Friday, July 18, 2014

How to Become a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor

People ask me all the time how I became a dive instructor! I can say that it is not an easy (or cheap) process, but if you have a passion for diving and have the right personality to teach, it's an amazing way to do what you love - and if you want, live in some pretty interesting and exotic places.

Since I can only speak for my own experience, this post is focused on how to become a PADI dive instructor. There are many training agencies around the world for basic certification all the way up to instructor - some of the more common ones are SSI, NAUI, BSAC, SDI/TDI, CMAS - but they are all different and I really don't know what the other ones are like.

the day i passed my instructor course!
The journey to become a dive instructor starts a looooonnnnnnggg time before your instructor course. You have to become a certified diver first! After that, there are continuing education courses. The timeline and cost looks something like this:

(Prices are from Roatan in 2012 and have probably gone up a bit - and keep in mind Roatan is one of the cheapest places in the world to do diving courses.)

  1. Open Water Diver - the basic diving certification course. 3-5 full days plus homework at night. $300-450
  2. Advanced Open Water - a step up from the Open Water course. 2-3 days. $275-400
  3. Emergency First Responder - before starting the Rescue course, you have to have a current First Aid certificate. If you don't have one from somewhere else, you'll need to take this. 1 day. $100-$150
  4. Rescue Diver - a seriously physically and mentally challenging course where you learn how to react to emergency situations above and below the water. 3-4 days. $300-400
  5. Divemaster - the first professional step. Usually an internship where you work in a dive shop while studying dive theory, practice skills and dive leadership. Must have 40 logged dives to begin. 6-8 weeks. About $2000 including PADI fees. Once you are a 'PADI Pro' you will have to pay yearly professional fees to keep your standing. If you don't pay, your certification level reverts to Rescue Diver. I think it's around $90/year to maintain a Divemaster rating. 
  6. Open Water Scuba Instructor - this is a 'dive instructor'. Usually a 8-12 day Instructor Development Course (IDC) with a 2-day Instructor Exam (IE) at the end. About $2000-3000 including PADI fees. It's about $250/year to maintain an instructor rating, plus some shops require you to maintain professional liability insurance. You must have 100 logged dives by the end of the IDC to participate, and have been a certified diver for at least six months.
  7. Master Scuba Diver Trainer - this is a small step up from a regular OWSI. All it means is that you have certified at least 25 students, and that you are licensed to teach 5+ specialties. There are a few ways to be certified to teach specialties, but I took the route of doing an MSDT prep week with my course director after the IE which takes 5-7 days and costs $600 and up depending on how many specialties you want. PADI fees depend on how many specialties you choose, they are around $70 per specialty. This is the instructor level I'm currently at.
  8. There are a few higher instructor-level ratings but they're kind of irrelevant for this post and since I haven't achieved them yet I can't tell you much about it. Check the PADI website if you need info on that.
PADI has built in a bit of a roadblock to full 'zero-to-hero' programs where people do their courses back to back and try to become an instructor as fast as possible. You have to be a certified diver for at least six months (ie. have completed your Open Water course for six months) before you're allowed to do the instructor course. One of my friends didn't know this, and his IDC center overlooked it, and he went all the way through the instructor course and exam and PADI wouldn't certify him as an instructor because he hadn't been a certified diver for six months. He had to do the IDC and exam all over again (and it's no easy feat). Other courses have 'minimum logged dives' thresholds before you begin the course. Most dive shops won't do a Rescue course with less than 20 dives, or Divemaster with less than 40-60 dives.

doing a refresher with one of the first open water courses i ever taught. this lady was nearly 70 and it took me almost three weeks to get her certified, but she did it!
I personally think that PADI should have higher 'minimum logged dives' thresholds. When I did my courses, I did my Open Water and Advanced Open Water back to back, which I don't recommend to anyone. It's really hard to get everything you can get out of the Advanced course when you've only just learned to dive and you're still figuring out your buoyancy and basic dive skills. I also think the Rescue threshold should be raised to 40 dives. As a Rescue diver, you learn to be responsible for yourself and other divers underwater, and if you're still developing your skills as a diver, it's hard to assist others. I also think 100 dives is low for an instructor.

my 'office'
I did my Rescue the second I banged out 20 dives, and started my Divemaster as soon as I hit 40 dives. I had 114 dives when I started the Instructor course. When I look back on it now, over 800 dives and 50+ certifications later, I really don't think I had enough diving experience.  I would recommend to anyone looking to become a dive instructor to get as many dives as you can between courses. I know diving is expensive but you will have so much more success at the professional level when you have actual experience in the water. I never had any doubt about my teaching ability - I am a natural teacher and have a knack for sharing knowledge - but I think I would have been a better dive lead with more experience first.

Certifications don't always mean everything... there are some local dive guides on Roatan who never went past the Rescue level, and they have 35,000+ dives on this reef. When I was a brand-new OWSI, I had 119. Who would you rather go out with for a fun dive? As a certified diver, I'd rather go with someone who has more experience on the reef. Who would I rather have teach me how to dive? An instructor. Just something to keep in mind (looking at you, newly certified OWSIs on Roatan who like to tell the boat captains who used to be divemasters here for 15-20 years how a site is supposed to be done).

Now, having your piece of paper that says you can teach people to dive isn't everything. Most shops expect instructors to have their own set of full gear. Full gear means: BCD, regulators/console, dive computer, fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit/drysuit, knife, torch, etc. I bought all mid-range stuff and spent close to $6,000 for everything new 2.5 years ago. I have already replaced a BCD (thank god my dive shop was a ScubaPro dealer and let me order one at the dealer price of $250, otherwise it would have been around $600-800 retail), had one mask stolen (a $75 mask) and replaced with a $25 (dealer price) one, had a torch die (a $90 light that ScubaPro wouldn't replace because I lost the receipt), and had to get increasingly larger wetsuits as I gained weight here (thankfully free from dive shop lost & found). I am going to need a new dive computer soon which will probably run me around $600. I also pay $165/year for the highest level of DAN dive accident insurance - as a dive professional, because of how much time I spend diving I have a higher risk of having an accident, and with a ride in the hyperbaric chamber costing $8000-10,000 per treatment, I don't want to pay for that. Every diver (even recreational) should have dive insurance. Most travel policies don't cover scuba diving, so be sure to look into it.

get ready for killer triceps from hauling tanks all day
I always tell people diving is not for the faint of heart or wallet. All in all, it cost me around $13,000 for all courses and gear. That's not including the cost of 2 holidays to Roatan to complete courses, or the cost of moving here and not working for the first 4 months while I did my Divemaster and Instructor courses. I think I had to save about $20,000 to get to the day I started working as a dive instructor.

Oh, and once you become a dive instructor? Unless you work in one of the very few places in the world where you make decent money (but still not great), be prepared to get paid shit for how much work you're expected to do. Also, there is no guarantee that you will get work! You'll be competing for jobs with instructors who have way more dives and experience than you, and since you get paid the same no matter what your experience level is, dive shops will almost always choose the more experienced candidate. Instructing is not all rainbows and butterflies all the time either.

I have spoke at length on this blog about how little we get paid (and how often people don't realize they are supposed to tip). Most people are shocked when they find out my salary. From talking to friends who are instructors all over the world. you seem to be able to make enough money and save a bit in places like Grand Cayman and Australia. Anywhere else (the rest of the Caribbean, SE Asia, Indonesia) you usually make enough to live and have some beers with your friends a couple nights a week and that's it. I don't recommend this career path full-time for anyone who has student debt, loans, or credit card bills. It's highly unlikely you'll make enough money to make monthly payments consistently, especially if you want to go home to visit once a year or do any traveling. This is not a career you get into for the money. It's a career to get into to share your passion and knowledge of the underwater world with others. Sometimes I get frustrated and stressed about finances when my other non-instructor friends here are taking holidays from Roatan (yes, we still need holidays when we live in paradise...we're still working, we're not retired!) and I have to cut back on my groceries for the week because I don't even have enough money for everything I want to eat for the week.... but then I take someone for their first open water dive and see the amazed look on their face. There is nothing in the world that beats that feeling.

happy instructors on a staff dive!
Do I recommend becoming a dive instructor? To some people yes, to others no. It's not something you do just to get free diving. It's not something you do if you can't stand being in the pool day after day doing 'try dives' and telling people how to clear their mask over and over and over and over and over. It's not something if you are just trying to find any way to make a living in an exotic country. It's for people who have a passion, and the ability to impart knowledge to others. You have to have the patience of a saint (mine gets tested daily), the know-how to convey instructions in several different ways (not everyone learns the same way) and the inner moral compass to stick to PADI standards even when your student is really, really nice and she is going to leave you a big tip if you just pass her but she isn't mastering the skills. The bottom line is that it's not for everyone, and you really need to think it through to the long-term level. Get a ton of experience before putting in the time and money. Assist on courses at your local shop so you can see what teaching is really like. Talk to instructors who have gone through the IDC at the center you're thinking about choosing. If being a dive instructor is truly your path, you'll love it!

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me keep on showing people Nemo's world. So there's that.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Roatan Month 23 Roundup

23 months living on this island... holy highballs, that's a while!

Kind of an interesting up-and-down period lately with work and stuff here. I'm still freelancing which is a great experience getting to know how other shops work. I haven't made too much of an effort to get work, and will probably try a little harder in the upcoming weeks because it was fast and furious at first and has now slowed to a trickle, but there is work out there - I just have to go get it instead of waiting for them to call me. For now, I've been taking a bit of a 'staycation' and doing all the things I haven't had the time to do over the last...well... 23 months! I've finally had high-speed internet installed at home (which means you can find me in bed watching Netflix 24/7 for the next 3 weeks, probably), changed my cable provider to one that actually has English channels (I've had NatGeo and the Food Network on non-stop), got my first haircut in 14 months, took the time to shop properly for good groceries and made delicious healthy meals, and just enjoyed my free time! After nearly two years of working 8-10 hour days, 6 days a week, I am ready for beach hangouts, day drinking and sleeping in. The money thing is stressing me out just a little bit, but at this point in time I've accepted if I can't/don't make enough money freelancing, I will head to Canada in the fall for a couple months to save money and then come back for busy season, or move on to somewhere new. We will see!

You can always see all my monthly roundups by clicking on the 'roundup' tag below... but here they all are in order: Month 22Month 21, Month 20, Month 19, Month 18, Month 17, Month 16, Month 15, Month 14, Month 13, Month 12, Month 11, Month 10, Month 9, Month 8Month 7, Month 6, Month 5, Month 4, Month 3, Month 2 and finally little old Month 1. Sometimes when you type 'month' that many times it looks really weird.

Roundup time!

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

Now that I'm back in the water, I actually have some of these again! Here's me taking a video of one of the other instructors on a staff dive...

BONUS: here's the video I took on that dive... if you watch carefully, you can see the exact moment he snapped the above picture of me!

2. Posts from the last month:
  • Lost & Found: Back in the Water - opening up about why I left the job I had been at for nearly two years here, and stepped out on my own into the unstable freelance world.
  • Roatan Review: The Landing - a super sweet lounge/restaurant/smoothie bar that fell off my radar before but is definitely my new place for sunset drinks.
  • 5 Things I Love About Roatan - with all my new-found free time, I am trying to get more balance in my life....hence, a post about all the great things about Roatan. (This ended up being one of my more popular posts; I think you guys must be tired of hearing how shitty the electric company is and how the grocery store is always out of everything. Sorry.)
  • 10 Steps to the Perfect Dive Vacation - as a dive instructor, I spend my days trying to give people kickass dive vacations. Just a liiiiiiiiiiitle more homework before your trip can ensure you have the best dive vacation ever!
  • Roatan Review: Ocean Connections - a dive shop in West End that went from pretty blah a couple years ago to an inviting, busy place that will take care of everything for you, AND take you on great dives.
Other places you may have missed me around the internet this month: I announced on social media that I am now a staff writer for the West Bay Tours blog, so I'll be sharing my posts from there since they will be all about Roatan! The first one is already up: Roatan Dive Sites Your Guidebook Won't Tell You About. I also did an interview with The Guy for his Travel Blogger Interview series, which you can read here

3. Coolest thing I've found on the internet this month:

I first heard of the Royal de Luxe street theater company back in 2007 when my ex-boyfriend showed me this video (below) he had found online and thought I would like. "Like" ended up being a bit of an understatement. I'm not sure what it is about these massive outdoor puppets, but I am totally enamored with them and have probably seen every video online of them a million times. This is bucket-list stuff for me, guys. I'm obsessed. I WANT TO SEE THESE SO BAD. I think I would start to cry if I saw it in real life. I know they creep some people out, but I love them.

I recently was over at Adventurous Kate where she said that these guys were bringing the show to Limerick, Ireland in September. So if the universe wanted to be really cool, I think it would find a way for me to go to Ireland in September to see this!

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me find some magical thing to get to Ireland to see those beautiful puppets. So there's that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Roatan Review: Ocean Connections Dive Shop

When I first arrived on Roatan, Ocean Connections was a 'bros-only' dive shop - the owner refused to hire any female instructors or divemasters. The decidedly testosterone-laden vibe was bogged down further by a small, beat up dive boat, a dark little shop and some sub-par organization on the diving front. It was an adequate enough shop, but wasn't a place I recommended to people.

Thankfully, the shop sold to a new owner two years ago. Enter my good friend Amanda, who was traveling through Central America, met a boy on Roatan and forgot to leave.... and started managing Ocean Connections. Perhaps 'managing' is not the correct word here. Maybe 'turned a struggling dive shop into a sprawling, busy dive center which runs like a well-oiled machine and is offering a superb dive experience in West End and the only place on the island to offer the BOSS underwater scooter experience'. Yeah. That's more accurate.

A major staff change, serious boat upgrades (including purchasing the largest dive boat in West End for diving & the BOSS scooters...see my pics of the giant Princessa del Mar docking further down the post - this boat was designed by the owner and built right here on Roatan), huge shop renovations, fancy new Aqualung rental gear, a brand-new dock with a massive palapa (arguably the best dive shop dock in town and a great place for sunset beers - see photos near the end of this post) and Amanda and her team organizing things to a tee have transformed Ocean Connections into a fantastic dive shop that I'm happy to recommend to anyone. Speaking of happy, did you know they're the only shop in West End advertising HAPPY staff? (Note to other dive shop owners/managers: um, happy staff is kind of important. FYI.)

I had spent plenty of time dropping by Ocean Connections to say hi to Amanda and Sarah every time I walked by the shop, but hadn't been diving there since all of the changes. Despite a gray and cloudy day, I headed down to OC carrying all my gear to get a first-hand experience of the shop with a 2-tank dive. I found Amanda in her 'office'....

... and was immediately relieved of the gear I was carrying by Breesha, who was going to be my divemaster for the day (and who has a Manx accent which I guessed correctly for bonus points, and may also be the most adorable human being ever). She took ALL my gear to the boat and set it up for me. ALL OF IT. When you hear of a shop offering 'valet diving service' on Roatan, it means that they take your BCD/reg/weights to the boat, set it up on a tank for you, switch it over between dives and break it down and rinse it at the end of the day. You have to take your own mask/fins/wetsuit to and from the boat and rinse them yourself. Not at OC... you don't have to touch any of your gear until you're ready to jump into the water, and at the end of the day you just walk off the boat and onto the beautiful deck, and relax while the staff takes care of everything.

We hopped into the boat with the experienced and friendly captain Jerrold at the helm and off we went - but what about the other divers? Breesha had two more divers gear set up on the boat. Were they late? Were we leaving without them?

Nope - OC offers concierge diving service, meaning they will come pick you up at whatever dock is closest to your hotel! No need to walk down to the shop, or take a taxi if you're staying in West Bay... we cruised over to the Infinity Bay dock in West Bay where the other two divers were waiting and they jumped in carrying only their cameras - everything else was already set up and waiting on the boat for them. We headed to our first dive site, listened to a thorough briefing from Breesha, and then Jerrold helped us into our gear and into the water. Sometimes I can't enjoy fun diving on my days a dive instructor, I feel obligated to assist if divers are having trouble, whether I'm on the clock or not. However, Breesha was totally on top of things and in control, so I was able to relax and enjoy the dives. Thank you Breesha!!

Here's a video from our dive at Butcher's Bank, which clocked in at a whopping hour and six minutes (the dive, not the video!):

After this dive, we got out and did it all over again at the second site. I have no video of this because immediately upon descent on the second dive my GoPro decided to be awesome and flood. I went back up and gave it to Captain Jerrold, who kindly opened it up and tried to dry it out for me. (Thankfully it ended up being fine!) I went back down and we had an amazing second dive - Breesha pointed out turtles, squid and all kinds of other reef creatures that came out to see us. After another 60+ minute dive, we dropped the other divers back off at their dock, headed back to the dive shop and I stepped off the boat carrying only my GoPro while Breesha and Jerrold broke down all the gear, rinsed it and hung it up to dry. Such a luxury for someone who schleps other people's gear around all day :) I discovered that I had finally bitten through my mouthpiece on my regulator and I bought a new one from the Trident diving accessories that OC sells. I walked back out to the deck and asked one of the BOSS boys for a blade so I could change it out. Instead, my reg was whisked away and returned to me five minutes later with the new mouthpiece neatly in place. Amazing service from the boys - and we know each other outside of OC, so they knew I wasn't even a regular 'guest', and still went out of their way to assist any way they could.

I had the opportunity back at the dock to see the giant Princessa del Mar come in from the BOSS tour - this is truly a sight to see. Over thirty cruise shippers arrive at the shop in the morning via bus from the cruise ship dock, are taken out on the boat for 30 minutes in the scooters and 30 minutes-1 hour of snorkeling (the group alternates half and half at a time so everyone gets a chance to do both, or guests can choose to only do one, or even just hang out on the boat), are brought back to the dock and dropped off and walk straight back onto the bus and back to the ship, like clockwork. I overheard one of the guests telling Amanda as he walked back to the bus, "I can't believe you guys have only been doing this tour for a year - it was so organized and well-run that I thought it had been going on for years". What a compliment!! Amanda has a completely separate crew that run the BOSS tours, which is different from the dive team. They have 4-5 people in the water with the scooters (one leading and 2-3 corralling people so they stay together, plus Sarah doing the underwater photos), a snorkel guide in the water with the snorkelers, and the boat captain supervising.

What I loved seeing that was besides the lovely Sarah, the entire crew running the BOSS operation are local guys who are being trained up to divemasters by OC (they are already rescue divers, which is the requirement to lead the BOSS tours). I really feel like dive shops owe it to Roatan to provide opportunities for locals to earn a living in the diving industry here, whether it's in the shop as administrative staff, boat captains or divemasters. Amanda's entire dive shop crew are all islanders besides her, Sarah, Breesha and the head instructor Jonathan. This is not common here and I applaud OC for it.

I have so many great things to say about the dive center that OC has become over the last couple years. It's been such a positive change and is only getting better. They have recently purchased the building next door and are planning to expand even more - with a proper office for Amanda (she is excited about this) as well as a classroom and lockers for diving guests. I can't wait to see how this shop continues to grow and develop as a first-rate dive center in West End!

Things you need to know:

  • check out their website, Facebook, Twitter, and all the fabulous reviews on TripAdvisor
  • located in West End - the big yellow building next to the Blue Marlin
  • make a reservation: call (from North America 713-370-2450, or from here 9901-3646) or email them at
  • prices vary depending on what you're doing - check out pricing here
  • remember to tip your divemaster and boat captain in lempira or new/good condition USD - read my guidelines for tipping on Roatan
  • there are options for 'Stay & Dive' packages with accommodations at the lower and higher end of budgets... check out SeaBreeze Inn and Cocolobo (I have stayed at both, and highly recommend both these hotels), and ask OC for more information if you're interested in an accommodation + diving package
  • let them know Rika sent you :)

Rika's Rating: kickass shop, go here!

Many thanks to Amanda and the entire Ocean Connections team for hosting me during my two dives, providing me with coffee and jokes, and treating me like a first-class guest. Special thanks to the boys from the BOSS team for the boat washdown show! As always, my opinions in my reviews are my own, no matter who is taking care of the bill.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me maaaaaaaaaybe consider doing a BOSS tour after making fun of them for the last year.  Maybe. So there's that.

Monday, July 7, 2014

10 Steps to the Perfect Dive Vacation

Working in the scuba diving industry for the last two years has opened up my eyes to a whole new world of dive travelers. I don't often get to travel on dive vacations, but I work every day with people who are on them. After seeing my guests have great trips (and some not-so-great), I feel like I can offer some useful advice to those planning a dive vacation.

me at work, taking out some of my fave divers
photo courtesy of sarah

1. Choose your location based on what YOU want as a diver.

If you don't like diving in cold water, steer clear of most of Europe and northern parts of the Americas. If you like macro stuff, check out Bonaire, Australia or the Maldives. If you like big stuff, maybe the Galapagos or Palau is for you. Wrecks? Truuk Lagoon, or the Philippines. Crazy currents and swimthroughs? Cozumel. Super easy, warm water, no current, good viz, laid-back, varied topography? Roatan!!

The point is, you need to think about what kind of diving you want to do, and then research to find the right location for you. I've had divers come to Roatan and complain about the topography or marine life. Sorry, not my fault you didn't do your homework before booking your trip! If you're booking dive trips based on short flight times or cheap costs, then if it's not the kind of diving you like, that's bad planning on your part. Always check the time of year that you're going - there is usually a 'season' for good diving in most places.

2. If you're traveling with non-divers, you should think about them too.

A place like Roatan has a finite amount of stuff to do for non-divers. This is a small island geared towards diving. If your significant other/kids don't dive, they can zipline, go to an iguana farm, snorkel, go to a dolphin show, lay on the beach, or get drunk. That's basically it. So if you have other people to take into consideration on your trip, make sure you look into non-diving activities for them before booking to make sure they get to have an amazing time too.

3. Get your gear serviced before your trip.

And if it's 47 years old and falling apart, replace it or rent gear on your trip. That is all.

4. Take a refresher BEFORE your trip.

I feel like I can't stress this one enough. If you are a certified diver, and have been out of the water for more than six months, you should really take a refresher before you go on your trip.  If you sign up for fun diving, you're expected to have your basic diving skills, equipment set up, familiarity with operating all gear, and hand signals down when you first step onto the boat. It is NOT the divemaster's job to babysit you while you flail around and/or give you a 'free' refresher on the first dive of your trip (you would be surprised how many people ask me this - would you do your job for free?)  If you are that guy who does that, you better give your divemaster a big tip and apologize to the others on the boat.

If you live somewhere chilly, it's usually done in a local pool or dive tank and only takes a couple hours. You don't want to waste precious vacation time trying to remember how to put your gear together, or being that guy on the dive who can't control his buoyancy and isn't responding correctly to the dive lead's hand signals, so just pay the $50ish and do a refresher before you go. You can also schedule a refresher with almost any dive shop at your destination for the day before you start fun diving, so there is that option too, but why not save time and do it at home?

You can also use this refresher session to test out your newly-serviced or new-to-you gear to make sure everything is working before you depart. I can't tell you the number of times that a diver 'just got it serviced' and had something go wrong on the first dive of the trip. Better to find out at home that it wasn't serviced properly than on vacation where they may not have the parts to fix it.

5. If you're going to get certified on your trip, consider online learning to cut down 'homework' during vacation time (ie. more drinking-margaritas-poolside-time).

A PADI certification course can take anywhere from 3-5 full days to complete, and if you do the entire course on your vacation, there's about 12-15 hours of reading to do at night. Who wants to do homework while they're on vacation? Not me! Take care of the academics at home by signing up for online learning and completing it prior to your trip. You can even complete all your confined water sessions with your local dive shop in a pool too, and then all you have to do is 4 open water dives (just 2 half-days) at the beginning of your dive trip and you're certified! Most courses have mandatory medical forms that need to be filled out (and a physician's clearance obtained, if necessary) prior to the course, so save yourself the headache of trying to find a doctor in your vacation destination and get this taken care of at home before you go too - just ask the dive shop to email you the form.

6. Do your research on tipping customs where you're going, and budget accordingly.

Have I mentioned this enough on this blog? If you can't find the answer online about customary tips where you're going, ask the dive shop. Budget for a super-amazing-service amount of tips, and if for some reason you end up giving less than that, then you have extra beer money. Everybody wins.

7. As with all types of vacations, check entry/exit requirements, visas, etc.

Here on Roatan, you won't be permitted to board your flight to the island unless your passport is valid for at least six more months. You'll also be turned away at the airport if you are coming from a yellow fever country without proof of a vaccine. When you leave Roatan, there is a $40 exit fee you have to pay. Check luggage limitations if you're carrying scuba gear. These are the kinds of things you need to find out well in advance - getting denied entry to the country or a massive surprise baggage charge is never a nice way to start a vacation.

8. Make a reservation, and get confirmation in writing.

If you are one of those divers who thinks it's perfectly fine to show up at a dive shop with no reservation and then scream at the staff because they're full and can't accommodate you, someone should turn your air off underwater. If you didn't make a reservation, you need to keep your trap shut if the shop can't fit you in. End of story. Most shops don't turn away divers for fun (duh, they want your money!) so if they tell you they're full, then they're full. You snooze, you lose.

Everyone needs to make reservations, especially those looking to do dive courses, junior divers (who often require private guides at many shops due to their 40' depth restriction), anyone diving during holiday times and those traveling in groups larger than a couple people. Dive shops often need to arrange extra boats or staff in advance for courses or big groups....usually owners don't like to pay a bunch of staff to sit around when there are no divers scheduled (weird, right?) Yes, some select shops operate on a first-come-first-served basis, but you should find out beforehand. If you don't make a reservation, then if you go to the one you'd like to go out with and they're full, your job is to politely say, "okay, thank you!" and head over to another shop to check for availability there.

9. Ask the dive shop for information.

You are our favorite kind of diver - you make your reservation, pay your deposit, ask for information and then do what you're supposed to with the information you've been given. Be that kind of diver!!

This is your chance to chat with the office staff before you arrive to get all the details down. Ask things like:

  • do I need to come the day before I start diving to get geared up, fill out paperwork and get a shop orientation? Do I need my certification card and logbook?
  • how far in advance of the dive times do I need to be at the shop? (Do not show up early, because you will be in the way of staff trying to get the boats set up for the day. Do not show up late, because you might miss the boat or make everyone else late. Show up at the time the staff tell you.)
  • if my wife/kids/friends are interested in snorkeling/doing a Discover Scuba Diving experience/ridealong on the boat, what is the cost and do we need to schedule this beforehand?
  • how are the dive sites chosen daily? Are they guided? Are there depth and bottom time limits? Do we come back to the dive shop for surface intervals or stay on the boat? How long is the ride to the dive sites? What am I allowed to bring on the dive boat? Is there secure storage at the shop for my belongings while I'm out diving? Do I need any special certifications to do any of the dive sites? Is there shade/water/fruit/towels on the boat? Is there valet service or do I need to haul my own gear/tanks and set it up?

It would be really cool if you can try to think about most of your questions and get them all in one email so it isn't an endless string of back-and-forth questions for the office staff... but we'd rather you get all the information prior to the trip, so that we can avoid you finding out on the first day that you don't get to do 85 minute dives and having a fit, so ask away. (Check the dive shop website first. Most have FAQ sections. Don't waste the staff's time asking stuff that's already answered on their site.)

10. Have fun!!!

So what if the viz is a little shitty, or it's a couple degrees colder than you thought? Things the dive shop can't control: weather, visibility, currents, marine life (hello, do you think we call up the manta rays and turtles and ask them to come by to see you on the dive?), water temperature, etc. so please don't complain about those, because we can't do anything about it. If you book with a reputable shop with experienced staff, you should know that they're giving you the absolute best dives they can given whatever the conditions are, so relax and enjoy it! Make sure you listen to the briefings and instructions, look for cool stuff on your dives, take badass underwater pics and post them to Facebook to make your friends at home jealous,  get to know your fellow divers, buy your divemaster and boat captain a beer at the end of the day. Even a bad day underwater still beats a good day at the office :)

Diving vacations are not cheap, and I know all too well what it is like to work your ass off all year for a measly two weeks off. Following these ten steps will ensure you have the best dive vacation possible, which is what the dive shop staff want for you, so help us help you have a great holiday experience. Happy bubbles!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

5 Things I Love About Roatan

"So, do you like living here?"

I get this question from tourists on a near-daily basis, usually after I tell them I've been on the island for two years. Uhhhh... if I didn't like it, would I live here for two years? Now don't get me wrong, this place makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. But so did every place in Canada that I lived at some point in time or another. (Can I be any clearer to people that paradise does not equal no problems?) But that doesn't mean there aren't amazing things about it. Here's some from my friends at West Bay Tours:

I think it's pretty obvious (on this blog or a quick Google search) that Roatan has amazing diving (duh) and gorgeous beaches. I don't need to reiterate that for you. So here are the absolute best things about this little island that you may not have known about:

1. The old-school islanders and their hospitality.

At the place I used to work, my boat captains and I used to head down the beach and up the side of the hill every once in a while to visit a local family who was watching some land for the gringo owner who lived in the US. Several generations of family were living in a massive run-down vacation home and doing what they could to survive off the small payment the landowner sent them every month. I used to see the younger boys fishing, gathering local fruit (mangoes, plantains, plums, avocado, etc.) and hunting rabbit...the day I realized this was to feed the family and not just for fun was a very humbling day for me. They were always so happy to see us coming up the hill to visit them, and we would sit and chat with them while the grandpa told hilarious stories about 'the old days'. The last time we went, one of the little boys came running after us while we were walking back down with little bags of fresh homemade popcorn for us to eat on our walk back. Such a touching gesture from people who had so little - this is what real islanders are like, not the violent crap you hear about on the news.

2. Not ever being ashamed of my clothes.

I would never walk around with ripped, torn or stained clothes in Canada, or something that wasn't "in", or matching. But here, people don't judge what you're wearing (unless you are being a tourist and walking around in your bathing suit, a neon crop top with booty shorts or barefoot). You don't just go throwing away clothes every time they get a little damaged or dirty. I felt really self-conscious last summer walking around in Canada with my clothes from Roatan - I hadn't even noticed some of the rips and stains until my friends (lovingly and helpfully) pointed them out. I never think twice about it here. Awesome!

3. Walking down the street in West End.

After two years of walking down the same 1 mile road that comprises the little village of West End, I still get a kick of hearing my name and a 'hello' yelled out of nearly every shop/restaurant/hotel that I pass. I thrive off being connected to lots of people, and this place is fantastic for it.

4. The tortilla guy.

There is a dude who drives his motorcycle through all the neighborhoods every evening yelling "TORTILLAS!! TORTILLAS!!" with a big cooler strapped to the back full of fresh tortillas inside. Because really, is there anything better than fresh tortillas that you can flag down from your front porch?

5. Being in the loop faster than CNN breaking news.

One of the first things you need to learn about Roatan is you find out basically all the news through various Roatan Facebook groups. There are thousands of members from all over the island who constantly update regarding power outages, crimes, where you can find ______, and which restaurants are open that night. I find out everything from Facebook groups!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin'! Plus it makes me keep on lookin' at the bright side of life. So there's that.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Roatan Review: The Landing

During one of my vacations to Roatan in 2012, one of my friends got a job at a little tucked-away bar called 'The Landing' on the second floor of The Beach House (a boutique hotel in West End that I adore). I hadn't even noticed the staircase off the street leading up to this place, but once he started bartending there, it suddenly became the place to be for all our friends. Flaming drinks at sunset, electro DJ dance parties on the tiny deck and free shots if you mentioned Facebook page ads had this little place bumping on random nights, like Mondays and Wednesdays (generally the big 'going-out' nights in West End are Thursdays and Fridays). We had a blast.

Then I came back three months later after I had moved to West End, and went back to The Landing again. It was dead. I didn't know anyone there. It looked a little run-down. I was SO SAD! Such a shame, as it has the best view in town and a great second-story location to get away from the bugs. I sort of forgot about it and went on with finding new places to get my sunset beverages.

Well, a new freelancing dive instructor job brought me next door to The Landing again recently, and their Facebook page tempted me with a Kale Caesar Salad for only $7. Now, if you're a new reader, you are omitted but anyone who has been around Cubicle Throwdown for a while should know that kale is one of those things I miss from Canada, badly (that, and everything else from Whole Foods). I figured I would give it a shot.

Walking up the stairs again, I was pleasantly surprised with a refreshed look with beautiful new chair covers,  new table accessories/menus/condiments, a clean and tidy bar set up, and neatly handwritten colorful signs with exotic-sounding drink specials.

The new manager, Manon, came over to take my order. Hailing from the south of France with a decidedly bohemian beach vibe to her (I don't think I've ever seen her with shoes), this former dive instructor passionately described her specials that day and answered my one million questions with ease. I decided on the house-made fresh gingerale to go with the kale caesar salad and sat back to enjoy the view. I could smell the fresh ginger from where I was sitting - yum! The gingerale was a refreshing twist on the traditional, and it was nice to have an option like that for the same price as a Coke.

view off the deck to the left

view off the deck to the right

I could see into the kitchen where Manon and her cook were preparing my salad. It was nice to see things being made from scratch - I had visions of bottled casear salad dressing and the crappy croutons we buy at the local supermarket. I was also worried about the size of the salad for $7... anything 'healthy' (or 'for white people', as the locals call it) usually requires 2-3 servings to fill me up here because the portions are so small and expensive.

Let me tell you, once this beauty was set down in front of me, all worries were cast aside.

This picture does not do justice to the size of the bowl. It was big! I was thrilled. With hardboiled eggs on top, homemade garlic croutons and homemade dressing, this kale/iceberg/spinach salad was the perfect chilled meal for a hot day. And they scored bonus points for hiding a bunch of croutons and more egg in the bottom of the bowl... my personal pet peeve is a giant bowl of soggy lettuce after you eat all the 'good stuff' off the top of a salad (am I the only one who does that?) This salad + gingerale was only 165lps, or about $8.25 USD, and completely worth every penny.

I think this was the most relaxing lunch I have had in ages. Killer view, great healthy food, refreshing drink, suuuuuuuuuper chill music playing, no cell phones blaring or kitchen workers hollering at each other. I probably could have sat here all day. (It's very likely that several posts in the future will be coming to you from a table at The Landing.) There's a beachy, laid-back vibe here that I love, complete with a little beat-up surfboard tucked away in a hidden corner. And, of course, watching Half Moon Bay while you nosh is not the worst thing you could stare at for an hour or two...

I had a peek at the juice (60lps/$3) and smoothie (80lps/$4) menu from which I promptly wanted to order one of everything, and at the regular menu which had me salivating at the thought of chips & freshly made guacamole (80lps/$4) or an italian sausage and caramelized onion baguette sandwich with apple coleslaw (only 160lps/$8!). They also do breakfast from 7am-10am with yogurt, homemade granola, tropical fruit and more. My only suggestion would be to offer more sun shade during the hot daytime hours... diners on the outer side of the tables were constantly shifting people around the tables so they could get out of the burning sun as it moved across the sky. Not sure how they could do this without blocking the beautiful view though, but it's something to consider.

There's not many places in West End to get such fresh, healthy and affordable food, so I came back a couple more times to try other menu items (in the name of research, obviously). I was happy to see the little place bustling with lots of customers! Manon handled it solo like a pro. The next day I tried the egg salad sandwich (160lps/$8) which was thankfully a far cry from the traditional mayo-filled mess egg salad sometimes is. Slices of hardboiled egg with a light dressing were joined by crunchy iceberg, cucumber and tomato on a soft multigrain baguette (I have no idea where they found bread like that on this island). The chips were a nice pairing - does anyone else put them in their sandwiches or I am the only weirdo?

The following day after some long morning dives I went in search of rehydration with their 'Orangina' smoothie - orange juice, lime juice and a banana (80lps/$4). Totally hit the spot.

After eating, I got to chat with Manon for a bit about her plans for The Landing. She used to be a dive instructor here in West End and recently took over this position, and I think she's the perfect person for the task of getting The Landing back up to its formerly buzzing self. It's certainly worthy, given the new look, new manager and new menu. For a beautiful location now offering affordable, healthy food and original drinks you won't find anywhere else in West End (a ginger caipirinha for just $5, anyone?), The Landing deserves to get a ton of business. I'm going to start by bringing all my friends. You should too.

Things to know:

  • located in West End - it's part of The Beach House (the big yellow building directly to the right of the traffic circle when entering West End) - there is a staircase that goes up, look for the signs
  • phone: 504-9971-7146
  • open from 7am - 8pm daily, I don't think reservations would be necessary
  • WIFI! Yay!
  • check out their Facebook page for current menu offerings and specials, or their page on The Beach House's website
  • bring lempira or USD in good condition to pay, and don't forget to tip your server (10-20% is standard on Roatan)
  • go at sunset and get the best view in West End!

Rika's Rating: anything with kale makes me happy, but seeing this place getting back to where it deserves to be makes me even happier. Love it!

Disclaimer: I was not compensated for this review and I bought all my own meals. Regardless of who is taking care of the bill, you will always receive my honest opinion in my reviews.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin'! Plus it makes me see how many caipirinhas I can drink. So there's that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Lost and Found: Back in the Water

It was one little detail that I somehow managed to forget about over the last year: I moved here to be a dive instructor. I didn't move here to run a dive shop, or to make websites, or to update Facebook pages. I worked myself almost to the bone in Canada with two full time jobs to save enough money to become a dive instructor - to live on Roatan (and other beautiful warm water locations), teach people how to dive, and take certified divers out diving.

it was a lovely office, but it was still an office.

I recently left the company that I have been with since I first arrived on Roatan nearly two years ago. It was not an easy decision. I took my professional level courses there, was hired right out of my instructor exams, worked there as a dive instructor, and ran a second location for them. It's been nearly two years with some incredible ups and downs. Even while my other friends here thought I was crazy for staying at a shop that paid so little and seemed to have abnormally high dive shop drama constantly, I liked the idea of a permanent, stable job and working in a place with higher-end facilities. And I didn't know any different, because I hadn't ever worked anywhere else.

But after spending the last year or so basically out of the water 90% of the time while running a shop, and then being asked to move to the guest services/marketing side of the resort and completely out of the dive shop due to internal politics, I started to slowly remember the real reason I came to Roatan. I came here to go diving. I didn't come here to stare at a computer in an office all day. (Ahem, did you see the title of my blog??)

I was supposed to be in Guatemala this week, exploring Antigua and Lake Atitlan on an extended vacation. I haven't left yet because I decided to give freelancing a try. I was hired right away for what was supposed to be a 5 day contract with a dive shop in West End...I just finished 14 days straight in the water with them and am starting tomorrow for a 4 day contract with another shop. I am making about 3x the money I used to make, and more importantly, I'm diving, and loving it. It's brought me back to why I came here two years ago. So while I might have also been really good at the social media/marketing job that my old company offered me, I didn't come to Roatan for that.

I have some of my divers to thank for this... I had divers tell me this week that I made their entire vacation, or that it was some of the best diving they had done in their lives. I had new divers thanking me over and over for introducing them to the underwater world. That kind of stuff makes me so happy!! I met my coworker's girlfriend, who recognized me from this blog and told me she had been reading Cubicle Throwdown in New York before moving down here and that she loved it (hi Tonya!). Equal parts 'yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!' and 'oooooh, I'm internet-famous' and 'see, I'm not just spewing crap on the internet out into the abyss, people are reading this and finding it helpful!' Then my brand new open water students sent me this after they got home:

If that's not a damn good reason to teach people to dive, I don't know what is. Thank you Hayley and Joel!!

I am a walking contradiction at all times, and this is nothing new for those who know me: at once both flighty and fiercely loyal, scared of change and changing everything in my life in a moment. I am thankful that I realized before running away from this island that it wasn't Roatan I was sick of - it was my job. While I still think I will be moving on to a new area of the world to explore in the near future, the rest of my time here will be spent exactly where I always wanted it to be... under the sea.

i'm freelancing here this week... i much prefer this view!!

(And yes, I am still going to go on my vacation to Guatemala, as soon as I have a break in freelancing jobs! I'm still accepting submissions for guest posts while I'm away, so please get in touch if you're interested. Also, I would love to hear from anyone who has been to Copan, Antigua and Lake Atitlan and has suggestions to offer.)

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin'! Plus it makes me work on new underwater photos for my roundups, now that I'm diving again. So there's that.