Diving for a living


SCUBA DUPER: 'Being underwater is so peaceful; you learn something new each time,' says Khoo.

SINCE she became a certified dive instructor in 1995, Sharon Khoo has been for more dives than she can remember. 

“I have lost track of how many dives I have been on ... maybe 20,000 or 30,000! I stopped keeping a log after a while because people like me (regular divers and dive instructors) can easily do about 300 to 400 dives in just a few months. However, each dive is a different experience,” says Khoo. 

Ironically, Khoo did not plan on making diving her career. After graduating, she worked for a few years in the advertising industry, doing creative work as well as marketing. However, despite the challenge, Khoo decided she could do without the stress her job brought her.  

“I decided to take a break and that was when I got more involved with diving. Although I already knew how to dive and had the first three basic licences, I took advantage of the break to get more (licences). Soon, however, diving became more than a hobby, and in 1993, en route to getting my instructor's licence, I started to work as an assistant instructor for a company in Kuala Lumpur and then in Langkawi,” she relates. 

Khoo got her instructor's licence two years later and now has her own dive set-up, The Divers' Den, a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) five-star dive centre which she runs with her partner A.B. Lee, also a master scuba instructor. Since setting up shop about eight years ago, Khoo has not been short of clients, most of whom are recommended by former clients.  

This year, however, marks a milestone in Khoo's career as she and Lee are moving out of their rented premises in Bangsar into their very own centre, complete with a swimming pool in Jalan Universiti, Petaling Jaya. 

“We are very excited as our new centre will have all the facilities under one roof. Previously, and as is the case with most dive centres, the classroom sessions are held in the centre but the swimming pool sessions are conducted in public pools. At our new place, we have constructed a pool with the specifications necessary for diving so students can get out of the classroom and into the pool. It is much more convenient,” says Khoo. 

Apart from a spanking new centre in PJ, the duo and another partner have a centre in Pulau Redang, called Redangkalong, which has been running for three years now. 

Khoo and Lee are also involved in marine environmental awareness campaigns. They include Project Aware, an annual campaign to increase awareness on marine life and conservation.  

“We don't just clean rubbish on the beach but are out to make as many people as possible aware of how to respect the environment. Every time we dive, we get to see first-hand how marine life is being contaminated and destroyed by random acts, like throwing rubbish in the ocean. Therefore, this project will heighten the awareness of these divers and indirectly stop the damage,” Khoo says. 

What qualifications do you need

You need to be a certified diving instructor. There are a lot of levels to get through before obtaining the instructor’s certification.  

First you must have the basic Padi open water certification, and the rescue/medic/first aid and speciality diver certifications (boat diver, cavern diver, deep diver, night diver, etc). Then you need to get certification as a dive master and assistant instructor; only then will you obtain an instructor's licence.  

After that, there are still a lot more licences to acquire; it really depends on how much time you want to devote to this activity. Padi courses are performance-based, so essentially how quick you get your certification depends on how fast you learn and how much time you have. You will get your certification as long as you demonstrate that you've mastered the required skills and knowledge. Naturally, as some learn faster than others, course duration varies. 

What does the job entail

Well, teaching diving includes both classroom sessions that give you theoretical knowledge as well as practical sessions. The practical sessions are first conducted in a swimming pool, where students get to familiarise themselves with the equipment and techniques, before going into the open sea. To get certified, you must do at least four dives in the open water. You can't be a certified diver if you have just practised in a swimming pool! 

As I rely on recommendations for students, I do all I can to make sure my students are confident and know all there is to know. Some take longer and need extra coaching. There are also some who are really eager to learn how to dive but are afraid of the water. All these are challenges that need to be dealt with differently.  

For cases like these, I offer extra classes at no extra cost. No matter what job you have, if you really love it, you will not abandon your clients because they have different needs. I don't mind going out of my way because it is satisfying when they, at last, learn how to dive. 

The requirement for students to do at least four dives in the open sea means that with every group of students you teach, you must follow them on their trips, often to the East Coast. This can be a bit tedious but every dive I go on is a different experience. Also, each group of students is different; they will have different experiences and characteristics which will keep things interesting. 

What kind of personality suits this job

Well, apart from knowing how to dive, it is most important for those interested in this line to be passionate about diving. This is because you will be going on thousands of dives and if you do not love it you will probably get tired of it. Getting clients and business also depends on your initiative and how hard you are willing to work. Also, being a instructor means you are essentially a teacher. You need to be approachable so your students feel comfortable with you. You also need a lot of patience and innovation to make the classes suit the different learners.  

What are the career prospects

The diving scene here in Malaysia is still very small and there is a lot of scope for growth. We are trying to encourage more people to take up diving but it is slow. For most, diving is just a hobby. You can choose to work part-time or full-time at dive centres or resorts or set up your own company like we did.  

Apart from that, you can also take up underwater photography, which is what Lee and I have done. We even conduct lessons for divers who are interested in learning this skill. Although both of us were not photographers, we picked it up and have worked on our skills through the years. Lee has won prizes in several competitions. 

What is the best part of the job

Being underwater is really peaceful and wonderful. Each time is a whole new experience. You won't believe it, but you can dive in the same spot three times a day and each time you see different things and learn a lot about marine life. After the initial few dives, you learn to notice things apart from your regulator. You notice things about the different marine species. Also, it is nice being your own boss! 

What is the worst part of the job

There is no worst part for me. It is hard work but at the end of the day it all depends on how much effort you want to put into it.  

What is the salary range

Again, it depends on how hard you work and on whether you work part-time or full-time. Assuming you work moderately hard, part-timers can earn RM1,000 to RM2,000 a month, while full-timers get a sizeably bigger income. Of course, you must realise, the work is seasonal, as we don't go out during the monsoon season. The diving period is between March and September each year. 

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