Ten people died in the Cayman Islands in 2006 after incidents involving snorkelling or diving, according to statistics released by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.
RCIPS said seven of the deaths last year involved snorkelers; the other three involved divers. That total includes incidents on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
Eight of the 10 victims were from the US. All but one was older than 48.
So far, coroner’s juries have not issued rulings on the 2006 incidents, so an official cause of death in each case was not available.
But the fatalities are being discussed in the water sports industry, and some business owners and managers are expressing concern about how they might reflect on one of Cayman’s chief tourist attractions.
‘You will have accidents. There’s nothing you can do about a guy who has a heart attack,’ said Rod McDowall, operations manager of Red Sail Sports. ‘The unfortunate thing is that it appears – and I don’t know the details – but it appears that a couple of the latest related deaths may have been avoided.’
Tourism Minister Charles Clifford said the Cayman Islands has a great record compared to other tourist locations in the region.
‘Cayman has always been known as a very safe destination for both scuba diving and snorkelling,’ said Mr. Clifford. ‘That is a fact.’
The most recent death on 28 December involved a 55-year-old woman from Louisiana named Louise Gales. She was taken on board a snorkel tour boat after suffering difficulty in the water off Barkers in the North Sound.
Mrs. Gales was not breathing when she was taken from the water. Tour boat passengers tried to revive her using CPR. None of the tour boat crew members knew CPR.
‘That shouldn’t be on anyone’s boat,’ said Mr. McDowall. The watercraft in the 28 December incident also failed to start when the crew tried to take Mrs. Gales back to shore.
In another incident on 20 June, a man was found unconscious on a Bodden Town Beach after taking a snorkelling trip with his family. It’s not clear how 49-year-old Tom Demarco of Atlanta, Georgia, died, but police said the death was not suspicious and appeared to have been a snorkelling related accident.
Stephen Broadbelt, who chairs the Water sports Committee of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said sometimes water sports, diving in particular, get a bad rap.
‘Debate is certainly on-going within the industry. But you know, just because somebody was having a round of golf and they had a heart attack, it’s not considered a golfing accident,’ said Mr. Broadbelt. ‘But somebody’s out on a vessel and they have a heart attack…and for the most part it’s a death of natural causes. It still gets called a diving accident or a snorkelling accident.’
Coroner’s juries ruled heart trouble was at least partly related to the deaths of three divers in the Cayman Islands in 2005. In one case, a diver had an abnormally enlarged heart, a pre-existing medical condition that often goes undetected. In a second case from that year, a 69-year-old man with an enlarged heart died while on a two-tank dive.
According to RCIPS statistics, snorkelling-related deaths last year outpaced diving-related deaths by more than two to one. That’s not a surprise to Mr. McDowall, who said there are many more snorkelers in Cayman than there are divers. However, he also notes the level of training among participants and instructors in the two water sports is vastly different.
‘All of the people on the dive boats are certified dive masters or dive instructors, rule of thumb,’ said Mr. McDowall. ‘There’s usually not a lot of fault on behalf of the operators, it’s more often than not the fault of the divers. The snorkelling vessels seem to have a lesser standard of crew in some cases, absolutely.’
But Mr. Broadbelt pointed out many cruise ships will only recommend reputable snorkel tours to their passengers.
‘The (cruise ships’) safety requirements are very high,’ said Mr. Broadbelt. ‘They demand a certain amount of liability insurance; they demand that the vessel observes certain safety standards before they let their guests go on board.’
‘I can live with accidents happening as (they do) anywhere else in the world on the roads or anywhere else,’ said Mr. McDowall. ‘But I simply cannot live with the fact that someone dies because there was negligence, because they didn’t have qualified people, or the boats weren’t up to specs.’
Safety changes coming
Revisions to the Cayman Islands Marine Conservation Law, which will allow the government greater regulatory power over smaller commercial watercraft in the protected area of the North Sound reef, are expected to be ironed out early this year.
Mr. Clifford said he’s seen a draft of the proposal that will head to Cabinet for approval soon. He said it will address issues such as how many people can be on the North Sound sand bar at one time.
‘(It) certainly would make snorkelling on the sand bar, or at Sting Ray City, or scuba diving at Sting Ray City a lot safer,’ said Mr. Clifford.
The regulations will not require a vote of the full Legislative Assembly. However, Mr. Clifford said the document would be presented in LA for comment and suggestions.
There are island-wide regulations imposed now upon small commercial vessels, or SCV’s, by the Cayman Islands Port Authority. They include minimum age requirements for boat operators; that the crafts keep items like life-vests for each passenger, life buoys, anchor and rope, a bilge pump, sound signalling devices, and flares and fire extinguishers on board.
Mr. Broadbelt said many of those requirements are aimed at the safety of tour passengers, but that enforcement is difficult because there are simply not enough people to monitor them.
‘They’re not aggressively enforced,’ said Mr. Broadbelt. ‘Some of the stuff is a little bit antiquated. A good update, an overall freshen up of these procedures would be beneficial.’
The Port Authority is leading an effort to increase safety requirements for waterborne vessels, which is expected to change its current regulations. Any changes made would have to be approved in LA.
Mr. McDowall said tour boats should generally be limited to a certain number of passengers depending on their size. Also, he said a ratio of dive or snorkel supervisors to passengers should be maintained.
‘It really doesn’t worry me a whole lot if people have 200 (passengers), but if they’re going to have 200 people there should be a minimum amount of staff required.’
Many snorkel or dive tours, which are members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, have agreed to a five-page set of guidelines that recommend maximum crew to customer ratios.
CITA suggests a ratio of one dive master per 10 certified divers. For snorkelers, CITA guidelines recommend one lifeguard for every 30 passengers on board.
Craft between 20- and 40-feet long who adhere to the CITA guidelines also carry a first aid kit, an oxygen kit and a backboard. Vessels are asked not to exceed the total number of passengers recommended by the original vessel manufacturer.