In 1976 Martin van Gestel had an experience that would change his life forever. The local police, EMS, and fire department were putting on a dive event at his local pool, and at thirteen years of age, he decided to attend. The suit was old, as he put it, “the total weight was about 80kg.” For those of you using pounds, that’s roughly 177 pounds.
Young Martin managed to bear the weight of the suit, and he knew he was hooked. He watched the divers who were around him to ensure his safety, and was mesmerized by their playful nature, flips, and everything that they could do in the freeing experience of being under the water. While his first experience, personally, only saw him walking on the bottom of the pool, he knew he was hooked on a life below the surface.
Forty years later, Martin has a passion for the dive that burns just as hard as ever, and the qualifications and specialties to match. He’s the first and only PADI Platinum Course Director in Costa Rica, as he loves every dive and loves teaching others just as much. According to him, diving is part of his daily life, there’s “no adventure or challenge too big,” and “a bad day of diving does not exist.”
We were lucky enough to have him answer some questions for us, here’s what he had to say. All photos courtesy of Martin van Gestel.
Deepblu: You’re a dive course director in Costa Rica, what spots do you like to frequent there?
Martin van Gestel: In Costa Rica, I live in the best place for diving all year around, Playas del Coco, but one of my favorite dive sites is Bat Islands. This is a famous dive site for advanced divers. Divers from all over the world come here to dive there because it’s one of the most unique dive sites where you can dive safely with bull sharks. They have the size of a mini-van. It is not uncommon to encounter manta rays there as well, and even on rare occasions whale sharks or whales.
For this dive trip we require our divers to be experienced advanced divers since the currents can be strong and the surface conditions can be rough so a quick decent from the surface is required. The depth is about 30 m (140 ft).
Where else in the world do you like to go?
One of my favorite dive locations would be Malaysia, Borneo. Diving around Mabul is amazing but the number one dive site there is by far Sipadan Island. Incredible diversity of marine life from big to macro. Sharks, turtles, anemones, and tons of reef fish. You can spend hours under water with a camera in an area of just 10 square meters.
When did you make the jump from diver to dive pro?
I made the jump to professional in 2000 when I lived on Curaçao and was about to leave the island after I sold my restaurant. I had dinner with my friend who was also my neighbor and brought him the news about the success on selling my restaurant. He told me he wanted to sell his dive shop as well, since he didn’t have time to run it, and he wasn’t happy about the manager at that time. So, I just asked him how much he wanted for the dive shop, and in my opinion the price was right. I had the money, so I decided to buy it.
This was an impulsive decision over dinner, and I didn’t really consult my wife. Her response to this was “how can you buy a dive shop when you’re just an advanced diver?”. My answer was, if you can run a bar or a restaurant, you can run a dive shop. This happened in June, and in August we were in the instructor course and both became PADI scuba instructors. After this it all went pretty fast, and now I’ve been working as a PADI course director in Costa Rica since 2008.
Do you have any tips for aspiring pros?
If I had to do it all over again I would start way earlier with this amazing way of life. Living the dream. Always with people who share the same passion. Tons of travel opportunities. A whole new world opens up in front of you. Never waking up with this feeling where you don’t want to go to work. I don’t work, I have an out of control hobby.
But, do proper research when looking for the right dive center to become pro.
Location is not important, you can pick wherever, all over the world, but the reputation of their pro training is way more important than the location. It will affect the rest of your dive career. Nowadays, with the internet, that shouldn’t be a problem. Fun is important, but keep in mind that safety is more important. You can, and will, have lots of fun as a pro, but your training must be taken seriously.
Always be an ambassador for the aquatic life and respect our oceanic planet.
How about beginner divers?
Take it slow. After entry level training, there’s still a lot to learn. It’s okay to challenge yourself every now and then, but know your limits. Never succumb to peer pressure. Diving is and forever must be a fun thing to do, from now until years from now.
When is the best time of year to dive in Costa Rica?
There is not really a best time to dive in Costa Rica, to be honest. It all depends on what you like. If you don’t mind the challenge in a change of conditions, you can dive year-round.
In general, the rainy season from April or May until November brings warmer water, with reasonable to good visibility in the months of June through September. This is the best time to visit the Bat Islands.
From November to April we visit Catalina Islands, where we see the giant manta rays.
If I had to pick a month where I wouldn’t advise to visit diving the Pacific, it would be October, but the Atlantic could be an option.
How do you use Deepblu in your diving activities and teaching?
The Deepblu app is something I’ve been looking for for a long time. A digital, user-friendly logbook with lots of opportunities to connect and stay in touch with dive buddies all over the world. The option to choose for training dives and verification requests is for me an important asset because I train a lot of dive professionals, and like to keep track of their training dives. When I start pro-training, I ask my student divers to download the Deepblu App and connect with each other, and use the digital logbook option. I also tell my instructors to do the same with their students of all levels.
What do divers learn from an AWARE Shark Conservation dive course?
I teach a fair amount of AWARE Shark Conservation courses per year. It’s a fun course to teach because you can see instantly how people start thinking differently about facts and misconceptions about sharks.
It’s very easy to adapt to the local region and sharks in the local area. Most students are not aware about the fact that the threats not only come from China and other Asian countries, but also from the US and other Western countries. Spain, The UK, and others are also contributors to the decline in shark population.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about yourself?
Rich Coast Diving is the only Five Star Career Development Center in Costa Rica. We received this rating in 2012. Together with my wife, who is also a PADI Course Director, we oversee that our training is done at a professional level. Rich Coast Diving is very popular for internships to become PADI pro, resulting in reaching the highest level as a professional trainer. I became a PADI Platinum Course Director 3 years ago and am proud to say that I have maintained this level ever since as the only one in Costa Rica. All our staff are highly trained and motivated to keep climbing the PADI ladder. It doesn’t matter if you take your first dive with us, or start your professional career, our quality is set to a high standard, and service with a smile.
Thanks for talking to us.
– Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor