Dive operators and recreational divers have reacted with frustration over Premier Alden McLaughlin’s rationale behind why scuba diving is still banned while many other activities are allowed as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted.
After stating that exercises like swimming, snorkelling, golf and tennis would be allowed any day of the week from 22 June, the premier, when asked about diving at Friday’s press briefing, said it would not be allowed because of the risks involved with divers sharing gear.
In response to a question from the Cayman Compass, McLaughlin said, “It’s not a terribly tasteful thing to talk about. We’ve gone through all these things … with [Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee] and the public health team.
“There is a lot of touching around and sometimes the use by multiple persons of the same goggles and snorkels and those other things. There’s also a lot of saliva around these things, and all of these are considered to significantly increase the risk of transmission of the virus if those involved in it have it, and that’s why diving is off limits.”
Asked if divers who own their gear and therefore would not need to hire or share equipment, could scuba dive, the premier said there was no such provision in the current regulations to accommodate that, adding that government would be criticised if it made exceptions. He urged the dive community to “hang on a little bit longer”.
His comments were met with incredulity by many in the dive community.
Ash McKnight, who represents the dive and water-sports industry in the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said members of the dive community were “disappointed” with the decision not to allow divers back in the water.
“The reason given was even more bizarre, stating that we share equipment and there is a lot of saliva involved,” he said. “Whoever was consulted about this certainly hasn’t been out in the dive business in a lot of years.
“Spitting in a mask to defog it hasn’t been an acceptable practice for years now and every single boat and every single shore diving facility has mask defog on site for all guests to use. There is no spitting anymore.”
He added, “We also apparently share equipment? No, we don’t. Perhaps someone might need to rent equipment, but all diving equipment is sanitized after each use and it was put down in our guidelines that this rental gear would only be used once a day.”
He described scuba diving as “one of the more social distancing sports that is out there”, adding that he wished before rules were made, officials would consult industry professionals and “not rely on old-fashioned theories”.
Brittany Balli, of Cayman Eco-Divers, is one of the few dive professionals who has been underwater lately, as she and her husband Aaron Hunt are involved in conserving corals by attaching them to artificial coral trees to allow them to grow unimpeded, and then reattaching them to the reef. The couple got a special exemption last month to check on the progress of the coral trees.
She said several divers who are certified to replant coral have volunteered to join them, but while the dive ban is in place, they cannot get assistance.
“We have about 20 people saying, ‘I can come and help’. We’re two months behind with the replanting. We have to do it before the weather gets too hot. Once it’s too hot, we can’t move the corals, as it stresses them,” she said.
Hunt said he and many divers were surprised to hear that the government was reluctant to release the dive community to begin recreational diving again.
He said there was a large amount of material available regarding diving safety measures during the pandemic, that he would have expected the government “to be aware of and consider as part of the plan to reintroduce diving, especially considering how integral diving is to the islands’ tourism and economy”.
Balli pointed out that among the recommendations issued by the international Divers Alert Network, there is no likelihood of dive tanks becoming contaminated with the coronavirus because when they are filled, the temperature within the tank goes up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit – a heat level at which the virus cannot survive, “so that’s not an issue”.
“When it comes to rental gear, you have to sanitise it. If you have your own gear, that takes away the whole aspect of cross-contamination,” she said.
She acknowledged that some people had raised concerns about whether the virus can survive in ocean water and whether divers could spread it to others who use a dive ladder immediately after them. She said this can be addressed by providing divers with liquid soap at the bottom of the ladder of the boat or the shore dive site, as the soap breaks down the lipid layer of the virus and stops it from spreading.
Another concern surrounds the use of communal rinse bins, or dunk tanks, into which divers immerse their equipment in fresh water to remove the salt water. The Divers Alert Network recommends that a bleach and water solution can be used in the rinse bin to kill the virus. Another option is not to have rinse bins available, so that divers take their gear home to rinse it.
Balli pointed out that the one scenario in which divers would share equipment is in an emergency situation when a diver may have to “share air” with a dive buddy who runs out of air or who gets into difficulty. In most cases, the diver who is sharing air would hand his or her ‘octopus’ or spare regulator to the dive buddy. That spare regulator, in most instances, would not have been in the diver’s mouth prior to being given to the buddy.
She said most of the people on island who dive recreationally are “going to be local, they’re more experienced, they have their own gear, they have dive buddies that they know very well and dive with all the time, so I don’t think the risk is there as much.”
She added, “With diving, we have to follow so many rules and regulations anyway, that adding more on there is not a big deal.
“The whole point of dive instructors and dive shops is, yes, to take people out diving and make money, but also for safety. It’s all about how to rescue yourself if something goes wrong. We’ll absolutely use that same approach in relation to diving in the time of COVID-19.”
Another diver who can’t wait to get back under the waves is award-winning underwater photographer Ellen Cuylaerts, who says she is upset by the government’s ongoing dive ban, not just for herself but for the local dive operators.
She told the Compass via email that the premier’s firm “no” to the question on whether diving would be allowed, followed by what she described as a “weak try to reason out of it” was a “bitter pill to swallow”.
She is concerned that by not allowing dive operators to reopen, the industry is being denied the opportunity to benefit from local customers, unlike so many other businesses that are being allowed to operate as restrictions are loosened.
“It literally hit me hard and made me cry,” she said. “Not because I would be grabbing my cylinders and be in the water immediately (I’m finishing a project for UN World Oceans Day and will have no time for the next week) but I was sad for all existing dive operators, most of them in expat hands, most of them have kept their staff, truly showing leadership and team spirit.
“But resources are melting away. Initially, we were asked to stay home to flatten the curve, then beaches were closed and water sports were forbidden, all things were clearly understood, and three weeks became 10 weeks. And while fishing was back introduced and snorkeling on name days, diving was still forbidden and everybody complied. But we all anticipated on diving being included in a staged reopening when other sports and retail would. There is no safer place than underwater for the experienced divers left on island.”
She said she and her family live at the beach and “literally can see people poaching, fishing from boats for the whole day, but we cannot end a work day with a very relaxing dive for at least three more weeks and with no plan to allow it because CIG is not well informed on diving, which to me is lacking respect to an industry that has drawn many tourists here.”
She added, “Dive operators have not made lots of money and the people employed haven’t either, but they are the reason so many visitors return yearly. They deserve to be included in this staged opening up, like any other non-contact retailer.
“So my advice would be, include diving in water activities, it’s a targeted discrimination if you don’t.”
For more information or recommendations about dive safety during the coronavirus pandemic, visit https://www.diversalertnetwork.org/covid-19/.