Words by Drew McArthur / Photography by Jim Catlin
What better way to end a pleasant day’s diving than by hitting a bar and ordering some vacation food? While you’re there, why not kick back with an adult beverage, too? The bar staff of whatever establishment you care to decompress in will no doubt be more than happy to furnish your table with food and drinks, and in return the vast majority of North Americans will be equally as happy to leave a tip for their efforts. The unwritten rules of paying gratuities on food and drinks, like many other services in life, are clearly understood and adhered to. My experience of working as a diver, however, shows me that for some reason the etiquette of tipping culture in the aquatic service industry is far more blurry. When I think of times that I have worked like a dog on a dive charter only to be rewarded with a smile and a thanks, to other times when I have been tipped generously for very little effort, I have to wonder why is the act of leaving gratuities for the dive crew such a wild and untamed beast?
As I grew up in the UK, I thought “tipping” was just something that naughty kids did to cows. If anything, where I am from it would be seen as a nice gesture when buying a round of drinks to offer to buy the barman one, too. In the same vein, it may be customary to pay for a round with a note and in a friendly tone let the bartender know that they can keep the change. However, upon leaving Europe, it soon became apparent that such acts of generosity that are appreciated back home would be borderline offensive to many working in the service industries of North America. The idea of tipping dive crew in the UK would be completely unheard of.
My experience of working for tips began in a dive center in Costa Rica where the tourism came largely from America and Canada. As such, the people who worked in tourism had come to expect and rely upon the customer to leave a tip. At first, this practice irked me a little. At the time I was a backpacker with limited funds, earning very little in a dive operation so begrudged having to hand over more than the price listed on the menu. Early on in that job however, my whole outlook on this subject got tipped upside down. In my first week of doing a job I loved, I was given $50 by an older gentleman for diving with him. He was good in the water, low maintenance, and generally fun to be around, so imagine my European surprise when he gave me more than twice what I earn in a day for the pleasure. I could now see the light.
I am aware that the comparison between the dive industry and the service industry only has a certain amount of mileage. Both typically pay salaries of absolute minimum as far as base rate is concerned, which means in certain parts of the world, staff rely on tips to make a living. The main difference here is that dive crew should be working a job that they love doing, and therefore shouldn’t need to be compensated as heavily. Often the typical dive bum would be young, single, no kids, and will be intending to work in the industry for a few years at most before returning to the real world where he or she can pick up a steady job. Having said that, many career dive crew workers absolutely rely on tips to make ends meet.
I feel it is the perception of the world that the divemaster (DM) inhabits that somewhat reduces the potential to receive gratuities. Many of the divers I have encountered over the years who have not shown their appreciation with extra cash, didn’t neglect to do so because of poor service or even because they are miserly; often it simply didn’t occur to them to do so. I feel that divers often imagine that the role of the dive crew is simply floating around in the water looking at fish and if that is the case then why would they deserve a tip? I also notice that when divers travel as part of a group, often the group leader who is more savvy with the industry workings will advise the divers of how much they should tip and might even make the collection themselves to hand in. Having said that, some people simply don’t like to part with their money and these are usually the folk who like to think that “Tipping” is a place in China.
On the one hand…
I soon came to realize that DMs who were successful in making their extra earnings did so by visibly going the extra mile. I also noted that this seemed to have a positive effect on the overall experience for the customers. Dive crew would be jolly, swapping jokes and stories with the divers, carrying their bags, remembering people’s names, helping them underwater and finding the kind of creatures that they wanted to see. Crew members who work for tips are motivated to be more attentive to diver’s individual requirements and needs, helping set up gear or even offering information and recommendations for things to do in the area outside of the dive trip. The latter can often earn a lucky DM an invitation to dinner in one of the fancy restaurants that their hungry selves can only usually dream of. My observation is that, unlike the grey days of diving back home, the potential to earn such financial bonuses creates a scene that is far more enjoyable to be a part of for the divers and crew alike.
I often see DMs acting up and laying on the charm in order to win customers over and influence their generosity. Fair enough, they are playing the game. But going one step further, I have over the years worked with a few sassy members of the fairer sex who will happily boast about wearing smaller bikinis when they want to step things up a little. (In my darkest and hungriest hours, I considered mimicking this tactic but always saw the light. Very few members of the public want to see an overweight, 40 year-old man in a bikini, no matter how big or small.)
On the other hand…
I have also noticed how tips can affect things negatively. My first experience of this was on a day spent working on a boat that had two very different kinds of customer aboard. One customer was an older gentleman from the States with expensive looking jewellery and shiny dive gear. The other customers were a pair of young backpackers from Germany. Unfortunately, the crew, who believed the demographic of the big tipper to be the older American as opposed to the young Europeans, proceeded to ignore the couple for the entire morning. Both customers had paid the same fee to be on the boat but the difference in the experience that each was having was cringe-worthy to watch. I also remember thinking that beyond the fun stuff, there is an element of the crew’s job that is related to diver safety; could this happily be compromised due to the potential for earning a little more money?
I find it amusing to note that out of the customers who do tip, there is a rare breed amongst them who like the power that their generosity affords them. I was once caught off guard by a father who had dropped his kids off for a few days of scuba babysitting. The dad requested he meet the instructor and after curtly introducing himself he handed the lucky lady $200 as an advance on the overall tip; nice work if you can get it. Naturally with the man clearly proud to be a big spender, absolutely no effort was spared to ensure that the kids had the best time possible.
Having been reliant on tips to supplement my income for some time now, I must say that I like the set up. I am still very grateful when people slide a little extra my way but not offended when they choose not to.
One experience that I recall vividly, and not in a good way, was when someone I had been diving with that day needed a ride to town with his girlfriend. As I had nothing on and had access to a vehicle, I offered to drive them to their destination thus saving them a $40 cab ride. At the end of the journey, the gentleman folded up a one dollar bill and handed it to me with a line that I don’t think I will ever be able to forget, “Go buy yourself a popsicle.” Note that the kid was 15 years younger than I was and a minnow by comparison to my dive experience.
Reminiscing on the low ballers brings to mind a strange character who spent a week in a resort I was once working in. From day one she would saunter down the dock late, with her gear bag in her locker, waiting for the crew to run around her acting like a team of butlers. To call the lady high maintenance would be a drastic understatement and it took every ounce of the crew’s combined effort to keep smiling through gritted teeth as day by day new lows were reached. At the end of her trip the magic dollar seemed to rear its ugly head again. Having settled her $2,000 tab, she sought out myself and two (out of six) other crew members to proudly entrust us each with a shiny dollar coin.
While some will happily brandish their greenbacks before dropping them in the jar, others will discretely fold up a note and slip it in your hand in an attempt to hide the transaction from prying eyes, almost like a drug deal is taking place. What the dive crew then does with the money is up to them, and this brings about another issue.
Everywhere handles gratuities differently. Some places will pool and split everything, others keep what they are given. If you are the kind of person who recognizes hard work and would like to reward it with a gesture of cash then my advice is to ask different people in the operation how best to offer tips; the crew will always appreciate the question. It may well be the case that if you dive with one guide and have the best time ever that you feel you want to give them a little extra for themselves. The reality is that one person is never usually the sole figure behind your overall experience, even if that is the only person you have first-hand dealings with. Someone has set up the booking, filled the tanks, carried them to the boat, driven the boat to the ideal location…. There are many hands that play a part in achieving the perfect charter.
What is the “done” thing?
I believe that in parts of the world where it is customary to tip for other services that divers should tip their crew also. Provided the experience was good then somewhere between $10-$20USD per diver on a two tank trip seems to be about normal. Dive crew have a genuine impact on the outcome of the day; remember that boats can tip, so can you.
Training is a little different and students on dive courses often leave anything upwards of 10%. I feel tipping instructors should be based on the personal investment that they make in ensuring the learning experience is the best it can be.
If you are the kind of person who would like to drop a single dollar in return for a week’s worth of scuba pampering then why not, go for it. At least the crew will have a laugh and who knows, maybe one day someone will write about you in a magazine article.
I currently work in the Cayman Islands and there are many bar tenders I know here who arrived as DMs but switched trades due to the considerable pay increase that comes with pouring drinks as opposed to lugging tanks. It isn’t a path I have considered myself but I can certainly see the attraction, as service industry workers on this island earn some pretty serious cash. I do sometimes think that this shines a poor light on the dive industry. Extensive time, money and effort is required to climb the ranks into dive professionalism, and this can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. Even so, divers often seem more inclined to give tips to people who bring them food and drinks than those who keep them safe and comfortable on and under the water.
The dive industry is a notoriously tight one to operate in, due to the finances that feed it. Whether you think that the pleasure of getting to dive every day is in itself enough of a tip, I ask you to look beyond the hour in the water and consider the great deal of work that goes on throughout the day. You may not feel that tipping dive crew should be as obligatory as waiters, but at least consider that DMs can be rewarded for their efforts, too. If you turn up to a dive site and have a pleasant experience that was enhanced by the crew, then find the jar and put your tip in. I promise it’ll make you feel good.
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