Diving on Cattle Boats – Why I don’t do it.


Over the past five years I have been extremely fortunate to not have to climb aboard a dive boat with any more than four other people. The past five years have been comfortable, laid back, accommodating and most importantly, stress free. These incredible accolades can all be attributed to the fact that I have not had to interface with so called ‘cattle boats’. A cattle boat is a relatively large vessel that hosts anywhere from 15 to 25 divers. The namesake comes from the near hilarious image of divers getting on and coming off of the boat as if they were cattle being led to the feed trough. And, in all honesty, that is exactly what you experience on these boats as you are seen as livestock; you are simply another tourist in a revolving door of procedures, dive profiles and maybe even a little stress.  Mind you, diving in Mexico, Belize, Cayman or any other spot that thrives on service for divers is almost always exempt from this gross generalization. If you have ever dived on one of these boats you obviously know the difference.

If you find yourself on a dive boat in the United States I would offer the following tips when dealing with the inevitable bumps along the way.


Look Around:
First I suggest you stop, look around and listen to the other divers and crew. You can learn a great deal about the other divers you will be sharing space with if you simply listen to what they are saying, how they say it and their body language. For example, on my last boat dive I had an incredibly bossy lady proceed to tell me how to arrange my gear, where to put it and where to go once I had done as I was told. I honestly wasn’t sure if she was crew or not, but the puffing on the Marlboro cigarette was my first clue that she may not be. My second clue came about when she proceeded to open her dive log book to talk about her last dive. No amount of recommendations coming from this person shall be heeded by this diver.

Another diver, clad in tattoos, gold jewelry and a pony tail crossed my path as we were getting our gear settled. He reached in front of me to grab is gear and apologized for doing so. My response was simply ‘No worries, mate.’ This diver stopped, gave me a quick glance over and said ‘Mate? No Worries? I haven’t heard that kind of talk since I was running crew on my last dive charter.’ This guy knew what he was doing.  Checking out his gear you could see it was practical and non obtrusive. The gold he was wearing told me he spent many months in the Caribbean. As it turns out, he is a dive instructor and freelance dive master who just happened upon this trip in the same way I did. We spent several minutes talking about our previous dives in the Caribbean before we parted ways on two separate dive boats.

These guys are the ones who have the most to lose if you get hurt or worse. They are responsible for the boat and must be treated with respect. Call them ‘Captain’ and show some professional courtesy. Also, do yourself a favor and give the captain your undivided attention during the safety briefing. This isn’t like the safety briefing us frequent fliers ignore before take off.

Also, stay off his flybridge. Unless you are invited I suggest you stay away from this area. The flybridge is where the captain spends his day driving, watching and when you are under the surface, relaxing. It’s his office and it should be respected.

Novice Divers:
These guys are my favorite types of divers. Not because they are a source of entertainment (although they are), but because they want to learn. Buddy check them from a distance if you can. Check their air, look for weights, and make sure they have their computer on.

Under the surface I suggest you keep your distance from these guys. Typically they are kicking wildly, swimming with their arms and gear dangles below them like kite tails.

One story from this previous trip I can share is about a diver that was separated from the dive master during a drift dive with myself and another photographer (more on that later). The dive was dark, cold and we just finished a quick photography/videography session with a juvenile reef shark. We kicked back to the spot where the dive master was anchored off to find no divers in site. We were 32 minutes into our second dive with a max bottom time of 40 on air with a computer and 35 on air without a computer when I decided to group up. After confirming that we were the only three divers left I checked to see what type of equipment everybody had. Everybody had a computer, but one diver neglected to turn it on before plunging into the reef. At that point we called the dive off and started to ascend to our safety stop. That’s when things got a little scary. The diver who forgot to turn their computer on could not stabilize at our designated 5 meter safety stop position. I signaled for her to move in close and I pulled her to the required depth. Giving me the OK sign, I let her go only to see her shoot back to the surface, foregoing the full safety stop. The photographer and I watched her from below hoping that a passing boat would see her if it got too close.

‘Advanced’ Divers:
These guys are self proclaimed ‘advanced’ divers. They have tons of gear strapped to them, boasting about diving in 100+ feet of water and  has a full matching set of PADI certifications to back him up. Although he has only been diving for a couple of years and had around 50 dives under his belt, this guy is the authority. Take these guys with a grain of salt.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a dive reel to dive on a drift dive. Nor do I need two dive lights, two dive knives or a need to go below 80 feet. I have been diving for only 12 years and have logged around 150 dives, but I do not consider myself an advanced diver and I never will.

Dive Masters:
The same rules for the captain apply here . Be respectful, polite and professional. Listen to the dive profile and ask questions if you need to. They are under the surface to guide you along and show you a few things along the way. But please keep an eye on them as these guys aren’t perfect.

On my second dive (with the photographer and individual who forgot to turn their computer on), we were to hang out on a ledge for ten minutes before continuing with our drift dive. We were about 40 feet away from the dive master photographing a shark when we heard her bang the tank signalling us to continue the dive. Unbeknownst to us, the dive master did not follow the current along the ledge, but instead headed perpendicular to the current. As I previously mentioned above, we called our dive off and surfaced nearly 60 yards from the dive ball. How did this happen? The premise of a drift dive is to let the current push you along the reef. Eventually we learned the group ended up chasing some Goliath grouper and swam perpendicular to the current, blowing the dive profile. There was no head count before the dive master moved on as she would have been three divers short.

Was it her fault? No. This dive master was managing 24 divers on a single dive. Yep, two dozen people. That’s a great deal of responsibility to place on one diver.

The Photography Bucket:
On this dive boat it was nothing more than a 7 gallon Rubbermaid box. Looking into this bucket and I could see nearly $25,000 of photography equipment tangled together like some odd polycarbonate orgy. Needless to say my camera did not make it into this bucket because it was both too crowded and dangerous. No, I wasn’t worried that someone would steal my camera, I was worried about all those strobe arms tangled together scratching my wide-angle lens. So there I was during my safety stop. Cradling my precious camera like a newborn baby. There was no dry area on the boat either so changing batteries, film or lenses would have been a challenge.

If you find yourself in this situation I suggest you put your lens cover on your lenses and find a suitable spot for your camera.With so many people on the deck moving around while trying to stay stabilize themselves, eating pineapple and talking about how cool that last dive was, it would be difficult to assure yourself that no accidents would happen. If that means you look like a dork cradling your housing, then dork it up.

Don’t get me wrong. I have met some really great folks on my last cattle boat dive. But in my opinion, these folks are few and far between. They are knowledgeable, respectful, helpful and most of all willing to learn from each other. And in my opinion, that is what any hobbyist should be.

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