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June 2000 Vol. 15, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sea Contacts Brouhaha

internet coup de grâce

from the June, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The web was jammed this month with e-mail warnings about Indonesia’s Sea Contacts dive operation, which was being spearheaded by able dive operator Larry Smith. Sea Contacts has been departing from Bali with a varied itinerary, but mainly diving the prolific waters around Komodo. While the operation had problems, they weren't the result of poor diving. Photographer Burt Jones (coauthor, with Maurine Shimlock, of the book Secret Sea) explains it best in his report from what is probably the last trip that Sea Contacts will make.

“The diving and the animals our group encountered during the past month, April 2000, were literally “off the scale,” from Rhinopias frondosa to blue-ringed octopus, bright yellow and white pygmy sea horses (H. bargibanti, these are the bumpy ones that usually come in red & white) to clown frogfish, including six on one dive! Larry Smith, Sea Contacts’ famed (or should I now say infamous?) cruise director, had discovered a site — new to me — Sea Contacts Brouhaha internet coup de grâce called Menjang Wall, that had more nudibranchs in one square meter than you normally see on an entire dive. I’m mad for nudibranchs, and our files include over 500 different species. Typically I find one or two on a trip that I’ve never seen before. I know for a fact that at this one dive site alone I photographed 20 species that are new to me. And on the big end of the scale, some of the group swam with a whale shark, and we were all treated to mating mobula rays on our arrival to Horseshoe Bay . . .”

However, it appears that things went awry for a group onboard several weeks earlier, and allegations of mismanagement, unpaid refund demands, and an unsafe boat labeled a “death trap” blanketed dive news groups afterwards. A controversy ensued, with fans of Larry Smith’s past performance shaking their heads in disbelief.

The story unfolded with a few phone calls and was later confirmed by Burt’s report. Sea Contacts’ owner, Tito Gideonse, was trying to sell the business, which probably accounts for some of the disruption and dissatisfaction. Sea Contacts had already lost one of its two boats to a fire on February 19 (see 4/00 issue of Undercurrent), which undoubtedly contributed to the problems. Another group (which was negotiating to purchase the boat from Tito and had taken over day-to-day operations while they investigated) has evidently lost interest, citing the amount of money needed to fit the boat and the massive impact of the negative web publicity.

Sea Contacts is now announcing that it is closed and will sell the boat and other assets to help pay its debt. Hopefully those with trip deposits will receive some of their money back.

Dive adventures out on the edge don’t always turn out well, which is in part what makes them an adventure. I think Burt sums it up well:

“There is a good reason why the big operators haven’t moved in yet! Many live-aboards have come and gone. Sea Contacts is just the latest. If you want a real diving adventure Indonesia is the place, but don’t look to be on a fine Italian yacht anytime soon. Personally I like it just the way it is. If Indonesia was easy everybody would have already been there and have the tee shirt to prove it.”

I have to agree, but then I didn’t lose any money. I’ve never been big on trip insurance, and for divers with upcoming Sea Contacts bookings, the question of whether to buy trip insurance seems to be water under the bridge. But keeping a dive operation afloat is more difficult in remote destinations, and those heading for the edge may wish to consider trip cancellation insurance. It’s consumer protection we’ve debated the value of in the past (see Undercurrent, March, 1998), but if the Sea Contacts closing makes insurance sound like a prudent option, try giving one of these insurers a call: Access America (800-729-6021; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard (877-216-4885; www.travelguard.com); CSA (800-873-9855; www.travelsecure.com); or TravelSafe (888-885-7233; www.travelsafe.com).

[To view the complete text of Burt Jones' report, see http://www.islandream.com/seacont9.htm]

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