Divers prepare to go back underwater

Dive sites across Grand Cayman will be open for the first time in almost three months on Sunday, and the island’s dive operators are gearing up to welcome back customers.

However, with stringent sanitation and social-distancing protocols that must be observed, it won’t be as simple as just taking a giant stride into the water.

Among a wide range of restriction relaxations, Premier Alden McLaughlin announced on Wednesday that divers who use their own equipment could make their way underwater from Sunday morning. Renting gear is prohibited to ensure that equipment is not shared between divers, he said, adding that if coronavirus test results continue to be low, then renting regulators and other dive equipment may be allowed from early August.

Operators throughout Cayman, in anticipation of reopening, have been drawing up and tweaking procedures and protocols for ensuring that their customers and staff are protected from the virus.

Last week, the Ministry of Tourism released sanitation guidelines for a number of tourism and hospitality industries, including diving. The detailed document set out the requirements that dive shops will have to meet before being allowed to reopen.

Jo Mikutowicz, on the top deck of one of Divetech’s boat, says numbers on board will be kept at half capacity to ensure social distancing is observed. – Photo: Tony Land

Jo Mikutowicz, owner of Divetech, said both the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and the Department of Tourism had been reaching out to operators to let them know what would be required.

“Divetech has created new  operating procedures for when we can reopen based off of the recommendations in that [sanitisation] document – from signing up customers, check-in procedures, boat diving, shore diving and teaching courses, and how to safely carry out all activities that we have always offered,” she said.

One of the requirements is social distancing on boats – something that might prove difficult for operators with small boats and seriously curtail the number of divers they can cater to.

“We are lucky in that we have large spacious boats,” Mikutowicz said. “We will give each customer a designated area to sit and keep all of their equipment/personal items in. We plan on keeping numbers at half capacity, ensuring everyone will be able to safely stay six feet away from the next customer while in their seat and transitioning in and out of the water.”

Another dive operator that has been working on COVID-19 procedures is Ocean Frontiers in East End. Those protocols, drawn up by owner Steve Broadbelt, were so detailed and comprehensive that the Department of Tourism took them on board to help it draw up the sanitation and operation guidelines for the dive industry.

Broadbelt took the Cayman Compass on a tour of his operation last week to highlight the myriad areas that need to be addressed to ensure that divers and staff remain safe while getting back underwater.

Staff at Ocean Frontiers demonstrate how seating on a dive boat can be arranged to ensure safe social distancing while doing a boat dive. – Photo: James Whittaker

Even previously simple things, like boarding a dive boat at a dock, will now require a few more steps. No shoes on board is already a fairly common rule on many dive boats, but now, getting on an Ocean Frontiers boat will entail first dunking your feet in a dish of cleansing liquid, followed by a spritz of hand sanitiser from a crew member, just before you board.

Getting a drink of water between dives on the boat will also be a tad more complicated. It won’t be as easy as just grabbing a paper cup and filling up. It involves reuseable bottles, repeated use of sanitising spray to clean the water dispenser, and using a one-way system to get to and from the dispenser.

A rope is strung up lengthways along the boat so that divers stick to the side to which they are assigned. Each has a designated seat, set up with air tanks ready to use. Behind each diver is also a personal mini dunk container to sanitise regulators and masks, already filled with a solution of water and Milton fluid (more commonly associated with sterilising babies’ bottles), as Broadbelt said using a bleach solution is not suitable for the rubber or silicon found in dive equipment.

Divers boarding Ocean Frontiers boat first will be required to dunk their feet in a tub of water and have their hands sanitised. – Photo: James Whittaker

Divers from the same household can sit together, but other divers are required to sit at least six feet apart.

Despite these measures, Broadbelt said he was confident that they would not change the customer’s diving experience significantly. “A lot of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of our staff and they’ll direct people. If you’ve got a big boat and plenty of room, it’s quite easy to space people around, certainly, at arm’s length away from everybody.”

He added that as long as everyone follows the protocols, “you can go safely scuba diving with no more risk than going to the supermarket”.

Broadbelt’s document outlines the many procedures his staff will be implementing on the boats and on land when dealing with customers, equipment and each other.

“What I was seeing was lots of information out there,” he told the Compass, “but nothing really comprehensive that was a good fit and that covered all the different areas and aspects of our business. For example, Divers Alert Network, which is the authority on diver safety and is a fantastic resource, their recommendations have been included in what I’ve drafted and what other companies have drafted as well, so that’s been a baseline for certain safety protocols…

“Beyond that, other organisations have released various recommendations and we’ve gone through those and compiled a comprehensive document that works for Ocean Frontiers and would work for operators of a similar size or those that use the same kind of boats that we do, or similar.”

Steve Broadbelt of Ocean Frontiers

Ocean Frontiers uses 46-foot dive boats, which will run at half their usual passenger capacity to ensure safe social distancing.

Broadbelt said the Cayman Islands Tourism Association had met with dive operators and had provided an “excellent framework” for what operators should do, but pointed out that each operation is unique; one size does not fit all. “Each needs to take the skeleton of a guideline and add to it the specifics that works for their business,” he said.

Tourism Director Rosa Harris thanked Broadbelt for providing the information to her ministry, saying that it, along with other guidelines from CITA, had helped inform the tourism authorities about what protocols needed to be implemented to enable dive operations to reopen safely.

She said having such procedures in place meant that the operators could begin servicing the local dive community and would be well placed, and well practised in the new routines, to welcome international customers once the borders reopen to tourists.

Department of Tourism Director Rosa Harris

She noted that the sanitation protocols issued by the Ministry of Tourism were guidelines and recommendations, rather than rules, because her ministry is governed by the Tourism Law, which covers accommodations licensing and inspections, but does not cover public-health issues. “So they’re guidelines, or suggestions. It is really a business tool,” she said.

One area the sanitisation guidelines do not cover is shore diving, focussing instead on scuba diving from boats, an issue which operators say is causing some confusion.

Also, as of Thursday, it was unclear if dive operators individually would be required to apply to government to reopen or to provide authorities with a copy of the protocols they were putting in place.

To view the guidelines, visit www.visitcaymanislands.com/en-us/ourcayman/sanitation-guidelines.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now