I’ve learned so much since I started diving. Through my courses, by watching great divers in action, and often by making my own mistakes (check out my ‘uh-oh’ decompression moment here). But one thing nobody ever had to teach me was “don’t destroy or hurt what you’ve come to see”. Apparently, this isn’t as common sense as I think it is. Warren and I had the misfortune of spending January 23rd and 24th on boats with some other divers who don’t seem to care much for the old (yet oh so important) ‘do no harm’ adage. In the interest of being open-minded, I considered the possibility that perhaps the ignorant behavior I saw underwater was simply a lack of education. Maybe, I thought, these people actually DON’T know better. Maybe they are legitimately unaware that what they are doing is destructive and all it’ll take to stop it is for someone to point it out to them and explain why. After some thoughtful conversation with some of our dive friends at dinner Warren and I tried to put it behind us. We were back on the boat the next morning for 2 more dives with a new group of people. Unfortunately for us (but much worse for Cozumel’s underwater inhabitants), 3 of the divers with us blew that entire ‘maybe its a lack of education’ theory right out of the water. This post is written with sadness, anger, and a pretty big sense of helplessness. I think its important to share these experiences here though – for myself, as a way to reflect and decompress, but also in the hope that putting this out there will cause all of you to reflect too. Think about how these lessons apply to whatever environment you find yourself in (underwater or otherwise) and, perhaps more importantly, what you can do when you see the kinds of behavior we just did.
So, without any further ado, here’s the skinny on what happened.
Our dive group on Monday included 2 older ladies who’ve been diving in Cozumel many times. We all dropped into the water together and immediately upon reaching the sandy bottom one of them pulled out a home made metal pole (a 10 inch bolt with a few nuts screwed on) and began jabbing it into the sand with every fin kick. She pulled herself along the bottom in this manner, every kick accompanied by another stab with the pole. I was immediately alarmed. “What on earth is she doing that for??” I wondered, followed quickly by the realization that she was looking up and around, not down to make sure that there wasn’t any number of creature (stingray, flounder, fish…you get the idea) about to be impaled by her ‘aide’. I can’t think of a single reason that a competent diver with good buoyancy control would need to drag themselves around underwater like this. And if you aren’t yet a competent diver with good buoyancy control (perhaps you are new and still working on these skills, as I am) then you should simply put more air in your BCD and stay a little higher up so you aren’t smacking into the bottom. Its not good for your gear to be dragged through the sand and smash against rocks and coral, its not good for your air consumption because you’ll be working so much harder to stay streamlined and horizontal, and its REALLY not good for the bottom!! Things went from bad to worse when we reached the reef, because she continued to claw her way through it with that damn pole, leaving a wake of damaged coral behind her and numerous creatures running for cover. Both her and her dive buddy were also kicking the bottom constantly; that poor dive site took a real beating.
Once back on the boat and about to start our second dive the guide suggested she be careful not to put the pole into coral. She quickly replied that she would NEVER do that, she ONLY ever puts it the dirt. Warren and I stayed far enough away from them on the second dive that we wouldn’t have to watch the destruction, both unable to stomach it. We were both angry, but unsure what our place was. Do we say something? Do we leave that to the guide? She’d already been called on it but flatly denied any wrong doing and the guide was unwilling to pursue it further. We kept quiet and spoke later to our friends at the hotel/dive shop. These divers were approached by a staff member that evening about our concerns but it was clear that they still didn’t believe they’d done anything wrong and how dare we suggest otherwise. One of them smartly informed us that her son is a marine biologist and so she knows all about diving appropriately to protect the marine environment. Really? Really?!? Warren suggested she take the Peak Performance Buoyancy course and that she was seriously over-weighted (we were lead on belts around our waist or in pockets on our BCDs to be able to sink, all that neoprene and compressed air is buoyant! Fine tuning the amount of weight you need can be challenging but is very important). His suggestions were not particularly well received.
Tuesday was a whole new group of divers (we specifically requested NOT to be on the same boat as those 2 ladies) and we headed to the southern most part of the island for a less-frequently-dived site famous for its soft corals. It was beautiful and an uneventful dive. With us was a group of 3, 2 of whom are PADI Staff Instructors, which is fairly high up on the PADI totem pole. The 3rd is a PADI Dive Master. I know this because they’ve been boasting about it since we met them on Friday…the words pompous and arrogant came to mind as a first impression. But, you can’t expect to like everyone you dive with and just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they aren’t also good at what they do. I wasn’t impressed with how they flaunted the rules of no decompression diving (by going into a fair bit of decompression, and then bragging about it like its a good thing) on that first dive – but that’s their business I suppose.
On the second dive, an enormous Hawksbill turtle was sighted right under where we descended. Generally turtles continue to grow larger as they age, so this guy had to have been really, really old! Immediately upon sighting the turtle the a for-mentioned DM (idiot #1 let’s call him) charged straight at him, grabbed hold of the top of his shell and came down right on top of him, forcing the turtle into the sand below. He held him there, quite forcefully as its a big turtle and he was working pretty hard to escape, shoved the camera into his face and snapped away. Meanwhile, idiot #2 (one of the staff instructors) charged up and got right into that turtle’s face from the other side also snapping away with his camera. This poor turtle, who I can only imagine to be quite frightened as he was still working frantically to escape, was caught between the two of them and couldn’t move fast enough to get away. Meanwhile the guide was shaking his noise maker and signalling them to stop, I was banging hard on my tank and waving my hands at them, and Warren was kicking hard against the current trying to push them away. Bless his heart, he went right over there and body checked those two idiots, managing to push one of them away from the turtle. Despite all this frantic noise making and gesturing underwater these two remained hell bent on assaulting that turtle to get their precious pictures. Once the turtle finally got away, our guide continued on the tour. I wished desperately for the rest of that dive NOT to see a turtle, or a shark, or an eagle ray, or anything else that might possibly be unlucky enough to draw the idiots’ attention…or slow enough that they could catch it. They had the gall to continue on that dive as if nothing bad had happened, as if they’d done nothing wrong. Warren and I swam along, both fuming, waiting for the dive to end so we could get to the surface and spit out the various curses we were quickly accumulating. At the end of the dive, when all of us were hovering at our safety stops, a nurse shark was spotted below. All 3 idiots charged it, then seemed a bit frightened when it made a move to escape, but idiot #2 decided that aggressively chasing a startled shark was a good idea and off he went after it. Lucky for the shark, he was no match. Lucky for him, that shark didn’t turn around and bite him…though Warren and I were both hoping very much that he would. Once again, the idiots were all in deco, leaving those of us on the boat time to stew over what we’d just witnessed.
Idiot #1 (the DM who held the turtle down) surfaced first and before he could even board the boat Warren jumped into the water and gave him a piece of our minds. I heard words I won’t repeat here but everyone of them was justified, and I was glad he said it. His response to being asked (not quite this politely) what he was thinking was “I wanted to go for a ride”. Seriously, that’s what he said. When the other two were back on the boat the guide told them its important not to touch anything, and not to corner the animals. I thought he was being far too kind about it, but he was trying to address it in a manner that wouldn’t cost him his tips – a big part of his income. Idiot #2 kept exclaiming “but I didn’t touch it!”, as if that made his actions excusable. Never mind that all of us had witnessed him grabbing at the turtle. The last idiot chimed in with “well I didn’t touch the turtle” to which another diver on board retorted “yeah but you were kicking the reef!”. Her response? “Oh well”. That’s when the rest of us all just sat in stunned silence, trying hard to squelch the urge to throw them all over board and their damn cameras too. They were huddled together admiring all the wonderful close ups of that turtle they’d gotten….some things I just can’t stomach. If only I’d had MY camera – I could have documented their awfulness and plastered it all over the internet in a good ole’ fashioned public shaming. With egos that big only embarrassment is likely to make them think twice.
As PADI professionals they most certainly knew that their behavior was absolutely unacceptable, completely appalling, and that the rest of us were justified in our anger. They just didn’t care though. In fact, Warren was approached later on by the oldest of the group and informed that it was ‘unprofessional’ of him to call out the behavior on a boat full of people. If he’d had a problem he should have said so later on in private. That his own behavior was way past ‘unprofessional’ didn’t register. If you’re going to brag about being a PADI staff instructor, then I think its fair game for others to hold you to those professional standards. That these 3 got through PADI successfully makes me think a little less of the brand. That’s harsh, but its true. Then again, the way that Warren called them out on their behavior, as another professional representative of PADI, made me feel a bit better.
Another problem in all of this was the way the guides responded…meekly. At the end of both days I watched the offenders tip them. I understand that this is their income, that they depend on those tips. But there must be another way! A friend of ours had a great suggestion – Warren and I shouldn’t tip them. We should instead inform them that they haven’t earned our tips today, because they allowed that awful behavior to take place to get the offenders’ tips and so in return they wouldn’t be getting ours. This strategy would certainly pack a real punch over the long term, but only if for every bad diver out there who doesn’t get their hand slapped there is also a good diver ready to let the guide know that they are unimpressed. Lets all encourage dive operations to respect the ocean and everything in it by taking our business to only those that will not tolerate such awful behaviors. Don’t get me wrong here – I love the Blue Angel. But after what I saw these past few days its clear there is still room for improvement. Knowing a few of the people working behind the scenes here I’m confident positive change is already taking hold, but I won’t be afraid to with hold tips in the future or post honest reviews on tripadvisor.com and scubaboard.com. Money is a powerful motivator and while I can’t control individual behavior, I do believe I can have an impact on whether or not that behavior is tolerated. I can almost guarantee that the next time that particular turtle spots divers he’s going to take off and want nothing to do with them. There are probably a lot of other sea creatures out there who’ve had similar encounters and also work to avoid people now. Long term, why on earth would I want to go diving someplace where all the wildlife hides as soon as I hit the water? My tourist dollars will be going to places with zero-tolerance policies for dealing with those divers who touch, poke, chase, molest and assault the animals, or damage the reef.
If you’ve had similar experiences, or you’ve got suggestions on how best to respond to these sorts of problems, I’m all ears! Comments are always welcome. In the meantime, I’m even more motivated than ever to be the best diver I can be. I’d like to be the kind of diver others see as an example on how to properly behave underwater and interact with marine inhabitants. I’d like to be the kind of diver I’ve been lucky enough to have as my own role models. Thank you to them – for reinforcing right and wrong as it applies to scuba and for sharing their knowledge and suggestions in dealing with the gong shows above.
PS – If you’d like to see the kind of amazing pictures that result from a healthy and appropriate turtle encounter, check out Warren’s pictures here or read about it here. We got up close and personal with more turtles than we could keep track of on our trip and it was all because we let them approach us on their own terms, making sure never to chase them, touch them, or come between them and a quick exit once they’d had enough of us.