Thursday, 10 January 2008

Entry Update -- Cayman Islands, Death By Scuba - the 20 minutes of fame travel destinations don't want. Updated 2008

Wearing my Diver Magazine hat I attended a number of travel events this past month as warm weather destinations came to Toronto to roll out their winter campaigns to attract travellers. Typically a country will send its marketing team, its PR firm and its minister of tourism. There are steel drums, lotsa great food, drinks, good times and mountains of press kits.

It can be a difficult task to interview a tourism minister in his/her own country - 15 years ago - almost a lifetime it seems - in St Kitts I sat on a chair in their downtown government house waiting to meet the vice premier. After six hours his assistant acknowledged that in fact the minister was off-island. So, I find these events useful because you actually talk to the decision makers. Most tourism ministers walk to pump hands and pump sunshine, however,if you try real hard, they will answer the tough questions.

Last week I went to the Cayman Island tourism launch and talked to the Minister of Tourism about diver fatality stats from the most popular dive destination in the Caribbean. His answers were refreshingly frank. I will report on my brief interview in this Blog later today .... don't touch that dial.

Hey. Hey. I write these words on January 10th, 2008. I never did fill in the blanks did I? My excuse? I got busy after the post and didn't got around it doing it (until today). And, to be honest, I actually sent a job application into the Cayman Government. Didn't think it would help the cause if I waxed on about diver deaths and a cabinet on these pages while I was trying to sell my services as a pr type rather than a nosy journalist (I do both). As it was I never did hear back from the Government. Sigh - The Cayman Islands Government has learned Toronto rude.

As far as the interview went with the minister, he and his associates were very blunt. It was refreashing. They see the sport of diving as being in decline - which impacts negatively on their visitor numbers. Oh there are still people joining the sport each year but at most (and they quoted PADI figures) there are only 2 million active divers on the planet. On any given year two million divers will never go to one destination to dive - like Cayman - however, in a calender year over a million people will visit the Cayman Islands on cruise ships.

So, according to the minister, the three-island British colony will continue to court the cruise ship trade with vigor and passion (hence their arrival in YYZ). Diving will not be ignored, but, the future of the island's tourism industry no longer rests on a pair of flippers.

A large percentage of the cruise ship visitors want to take part in water activities when they arrive in Georgetown. Most want to lie on the Seven Mile Beach. Others want to snorkel and visit Sting Ray City. A small number want to scuba dive.

It is the people in the second and third categories who are dying. A very small percentage of visitors arrive on the island standing up and leave in a box.

Why, I asked the minister are people dying in the water? His take on the figures are that with such large numbers of visitors, stats wise people are going to die. Many of the deceased were overweight, old, out-of-shape and already suffering from severe medical problems -- the snorkeling or diving speeded up a process that was probably well underway before that person arrived on the island.

The island feels its dive and snorkel standards are stricter then any other Caribbean island. But, the problem facing operators is that cruise ship passengers have a tight time-line on the island, and there is little opportunity to evaluate people's diving skills, experience levels and health, before putting them in the water.

There have been deaths on Little Cayman island - where no cruise ship visitor ever treads. The minister noted that these deaths involved experience divers and the government was at a loss to figure out was caused those accidents. (Not all of the bodies have yet been recovered from the base of Bloody Bay Wall. One incident is being classed as dbs - death by scuba - the body of diver was never found but a sucide note was recovered.

The day after I met with the minister that was another scuba/snorkel fatality on the island. I plan to visit the island have a more detailed interview with the Minister.

One more Cayman Diving Death

Just after posting the above blog entry about dive accidents in Cayman, the following appeared in the Cayman Net News.

Woman dies while scuba diving
Published on Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service (RCIPS) have begun an investigation after the death of a 47-year-old female scuba diver on Saturday, 19 January.

At around 10:40 am, the 911 Emergency Communications Centre received a call from a member of the public reporting that a woman aboard a dive boat was unconscious and being brought back to shore at West Bay public beach.

Medics and police were deployed to the scene while CPR was administered aboard the boat. The woman was taken to hospital but unfortunately passed away. It would appear she had been diving with a group of others when she passed out returning to the surface.

The woman had been vacationing in Cayman and was from England.

A police investigation is underway and a post mortem will be carried out.

This the first diving death reported in 2008.

In 2007, five divers died during the first four months of the year.

The first fatality occurred on 24 January 2007 and involved a 54-year-old man scuba diving near Sunset House.

On 11 February, a 43-year-old woman disappeared while diving on Bloody Bay Wall during a trip from Little Cayman Beach Resort.

On 4 March 2007, a 71-year-old man died while scuba diving off East End and just a week later, on 11 March, a 57-year-old man from Texas died while on a dive off Smith’s Cove on South Church Street.

Then, on Sunday, 15 April, another visitor to Little Cayman, this time a 59-year-old man who was an experienced diver, failed to return from a dive on Bloody Bay Wall.

At the time, Hon Charles Clifford, Minister for Tourism, said the Cayman Islands had a much better safety record than other destinations in the region. His comments were backed up by the fact that there were no further serious incidents reported during the rest of 2007.

A source within the dive industry said they felt that it was unfair to single out specific activities. “We should be looking at the overall picture and the causes of these deaths,” they said, adding that the majority of the deaths seemed to be due to pre-existing conditions rather than the activity itself.

However, it may be some time before an official verdict is given on any of these incidents. All the deaths must be the subject of an inquest but, as there is no on-island Coroner, delays of up to two years can occur before the cause of death is finally decided.

In 2007, concern was expressed that this delay makes it very difficult to implement measures, which might prevent future fatal incidents involving divers.

Second Death for Cayman Islands. Shore diver gone missing.

hore Diver lost near Turtle Farm

My two sons learned to dive off Cracked Conch a few years. It is a safe, fun and enjoyable dive site. By my tally this is the second diver death on Cayman this year. This gentleman was 64, last week's was 49. Used to be that most fatalities were young newcomers to the sport, nowadays, it isn't that way at all.

Diver missing off Grand Cayman

Wednesday 30th January, 2008 Posted: 15:33 CIT (20:33 GMT) - Cayman Compass Newspaper

A search for a missing scuba diver continued Wednesday morning after he failed to make it back to shore on Tuesday afternoon.

The 64–year–old man went out for a shore dive off Cracked Conch in West Bay.

At around 3pm, staff from Sun Divers notified police that the man had failed to return. The man, who is an American citizen, has been a regular visitor to Cayman over the past 15 years and was staying at Morritts Tortuga, where he owned a time share.

When he went out for the dive, he left the shoreline with five other people and, according to members of his group, he was experiencing buoyancy problems and indicated that he was returning to the shore. They told officers that they then saw the man surface and begin swimming back toward the coast, but when they returned he had not made it back.

A sea, air and land search was immediately launched by the Royal Cayman Islands Police and several other agencies joined the search, including the Department of Environment, Port Authority, and a number of local boats, including Cayman Aggressor. The helicopter was also brought in to assist, but the man was not located.

The search was called off after the sun went down and commenced again at first light on Wednesday, but as of 10am, he had still not been found.

Ronnie Dougal of the Department of Environment said “the water conditions were pretty good off Cracked Conch that day and there appeared to be very little current. The missing man was a farmer and he had been informed he was in good physical health.”

Editor's Note: Since posting this article, the body of the 64-year old diver was recovered by Cayman officials.