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August 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cayman Dive Operators Protest Safety Regulations

from the August, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Are you comfortable on a guided dive when no one remains on the boat above? Well, Cayman dive operators don’t want to foot the extra expense of keeping a lookout topside.

For 25 years, a Port Authority Law regulation has been on the books, stating: “At least one person shall remain on board and act as lookout on any dive boat … whilst divers there from are down.” It had been rarely enforced until dive operators recently announced they wanted to change the rule, calling it outdated. Now marine officials are starting to enforce it, setting up a battle.

Stephen Broadbelt, co-founder of dive shop Ocean Frontiers and chairman of the Cayman Watersports Committee, is leading the protest. He told Undercurrent the policy could do more harm than good because it sacrifices in–water supervision. “The Caymans have deep dropoffs very close to shore, requiring supervision. Divemasters would rather be in the water with the divers than sit back on the boat and do nothing. Our customers won’t enjoy this great experience as much when unsupervised, and at least half of them need in-water supervision.”

To that, the Caymans’ Customs Marine Unit said the solution is simple: Hire a lookout. But dive operators like Nancy Easterbrook at Divetech say that’s not reasonable. “Take a boat that now has one employee and takes six divers out. If they take two staff on board now, they also have to reduce the diver count to five to comply with boat capacity, thereby reducing revenue by almost 17 percent. Include the doubling of staffing costs, that’s unaffordable as no one operates at these kinds of margins. And like everyone else, we are already suffering the high costs of fuel, electricity, etc.”

While the U.S. doesn’t spell out lookout requirements as specifically as the Cayman Islands, the Coast Guard and dive boat insurers make it clear they want a trained professional on the boat with divers in the water. Federal regulations for commercial dive operations state: “The person-in-charge shall ensure that: 1) a means of rapid communications with the diving supervisor while the diver is entering, in, or leaving the water is established; and 2) a boat and crew for diver pickup in the event of an emergency is provided.” Also, “the person-in-charge shall ensure a boat and crew for diver pickup is provided.” In its dive-boat insurance policy brochure, PADI states, “Dive vessel coverage excludes divers while they are in the water and requires an insured professional on board. To best protect the vessel owner, diving accidents in the water should be covered by a professional liability policy carried by professional instructors and divemasters.”

Inspector Brad Ebanks of the Caymans’ Customs Marine Unit told the Caymanian Compass newspaper that the lookout regulation has been enforced because of various accidents recently, such as a dive boat breaking from its mooring and drifting into the reef, causing damage. There had been no lookout on board to bring it back. He also said that when a diver comes to the surface with problems there needs to be someone on board to help if there is no dive buddy with them. “We want to keep this as a safe diving destination. That’s the reason the regulation is there.”

While the sides debate, Cayman dive operators plan to introduce a GPS system this year that puts geo-tags on all dive boats. When the engine is turned off, a boat’s geotag is turned on, and an alarm is triggered if it moves past a stated perimeter.

But while the industry has governed itself, the government says it plans to develop a regulatory regime for commercial dive boats. Dive operators say big changes could put them out of business. “We have a very high standard of safety and very low rates of accidents, decompression sickness and fatalities,” says Easterbrook. “By having staff in-water with the divers, we have accomplished this safety record. So why fix something that is not broken?”

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