CONTRIBUTED BY DAN KELSO (via personal interview)
How do you become a Divemaster / Instructor in Thailand? What’s the best location in Thailand for doing this? What are the pay and working conditions like? Dan’s inspiring experience answers these questions…
At the age of 22, shortly before starting my working holiday in Sydney (see story), I learned to dive in Vietnam. It was early in my round-the-world trip and I could not, at the time, have known how this experience would lead to where I am now.
Like most people, I casually signed up for my Open Water course and became a qualified diver, thinking I would only ever use it for casual diving on holidays. To be honest, I can’t even remember anything I learned on that first course! I saw an octopus that changed colours – but that’s all I remember – and then I didn’t dive for a full year after that.
Concern for Safe Diving
After my working holiday in Sydney (see story) had finished, I was pretty flush with cash and able to do anything I wanted during the remainder of my travels. Remembering that colour-changing octopus, I decided that I wanted to do more diving.
As I carried on my travels through Australia, I did a dive with what turned out to be a very unsafe company. It was a real cowboy outfit! The only reason I didn’t abort the whole thing was that some fellow divers were Rescue Divers and Divemasters – so I figured they would keep me safe. Instead of being put off diving, I was simply warned of the importance of diving with reputable companies.
Discovering Master Divers on Koh Tao
Knowing I wanted to dive more, I researched companies in Thailand, where I would soon be travelling, and found a company that is highly rated for their safety standards and customer care: Master Divers on Koh Tao.
I visited them for some fun dives, my Advanced Course, and some Specialty Courses. I was really impressed! I liked the vibe, liked the shop, and the guys who were training me and leading the dives. My courses came to an end and it was time to carry on my travels.
Deciding to Return to Thailand
At the end of my round-the-world trip, I returned to England and initially wasn’t sure what I next wanted to do. I visited some mates in Europe whom I’d met on my travels and, feeling aimless without a routine, I got my old welding job back.
Remembering my time diving in Thailand with great fondness, I decided that I’d like to do more. I contacted Master Divers and made plans to do my Divemaster Certification. In order to get a good deal on flights, I had to book six months in advance so I worked my welding job and spent time with my family and mates until then.
I returned to Koh Tao in April 2012 and I’ve been living here (see story) ever since! It’s now July 2013 and I’ve just qualified as a Dive Instructor.
Becoming a Divemaster
Becoming a Divemaster takes at least one month once you have your Open Water, Advanced and Rescue courses, although it’s not advised to do it in less than six weeks. I therefore booked a holiday for two months so I wouldn’t have to rush anything. You get free fun dives whist training so I figured this would be a good way to get in extra dives at no extra charge!
When I started my Divemaster training, I didn’t even know what a Divemaster was! I’ve since discovered that it basically means you’re qualified to plan and lead dives safely, either on your own or on behalf of a dive company. And…it turns out that I love it!
I was only supposed to be here for those two months, but Master Divers offered me a job after my first month of training. That was a year ago. Thanks to their stellar reviews on Trip Advisor, they were picking up a lot more customers so they needed more staff.
Job offers like this don’t come along every day so of course I grabbed it. I worked quickly to finish my training in late May 2012 and started working as a fully qualified Divemaster for them.
A Day in the Life of a Divemaster
A quiet day for me involves cleaning the diving gear and helping around the shop. But there are not many quiet days on Koh Tao. Most of my time is spent leading dives for tourists.
I’m up at 6am and in the shop by 6:30am to sort out equipment. We have a maximum of four people per Divemaster so I start by sorting out the dive gear everyone will need. I ensure the boat is in order. Once on the boat, I do boat briefings, help divers with their equipment, and do a full dive briefing.
During our dive, I ensure everyone is safe and point out interesting specimens on the dive. During our surface interval between dives, I refit their equipment onto new tanks, ready for the second dive. If it’s not a busy day, we’ll be back by noon and I’ll use the afternoon to haul in the tanks, count equipment, clean kit and generally help around the shop.
If it’s a busy day, we’ll ‘double dive,’ meaning I’ll do the same routine again and get ready for my next set of customers who’ll head out on the afternoon boat for two dives. We’re then typically back by 5pm. Our shop shuts at 6pm so divers are gone by then but that’s not when I leave. There is still equipment to be counted and cleaned.
I can typically work like this for six to ten days in a row before getting a day off. It all depends on what dives and courses people have booked. You do what needs doing.
From Dive Master to Instructor
Whilst Divemasters plan and lead dives, Dive Instructors are qualified to teach dive courses. The jump from Divemaster to Dive Instructor happens via a course called the Instructor Training Course (ITC). It only takes three weeks because you no longer need to learn about diving; you’re simply focusing on the art of teaching the skills and theory.
Some people will try to go from zero to hero, starting straight from Open Water and then progressing all the way through to Instructor, which you can do if you’ve logged at least 100 dives. But I don’t personally recommend this approach. The longer you work as a Divemaster, the more you learn from your customers and your colleagues. This will ultimately make you a better Instructor.
Most dive shops have high and low seasons. This means they’ll employ you during the high season but you’ll then have to move to a new location that’s in its high season. This approach is called ‘freelancing’ and it’s very common in this industry!
Lots of Divemasters / Instructors like this lifestyle because it enables you to move around, making great friends and valuable contacts all over the world. It also gives the ability to dive in some of the best places in the world.
Some dive shops, like mine, will arrange a legal work permit for you, meaning you’re legally entitled to work in Thailand. This is obviously the best choice and you may choose to only work for dive shops who operate this way.
However, many dive shops won’t do this because of cost and their inability to employ you consistently. Instead, they’ll pay you cash under the table and you’ll end up working on a tourist visa. This approach is technically illegal but it happens frequently in this industry – and not just in Thailand.
Regardless of how you’re employed in Thailand, you’ll be making regular ‘visa runs.’ If you’re on a tourist visa, you’ll only be granted entry for 15 days if arriving by land. If flying, you’ll be granted entry for 30 days. This could make life very difficult so you’re better off trying to get another visa like an educational visa that will give you access to the country for one year. Better still is to hold out for a work permit.
Even with the educational visa or the work permit, you’ll still have to do a visa run every three months. In these instances, regardless of mode of entry, you’ll be stamped in for another three months each time, meaning your life is made significantly easier by going down the official route. Because so many people need to do this, it’s easy to find companies who organize visa runs from all over Thailand.
As a Divemaster or Instructor, a second language is a huge asset for you and will make you more readily employable than someone with equivalent skills and experience who can only speak one language. If you only have one language, you need to excel in other areas, like personality, efficiency, professionalism and ability to develop rapport with your customers.
Buying Dive Kit
I made the mistake of buying my dive gear in Thailand. It’s cheaper in the UK and I could have saved myself several hundred pounds if I’d bought it there. Cheaper still is to mail order it from America. But sometimes that means having to mail it away for repairs, which I didn’t want to do.
If you’re coming to Thailand and you want to buy your stuff from overseas, bring it with you, otherwise you’ll have to pay import duties if you post it to yourself.
The Financial Side
In 2013, Divemasters in Thailand can reasonably expect to earn between 15,000 BAHT (convert) and 18,000 BAHT per month, depending on the number of specialty courses you’ve done. As an Instructor, this will increase a bit more to about 20,000 BAHT or so per month.
This is your basic wage. You can then earn commission on any dives our courses you do above this. For example, if you teach 20 courses in a month, you’ve earned your basic wage. If you teach ten extra courses, you’ll earn a commission for each additional course.
On these wages, you can live comfortably in Thailand, but not enough to save anything substantial in any great speed. Back in England, I could pay for unexpected problems out of my wages, but here it would cut into my savings (see story about living on Koh Tao).
The fact that my current wage is far less than I was earning in the UK and Australia doesn’t bother me. If things ever get tight, I have a marketable trade to fall back on and that means I would simply return to that if I needed to. I know many people in this industry who may not have that luxury and it’s one piece of advice I would like to offer to someone considering doing this: have a backup plan.
ALSO SHARED BY DAN
- Contributed by: Dan Kelso
- Written, formatted and edited by: Krista Beauvais
- Story shared in person on July 1, 2013 at Paprika Restaurant, Koh Tao, Thailand
- Interviewed by: Krista Beauvais
- Contact Dan: kelsodaniel01 [at] hotmail.com
- Photos: all photos are courtesy of Krista Beauvais