A journey to Divemaster – from the personal perspective of Willa Bland (previously in the Navy, previous PDA student, current PADI Professional (MSDT) & Aaron’s Dive Shop employee)

Below is a personal account.


Here I am back on Oahu after 24 years and don’t get too jealous but I literally get paid to scuba dive. How is this possible you may ask. Well it’s a decent little tale that I hope will inspire you to live a little. 

Like many people, the COVID outbreak of 2020 made me look closer at the life I was choosing to live. Working day in and day out in pursuit of the “dream” had taken its toll and I was burnt out. After 14 years in the Navy, making it to Chief Petty Officer and 20 years in retail management it was time to finally live life. I started asking questions like: “What makes me truly happy?”, “Where do I find myself at peace?” and “How do I get there?”.

The idea of peace immediately brought to mind scuba diving. I started thinking about jumping into the world of PADI professionals. My first impulse was to do an internship with Croatia Divers in Vela Luka. I spent 15 days diving with them in 2017 while on R&R during my Afghanistan deployment. During my trip there were two people doing their DiveMaster internship and it had planted some seeds for me. This seemed perfect, spend the summer in Croatia on a beautiful island with crystal clear waters with room and board in pursuit of a DiveMaster certification. How could it get better than that? Little did I know that there was an amazing opportunity that I had access to. 

Chatting with a customer one day discussing the stress and ugliness of Covid and my thoughts of Croatia, she gave me amazing news. She asked if I had any Post 9/11 GiBill left. When I said that I did, she gave me some of the best information ever! Most people, including me at the time, think that the Post 9/11 GiBill is to be used for college. While it is great for that, there are so many other training options that you can use it for, including professional scuba diving certifications. She told me how she attended Pacific Diving Academy(PDA) on Oahu for her Divemaster certification and that the course was paid for with her GiBill. She told me that it gets even better. Not only is your tuition covered but there is a huge list of equipment that is needed, which is also covered by your GiBill! This is a head to toe load out of gear: mask, snorkel, wetsuit, fins, BCD, Reg Set, dive CPU, tanks and more. This is not entry level gear either but top tier from the likes of ScubaPro, Hollis, Atomic, Bare and others. Oh and one more thing. You will also receive BAH during your enrollment. Yes, that’s right. Your rent is covered while you live in HAWAII and go SCUBA DIVING. 

Needless to say, I thought this was too good to be true. After some research, I found out it was all true! 

I started making plans to move back to the beautiful Hawaiian islands immediately. Checking out the Pacific Diving Academy website, I found Sherye’s contact information, the VA rep for PDA. Sherye was able to lay out the courses offered by PDA. While I had only been thinking about the Divemaster(DM) program, we discussed what was involved to get me on a path to become a Master Scuba Diver Trainer(MSDT). The excitement of my journey was only muted by the fact I was planning this a bit early. I had about ten months before I could move from Portland due to work and housing which would seem to drag on forever.

Finally, the day arrived for me to shove off from the mainland and head back to Oahu. My Divemaster course was to begin in two weeks and I was giddy as a school girl. I reached out to Sherye and let her know I was on island and ready to begin the adventure. Next, I needed to contact the course director, Larry Grayson, to get my course schedule. Larry Grayson has been the course director for decades and has trained thousands of divers over his career. To say he is a subject matter expert is underselling the amount of knowledge this man possesses in relation to diver safety, diver training and responsible diver practices.

Hands down if you want to be the best DM or Scuba Instructor, there is no one else to take your training from than Larry. Now, don’t think in any way that this will be a leisurely or easy course. It will take hard work. As they used to say, “blood, sweat and tears”. You will be tested physically and mentally everyday throughout the course but the end will be so rewarding. 

Most of the training is hands-on in a pool, on dive charters or shore diving. There is some classroom work that is required, powerpoints and presentations. The classroom and facilities are comfortable. Of course, no one starts professional scuba diving training because they are excited for classroom work. But it is necessary, relevant and relatively pain-free. Larry is great at knowing when to move on to the next activity. One of the best things in the program is access to boat charters. To begin and end the DM program; there are minimum logged dive requirements you must meet. Jumping on boat charters is the easiest way to rack up dives, gain experience, get to know the crew/instructors and see as many dive sites as possible. Pretty much any day that you are not training with Larry, you can be diving on the boat. GiBill pays for this activity too – I told you it is all a win win. 

Throughout my training I was amazed by how much there is to learn. Beginning the DM course as a Master Scuba Diver(the highest recreational scuba diving certification);I was humbled by how much more knowledge is needed to be a PADI dive Professional. There were many frustrations throughout my course. There were times when I had no idea why we were doing something a certain way or why random things seemed so important. Larry states it continually, there is a method to his madness. You may not see it right away but, trust me, at some point it becomes crystal clear. It is a real Mr. Miyagi situation. One example I remember particularly clearly – the CESA workshop conducted with Larry at Electric Beach for my Instructor Development course(IDC). Larry was demonstrating a ‘perfect’ example of what new divers could, and many times, do. Of course, I felt no one would ever spit their reg out underwater. My level of frustration that day was high. I felt that some of the ‘problems’ Larry was simulating were unrealistic because really “no one would do that”. Well, my friend, that is until I conducted my first Open Water(OW) course.. Wouldn’t you know that my student kept spitting out his reg during the CESA skill. “Method to my madness”. Larry’s words were ringing through my ears.

This course will challenge you mentally and physically but it is well worth it. The course builds on itself as you progress. The best way to explain it is to compare it to learning to run. You don’t immediately start sprinting at Olympic gold medal speed. First there is crawling. Then walking. Then eventually running. 

Starting with the crawl phase… The course begins slowly as you knock out classroom modules, assessment of skills in the pool, demonstration of skills and open water evaluation. Depending on where you start in your certification journey, the beginning of the DM program may be easy. Those starting out from scratch (ie “Zero to Hero”) have a more intense start to the program as there is so much new information to wrap your head around. A more seasoned diver already has a foundation before starting their professional journey. Regardless of your starting point, it is a challenging course overall.

Next comes the time to start putting the classroom, book work and pool work together in real-life situations. Continuing the crawl to run metaphor… This is when you start walking’. Your skills and knowledge are observably progressing. It is hard to explain how thrilling this phase is. The portion of the course is where you can see yourself in this profession. It is igniting. Inspiring. It leaves you fired up and extra motivated to complete the course strong. This phase involves assisting instructors with various tasks on the boat charters but it is also about observations. This is the time where you get to spend as much free time as you have on dive charters absorbing everything around you. These practical applications will be led by one of the many amazing PADI Instructors on staff. This is a great time to see each of the instructors’ flow and style as they work with all of the various different types of divers. These divers that you will encounter in your professional career run the gamut of skill levels, enthusiasm and confidence. From Open Water students, newly certified divers on their fifth dive, seasoned divers on their 1,000th dive, those continuing their PADI training with advanced courses and specialties, to those wanting to experience Discover Scuba Diving and see if becoming certified is their next addiction. You will get to observe it all on the boat! Another aspect to the practical training is helping instructors prep for their charters. Charter preparation includes: ensuring all gear bags are properly packed and tanks are loaded. But don’t forget the hot towels and pineapple; no charter is complete without that!

I would not say you will have a run phase; as being honest, running around water is dangerous. All jokes aside, the final phase is putting it all together for your graded evaluations and demonstrations. The evaluations and demonstrations are meant to prove you have retained your knowledge and can demonstrate your skills clearly, effectively and efficiently. You and your fellow candidates will role-play various scenarios in different roles as students, certified divers, DiveMasters and even Discover Scuba Divers (non certified divers trying scuba for the first time). You, as a Divemaster candidate, have seen all these scenarios and had all the training to prepare you for this evaluation. It is simple & straight forward; remember your training and you will be successful. Some of the ‘method to the madness’ will finally start to make sense. Larry Grayson, your course director, will be there watching, evaluating, grading and maybe even criticizing your actions. Dig deep, push hard as the end to all your hard work is just within sight. 

I still remember the day Larry presented me with my PADI DiveMaster hat and we took some photos. While I have achieved many other professional certifications with Larry since that day, it is that photo of us in my Divemaster hat that will remain as his contact photo. His words run through my head and I even find myself passing along this wisdom to divers and students alike. 

Having experienced other dive shops on the island and how their training is conducted first hand; I can tell you if you want the best, Pacific Diving Academy is the best.


MANY Mahalos to Willa for your personal account of the Divemaster course!

-Pacific Diving Academy Staff

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