Diving with the dolphins

It’s only a few minutes from the chaos that the Bangalore Metro Rail construction has created in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar, but it’s a different universe. That’s what Olli Kytokari, a top ranking executive in IT Services with a passion for the sea, felt when he walked into a room full of scuba gear and dive enthusiasts at Planet Scuba India’s office in this bustling neighbourhood.

“To wake up one morning and to rediscover my love for scuba diving in Bangalore, of all places, was unbelievable,” chuckles the Finnish Managing Director of Citec, who thought he had left his sail boat, his scuba gear and his love for the sea behind when he moved to the IT/BT city a year and a half ago.

Before trading his wetsuit and fins for pinstripes and laptop, Olli Kytokari used to work in a dive centre in Madeira where he had logged 2,000 dives and clocked 1,000 hours under water. “They used to pay most of my salary by giving me dive courses,” he quips. He went from novice diver to dive leader before a “regular career” brought him to India, Bangalore and, by sheer providence, to an inland dive centre in Indiranagar!

Impressed they may have been by his dive credentials but the instructors at Planet Scuba India didn’t cut him any slack. They’re putting him through the gruelling paces all over again – theory lessons in the classroom and training in the pool before he heads off to the ocean as dive master. Very soon, Olli, his wife and their older son – who is ten – will be diving together in Sri Lanka, Malaysia or even off the shores of picturesque Kerala.
“I would have loved to have the sea, right here in Bangalore, but for now, the pool will do,” says Olli, who is confident that his PADI-certified instructors have checked his skills “through and through” and made sure he’s safe for his upcoming underwater adventures.

It’s only fitting then that Planet Scuba India has now opened an Instructor Development Centre at Port Blair, a first in the country, approved by the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI), the globally recognised diving body, and will offer courses from November 2009.

Diving, at your doorstep

When Madhava Reddy set up Planet Scuba India in Bangalore, he knew he was turning convention on its head because “common sense dictated that to be a dive training centre you should be near the sea”. However, thanks to the 16 years he spent as a journalist reporting on financial news from different parts of the world, he says he had learnt enough to take an educated risk. “World over, there are inland dive centres, which help scuba enthusiasts to discover the underwater world in a safe and educational manner. Moreover, people don't have the time to take diving lessons when they go on a beach holiday. So, we teach them here and then take them to the sea,” he explains.
 The regimen includes classroom learning, training and practice sessions in a confined water area like a swimming pool and instructor-led dives in the sea.

From hobby to career

You’d think dive training, dive travel and sale of dive equipment would keep Planet Scuba India busy, but they were ready to take on the challenge of setting up an Instructor Development Centre as well.

“The annual turn-over of the global diving industry is estimated to be around US$ 46 billion and it is growing significantly. Globally, over a million people become scuba divers every year but India, last year, reported less than 1,000 dive certifications. Indians, who are serious about scuba diving, spend lakhs of rupees and travel to Thailand or Malaysia to get certified. With market research showing that Indians are big spenders when it comes to adventure sport and knowing there is a huge need for instructors, setting up an Instructor Development Centre was the most natural thing for us to do,” says Madhava Reddy.

India has around 23 dive centres in the country at present, from less than five, five years ago – Gujarat, Mumbai, Goa, Murdeshwar, Lakshadweep, Pondicherry, Mahabaleshwar and the Andamans. “Most of the expected growth would come from Lakshadweep, Andamans and the coast from Mangalore to Karwar in Karnataka as new dive sites are discovered,” he adds.

Eligibility

“One has to undergo a training programme to take up scuba diving, either for recreation or as a profession. PADI certifies a majority of the world’s divers. Age is not necessarily a bar, though a minimum age of 10 is prescribed by PADI for allowing a person to go into sea. There are only two significant health constraints – an existing heart-related condition and breathing disorders,” explains David Perry, a diving instructor who has been diving for over 37 years. An officer in the merchant navy, he became a diving instructor after 25 years in service. He is also an accomplished specialty instructor. With 12,000 logged dives, David’s passion for the sport is still strong.

Starting as a dive instructor in the Maldives in 1997, he has gone on to be the operations manager for various dive centres all over the world. He spent eight months in Thailand to achieve his Master Instructor rating and completed the requirements for his Course Director application.

 David’s role as the Operations Manager at Planet Scuba India is to bring in his vast experience in running a dive centre in a land locked city like Bangalore. He hopes to encourage and educate Indian divers and to increase their presence in the global dive community.

The first course at the Instructor Development Centre, which will be launched on November 16, 2009, will accept students on a first-come-first-serve basis. Nine Indians have signed up so far for the course whose batch strength is 12.
“Diving means different things to different people. Some dive to check out ship wrecks, others spend hours under water photographing shrimp. But thanks to channels like National Geographic, scuba diving as a career option seems to find growing appeal,” he says.

The biggest challenge, says Madhava Reddy, hasn’t been finding dive instructors or structuring the new programme, but convincing the Customs authorities at the Bangalore International Airport what scuba diving gear is doing in Bangalore! “But breaking stereotypes in the business to create awareness about the sport has been great fun,” he exclaims.

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