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October 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When There’s Not Enough Divers

what dive operators do about it, for better or for worse

from the October, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When you go to a movie and only three other people show up, does the theater close? If you’re the only couple at a restaurant, do they refuse to serve you and shut the door? Obviously, no to both questions. So why can’t the same be expected from dive operators? There’s been many a time when a disappointed diver or two has been turned away from a third tank or a night dive because they’re not enough for the “four diver minimum” or whatever number that operator requires.

My thoughts are that if you’ve flown off to a liveaboard located on the other side of the world and a big dive group backed out, they still damn well better honor your reservation. If a dive operation promises night dives on their Web site, they shouldn’t require a four-person minimum. You’re doing your part of the bargain – you’re a certified diver with money to spend and you’ve traveled far for a vacation. A dive operator should honor their part - - offer good customer service - - not insist on making a buck on each and every activity.

For example, William Ungerman (Santa Ana, CA) made arrangements in August with the Puerto Rican operation Sea Ventures, with three locations on the island. “We opted for the Humacao/Palmas Del Mar location after talking to Kristine, their booking coordinator. We booked for five days of twotank dives. We arrived on Sunday and were promptly advised by Kristine that there was a problem diving on Monday. The excuses ran the gamut from a Coast Guard inspection, the boat needing repair, the boat captain leaving and making trouble, and a few others. No diving on Monday unless we were willing to drive 50 miles to their Fajardo location. Ah, no thanks.” They dived Tuesday and Wednesday but Kristine called to cancel the Thursday dives, offering “a number of insurmountable problems again, although I suspect that they couldn’t get any more divers to go and they didn’t want to go out with just the four of us. Sea Ventures is the only game in town. We opted to cancel the balance of the diving, which was probably just as well because we learned we were going to be canceled anyway because of the lack of either a boat captain or the requisite number of divers.”

Marjorie Griffin (Norcross, GA) and her dive buddy booked a two-tank trip with South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach last March. “We booked a boat with a 12-person capacity and were to dive a wreck to 60 feet, then a 35-foot drift dive. When we showed up at their office, they said the afternoon boats left from another location. When we arrived at the other location, they told us there weren’t enough divers to run the trip so we were assigned to a boat holding 40 people, 30 of them snorkelers. The divers were assigned to the back where it was impossible to get geared up. The first dive was to 35 feet. We came up with 1,800 psi after the 45-minute time limit. The second dive averaged 11 feet, and we had 2,000 psi left. Had we known this was the profile, we would have only needed one tank each, not the two we paid for. The crew rushed us to switch over our tanks between dives because we ‘only have five minutes.’ The bait-and-switch tactic was not appreciated.”

Offering extra cash and bodies to meet the minimum number didn’t do it for Mike Fitzgerald (Bethany, IL) when he dived with Lahaina Divers in Maui last February. “I had set up three day dives two months ahead of time. The first dive was set for a Friday and Saturday. I got a message that there were not enough divers and my dive had been changed to Super Bowl Sunday. I went to the dive shop Saturday morning and found out they were only one diver short. Had I known this, I could have offered my wife as a snorkeler to entice them to make the trip. ‘Too late now,’ said the guy behind the counter. My third dive to Molokini Crater was set for Wednesday. Another cellphone message on Tuesday afternoon: ‘We only have four divers out of six minimum for the trip, so it has been cancelled.’ I called back within 10 minutes and asked if we could pay for the extra two divers and still go. ‘Sorry we have already contacted everyone, so no go.’” And no help to find another shop to take them out.

Operations like these have a philosophy that each dive trip must make a profit, so they see no long-term value in goodwill and keeping their word. Thankfully, there are plenty of operations that do serve their customers.

Paul Schneider was in Maui around the same time as Mike Fitzgerald but picked Maui Dive Shop. “Its boat is equipped for up to 24 divers but there were only six divers on board and they’ll run it even if there is only one diver booked.” In Kauai, Bubbles Below gets high marks from Scott George (Hollyglen, CA). “They normally run with no more than six divers but on my trip there was only the divemaster, another diver and me. I appreciated that they didn’t cancel.”

On his last day of diving with Dominica’s Fort Young Hotel, Alan Ritter (Des Peres, MO) asked his divemaster Fitzroy whether he was going out Saturday morning. “He responded that if I didn’t mind his doing some work on an anchorage near Scott’s Head, I was welcome to come along. He briefed me and just said ‘stay in sight until I finish working.’ Halfway through my tank, he was done, so we meandered off together. Back on the boat, he told me to head down and he would join me. I had no more than turned around to orient myself when I had two rays swimming through my bubbles. Had there been a herd of divers, we would never have gotten that close to the rays. As it was, Fitzroy and I just enjoyed their company.”

Reputable liveaboards are more likely to stick to their sailing itinerary even if only two divers show up – and divers already on board often get a financial incentive to stay on longer. “My wife and I were the only two guests scheduled to sail on Peter Hughes’ Star Dancer in Papua New Guinea,” says Daniel Benson (Klamath Falls, OR). “It sailed as scheduled. At the last minute, Hughes made a deal with two other people who had been on the boat the week before to stay on for a reduced price.”

The Bilikiki is another boat noted for sailing when hardly anyone shows. The Aggressor fleet also has had a good reputation, and now its policy is that all of its boats will run, regardless of the number of passengers booked.

“For the past two years we have booked trips with Grand Komodo Tours in Indonesia and have been spoiled,” says Chrisanda Button (Elkins, AR). “In 2006, we spent a week on the Nusa Tara, which normally carries six divers, but only three had signed up. In 2007, we signed up for a two-week trip aboard the Temu Kira, which can accommodate twelve divers. Only five divers had booked. In both cases, the boats departed with full crews, excellent food and service, and a full schedule of diving. We have become used to having a private yacht.”

Dive operations that treat their customers well will get loyalty in return. Ocean Divers in Key Largo got a rave review from Craig Wood (Radnor, PA). “Twice, I have dived the Duane on a Sunday with just two divers. Never a complaint from the captain or mate. Ocean Divers has earned my respect, so I will continue to dive with them whenever I have the opportunity.“

But with higher fuel costs, will they be so likely to go out with just one or two divers? We asked Mike Smith, owner of Ocean Divers in Key Largo, who says he hasn’t changed the policy. “We keep our word to customers. If they’ve scheduled a trip, and we’ve agreed to run it, then we do so unless conditions dictate that it would be unsafe. Of course, we are in business to make money, but our best form of advertisement has always been ‘word of mouth.’ We get new customers by providing consistent service to our existing customers, and they tell others . . . just like you found out about us from one of our customers. In the long run, what may appear to be a loss on one day is usually a gain for many more.”

But while dive operators may still take just two divers on their boats, they might not go out as far. From his trip on the Sanctuary in Monterey in July, Robert Halem (San Jose, CA) reported, “There were only two passengers on this six-pack boat, but they went out anyway. In light of current fuel prices, we didn’t go far, just some nice offshore reefs.”

Here’s to hoping the global economy rebounds quickly, but in the meantime, dive operators shouldn’t forget that divers, each and every one of them, are its bread and butter. Here’s validation in a report from Jim Schoeneck (San Diego, CA) about his May trip to Provo, Turks & Caicos with Caicos Adventures. “On our first day, Fifi, the owner, was captain and informed us we’d head out right away as we were the only people on the 54- foot catamaran besides him and the dive instructor. I asked him about their policy when so few divers signed up and he said it was really simple. ‘It’s not where you are at the end of the day that matters. It’s where you are at the end of the year. Repeat customers are crucial, so we take care of the customers first. If people want to dive with us, we go.’ He said he knows other boats that develop ‘mechanical’ problems when there are very few customers, but it’s just not the way he’s built his business.”

So for those dive operations who keep their word, a big thumbs up. For those who cancel dives for want of a minimum when their customers have traveled halfway around the world, don’t expect our business.

- - Ben Davison

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