Puffin Dive Centre was started in 1988 by a recreational diver who decided that he could enjoy a better quality of life in the Oban area and have a career and make money from teaching diving. The original premises at Oban Divers Caravan Park allowed a small classroom facility and office and although this enabled the initial activities to take place and kept overheads down, it did not allow for expansion and growth.
During the following four years a reputation for good teaching was established however, the infrastructure, the kit, boats and vehicles not to mention the building was geared at a home industry level and would not be capable of any significant development.
In 1992 the original owner decided that the business was unsuccessful as revenue was low and debts were accumulating. The choices of equipment for diver training were economic and colour based rather than quality and it was apparent that whilst small amounts of revenue could be generated, sustained profitability to maintain a modern productive company could not. Therefore, the imminent closure and cessation of trading activities was the outlook.
At this time there were various competitors all of a very limited variety employing usually just the principle and maybe occasionally a crew member or assistant. There were approximately a dozen live aboard diving vessels of the converted fishing boat type with only two local diving related shops with compressors.
The recreational diving market in the UK had not fully blossomed and the plethora of diving equipment now available to divers was a fraction of what it is today. The female diving market had not fully matured and whilst in other parts of the world female divers represented a significant part of the diving market, the ratio in this area was approximately 30 to 1.
It was decided after appropriate discussion with the outgoing owner that Mike Morgan, his daughter Nicola and son Mike Morgan Junior would acquire the business as an opportunity rather than a hobby and nurture what was a failed business into a successful dynamic organisation.
Mike and Nicola were both Open Water PADI Scuba Instructors with several years of diving experience in various locations around the world and the experience that comes from having attended every PADI course available and having been members of the SSAC.
It became clear from the outset that Puffin Dive Centre needed to provide a bench mark in diving. The general diving available was usually stinted by the caution of diving operators which resulted in scuba diving being viewed by the majority of customers as being a cut price, low grade activity.
Deciding on the objectives was not easy as most of the precedent for success would need to come from outside the UK scuba diving industry.
It was agreed that the following objectives would be met:
A) Only the best equipment would be used
B) The equipment used would be selected and approved by the staff
C) Quality teaching would be the hall mark
D) Pricing would be based on professional services given
E) Discounting would be unnecessary
F) Profile in the UK dive industry would be high
G) Image and presentation would be stated, exceptional and achieved
H) Staff would be role model professionals
I) Staff would be objective centred
J) Staff would see personal development as key achievements
K) Courses taught would be reviewed and maximised
L) Pro activity in local environmental issues would be pursued
M) Rescue capability with experienced rescue staff would be practised
N) Integrity towards all activities would be insisted upon
In January 1993 Puffin Dive Centre formerly started towards meeting these objectives with an immediate change of strategy from the old owners all kit left was sold as second hand and replaced with equal male and female sets of equipment. The classrooms were revamped, accommodation for divers was purchased in Oban and the classes for courses were increased due to a significant quantity of advertising.
Higher courses ie. The teaching of instructors was changed so that the course director level would be hired in as a consultant and paid on merit rather than on badge. This did not endear Puffin Dive Centre to the PADI diving community as the “laid back” and lethargic approach taken by course directors at this time had been unchallenged. Puffin Dive Centre managed to obtain the services of only the best course directors who in turn were managed by the Puffin Dive Centre management to ensure that full adherence to the course was maintained and that standards (PDC as well as PADI) were fully implemented and acted upon.
Diver level courses were run regardless of numbers ie. If one customer was available on a given date, the course would be run to that customers requirement. Where training was in a pool or shallow shore dive, divers now had the option to do boat dives and were taken to more generous diving locations.
The boat was upgraded and training given to ensure staff had boat capability consistent with the training objectives for divers. Sites for diving were ruthlessly dived to establish the optimum times for diving rather than the generally accepted times. New sites were added to our approval list and instructors were encouraged to expand their abilities through repetitive, challenging and aggressive diving to ensure that when teaching they were or became the best that the industry could offer a paying customer.
The boat diving appeared generally in the UK at the time to be group based and Puffin Dive Centre used the innovative concept of guaranteed dive bookings ie. Even if you were the only diver on board, you would be guaranteed a diving buddy (staff member) of your level or better and one of the Sound of Mull dive sites.
Currently this is considered by PDC as normal practice but in 1993 this was a big deal as to implement this policy the financial penalties for a small company were high, as it is now proven there are a lot of single booking divers and generally the guarantee is not required to be implemented as two single divers make a pair etc etc.
The suppliers to PDC from the dive fraternity were some what bemused by the strategy and this new concept - you specify what you want to buy - it turns up correctly - we pay for it on time - we buy more. Unfortunately, some suppliers did not want to follow this practice and would send a variety of alternatives which PDC would insist were taken back at the suppliers cost and replaced with the correct items and only then did the payment terms start.
The good ones are still with PDC today and enjoy exceptional turn over from our dive shop.
During 1993 PDC certified many instructors and several hundred divers, supplied equipment for media productions (we were the only dive centre in the UK who could supply at the drop of a hat) a dozen matching sets of kit in any size from rental stock. We took out diving many hundreds, much to the irritation of local dive boat operators.
In 1994 expansion followed as the objectives proved workable and acceptable and profitable and development of new diver programs was implemented, Magnetometer, loch and powerboat handler were approved by PADI after authoring by Puffin Dive Centre. Training took place in the Red Sea, in California, in the Norwegian ice field and the outer areas of the Hebrides. At this time the management team were supported by three instructors and two Dive Masters, one of which was part time.
The number of courses continued to rise and our accommodation started to prove insufficient for visiting divers and the location and the attached small diving shop and compressor (not run by PDC) were limiting factors - changes were necessary.
That same year premises were located at Gallanach which is a 3.5 acre site on the water front with its own pier, staff accommodation and importantly potential for development.
1995 saw the complete move onto the Gallanach site and the start of the building of the dive centre. The 32CFM compressor and standby compressor at 19CFM were acquired with what was then one of only two coin controlled delivery systems in the UK. Much effort was put into the site as the condition was dilapidated. Many tonnes of scrap was removed from the diving area in the bay where it had been dumped for the last 80 years by the military who had used the facility and subsequent tenant occupants who saw dumping of scrap in the sea as being a normal practice.
On land, it had been previously used as a boat yard and had a series of dilapidated buildings and all the detritus of a derelict sea front area.
In 1996 the main building was completed with refurbishment to the staff accommodation and various buildings. The fuel (petrol and diesel) were installed by PDC staff and licenced.
During this time the UK government in an attempt to massage education figures gave grants to diver training organisations as diver training was seen as an NVQ qualification! This had no doubt the desired effect to the government figures as more and more unscrupulous providers of education joined the list and effectively trashed the UK dive market for independent dive centres such as Puffin Dive Centre who did not wish to receive nor did it ever receive a penny in grants.
The competing dive centres (obviously PDC excluded) were selling Open Water Courses for £10 and instructor courses in some cases as low as £80 as the UK government would top up the remaining money required to the price ostensibly advertised by the grant receiving centre.
Needless to say, there was a surge of people who wished to dive as the price of education for diving had dropped through the floor. Amazingly the dive certification figures for Puffin Dive Centre increased bucking the national trend and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that quality is still a sought after commodity even when cheaper alternatives are easily available. A comparison would be a £10 Open Water Course by Joe Bloggs ten on a course dive centre to the Puffin Dive Centre at £399!!
How was this possible? - Reputation for quality, ability to deliver - what do you think!
Meanwhile our local competitors were seeing a net drop in their own revenues as PDC continued to expand. Competitors would take extraordinary measures to vilify, mimic and ridicule PDC staff and operations which no doubt (it became clear after their systematic business failure) were feeble attempts to mask their jealousy. One operator decided to incur our irritation by flying a flag that he had had made up of a puffin hanging from a gibbet by its foot over the water. The flag was full sized and the artwork was beautiful and must have cost the jealous and dedicated operator a reasonable sum of money to have his laugh at puffin as he flew this flag on the back of his boat and gleefully explained to his customers why he thought we were a bunch of idiots. When the Puffin boats used to attend on the same dive site, we would always politely smile and tolerate without showing any irritation the flag.
The irony is that we very much appreciated the superb salesmanship and free advertising as many of the customers who sat on his boat and heard the story - Puffin thinks they’re great, just because they’ve got better boats, just because they’ve got a better site, just because they’ve got better trained staff, they think they’re it! Funnily enough this encouraged many of his customers to come and see and judge for themselves which it turned out that we did have all of these things and they liked it and promptly dived with PDC and used our services. This individual from a dive centre called “Nervous Wreck” went bust in 1997. PDC would like to thank this operation and the many others who have found inspiration in taking the piss out of their betters to be jealous is one thing but to encourage your customers even inadvertently to migrate is perverse!
Even today we still hear (from customers in our shop or on our boats) wonderful stories of how skippers on competitive boats have helped put them in touch with Puffin Dive Centre through the misuse of vilification - guess who’s laughing now!!
1996 saw also the start of the three seven person chalets which were constructed by PDC staff. Sales continued to climb and the Puffin Dive shop reached a turn over of £350K in sales excluding any boat operations or diver training! This is small beer compared to some industries activities however, for a dive outlet 140miles north of Glasgow with an indigenous population of sheep rather than people and a long low season it was miraculous.
By this time PDC had one course director (Mike) who was also an instructor trainer in no less than 20 diving specialties enabling students to join as a non diver and be taken through every aspect of diving, all core courses, all professional courses, ice, cavern, wreck, technical, boat related, RYA, first aid and administrative ALL in house. Needless to say course numbers went up, revenue generated went up and so did the need for staff. Of course staff changed as the requirements grew and we were sad to see the departure of some individuals, however, this is sometimes a necessary part of development and growth and we were pleased and are still very satisfied that the tenure of a puffin staff individual who gets past the initial phase of the first three months averages three years which as an industry wide bench mark is far higher than the vast majority of other diving operations anywhere in the world.
We paid for out of profitability and built our changing rooms, instructor store, purpose built compressor room, mechanical and engineering hanger, pontoon system, diver rest and crew area, the largest self fill compressor panel in the UK and many many additional features.
At the turn of the century we acquired Urchin, a purpose built catamaran for hard boat diver training which brought our capability up significantly and in the next few months we had designed and built two Redbay 12m diver RIBS, the first ones in the UK specifically designed for diving with a capability of carrying 12 fully kitted divers with 2 tanks each and 2 crew with capability for speeds up to 45 knots and although current PDC rules forbid the use of speeds greater than 30 knots they are still the fastest boats in general diving activity use in the UK taking nearly 4000 divers per annum to dive sites in comfort and speed.
Our boats cover 12,000 miles plus per annum and when all our passengers are totalled the figure exceeds 5000 with certifications and diver training together with prescriptive dives, try a dives and other services, PDC is involved directly in over 30,000 dives per year and operates in its facilities a figure almost double this. We are the largest coastal dive centre in the UK.
We have acquired (and not developed yet) the six acres of coastal site to the south boundary. We have acquired to the east three acres of building site for further chalets. We have purchased and operate a booking office in the centre of Oban aimed at tours on the water and try a dive bookings.
We currently spend over 300 man days per year on media activities, lay and maintain dozens of moorings, assist other sea based activities such as fish farming and trawling with emergency services and have maintained our policy of diver support in the local area.
Early in 2002 we implemented Part IV diving as a course and systematically developed radical applications of the current ACOP. We were aware of the pressures that students would receive when they went to their first employer and applied their skills. Currently our potential competition - the Fort William Underwater Centre and Heriot Watt - tended to implement courses with a minimum number of dives over an average of 28 days - usually less than 30 dives - and an emphasis on cost rather than quality. Puffin decided that we would only implement our quality policy and would insist on a minimum of 70 dives prior to certification together with a strict emphasis on skilled application of diving ability so that even though qualifying students would be inexperienced in working with tools underwater they would at least have diving skills to be proud of which would allow them to concentrate on tool skill development when they got to their work place. This way they could become very useful to an employer from day one as issues so as buoyancy, kitting skills, self organisation etc were already well in place as applied and practised disciplines.
The HSE Part IV (HSE Scuba Diver) is now fully implemented as a course at Puffin and is run monthly with clear objectives for all the candidates and a recognised allowance for candidates coming from an experienced background provided they can demonstrate documented diving history and meet a strict assessment confirming CMAS 3 Star equivalency.
Diver support consists of being able to respond to a dive related emergency providing fully equipped capable dive rescue divers quicky for search and rescue both on the surface and below water and have saved several lives by direct resuscitation and CPR and preventative recovery for lost divers. We have spent many hours searching for lost divers and still refuse to allow press release to newspapers as we feel this potentially negative aspect of diving should not receive sensationalist misinterpretation by journalists!
Throughout this time we have not had a single reportable incident with divers from our own staff or our own paying customers. Whilst we are immensely proud of this exceptional record given the numbers that are put through PDC, we are convinced that good luck has played its part in this success and believe that the rigorous training and quality standards enforced at PDC and the attitude of the successful members of staff must be maintained.
Safety boats are provided by PDC and have been seen on programs and films. We have worked for the British Government in troop deployment role training around the clock in mock battles. We have been filmed during survival programs, we have played the role of police boats and in some cases the bad guys, we have hunted for the Loch Ness Monster and worked for media and film companies such as the BBC, RDF, Nipon Television, 20th Century Fox and many not so well known production companies.
Our current staff is dedicated and voluntarily assists in developing expertise and growth within PDC without which the solid growth and success of Puffin Dive Centre would not have been possible.