NEWS | Sunday, 22 July 2007

Diving into the deep blue sea

Running a diving school requires commitment and dedication, as Bianca Caruana discovers when she meets Rita Vella

“They probably got tired of the stressful work,” Rita Vella says. She can empathise with them. “It is not an easy life.”
Rita is the director of Diveshack, a diving company based in Sliema. Rita has been working in the business since 1989. Over a cup of coffee, I meet her and we talk about Diveshack, life, diving, and travelling. Rita gives me an inside view of what it is like to run her diving business which has a 100 per cent student success rate.
“My ex-husband took over the business. After having my eldest daughter, I left my job to help out and finally took over the business after we split. Just being a diving instructor is both physically and mentally exhausting! As an instructor, one has to be constantly aware of everything. Eyes at the back of your head are simply not enough, a full head of eyes would be better!”
Rita explains it was never her dream job, as she smiles and remembers her first years when she worked as a sales manager in the manufacturing industry. She proudly tells me she was in a male dominated business but found herself rising above all the other employees in her field. “I had a regular income and it was quite a sum in those days. You could say I was a little rich girl.”
The workload for a diving instructor is not what I imagined. The satisfaction of teaching a person to dive makes up for all the strain that comes with the job. When I asked her to describe the best part of the job, Rita replies, “I enjoy meeting people, learning new things and I always have a story to tell.”
And she has sacrificed a lot to ensure Diveshack is a success. Time and money are always an issue and when I ask whether she invests a lot into Diveshack: “I have invested my whole life into Diveshack. More money seems to go in than comes out most of the time.”
Competition in this field is tough as Rita points out, “We are not only competing in the Maltese market but also with scuba schools abroad.”
I wondered whether the Maltese took advantage of local diving schools to explore beyond the shores of Malta. “Our clientele is mostly foreign. Unfortunately, we would not survive if we depended on Maltese clients, which is a pity.”
Disappointing as it may be, she does admit that local interest does seem to be growing. “And I say why not? It is so different and beautiful. Malta is so small, the sea is big, and there is more to explore beyond our shore!”
Interestingly, what can be seen to set Diveshack apart from other schools is that they were the first in Malta to offer National Geographic diver courses. Apart from the opportunity Rita has to associate this school with this course, it serves as an invaluable contact. Most instructors in the school are foreign and a few work as volunteers. This helps Rita in a big way since it is not ideal for Maltese because of the seasonality of the job. “Work permits are hard to obtain for foreigners so it is not always possible to employ people who want to work. Those who do work for free do us a great service and in return they enjoy the experience of diving in our waters.”
Expanding the business seemed promising at one stage, but it has not been viable. “We had three other schools in Malta, but closed them down. I have found it better to have a strong showing in one area than having several around the island because Malta is far too small.”
I take Rita back to the past and ask her to relate her most unforgettable experience. She finds it extremely difficult to pick one out. “So much happens in this job, it is hard to keep track of everything! I have too many stories to tell. Just this morning, some of my instructors discovered a dead body floating at sea. The police were notified and the body was hauled onto a patrol boat.”
She thinks for a minute and describes another time when she was out on a 40-metre dive in the deep blue. In that vast blue expanse she felt so insignificant. “I also remember an encounter with dolphins. They were so close and it was like they could sense what I was feeling. It was so amazing and I will not forget it.”
Rita laughs about finding a Lm5 note under a rock on a dive… the conversation is cut short because Rita wants to make sure all the preparations are in place for the next dive. While the instructors and students “kitted” up, I ask my last question. What advice could she give to anyone planning to open their own diving school? “Nobody believes me when I tell them how difficult it is and I personally would not suggest it. But, for those who are persistent, they should make sure they have foreign contacts. Secondly, always install a compressor, which is used to fill oxygen tanks, double the size you think you will need. Lastly, always employ people you can trust. It seems a silly thing to say, but remember, here they are responsible for peoples’ lives.”
Before I leave, I watch Rita check that everything is set as she gives a few final words to the students before they set off on their dive. At the end of the routine checks, she turns to me. “You should try it some day. It’s amazing!”

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