Review of Utila Dive Center's IDC and Legal Threats!

Almost six years ago I decided to become a scuba diving instructor, it was my dream, my passion and my livelihood. If you've been following my journey, you'll know that at the time I was living in Thailand on a budget working as a divemaster and loved it. But I wanted to teach, it's always been my passion to share knowledge and help others get started, and I've always been dedicated to helping people build a solid skill foundation from the start as I know how important it is. Everything written here on my blog and in this article is my personal opinion based off of my experiences. That last sentence I had to write because of how many threatening legal letters both PADI and Utila Dive Center have have sent divemasters, instructors and those who write bad reviews over the years. The reason why you never read bad reviews of Utila Dive Center (UDC) or PADI is because they harass reviewers with their large legal teams until they give in. Luckily, I'm in a position where I can afford to stand my ground and not let PADI or UDC bully me into deleting this post.

This is what happened It would have made sense just to do my instructor's course, known as the IDC (Instructor Development Course) here in Thailand where I already was. But then I heard about a little island in the Caribbean Sea that sounded perfect. It was called Utila, and the reviews I read about the Utila Dive Center IDC program sounded amazing, they were all glowing and positive, I literally couldn't find even a single negative one. So I spent what little savings I had left and went! But turns out, it was the worst experience of my life, I felt cheated, scammed ripped off, and now the course director Andy Phillips is threatening to take legal action on me. It all started when I wrote a negative review on Tripadvisor about my experience as paid customer. Even worse, he's trying to get PADI, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors to not renew my instructor certification and now there's almost zero chance of me ever being able to teach diving again.

Utila Dive Center's IDC

The reason why I'm writing this review six years later is because it's something I wish I had the courage to do when I first graduated from the program but was too scared and naive back then. The problem with spending your last dollar to become certified as an instructor is the fact that if you don't start working right away, you're screwed.

Knowing that, all new instructors are required to sign a contract with PADI and Utila Dive Center saying that we won't say anything negative about the company or organization, or risk losing our instructor status. So even though I had a terrible experience as a customer, I couldn't say anything or write a negative review...which may explain why all of the reviews I had read online were positive. Without getting too much into it, I felt as a customer that they just wanted my money and didn't care if I had the skills needed to actually teach or not. While the better IDC programs in the world offer non paid internships afterwards so you can gain some experience, Utila wanted to upsell me in their "MSDT Internship Program" which is money that I didn't have or want to spend when I knew that other dive shops that aren't huge instructor factories are happy to let you work for free to gain experience. 

Since there are more dive instructors than students on Utila and no available jobs for new instructors, I ended up spending what little money I had left in savings to fly back to Koh Tao, Thailand and walking around from dive shop to dive shop everyday for almost three weeks, begging a shop to hire me, even if it was unpaid, just so I could gain the experience I should have gotten during my training. If it wasn't for one of the shops being desperate for a Chinese speaking instructor, I never would have gotten a job or a shot. I want to thank Crystal Dive Resort on Koh Tao for taking the time to properly train me and giving me an opportunity. 

I regretted doing my PADI IDC with Utila Dive Center so I wrote a review in hopes to warn others. But I had to do it anonymously as I was scared to death of getting my instructor status revoked by for writing a negative review about them as I was forced to sign the contract. But then a letter came. It turns out that Andy Phillips, the course director at Utila Dive Center had a lawyer send me a legal threat to my parent's house, freaking them out. I was scared. I was broke, and I was vulnerable. I felt like I had to delete the review to make it all go away...and it did.

At Utila Dive Center getting my PADI IDC Certification

Being Sued Today

You might be wondering why this is all coming up again almost six years later. Honestly. it would be a million times easier if I just left it in the back of my mind and forgot about it. I have nothing to gain and a ton to lose from bringing this back up. But I knew that this scam still goes on today, and that people who were in the same situation as me are still falling for it, wasting their money, and getting their dreams crushed. 

I ended up writing the review I wish I had the courage to do sooner on the Scuba Board Forums and on Tripadvisor. (Edit: Both Scuba Board Forums and Tripadvisor have since deleted the reviews!) 

But then, Andy Phillips stalked me down and started threatening me again. He tried to have PADI not renew my Scuba Instructor license and he is threatening to sue me for "libel defamation" if I don't remove the review. Honestly, when I saw that, I got scared, wished I had never written the review again, and even thought about deleting it for a second time. PADI themselves has also been known to take legal action against anyone even using their name, logo or saying anything bad about them which is why you never hear anything bad about this giant organization. 

Here's one of the multiple messages he sent me: 

andy philips udc

Standing Strong, Fighting Back

I realized that Andy must do this with others as well, and across the board a lot of new PADI instructors may be afraid of getting their hard earned certifications potentially revoked and being sued. When you are a broke divemaster looking to become a dive instructor, you are at the mercy of big companies with lawyers like UDC and are at the mercy of even bigger companies like PADI. 

If it wasn't for the fact that I am no longer financially dependent on teaching scuba diving, I would never have been able to write this review and stand my ground. Now only has he already informed me that PADI will no longer renew my instructor status, he also sent me this asking me to delete the review:

"Now you have simply shown a malicious intent to revisit this matter again, unfortunately it looks like we will have to pursue legal action.  There is still a statute of limitation that covers the previous defamation and libel you undertook, and this latest episode shows further intent to do harm so I would ask one last time you rethink this and delete this defamatory review." - Andy Phillips 

In order to fight back, I tried to report the threats to Tripadvisor as I would have assumed it they would want to look out for the best interest of their customers and wouldn't allow harassment. But it turns out their only suggestion is to delete the review. 

There's no way to report harassment without deleting your review

Not Being Silenced

I am super fortunate that I have amazing people in my life, including everyone who reads and subscribes to my email list here. If you haven't already subscribed, you would have missed out on the email I wrote yesterday when this all first started happening. There's a lot of things I share privately through email before they ever become a blog post. 

Even though I don't have time to reply to everyone who writes me, I read every single message you send me and I sincerely appreciate the feedback and support you give. I've had a lot of people let me know what I'm standing up for the right thing, and that they have my back if push ever comes to shove. My cousin who used to work as a prosecutor and is a lawyer has given me great advice, and guys like Mike Cernovich have encouraged me not to let me voice be silenced. I feel that it's my moral obligation to speak the truth and help others who aren't in the same position I am stay strong. I know I haven't always been perfect, but ever since I wrote the post explaining who I was in the past and all the various stages of maturity I've been through, I've felt free. It's a very freeing experience letting all of the skeletons in your closet out and knowing that you have nothing to hide.

Here's a clip from the Silenced Movie that talks about why people feel like they can't speak up.

Final Thoughts

I don't know what's going to happen, I obviously don't want to have to waste money and deal with a lawyer, or spend even more to counter sue, but I'm finally at a point in my life where I can. Even though Andy claims the anonymous review I wrote six years ago was fake, from what I remember aside from using a pen name because I was too afraid of getting my license revoked, everything I wrote was real including them violating safety standards, and being a terrible company that I wouldn't recomend.

As you may know by now, I definitely do not recomend diving or doing your IDC course with Utila Dive Center, or come to think of it, any PADI company as they are the ones who held my instructor teaching status on the line if I wrote a bad review, even if it was completely honest and based on my own personal experience and opinion which everything in this post and on my blog is.

If you really want to become a dive instructor, dive master, or even just get your beginners open water dive certification, I'd suggest doing it with an SSI company instead (Scuba Schools International) The shop I've had the best or experience with in Thailand has been Scuba Junction on Koh Tao. If you insist on getting a PADI licence, go with a smaller dive company and make sure they guarantee a non-paid internship as part of your course as without it you won't have the experience to teach without it. My favorite place in the world to become a divemaster and teach as an instructor has been Scuba-Junkie in Borneo on the island of Mabul. Here's a video of what one of the dives were like just off of the jetty on the house reef.

I hope by sharing this publicly and vowing to keep my review public, that other people who have dreamed about becoming a dive instructor will find it and that it'll help them make a better informed decision.

Even though I loved teaching and working as a dive instructor, I honestly wouldn't recomend it for most people. Don't do it for the money as you'll end up hating it, and if you just want to dive a lot and work in the industry, just work as a divemaster. Becoming a PADI Dive Instructor killed my passion and love for scuba diving, and if I could do it all over again, I would have stayed a Divemaster for life. You can read more about my time working in the dive industry in my first book 12 Weeks in Thailand: The Good Life on the Cheap.

I'm thankful for everyone who reads my blog, emails, and continues to support and follow the journey. I really believe that my life's calling is to spend my time, energy and resources connecting people to what really works and being honest about what doesn't.

P.S. Looks like I'm not the only one who's felt this way about Utila Dive Center.

utila dive center review

Warm Regards,

Johnny FD

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Post a Comment

  1. Supporting you, mate.

    I despise scammers and bullies.

    Wai Kei, Hooi


    1. Yes, I was just about to post this, because I remember hearing about it.

      To add to the details: The petsitter attempted to sue for a negative review on Yelp and the defendant ending up winning.

      To make matters worse the petsitter attempted to sue for a ridiculous amount of money ($1M).

      SLAPP type lawsuit, as it were.

    2. I think I remember reading that not only did the pet sitter lose the case but that the defendant can now go after them for their court costs and lawyer fees. Lose-Lose for the pet sitter.

  3. The funny thing is, one negative review from 6 years ago might have not meant much to their bottom line. But being outed for the fact that they're so desperately covering up negative reviews... that REALLY makes you wonder what the hell is going on over there. Fear, desperation, and legal threats aren't good looks for any business.

  4. Johnny. You know I stand with you. No matter what. Your posts inspired me to begin to change my life and if it wasn't for you, mike cernovich, victor pride and Chris deoudes I wouldn't be where I am today. If you need anything, even someone to do grunt work research for you, then reach out, let me know, email me or call me, you know the number. It's because of you I'm coming to Thailand in January brother. Fuck these guys. They can suck my dick. We will make that asshole sorry for speaking to you the way he does.

    I got you.


  5. Thanx for sharing.
    I read the email but didn't think you would post.

    The dive company is a big bully and you standing up to them will be the start of their downfall, I have a feeling many other people have had a similar experience and you making this public will help people feel confident to stand with you.

    Great post and hope everything goes in favour of you and they're hit hard for their bullying.

    1. Hey MIchael, I was really hesitant on posting this on my blog as I knew once it's out there I have to continue to stand and fight. But thanks to all of the support and advice I got from sending out the email to the insider's list, it made me comfortable with my decision.

  6. I just shared this, fuck those guys!

    Best of luck Johnny!

  7. He can huff and he can puff, but slander is a very difficult thing to prove. Unless he can prove that you are lying with malicious intent he doesn't have a case. Trip advisor is a public forum meant expressly for this purpose of critiquing the establishments that are on it, that means good and bad experiences. If you can document your bad experiences either with other eyewitnesses, video makes your case that much stronger. Tell that guy to go screw himself he doesn't have a case. I'm not a lawyer, but I doubt very much that you have anything to worry about.

  8. as long as what you say is true his libel case has no standing, since it would rely on false statements and truth is generally an absolute defense.

  9. You are a champion in so many ways. This again, proves it.

  10. I was sued over a business dispute, and it's not fun. A year and half spent stressing about it, $400/hr attorneys and tens of thousands of dollars spent. In the end, we settled and in the grand scheme of things I "won" and it's good to be able to put it behind me. Having said that, there's times when you just shouldn't back down if you believe it's the right fight and all it takes for bad guys to win is for good people to do nothing.

  11. Good for you for standing up to them. Reviews have no meaning if you can't leave a negative one. Shame on them for trying to control the process by threatening you. I wish you luck.

  12. If it was really that bad, then you're doing the right thing. Reviews are a part of free speech and defamation is only a case if you are intentionally trying to hurt their business. By simply stating facts with real evidence, you aren't defaming anyone. So be careful with the language you use and you should be fine. Other than that you know everybody supports you so keep up the good fight and let's make something positive out of this like a resource online for people interested in diving to find a good school to go to. Seems like the big review sites are controlled by special interests these days. Best wishes and I've got your back on this one just like everybody else here.

  13. Just posted on fb! Fuck 'em all!!! Well done Johnny, all the best!!!

  14. So you write an honest review and he goes to sue you. Disgusting. So glad you wrote this. I am getting sick on the 5 star review system. Uber drivers all want you to give them the 5 stars. Fiverr freelancers insist on it and will even argue with you if you don't. The 5 start system in general is completely useless if you get harassed just for leaving your honest level of stars. This is ridiculous. I hope more people speak out. Absolutely unacceptable. This is not how good capitalism is meant to work.

  15. Give him hell Jhonny, all the best.

  16. I'm a PADI divemaster and I agree 100% on what you wrote. PADI doesn't support Instructors or Divemasters, what they are interestsed are only gain more money. That's why they are so expensive but don't provide any kind of service to you. I had a bad experience with an SSI center few years ago, where they cheated me, again violating safety standars, and much more, after reporting it, SSI didn't cover my back either.
    unfortunately it's not PADI or SSI or other diving associations, it's the people working in the Dive Center that makes a good or bad experience. I believe that all those big associations at the end of the day they just look to their own interest. And Instructors or Divemasters fighting for what is right are not in the list.
    Best of luck, thank you for doing this.

    1. Hey thanks for sharing Alessio. That sucks that you had a bad experience with SSI too. I was hoping they would be better as they're a smaller company.

  17. Good job for standing up to your beliefs. I think even if you have to fight legally against them and for sure win, you will get it repaid in one way or another to balance everything again out. :)

  18. Nice one Johnny. If there is one thing I cant stand its bullies! Were all behind you fella!


  19. I admire your perseverance and integrity. I'll always support those fighting the good fight, especially when it seems like the odds are stacked against them by those who choose to abuse their power and position. Keep fighting the good fight Johnny, it's worth it.

    I'll be moving to Chiang Mai soon (as soon as I finish selling all of my stuff) to begin my journey of creating a location independent business and life. Your work and message has been a huge influence on me making this decision and for that I thank you. I hope our paths get to cross when I make my way over there, I'd love to connect and meet someone I consider a mentor.

    Good luck and please keep us posted with how this progresses.



  20. Johnny, its Zak here. I'm back in the States now.

    I've been sued hard by the FTC for millions and ended up barely having to pay anything. You're being sued by a lowly dive company... Put that into perspective.

    I was scared too. I was on the front page of Yahoo for two days, got my phone blown up by reporters calling me, and was in Wired magazine. However, it really wasn't all that bad. I only hired some cheap ass ambulance chaser lawyer for 800$ that I was friends with. Don't panic and pay some 10k-30k retainer to some overblown lawyer you don't need as much as you think you do.

    Have you even been served yet? Don't panic if a local Sherif comes and hands you an envelope with a big stack of papers in it. Its just formality that they go through and most of it that they claim will be total bullshit that won't hold up. The dive company has to prove all of this and its a very rigorous and drawn out process to do so. The burden of proof is less than that of a criminal case, and its call Preponderance of the Evidence, but its still a level of proof they have to meet. They might serve you just to scare you with the paper work but its really just accusations and doesn't mean anything.

    Seriously, you have nothing to fear. Don't talk to them or their lawyers at all any more, even if they serve you. If they do serve you, just get a cheap lawyer to submit a simple response denying everything. It'll probably end right there and you won't even have to step foot inside of a court room. If their lawyers do try and contact you, DON'T speak to them at all, and sure as hell don't email them or message them on social media or text.

    When people in business threaten to sue me these days I just laugh at them because I've been sued by far worse than anything they could possibly conjure up.

    You've already made 2 blog posts/emails fretting over this. Don't make a third. :)


    1. Hey Zak, thanks so much for the advice buddy, I appercaite it. Congrats on winning your case and standing up!

  21. Jonny, if you have structured your companies correctly, which i am sure you have. And have your cash securely hidden behind trusts and corps.. then you in your personal capacity should be dirt poor. In your personal capacity you own nothing.... So let that fool sue you, let him waste his money, he ends up looking like the idiot and if the very worst happens, all that happens is you declare bankruptcy and he gets nothing.... don't let some Padi course director or a few lawyers scare you... Stand your ground. I am an ex Padi instructor myself, hate it when a few idiots try to screw you and then bully you when you speak up... Congrats on finally writing a wrong.... And if you have all your cash in your own name, perfect time to set it up properly :)

  22. just got your email this morning. happy to hear bro. Big ups for standing up for what's right.

    I will never use PADI or IDC.

  23. Hey Johnny, well its May 2017 now and you are still being hassled by these crooks! Incredible. Glad you are enjoying your trip to Europe btw. There is some serious bad karma coming back to PADI / Phillips etc! Keep up the good fight. Reviewing sites, such as Tripadvisor, only work for the common good if customers are free to leave balanced feedback on their experience. They should be interested if reviewers are being hassled to change reviews and in fact there should be a way to add these threats etc to an original review so that these activities are much more transparent (hence preventing legitimate reviewers being hassled like this in the future). I think by now I'd be launching a protest! With your army of followers, it would really raise the profile of these tactics...and also maybe prompt Tripadvisor to take more affirmative action. Think about it. Cheers mate.

    1. Thanks for the support Mark! I agree that companies like Tripadvisor really need to allow negative feedback and not just delete reviews out of fear of being sued! Most people don't know the reason why you'll never see a tripadvisor review for getting food poisoning at a restaurant is because Tripadvisor automatically hides them out of fear of lawsuits from the business!

  24. Yup at UDC and its NOV 2017 now... and I have had troubles with them and their unwritten policies, While the diving is so so I came out here to get a "cheap" but professional course but it has been anything but that. good to see why I DIDNT see any negative reviews about the facility or course management... simply because they bully people (which most are young and naive in the matters of law and possibilities. and are just there for the back packing and party life which Utila is all about) I don't really care about being a instructor for PADI I just want to be a great diver in the future so the retaliation isn't a concern for me but I will get my instructor just for the mere fact that In my profession I am currently studying for it will prove beneficial. I can say that I honestly don't feel safe to dive with UDC anymore simply for the fact that if they will black ball somebody for writing a review based off the individuals experience and truth that one knows... then I guess having problems with them and continuing diving under UDC instruction would be no different. Like i said in the beginning I was looking for cheap as 3 months away from my career is already a huge step so I was aware that the amount of students they certify and the number of actual UDC instructors was a challenging ratio. After being here first hand and seeing the lifestyle and the nightlife that is readily enjoyed by all the staff is a bit worrisome if you are a calculated and healthy individual who does not partake in it and work in the health & medical industry. Needless to say its not that cheap after all the island is pretty much a tourist catch hole charging a super amount of inflation on items that you wont be able to live with out. If anything enjoy the atmosphere but if you are worried about policy and fairness and proper representation of yourself and being associated with UDC or other questionable business people... then you might want to think twice before the "reviews" manipulate you just like UDC does to those that give reviews that may shine the light on UDC's problems. Dive safe and get certified and make the dive community a better place to were you dont have to shit on the little guy from time to time and then try and flush them down the toilette!

    thanks for the post JD! I will be following you from now on!

    1. Wow! Thanks for sharing! I agree that safety, and transparency is way more important than just being cheap!

  25. As time goes by:

    1. Oh wow. That's crazy to hear that Andy died. I never want harm for anyone, but damn, Karma is a bitch.


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