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I've never marketed myself as an expert. I have always asserted that I am a witness even though in my lengthy career as a diving journalist I witnessed quite a lot. However, I never forgot that the ocean is bigger than any of us and every time we drop off the back of a boat we enter a hostile environment. I never presumed I knew what I was doing because presumption is the mother of all disasters.
Now that I'm taking a lower profile in the diving world, I have given myself the opportunity to look at it from a longer perspective. There are a lot of amateurs involved in the industry who big themselves up maybe a little more than they should. The diving world seems to now be awash with these experts and I think that some of them are less expert than they would have us believe.
Take for example those 'named' divers that many dive travel operators use as a hook to sell their trips on. On the one hand there are those that have a breadth of experience of the places they escort people to but on the other, many are simply managing to get a free holiday on the proviso that they can persuade a sufficient number of people to book a paid-for trip alongside them.
In 1991, I stood at a Dive Show extolling the virtues of diving the area around the Dahlak Islands in Eritrea. That next Spring I was due to work as the dive-guide aboard a live-aboard dive boat that planned to visit the area. It was to my eternal embarrassment that I later had to explain to arriving guests, filled with expectation, that the Dahlaks were situated on the Dahlak Bank, an area of tropically warm shallow water with nothing more than a sterile sandy bottom. I didn't discover that until I got there. At least I could give them the option of travelling either north to the Sudan or east to the Yemen where the diving was spectacular, but that was only after the guests insisted on making a couple of dives over the sand and found out the disappointing truth for themselves.
Later a well-known publishing company asked me to write a guide-book to diving Thailand. I pointed out that, at that time, I hadn't been there and was shocked when it was suggested I simply took the information from pre-existing guide-books. I told them that when they were ready to do one on the Red Sea, I was their man, but in the event they used another author who had not been to the Red Sea either and did his research by telephone.
Within a couple of years I was on a diving trip to the Yemen led by a so-called 'expert'. The travel was fraught with difficulty as you can imagine for this part of the world and the 'expert' more of less abdicated responsibility to me with my previous experience of the area, and my wife with her special knowledge of Middle-Eastern ways.
We sorted out the inevitable problems en-route. The 'expert' simply became another 'punter'. In fact I met that same expert on a few other trips and I could determine little that they could offer to enhance the experience save for being a nice person to spend time with.
It's when things go wrong that you will need someone with real experience and maybe even a knowledge of the local language. An experienced person will anticipate the problems and you will not become aware of them if they are doing their job properly.
In my time as a diving journalist, I travelled to many weird and wonderful places, most of which were extremely remote. I built up a font of experiences. Nowadays, I often get contacted by people who are leading trips to places they've never been to and they usually want to pick my brains for my experience. Within the short duration of a telephone call, they have become 'experts'. I feel this is unfair on those that book with them. Shouldn't they at least go out and do a recce first?
I often hear tales such as that of the person who advertised a trip promising guaranteed opportunities to photograph mantas but went to a place at entirely the wrong time of the year or even one very famous expert who organised a trip to dive an unusual wreck and whose first question to the guests once they arrived was if anyone knew where the wreck was because he didn't!
If you are booking a trip that is led by someone, be aware that part of the cost you pay will be covering the cost of this extra person, the person leading the trip. Ask what prior experience they have of the destination and what added-value they might bring to your diving holiday.
Otherwise, you might do just as well to travel less expensively without them and use the knowledge and experience of those that are already living and working at the particular destination as I always preferred to do. There will certainly be someone who qualifies and they will know best because they're on-site. Don't unwittingly pay for someone else's diving holiday.
Happy Diving - John Bantin