Cathy Sytsma, farmer turned course director, certifies hundreds of divers a year
Cathy Sytsma’s story is one of a stay-at-home farming mom who is now one of the world’s most prolific instructor in certifying SCUBA divers. The Seattle resident says she’s been told by PADI – Professional Association of Diving Instructors – that she is among the global top five, certifying 540 divers of various levels of experience in 2018 alone.
“I never get tired of teaching,” said Sytsma, 56, who last summer passed rigorous testing in the Dominican Republic to become one of about 15 individuals who annually became PADI course directors. “It’s just exciting. Everyone comes at diving form a different place. I love being able to help them achieve it – you can see in their eyes, when they think, ‘I’ve got it!’”
Her journey has taken her from life as an Eastern Washington dairy farmer to someone who on most weekends year-round can be seen in a dry suit exhorting new divers to enter the mild Puget Sound waters around Coves 1 and 2 in West Seattle, just west of Salty’s Restaurant. In about nine years with Seattle Scuba, she’s certified thousands of divers.
“I never dreamed of being a dive instructor,” says Systma, who has logged more than 8,000 dives in working for Seattle Scuba since 2010, generally certifying half of the shop’s divers. After renewing her long-lapsed dive certification, she participated frequently in store-organized dives. Her friendly demeanor and underworld enthusiasm caught the eye of the shop owner.
“Craig Gillepsie urged me into becoming a dive master, and I finally gave in and did it. And I loved it; and I didn’t have to be talked into anything else.”
Beyond teaching hundreds of Seattle-area divers, Sytsma is most looking forward to spending quality time in the water with her grandchildren, two of four of whom have completed youngster basics, with the oldest, at 9, one agonizingly long year from becoming certified (you must be 10). Diving with her grandma has been her goal since she was 5.
Regarding Seattle Scuba reviews on Yelp, the feedback air-tank full of accolades for Systma as an instructor (disclosure: the author’s is included), with a representative post by Erin S, of Seattle:
After my first open water dive panic, I just figured diving wasn't going to be for me. That was until Cathy and Seattle Scuba stepped up to help me out. Cathy is so calm, collected, and focused that you immediately have full trust in her and her diving abilities. She's patient and is able to cater a dive to the student's needs to ensure they succeed. If you're feeling extra nervous and think you'll need a bit more personalized touch, I highly recommend trying to book a private session with Cathy. She'll not only make sure you get certified, she'll make sure you walk away feeling confident that you're ready to dive and continue your education on your own. Through Cathy, Seattle Scuba School earned 2 customers for life in myself and my partner. We're excited to check out the local club dives and travel dive trips that they plan. We're also working on luring all of our friends into the great diving scene of the PNW as well and will be pointing them in Seattle Scuba School's direction. Below are Sytsma’s remarks, edited modestly for brevity and clarity.
ON THE JOURNEY TO BECOMING A DIVING COURSE DIRECTOR
About 20 years ago I learned to dive in Hawaii – I took a Discover Scuba class. And at some point, having raised my kids and encountering a lot of changes, I came back to Seattle and rediscovered my love for diving. About eight or nine years ago, I started teaching full time. Now I have the best job in the whole wide world. I love every kind of diving, from Bubblemakers – the 8-year-olds – to instructors.
WHAT DO YOU MOST LIKE ABOUT DIVING?
I love night dives. They’re fabulous. The ones I like the most is when the student comes up with a smile on their face as proof that they just had the best time in the world – watching students coming up in awe. [In February], we did the night dive, and there were six harbor seals with us the entire time.
WHAT ARE YOUR DIVING DAYS AND WEEKS LIKE?
Usually during the summer I put in 70- or 80-hour weeks. I dive about six days a week, and I also teach pool sessions in the evening, sometimes only Wednesday and Thursday nights, but sometimes all but Sunday nights. Wed and Thursday are our normal group sessions and Monday, Friday and Saturday are privates or students in the dive-master program.
ABOUT DIVING LOCATIONS & SAFETY
Part of my job is scouting possible locations for diving trips. I’ve dived in about 10 or 11 countries. I usually put in a lot of research prior to even booking a trip, picking placed based on what I hear are popular but maybe beyond what’s advertised in diving magazines. I make sure the facilities live up to our standards of safety. Most of our divers trust what I pick. For some of our trips, we can put out an email and the trip can fill up in 30 minutes because they know we pick places with phenomenal diving.
We go different places for different reasons. To see a lot of sharks, that’s the Bahamas, or for pygmy seahorses, I’d go to Indonesia. Each area has such unique life, there’s not a favorite.
I’m not going to let [our customers] down. I’ll visit the locations ahead of time and sometimes I’ll say I’m an open diver [certified to 60 feet] with four dives. I’ve been taken 130 feet as a four-dive certified diver, and no way would I book that guide. In previous years, I’ve been places where we’ve gotten on the boat, and the safety issues are horrific and I’ll say, “stop now.” With people already the boat, I’ll lose all the money, but I won’t put our customers at risk.
ON TEACHING BEGINNERS
The most rewarding is open water because I love watching students cling to me, being scared to death and then gaining their trust and leading them when they’re diving. That feeling is just amazing. Some students panic, but working with them and getting them comfortable is most rewarding. I had one woman who took three months to get certified. She was really, really scared of the water after a bad experience as a youngster. We finally came to a turning point, and I said, “Do you trust me? So let’s go down.” Now she and her husband dive most weekends. She said, “You’ve changed my life.” That’s really rewarding to hear.
ABOUT BECOMING A COURSE DIRECTOR
When I did the program, most people say it’s really hard, but I was very prepared and it was really easy for me. We had to demonstrate how to teach in the PADI system, and that was easy for me. I teach all the course they have, so I’m familiar with it all. But for me, achieving that highest rating was pretty amazing. When I started this journey I had no idea it would take me here.
You have to be a master instructor to apply, and there’s a lot of prerequisites. The application itself is a lot of work – interviews, certifications and all aspects of training. You have to do a business and marketing plan and then you have to be accepted. It’s very limited – only two a year involving 40 people .