Diving used to be a fairly laid-back and non-confrontational leisure activity. In fact, in the early days most divers were generally considered to have a few screws loose but that was part of the appeal. The idea that diving was inherently a flirtation with a real or perceived danger was pretty much a “given” by both the participants and their amused observers. Everyone seemed to get along just fine, and with the advent of a fledgling “dive travel” industry that allowed the sport to be pursued in the hospitable and intriguing islands of the Caribbean or Bahamas, diving became a true family sport for the first time. But over the years, our sport has increasingly become burdened with the ugly spectre of a crusading right wing “scuba police” determined to save divers from themselves.
Since the late 1980s, the trend of progressively more restrictive regulations in the sanctimonious guise of “safety” is rapidly turning the sport’s experienced divers into alienated and angry consumers.
Most importantly, there is no quantifiable data to support such rules as depth limitations, mandated no-decompression diving, absolute bans on alcohol consumption, denied use of diving computers, limitations to numbers of dives per day etc. Significantly, DAN and the UHMS have reversed their recommendation on not flying within a 24-hour period following diving for the simple reason that there was no evidence to prove this rule’s validity. During the period that this recommendation was observed, some overzealous resort operators used it as an excuse to deny diving to vacationers on the day before they departed.
Interestingly, those operators that were most rigid in enforcing the 24-hour flying rule were those that sold “inclusive dive/hotel package plans”. They were, in essence, denying a portion of the pre-paid diving service to customers citing this arbitrary “safety” recommendation. Many customers that purchased a typical week long vacation that would offer six full days of diving included in the price suddenly found themselves limited to five days of diving. You figure the real motivation here: safety or economics?
I am dismayed at the handful of vocal self-righteous apostles of diving safety that have tried advance their own agendas to influence our sport. Many point the finger at our legal system blaming excessive litigation and a bevy of lawyers waiting to pounce on dive operators. If anything, this restrictive mentality will ultimately lead to more avenues of perceived liability. In many cases, our court system bases standards of care, duty to warn etc. on “local community or industry standards”. This continuing assumption of more responsibility mandated by dive operators will ultimately result in a “standard” that WILL require even more ridiculous regulatory limitations.
Ask yourself how long the skiing industry would survive if they attempted to deny a lunch customer a beer with his sandwich, or if the ski patrol decided to deny a skier access to the expert slopes. The ski resorts know their business is SERVICE and they let their customers decide what reasonable risks they will take. If you buy a lift ticket, you get access to the whole mountain not just the “bunny hill”. If you are a certified diver, when you buy your ticket to go diving you should be extended the same courtesy and respect.
Otherwise where do we draw the line: do we exclude those who are twenty pounds overweight? Those who are too thin? How about smokers? Or coffee drinkers? Or those who stayed out too late last night? Or those who cannot prove that they have complied with the recommended fluid intake in the last 12 hours? Or those in lime green wet suits? You can quickly see the absurdity of these scenarios. (Although the summary execution of those in ridiculous outfits might have some validity…)
During my nearly forty years in the diving industry as an owner and operator of one of the Caribbean’s largest diving facilities, liveaboards, and later as Vice President and CEO of Ocean Quest International (the world’s largest diving operation in history still to this day), I handled almost 400,000 sport dives by a wide variety of recreational divers. In all that time, we NEVER imposed a limit on any dive activities. We made recommendations and gave good dive site orientations. Those customers who wanted to dive under the supervision of one of our guides were cheerfully accommodated and those who wanted to dive on their own or with a buddy according to their own dive plans were free to do so.
In spite of our policy of total diving freedom, we only experienced a total of 9 DCS cases in that large diver population. ALL of those bends cases were on dives less than 130 feet and none had any links to alcohol consumption, decompression diving, use of diving computers (or other decompression monitors), etc. Interestingly, 7 of the 9 cases of DCS were divers who were within the limits of their Tables! So at least in my experience, which is considerable, none of the current restrictive regulations by some of the old-school die-hard operations would have made the slightest difference in preventing the incidence of bends.
And let’s remember that a large number of today’s resort divemasters and instructors (who are expected to interpret and enforce these “rules”) are relatively inexperienced themselves. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for the vacationing divers to have more experience than the staff that is supposedly supervising them. This also leads to a less than ideal scenario when differences of opinion as to whether certain restrictions are necessary.
Recently in Cozumel, I witnessed a hopeless exchange of hostilities between a freshly credentialed instructor only on the island a few weeks after graduating from his instructor program and a middle-aged diving doctor who had been visiting the resort since the early 1970′s. Incredibly…the instructor insisted that the divers in his charge use Tables instead of computers. For any diver used to the freedom and extra bottom time allowed by a modern dive computer-assisted multi-level plan, a sudden banishment to “square profile” Table computations amounts to theft of his underwater vacation time.
A real-life Mexican stand-off was rapidly escalating beyond the “discussion” stage into a shooting war, when I made a suggestion that satisfied both parties. The instructor only had orders to have all divers plan their exposures on Tables but no particular Table was specified. I asked if he meant the U.S. NAVY, DCIEM, PADI “Wheel”, or British Tables? He said he didn’t care what our diving doctor used as long as they were a published Table with set limits.
Presto: I handed him a laminated set of the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) Tables calculated for a 5% incidence rate of decompression sickness in working commercial and military divers. They allow a 50-minute bottom time at 100 feet. A knowing smile passed between the doctor and me. He immediately volunteered to abide by this Table knowing full well that his dive computer profile would easily accommodate the same schedule on a multi-level dive. The instructor was satisfied because he was following the resort’s rules, no matter how absurdly. Everyone put away their dive knives and lived happily ever after.
Or at least until the next free spirit demanded to be treated like a thinking adult…probably the group on the following morning’s dives.
Those who like to promulgate further restriction in our sport should be reminded that one of the first elements of diving that attracts many participants is freedom. Informed personal choice should govern our sport once divers leave the confines of training. Continuing further down the path of increased “rules and regs” only again reminds me of this self-important mentality: “I’m cold, so everyone put on a sweater”.