Paul Toomer is a true British dive icon, and after stints with both PADI and SSI, he became co-owner of his very own diving agency, RAID. We talked to Toomer about how he got into diving, what drives his interests, and where he sees himself in the future.
Q: It is safe to say that you can be classed as a living legend in the British diving industry. What do you think is the secret of your success, as you have seemingly risen from the ashes more times than the phoenix?
A: You are far too kind, ‘they say you are what you eat, and I don’t remember eating a legend’. I don’t really have a secret, I guess my love and passion for this sport, and all the people who participate in it, is a major part of it. It has never wavered, in fact it’s always just got stronger. I still love teaching, exploring, writing and travelling. I refuse to ever give in, and ‘perseverance’ is essential. At the end of the day, I’m just a diver. I swear, with hard work and perseverance, anyone can do what I have done.
Q: You are known for being a highly experienced technical diver, but do you still get that same rush from going on a recreational dive?
A: Absolutely! I don’t wear all the rebreathers and cylinders because I like the ‘bling’(well maybe, sometimes, ha ha), I use them because they allow me to do my dream dives. If I could get into a wreck at 100m and spend 20 minutes having fun down there, on a single tank, I would be doing it. I like to wear gear appropriate to the dive. If I’m doing a recreational no-deco dive, you’ll find me in a single tank, that’s for sure.
I also teach a lot of new recreational Instructor Trainers, and I always wear the same equipment as my students, so single tank it is. I do use a wing and backplate with a long hose regulator set-up, however.
Q: There are many dive training agencies out there. After holding high-level positions within both PADI and SSI, what do you think makes RAID stand out from the crowd, and how will this new acquisition by Kalkomey/Inverness Graham Investments shape the future of the company?
A: There are many agencies out there, and I guess most people wonder if there is space for another one. Here is my take on it – there are seven billion people on this planet and between all the agencies, we issue around one-and-a-half million certifications per year. That’s not new diver certifications, but total certifications across the board. So, what about the other six billion something people that don’t dive. I believe we all have a huge opportunity.
RAID is unique in that it is current. By this I mean – we are environmentally friendly, totally digital; we have never produced or shipped a single book; we are technologically advanced, being born from recreational rebreather means we had to merge recreational and technical from day one, and this still echoes through all our programmes; we protect our divers, instructors, trainers and centres through a dynamic quality assurance system. Our divers know, to the minutest detail, exactly what they need to achieve, and they have to sign off on it.
One missing confirmation and the certification cannot be issued; we are totally paper free, even our medical and liability releases are online. This also means our student record files can never be lost, and our dive centres never have the responsibility to keep them; and we are a truly ‘neutrally buoyant while in trim’ agency. Our divers emulate our logo. Let’s face it, RAID is cool!
Regarding the amazing merger with Kalkomey, we are simply thrilled. They are an online sports certification company and their knowledge of tech is amazing. They are perfect partners for us, they bring new ideas, new products and a massive new marketing drive.
With Kalkomey, RAID can achieve all the goals that we dreamed of when we started this. RAID Kalkomey is the future, mark my words, ha ha.
Q: You are a massive proponent of closed-circuit rebreathers, and through RAID you can qualify on one at an early level. What makes you think these advanced pieces of equipment are suited to freshly certified divers?
A: Let’s get this perfectly straight, I don’t like rebreathers, I love them. I have a deep meaningful relationship with my rebreathers. Rebreathers have come on a long way in recent times. You can’t go to a dive site or get on a boat without seeing at least one. Aside from slightly more complex training and their initial cost, there are huge benefits to diving a rebreather. You are warmer, you mouth is not dry, you can make longer no-decompression dives and the best of all, since rebreathers make no bubbles, the fish smother you, they don’t swim off when you exhale.
With the advent of advanced electronics and some of the safety features available on most rebreathers, we feel it is safe to allow someone to climb onto a recreational rebreather really early in their diving career. Kevin Gurr, my friend and rebreather designer, once told me, ‘when you start rebreather diving, you have to unlearn how you dive’. With that in mind, if a diver is capable and wants to dive a rebreather, why should we make them do 1,000 open circuit courses before they can realise their dreams. This is, after all, 2018 and not 1978.
Q: Having been in the industry for a very long time, who has been instrumental in guiding your development as a dive instructor?
A: This answer is going to be looooooong! I have been tremendously lucky and the industry as a whole has nurtured me. It’s been very kind to me and I’ve managed to work with some incredible people. I learned to dive with Steve Axtell and Phil Short – that must give you an indication of how my career ‘jump’ started. Both of them were, and still are, extremely influential in how I dive and the decisions I make.
I have worked with incredible technical instructors and friends, like Jill Heinerth, Steve Lewis, Tom Mount, Randy Thornton, Simon Mitchell, Pete Mesley, Kevin Gurr, Dave Thompson… Man, there are so many amazing people in my life that to mention them all would probably fill your whole magazine. I am a lucky little b*****d, as my wife says.
Q: Having dived all over the world for many, many years, can you name your top five locations to dive, and explain why they hold such a special place in your heart?
A: This is a difficult question as there are so many amazing places out there. I’ll give it a go.
In no particular order:
Malin Head – 6,000 wrecks in one bay, and when you are done diving, you have the most-hospitable, funny people on the planet looking after you.
Bikini Atoll – The wrecks here are like nothing you have ever seen or experienced. Super warm water, incredible wrecks and nuclear sharks. It’s not cheap to go. Sell a kidney, it’s worth it.
Galapagos – I call it Benidorm for fish. All the world’s fish go here on holiday. I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of hammerhead sharks, turtles, whalesharks, Galapagos sharks, whitetips, sea lions, dolphins. Honestly, no ‘fish’ dive will ever be the same after Galapagos.
Scapa Flow – I have been super lucky to have been invited to be part of an incredible expedition team up in Scapa. What an amazing place. If you have not dived here and you come from the UK, you need to have a word with yourself. It’s incredible.
Malta – My home from home. The wrecks of Malta are now world-renowned, it’s like the Truk Lagoon of the Mediterranean. I am also extremely lucky to be involved with an amazing expedition team in Malta as well. I love Malta, not just for the wrecks, but the people, the atmosphere, the fun.
Q: You have been involved in several high-profile expeditions and projects. Which ones will stay with you the most?
A: Now this is difficult to answer, but I think the Phoenician wreck and the HMS Olympus in Malta, and, of course, the Hampshire in Scapa Flow. You have no idea how honoured I am to have been involved in these amazing expeditions. Watch this space…
Q: Your son Sebastian is growing up fast. Will he be following in your footsteps as a diver, and what are your views on children getting into diving?
A: He’s an amazing boy. He’s nuts about the water and desperate to dive. I’m teaching his cousin, who is 11 at the moment, and because Sebastian is only six, he cannot learn yet. He is not amused.
I think learning at ten years old is wonderful. Our children are our future. As long as we keep our little ones safe, then I am all good with them diving. I think the industry has done a great job of involving them, while protecting them at the same time.
I have little doubt that my Sebastian will follow in my footsteps. I have no doubt that he will eclipse everything I have done. He’s twice as crazy as I am, so get ready.
Q: What is your most-memorable moment while diving?
A: Seeing the Hampshire appear underneath me. I was at 50m and I could see the enormous props illuminated by these huge lights the 3D guys were using. I think a little bit of wee came out of me.
Q: On the flipside, what is your worst moment while diving?
A: I’d rather not make this sad, as I have been involved in some awful rescues, as have many of my peers.
I guess my worst moment is when someone gives me the worst signal any diver can give to another. No, not the ‘bird’, but the thumbs up. How come on the surface the thumbs-up signal means all is cool, but in the water, it means I have to ascend and get out. I hate that signal.
Photographs courtesy of Paul Toomer
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