From Julie Ralph

By January 21, 2018Bil Phillips

While Bil was my cave instructor, he also became a dear friend. I struggled to find a story that would do justice to Bil as a dive professional and explorer, because I kept thinking of the stories that meant the most to me… and most of those involved our personal chats above water.

However, I thought you might appreciate my insights as a female student, on Bill the cave diving instructor.

Before I started my cave course with Bil, I was a PADI open water instructor and I had taken some technical diving courses. When friends would tell me about their cave training experiences, I would hear the debates and arguments comparing Mexico and Florida instructors. A number of my friends had trained with Bil over the years, they all talked about how strict he was and that it was the hardest course they had ever taken.

However, I was concerned because I had heard stories that Bil was tougher on female students. It took women longer to complete their cave certification with Bil and there were others who started with Bil, but went on to complete it with a different instructor. One friend also didn’t appreciate his general hygiene, peeing in his suit regularly and spitting/horking in the water (I found out later he did that to feed the fish, which I found very endearing).

But one of my male friends that I respected, told me to go with Bil, that I would be fine.

When we started, I wanted Bil to know that I had no expectations that I would pass quickly. I told him that I have two weeks, let’s see how far I can get. From those comments, I think he was expecting me to be a mess in the water or have claustrophobia.  But after our first open water session he said to me, “I think we can do this.” I didn’t realize what he meant at first, but I later realized he meant that I would be able to finish the entire cave course. I was a little shocked because of his reputation of being so tough on women, so I kept thinking that there must be some sort of catch.

Bil’s cave course was the most difficult and challenging diving course I have ever taken, both physically and mentally. I believe that most cave courses are, with good instructors.

I think most people would agree that Bil could be very opinionated and very blunt. When I made mistakes during the course and started beating myself up, he wasn’t coddling me or telling me that I needed to give it time. Bil would just matter of factly tell me what I was doing wrong and tell me that I needed to fix it, or that I should not be cave diving. While there were many times during my course that I would be beating myself up and having mental breaks causing me to make the same mistakes over and over again, Bil remained calm and very direct with his feedback. He never shouted or insulted me, he was just honest. I appreciated that. Despite my initial concerns about being a female, I finished the cave course in one trip.

To top it all off, Bil had a ritual for “special students”. When we finished my graduation dive, Bil snuck behind some stalactites in the opening of Gran Cenote and came out wearing some sort of warrior costume with no fins on… and then he did a little dance and made me kneel down as he knighted me with a staff. I don’t know if I have ever laughed that hard underwater before. When we got out of the water, we were still laughing and he asked me “What is the female name for a knight? A lady?” I told him “I ain’t no lady! I am a dame.” There was a time for seriousness, but there was always a time for silliness with Bil.

Bil taught me to appreciate the caves. Cave diving was not just about going the furthest or deepest you could into a cave, it was about getting to know the cave. We would often stop to check out something unusual, whether it was a unique rock formation, a baby turtle in the cenote, of the name of a famous explorer on a cave arrow. Often Bil and I would giggle like “school girls” underwater when we would find something special.

While at first Bil seemed overly protective (which might come across as critical), I never took it personally and I always tried to make him proud. As my experience and training grew, he started to encourage me to be more than a recreational cave diver. When he invited me to explore caves with him, I knew I had earned his respect. I just hope that I can continue to honour his memory.

So while Bil may not have been the most “sophisticated” man I ever met, he was certainly one of the most genuine and honest people I ever met in my life. I don’t believe it mattered to Bil that a diver was male or female. You always knew where you stood with Bil.

I only wish I had more time with him, but I am grateful that he was in my life as a mentor and friend.

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