made to feel like an annoying necessity, something that they have to ‘put up with’.
This is certainly an unusual business model. Making the very people who are you primary (if not only) source of income, feel unwelcome seems like a strange strategy. As a freelance graphic designer I know all about how difficult customers can sometimes be, however since these people pay my wages I’m always mindful that I should be polite when dealing with them. It’s just good business sense.
Now I know that scuba divers can be as difficult as they come but they, like everyone else, work hard for their money and when they spend it, shouldn’t they expect a reasonable level of service and courtesy?
This is especially true when you consider the fact that for many students, inland dive centres are their first proper experience of scuba. A friendly word or gesture from the centre staff could go a long way to helping make them feel comfortable and less nervous. This could even result in some of them sticking with the sport longer than they might otherwise do. At a time when the dive industry in the UK is struggling, doesn’t that make sense?
So why is this the case? Is this only an issue with the dive industry or is it more widespread?
One theory is that many people go into the dive industry without the appropriate skill for dealing with the general public (and it is a real skill). Divers are passionate about their sport and this can lead to some of them deciding to make their passion their career as well. After all, why not do a job you love? This is just fine, but being a good diver doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a good dive centre operator. Now it doesn’t mean that they won’t be either, but it is something anyone should really consider carefully before undertaking such a career.
As I mentioned before, I am a freelance graphic designer (a fairly solitary occupation) and not a dive centre operator. But I do know that if I decided to run a dive centre, I would employ someone else to be the public facing part of the operation. Why you ask? Simple, it’s because I can be a real grumpy sod at times and that isn’t the kind of person you want dealing with your fee paying customers. Not if you want them to come back that is.
For some of the dive centres, maybe it is a lack of competition that is the issue. After all, if you are the only game in town, why try harder? But this is a dangerous attitude to take.
Going back to graphic design, back in the 1990’s desktop publishing was just taking off. The industry standard was QuarkXpress. It was the only game in town as no-one had been able to come up with anything to rival it. However Quark was a horrible company to deal with. They were arrogant and unhelpful and they exploited their position by charging high prices. Every designer used their software, but every designer hated the company. So when Adobe (they of Photoshop fame) came out with a program that was as good as Quark, everyone jumped ship almost over night. Quark are a lot nicer to deal with these days, but only because they aren’t busy so they have a lot of time on their hands.
So, the lesson here is; just because you don’t have to be better, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be better. If another inland dive centre opens up anywhere nearby I, like many others I suspect, will be eager to try it out. And if it is even only as good as the less friendly dive centres out there, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a lot of divers voting with their feet (or fins).
Perhaps a better way to illustrate the point is to describe what happened with Ryanair recently. Ryanair were notorious for being one of the most customer un-friendly businesses, not just in the low fare airlines sector, but in any sector. They seemed to equate low fares with poor, uncaring service.
But recently they decided to try a different strategy which was; ‘what if we were nice to our customers’? The result of this change in attitude has been a significant upswing in business.
So, being nice to your customers seems to work. Let’s hope some UK dive centres take note, for all of our sakes.
Without air, there can be no diving, but after a few summers of recession and awful weather, the number of decent places for an air fill is getting more and more of a problem for club divers (or those that just want to fling themselves into the sea somewhere from the shore).
This trend is made worse by the shift from buying dive kit at your dear local supplier to the vast, and vastly cheaper, population of online dive shops, making independent shops with a handy compressor a dying breed.
As a result, in central London, over the past ten years, more places for air fills have given it up as uneconomic and pointless. Whereas there used to be a station in the Covent Garden Fitness Centre, that closed many moons ago. Then Tony moved Collins & Chambers out to Kent, Tim moved Timunasea into different premises near Canary Wharf, leaving just a couple of shops, such as Scuba Zone in Finchley for north Londoners and Mike’s Dive Store in Chiswick for the west Londoners.
This makes filling up before you head out for the weekend almost impossible for normal wage slaves, particularly in the south and east.
In some ways this may not be a complete surprise – there are few credible dive sites in central London (although wading fully suited into the Serpentine might be tempting to create a stir). But it does, sadly, reflect the smaller number of dive schools and clubs now operating in central London, as fewer people take up British diving.
On the coast, next to the dive sites, the situation is obviously better, but along the south coast, again, many of the smaller dive shops and dive schools have closed, leaving only the major dive centres like Divers Down in Swanage, Scimitar in Portland and In Deep in Plymouth as places where independent/club divers can definitely get a fill (in some cases, day and night!).
This makes a weekend diving in some of the less well-known or dived places along the coast either impossible or requiring well-planned relay runs to the dive shop to get the air fills for the morning. Short of having to trundle around one’s own portable compressor (and sitting up all night waiting for it to complete four fills), there seems no quick fix for this.
It does, however, demonstrate that, while they can be bloody-minded and independent, British divers still need to be part of a strong diving community to maintain both dive sites and diving facilities, including vital things such as air fills. This is arguably what makes BSAC and encouraging diving through the club system so important for diving as a whole.
As, if British diving increasingly runs out of air, we’ll all have to abort our dives.
British diving. For nutters, sociopaths, masochists or the terminally deranged. Why would anyone go into 15 degree water dressed in an inflated rubber suit just to see 1m in front of their face?
Not only is the diving cold and dark, but with BSAC one has to put on one’s own fins, carry one’s own tank, drive one’s own boat and make sure you have your own pack of chocolate hobnobs sitting out of harm’s way for when you get back on board.
Shunned by landladies, vilified by yachties and constantly smelling of stale neoprene, the British diver at home is a sad, sorry and very unsexy example of an extreme sportsman. Until one goes overseas.
Suddenly, you are transformed into a highly trained, hugely brave, rugged and, possibly still slightly deranged, hero of the diving community. Someone prepared to leap into strong currents, do battle with your kit, withstand sub-zero temperatures, and be able to dive blind. Foreigners may not understand why, but the respect/disbelief is strong.
More seriously, however, diving in the challenging waters of the British Isles makes many other places in the world seem like a breeze. Diving into the Red Sea where you can see 20m around you and there are no currents feels like taking a bath. Shimmying around the pinnacles in the Great Barrier Reef is like water off a diver’s back.
More important than this, however, is the even more amazing places to go to where warm water divers can never venture. Just in the last few months, Holbornites have been to several astonishing places where drysuits are a must and wetsuit-types will flounder/perish.
These include: The Silfra Fissure – is an extraordinary place, where the Eurasian and North American plates are gradually, millimetre by millimetre, pulling away from each other. A fissure running along the line of the North Atlantic ridge is the result. This is then filled by glacial meltwater.
Now, normally, meltwater can be murky, but Silfra’s water is filtered through about 50km of lava – one of the best filtering systems in the world. As a result, visibility can reach 100m – probably the only time you have a chance to see the earth’s curvature underwater.
This means you have a volcanic, and constantly evolving landscape, with crystal clear vision and over 130km of fissure, including tunnels and caves to swim through. All quite stunning.
The only problem – it is 3 degrees.
This involves a drysuit, full face mask and very good undersuits. For BSAC divers, and our intrepid club members Mark, Zoe and Doug, they can glide effortlessly in and gaze in awe at the sunlit caverns (until the suit leaks…). Wetsuit divers would last 2 minutes.
GrunerSee – this is another place with crystal clear waters owing to glacial melt. For most of the year, the Gruner See is a very small, 3-metre deep body of water, surrounded by trees, benches, and paths as well as beautiful forests.
Every spring, however, the glacial melt floods the valley and makes the See deep and wide enough to dive. This creates the surreal experience of donning fins and drysuit to swim along hiking trails and seeing trees just coming into leaf submerged under water. Quite a fabulous experience.
But again – the water is about 3 degrees. Wetsuit divers look on and weep…
California – on a slightly different tack, is associated with hot summers, tanned bods and surfboards. But there is a reason why both Hugh Bradner (inventor of neoprene) and Jack O’Neill (inventor of the wetsuit) are both Californian – the water is freezing.
As well as the generally cooler waters of the Pacific Ocean, the California coast experiences Arctic upwellings, which bring deep, cold water to the surface. These waters are absolutely stuffed with nutrients, however, which leads to large populations of fish (including pelagics and giant sea bass) as well as quite incredibly large sea urchins, anemones and other forms of life.
As well as the fish life, there are also constantly shifting and bickering crowds of seals, sea lions and elephant seals basking at various places along the coast. They have huge rolls of blubber, which is necessary.
Wetsuit types may be able to hang out on the surf for a while (which, ok, I admit, is pretty good…), but cannot descend to greet the garibaldi, seals and giant kelp forests that await the drysuited diver.
And finally, Tasmania – a long way from anywhere – has some of the best protected and most prolific temperate marine areas in the world. It also has huge numbers of wrecks and visibility of 15-40m.
Possibly even better than these, however, is the leafy seadragon – an almost mythical creature that looks like a cross between a bit of seaweed and a flying dragon. Surely everyone should see at least one of these before they die, but they only exist in the waters off south and west Australia – again, wetsuit divers can merely stand on the shore, beating their fists…
All worth remembering when standing in the rain looking out at a Force 6 in Portland and just asking the simple question: Why?