For many tourists, coming to the Cayman Islands is all about snorkelling or diving. With over 200 sites, some of them world famous, it’s easy to see the attraction.
But, as the sport’s veterans will tell you, there are some risks that come with all extreme sports – and diving is no exception.
Over the last several years, there have been roughly eight to ten water-related deaths per year in the Cayman Islands. Although not all these deaths are diving related, there are concerns about whether the country is fostering a culture where participants do so their own risk.
When Cayman first arrived on the map in the international diving scene, there was very close attention paid to how things were done and supervised. Those who were here for the dive industry’s beginnings said it was always crucial to get it right in order to build a viable business.
Some of the old-timers believe that not a whole lot has changed, in terms of care and attention to safety procedures Rather, they say the incidents of deaths or diving-related injuries the country is seeing now can more likely be attributed to people who want to go diving but are in poor physical shape.
A recent case of an elderly tourist highlights this.
Donald Pageant of Tennessee had to be resuscitated recently after he was observed having trouble in the water at the Barrier Reef, Deep Sting Ray City. The elderly man was aboard a tour conducted with Peace Maker Charters, which is run by Randy Parchment and his brother Roger.
A more serious outcome was averted by the prompt action of Parchment. However, the incident shows that even with the less risky option of snorkelling, someone not in the best physical shape can put themselves in real potential danger.
Darvin Ebanks has been diving in the Cayman Islands for decades and in 2007, he was inducted into the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. Ebanks points out that the figures for deaths in diving should be looked at in the context of it being a sport.
“Every sport has accidents; especially when they’re extremely physically challenging.
“When you look at the amount of people who have come to the Cayman Islands since the dawn of the diving industry, the numbers of incidents of death are minute. As far as safety is concerned, we are tops.”
One of the issues many are paying closer attention to is whether tour operators are taking enough precautionary measures to make sure people disclose existing medical conditions and are able to take on the rigors of diving.
As with any physical activity, the dive industry’s advice to people has always been to seek the permission of a physician before diving or taking on any other strenuous activity.
Some dive operators have been taking notice of the debate about safety.
For instance, Sunset Divers have, within the past six months, introduced a waver that requires customers to declare that they are fit to participate in dives and that they accept responsibility for the danger involved, according to Dive Operations Manager for Sunset House Mike Brown.
Brown detailed some of the other controls in place to keep accidents from occurring: “We do a thorough boat briefing on the depths and times to not be exceeded on a dive, safety stops, an emergency recall procedure to get divers back on board quickly and we prohibit solo dives.”
Divers now getting a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification are also asked to declare any respiratory or circulatory issues they may have and must be deemed to be in good shape before taking on the certification programme.
When you can’t go
So what situations or states of health would prevent a person from diving?
According to Randy Parchment, alcohol intoxication makes people a danger to themselves and others and a person showing signs of drunkenness would not be taken on a boat.
Parchment said he has even taken quadriplegics out and from time to time, will take persons out of wheel chairs at the sandbar to snorkel.
“Just because they’re on the boat doesn’t mean they are going in the water though,” said Parchment. “But if they can get on the boat, we are willing take them in the water with extra care.’
Parchment says that to make a judgement call on someone’s appearance was unfair and a form of discrimination in his view.
Divers Down Dive Instructor Paul Stanton said medical conditions such as asthma, sugar diabetes, heart/cardio and circulatory ailments are generally good reasons to keep someone from diving, as these may inhibit nitrogen elimination.
“People with these types of illnesses need a doctor’s thorough checkout before diving, as certain medications react differently with pressure,” said Stanton.
A PADI certification is for life and your health changes throughout your lifetime, so Stanton recommended that the organisation should have a look at requiring persons to update their status periodically.
Brown reiterated the sentiment offered by Darvin Ebanks and declared the Cayman Islands as one of the leaders in the Caribbean region with regard to safety.
There have been some rifts as to how to maintain this standard though.
In May 2008, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association Water Sports Committee said they would like to see the regulation requiring a look-out on board boats changed.
CITA Water Sports Chairman Stephen Broadbelt believes that, “this regulation had remained dormant for decades and for good reason.”
Mr. Broadbelt argued that this approach would be too cumbersome and cause more harm than good. He said the expense of hiring an extra staff member as a look-out could put some operators out of business and those that don’t hire extra staff will sacrifice in-water supervision, especially on wall dives.
However, in the case of the American tourist, Pageant, it was because of Parchments’ vigilance on look out that his distress was spotted. Parchment thinks that any negative factors a look-out may present are outweighed by the positive.
“I think having a lookout is a great idea not just for snorkelling expeditions but also scuba activity. A lot of times you don’t want to overburden businesses with expense or customers with scrutiny and there is a balance to strike but it is better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
“We are only out for one to two hours per tour and that is not a long time to ask anyone to be diligent in their vigilance.”
The previous Minister for Tourism Charles Clifford, said the watersports sector was given an opportunity to make recommendations to the Port Authority, police and other agencies about why the look-out was not necessary.
These agencies all agreed that such a measure was needed to ensure safety.
A second opportunity for operators to submit a formal case as to why the look-out policy was not necessary was then given. The look-out requirement is not currently enforced.
Water related deaths
The Observer on Sunday examined all watersports-related deaths reported by police in 2008 and so far in 2009 for this story.
In 2008, Royal Cayman Islands Police reported nine watersports related deaths; six were divers, including one helmet diver with Sea Trek, one was a snorkeler, one a swimmer and one watersports death occurred during a fishing trip.
In the first nine months of this year, there have been seven watersports related deaths. Two divers have died, as well as two snorkelers and two swimmers. The seventh death this year was due to another fishing accident.
Eliminating the fishing accidents from the total, the average age of the divers, swimmers and snorkelers who passed while on excursions in Cayman was 60. In fact, only two of the 14 people who have died while snorkelling in the Cayman Islands over the past two years were under the age of 50.
Eleven of those 14 swimmers divers and snorkelers were tourists from the United States. Two were from England and one was a Canadian.
A similar analysis done on watersports deaths in Cayman from 2006 turned up eerily identical data, only during that year, there were far more snorkelling accidents.
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 in ‘06 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.