On an early February day in-between peak seasons we follow diving instructor Jyrki Castren of Finnish company Raya Divers on Phuket, as he takes out students learning to dive at sea to discover what this popular job is like. All smiles in the sun and an overall leisurely feeling out at sea? Or endless hours in classrooms and repetitive training in swimming pools? A dream job for anyone loving diving? For the uninitiated there are quite a few insights to learn, also for those keen on diving but never having tried it before.
Diving plays a significant part of tourism in Thailand and the diving companies, like Raya Drivers, attract many people, in particular younger ones, to come and work during the diving high season in the Andaman Sea waters. They come as temporary workers and are needed because most customers prefer to have diving instructors and snorkelling guides speaking their own native language. It turns out that also the diving course book is provided in one’s native language – here provided by PADI (the most well-known diving certification body.)
Addicted to diving
But Jyrki is not exactly a newcomer on this job – he has been doing it for over 20 years and still he finds it to be a pleasant way of making a living, as he explains over coffee in the early morning at the Raya Divers office, ahead of another day.
He took his first course back in 1988 in Finland and has been hooked ever since.
“I have to admit that during the last 25 years I’ve been more or less addicted to diving. Because in 1990 I did my first instructor course and then in 1993 I made Crossover Training with PADI. And after that I’ve more or less done it for my living.”
He first arrived to Thailand in 2007, coming just for holiday actually, where destiny awaited him as he then met his future wife. So then he decided to return the following year and settle down in Thailand. Off-season, when he is not teaching, they travel to Finland on holiday for a few months.
He doesn’t go diving aside work anymore.
“I used to do it and I have seen so much and been to so many great sites in the world.”
When asked he has hard time to pick any particular favourite, as he thinks they are really good.
By now Jyrki has made many thousands of dives. He uses a logbook to keep statistics.
“I don’t count dives any more, but days and people. But I do about 500 dives per year.”
Usually there will be two to three dives in a day lasting up to an hour each when out instructing.
Dive course on and in the water
As it turns out Raya Divers do not use classrooms at all; theory lessons are held on board the diving boats.
“Classroom is boring and swimming pool as well. We have an air condition cabin where it’s nice to sit down and learn on the way out to the dive site.”
“We do it a little bit different than everybody else. We take people to shallow water where they can stand and start in one metre depth,” he explains the beginning with the very first ‘discover dive’, for beginners who come to the diving course never having dived before.
“So first we make a shallow dive and go through the basics at Racha Island, which is a good place to make it. Then we continue with an easy dive and then we practice out-of-air circulations, hovering, mask clearing and all the skills you have to master before the training is over, which we do in confined water instead of in a pool as there’s none on the island.”
The second day a combination of shallow water practise and real diving down to 12 metres follows and on this last day of the 3-day Open Water Diver course they are having theory on the way to dive site, and then two dives down to maximum 18 metres, followed by the final exam on the way home.
The day for the diving instructors usually starts around 7.15 am when they alternate either organising the vans that go out on the island picking up all the customers, or going to the warehouse and packing all the gear.
On this particular day there are 100 customers, and it can often be more than that. This requires coordination and planning, which is supported by ten staff members working in their office.
Organised chaos not the norm
It becomes evident that Raya Divers are very organised, even though this is certainly a necessity when dealing with such large numbers of people. And after all they are Finns so one can expect high level of professionalism! No organised chaos here that can otherwise be the norm in Thailand.
Jyrki shows the planning list for the day. They have developed routines for every step to be efficient.
“We pack the gear per request according to the list. Then we check that we have everything and the correct sizes of diving gear. We name a seat for each student and make sure we have packed it correctly. Sometimes it’s quite huge work because we might easily have over 100 customers coming. Everything has to be correct and it’s a big logistics challenge. There might be easily 40 – 50 hotels, where we go and get customers.“
They have carefully arranged the transportations and all other details, on this day using 10 vehicles, in order for everybody to reach the Chalong pier in time for departure at 9 am.
“We decide every morning which car to go where, looking at the hotels’ locations to plan the route. You have to have a map in your head actually. And we’re good at logistics – that’s the only way to make 100+ people leave with the boats at the same time.”
“Raya Divers is proud of this that we are rarely much late. The traffic on Phuket, which is getting worse every year, is the one thing that can cause delays.”
Customers are checked against the list three times – the last time when stepping on board the boat.
“Otherwise it may happen that people end up on the wrong boat!” says Jyrki.
At 8.59 the boat departs with around 25 customers on board – all of them Finns on this day.
From then on, all the tour leader, diving instructors and masters have to do is concentrating on their customers.
Indeed everything looks very orderly as the Jyrki’s group starting preparing their gear for their first dive.
Instructions are given in one’s native language or in a second language that one masters, explains Jyrki. But once under water the universal sign language is used.
“We give people a long and deep theory lesson about what’s going to happen during the dive. When it’s time to enter the water everyone knows what they are going to do and how and what path we are taking. And everybody knows they have to follow the dive master or instructor – for safety reasons. They don’t go into water unprepared,” explains Jyrki
It’s very important for new divers who have never dived before.
“They want to know, and that everything has been taken care so they are safe and with no risk of getting lost down there.”
“Normally a dive lasts about 1 hour – which is long enough. It depends on how much air people are using. Consumption of air can be very different, ‘cause all people are different.”
His six diving students are excited ahead of their last dive.
“Now they already know after a couple of days what diving is. They’ve made a couple of shallow dives and learned the skills and now just want to see what’s down there, what kind of life, visibility and how it feels. They are really waiting for this.“
“Scandinavian students really pay attention – they really want to learn – which is big plus for us!” he adds.
He can also enjoy the diving while instructing.
Aside this, all the people he meets is what makes Jyrki keep on doing this after so many years.
“The people are the best thing with this job, because they are so happy when they come.
And its fulfilling to see them happy and with new adrenaline after a dive. They have been anxious or worried or whatever but they have learned a new skill. They have been able to enter a new world. They find out that they can do it, can manage and can learn it. This is a privilege for me actually!”