Living the Life of a Divemaster Trainee in Khao Lak Thailand: Looking Back & Lessons Learned

  • Updated: December 24, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

After an eventful two months I've wrapped up my time in Thailand and I'm headed back to the United States with a brand spanking new SDI Divemaster certification. So what went right? What went wrong? And what would I do different if I had it to do all over again?

Things I Loved

Living the dream

Where I live in Southern California diving is mostly limited to weekends and we often get challenging ocean conditions that make even that a no go. So while I'd like to be able to work locally I also really like the idea of spending part of the year abroad.

So what better way to try out the idea of working as a seasonal dive professional than heading to another country and spend two months completely absorbed in the lifestyle?

So doing the DMT in Thailand was a bit of a trial balloon to see if this was really something I'd be happy doing. And despite some rough days and a lot of early struggles I bloody loved it!

So why the Similans specifically? Well I'd never been there, cost of living was cheap, diving was good, and it sounded like it would be an adventure. It also helped that I had a friend who had a connection with a local dive operation. Which leads me to...

Lots of time on a liveaboard

A big part of the appeal of Sign Scuba was the fact they owned and operated a liveaboard. They promised I'd get a good amount of time out on it during my program in addition to day trips out via speedboat and longtail boat.

I'd done only a single liveaboard before this since they tend to be fairly cost prohibitive especially if you say just quit your job and were currently mid pivot towards a more...outdoor lifestyle.

I'm not sure exactly how many nights I spent on the boat but I know I spent more nights on it than I did in my hotel room back on the mainland. I basically just came back when I had to do classroom work or when I had an opportunity to assist an instructor in the pool. The rest of the time I'd be out on the boat assisting, acting as boat DM, or guiding depending on the need.

This wasn't all roses as sometimes the boat was very busy and it was difficult to find space to stand much less any privacy but I wouldn't trade a minute of it. Plus...

I got to dive, alot!

I ended up with about 90 dives not counting pool sessions and I would have ended up with a lot more than that except that I was sick twice bad enough that I was bedridden and unable to dive. The second time in particular was a real bummer since it cost me about a week and even after that I had lingering sinus difficulties when I went under water.

Still 90 dives almost all which were off a liveaboard wasn't a bad value even ignoring the other benefits! And more importantly I felt like I came out a much better diver than I started.

It pushed me to develop my skills

When I went out to Thailand I had 144 dives and I'd been diving for about 10 months. I absolutely adored it from the start and spent as much time as I possibly could diving and learning everything I could.

In that time I'd done quite a lot of beach dives out in Laguna Beach which meant cold water, low visibility, and challenging surf and surge. I'd also been out on as many Catalina and Channel Island dive boats as I could afford and I'd taken diving trips to Florida, Indonesia, Canada, and several less common dive destinations like Utah and Nevada.

So I felt comfortable underwater but I had so much more to learn and I was eager to do so. And at least for me the timing of this adventure ended up feeling just about right. The shift to focusing on the guests I was taking care of vs just my own dive really helped improve my skills and just the amount of diving helped solidify everything.

I really enjoyed the immersive program

I looked at options for doing my DM in Southern California and I have several friends who have done in that way. For me though I enjoyed the fact that every day was dive focused and that they always had something for me to do.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed waking up every day and knowing I was going to either be learning something new or getting to dive. Or even better, both!

Things I'd Change

It gave me invaluable experience...but I wanted more

Time wise I went out there for 2 months which was the maximum amount of time I could manage between my wilderness class teaching commitments back in Southern California. Most divemaster programs advertise as being 4 weeks long with some even offering it in shorter periods with a lot of prep work. I wanted to spend some extra time working as a divemaster once my certification was complete and the shop was more than happy to let me do that I just wouldn't get paid due to the restrictions of the Thai visa.

There was less structure and division between the training and the working portion than I expected but I did get a good amount of experience guiding. I just wish I could have managed to stay another month or two especially since right at the end I had a run of really awesome clients.

So personally I'd really recommend that you don't skimp and try and get your DM in a short period of time. Do it when you can afford to hang around afterwards and get some experience.

I wouldn't book everything ahead of time

Not having traveled much out of the country I really wanted to have everything booked and ready before I arrived so I could make the most out of every day I was there. And while everything worked out in the end if I were doing it again I would take the time to fly out early and visit a few of the local dive shops. Time and funds allowing I'd even try and go out diving with the top few I was considering before committing to the DMT.

I did do some looking around online but it can be hard to get a real picture of what to expect. For example one of the more prominent operations that had a great DMT writeup had actually gone out of business and the operations I would have looked at in retrospect weren't the ones I'd found online.

My program wasn't as structured as I expected 

The interesting thing when you start to talk to people about their DMT experiences is that there really is a wide range. Some people barely got to dive beyond the barest of prerequisites and spent the entire time doing grunt work while others spent months fun diving and just wrapped up all their required skills right at the end.

SDI specifies all the things you have to do to get signed off but due to the nature of the business there I did a lot of things out of order and I sometimes had to scramble and demonstrate something a few days before they got around to showing me how I should be doing it. And then there was a scramble right at the end to get all the paperwork finished off and submitted.

Also due to the nature of working with clients there were a few skills that weren't so much demonstrated under controlled conditions so much as being forced to use the skills under pressure. For example towing a slightly panicked client back to the boat against current or people popping off weight belts by accident and starting to rocked up to the surface.

But as they say bad dives make good DMs.

Language was a struggle

Since I only speak english (and even that can be a struggle some days) I knew language was going to be a challenge. I quickly grew used to not understanding most of what was going on around me and limiting most conversations to just a few key points.

I knew that Sign Scuba was a Thai dive shop but what I didn't realize until I got out there that most of the direct clients would speak only very limited english. That wasn't a problem once we were underwater since hand gestures are universal but it did mean I was limited in how much I could be involved in the dive briefings not to mention missing out on the enjoyment of getting to interacting with people.

Later on I ended up pulling more clients with better english skills and was able to be a bigger asset especially where the Thai crew was involved. Also the situation did lead to a lot of really memorable experiences like drinking and trying to learn how to play some card game with a bunch of really friendly people who barely spoke english.

And finally...

I owe a huge thanks to Peter Jonas who had the main duty of teaching me and acting as my mentor while I was out here. His sense of humor and attention to detail helped keep me sane during a few rough days here and there and I really hope that this isn't the last time I get to dive with him.

Ann and Gary ran the shop next door to Sign called Go 2 Similan and were a great source of support while I was on land and I heartily recommend looking them up if you're in the area.

On the boat I owe pretty much the entire dive staff at Khao Lak Explorers but particularly Carly, Celine, Kai, Alex, Nono, and Sebastian. I really appreciated the friendliness and support on the days where I was feeling a bit out of my depth.

Also Noz, Nin, Alina, and so many others I interacted with throughout my time there.

So what's next? Sadly diving is going to take a bit of a back seat for a while as I focus on my commitments to Wilderness Travel Course and Advanced Mountaineering Program. And once those are done I will hopefully be spending a good long time northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail. And then we'll see. I'm hoping to find work as a DM towards the end of the year and then next summer look for someplace to get my instructor rating

So here's to hopefully lots more to come!

You Might Also Like