SCUBA Diving in the midst of COVID-19
Article by Richard Lear, Founder of Gay Scuba Week
What will it take to feel safe enough to go on a dive trip during this pandemic? I have been organizing SCUBA diving trips for 17 years. What started out as a desire to go diving with a bunch of homos turned into Gay Scuba Week. GSW was scheduled to go diving with the Humpback Whales in Maui in March but the non-essential travel ban occurred and the trip was postponed until November. We have another trip scheduled to travel on a live-aboard to the Socorro Islands in December. Now that we are living with a global pandemic, will it take a vaccine to make people feel safe to travel? What will it take to make me comfortable enough to take 30 people on a dive trip? I have detailed the efforts of dive operators and the airline industry below in an effort to help me make some decisions about travel during this time. Maybe it will help you as well.
For most of us, all great diving requires a flight. This is the biggest piece of the puzzle for me. It is one thing to be in an open space where you can control the distance between you and other people. It is another thing to be stuck in an enclosed environment with assigned seating that has always been too close together.
- HEPA air filtration system that removes 99.97% of particles
- Electrostatic sprayers distribute a CDC-approved disinfectant before most flights, and all high-touch surfaces are wiped down to eliminate bacteria.
(I am not sure what equates to most, nor am I sure why it is not all. I am not a scientist and have no idea if the filtration system is going to help when you have someone sitting so close you can smell their breath.)
- Blocking the middle seat to promote social distancing
(They don’t say they are only seating every other row. The average distance between seats in coach is about 31 inches. If your justification to fly is first or business class, remember, everyone is in the same enclosed vessel.)
- Reducing their capacity ranging from 50% - 75% - depending on the type of plane
- Boarding the last row first
(I have always wondered why this has not been the procedure for every airline. Pandemic or not, doesn’t it make sense not to have people crawling all over each other?)
- Requiring everyone to wear a mask except very young children or anyone with a condition that prevents them from wearing one
(Doesn’t that put everyone at risk? Are they going to require a doctor’s note as proof of this condition? Air filtration or not, I do not want to be on a plane with anyone not wearing a mask. Having spoken to friends who have already flown, people take their masks off to eat and drink on the plane. I was not present, but it sounded like it was an excuse to not wear a mask at all. We already know enclosed spaces present the highest risk. I would think the airlines would require a Coronavirus test within 72 hours of travel before allowing anyone to board a plane. Obviously, you could have contracted the virus within that 72 hour period, but it would make me feel a little better knowing everyone on the plane had tested negative within the past couple of days.)
In the past 17 years, I have had the opportunity to work with some extraordinary dive operators. These are people I respect who put the ocean before profit. I have asked them how they plan to approach business mid-pandemic. Here are some of their responses along with my observations.
Does your country have a date set for re-opening?
Palau – Fish ‘n Fins/Mexico – Socorro Vortex - No
Grand Cayman – Sunset House/Hawaii, U.S. – September 1, 2020
Saba – Sea Saba & Julianna’s – October 1, 2020, Canada & Europe - November 1, 2020, USA
Will you require a recent coronavirus test?
Dieter Kudler from Fish ‘n Fins in Palau said currently the government is requiring a test and a 14-day quarantine. I look forward to working with Dieter again, he’s really amazing. This will be a 2021 or 2022 trip for Gay Scuba Week.
My friend, EmmaJane Fisher from Sunset House in Grand Cayman, gave me a link to the official protocol. Right now the government is planning to require an application for entry, which includes the requirement to prove a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of flying. Visitors will receive a health monitoring device upon arriving in the Cayman Islands. After clearing immigration and customs, visitors will then be taken to a monitored self-isolation for five days. Visitors then are given another COVID-19 test. If negative, visitors are able to leave isolation but must still wear the monitoring device. I guess I won’t see EmmaJane until this is over either. I love diving the Sunset House reef.
Lynn Costenaro from Sea Saba, one of the best-run dive shops in the Caribbean, as well as the Socorro Vortex is waiting for their government to determine their guidelines. Hawaii is currently requiring a 14-day quarantine. B&B Scuba does not know what will happen when they reopen in September.
Will you check temperatures every day prior to boarding the boat?
The majority of the dive operators I spoke with will be checking temperatures daily. Some are awaiting guidance from their government. If you look at the protocol for Grand Cayman it would be completely unnecessary, likewise with a 14-day quarantine in Hawaii. In my opinion, there are two sides to checking everyone’s temperature. One is that they could have already spread the virus by the time they realize they have a temperature. Two is that it may limit the number of infections.
Will you lower the capacity on your boats to encourage social distancing?
This was a resounding yes. These operators have already taken a hit financially and they are willing to cut their capacity to save lives. I do not know if it is the compassion of the scuba industry or that I have chosen great people to work with, but this level of responsibility to do what is right over financial gain is so inspiring to me. As an organizer, I have never traveled to a country where being homosexual was illegal. My community is far too important to me. To see this type of responsibility from these operators makes me very loyal.
If there is a vaccine available, will you require proof of taking the vaccine?
The answers for this ranged from yes, to waiting for government guidance, to vaccines are a personal choice. I think this is something that would put the majority of the dive community at ease. If you were getting on a live-aboard or a plane and you knew everyone on the vessel with you had taken a vaccine, wouldn’t you feel safer than not knowing at all? At the same time, if you had a vaccine I would think it would set your mind at ease regardless of what everyone else did. Obviously, we do not have a vaccine yet and this is mere speculation. However, for me, I believe in science. Vaccines work. It is a personal choice though. If a country is requiring proof of a vaccine and it is not something you want to do, you can sit that trip out or travel somewhere else.
What requirements will you have of your dive crew?
Once the skies open up they will require standard protocol from their crew. B&B Scuba added; “our crew’s wellbeing is always at the forefront of our thoughts, even more so due to all that's going on. For that reason, if any of our crew isn’t feeling 100% we ask them to err on the side of caution and take the day off.”
Something you have to realize is that a lot of these locations are coronavirus free. This is a situation where you really have to look at your personal responsibility. If you know you are going to a country that has not been physically affected by COVID-19 you could change that by not being responsible. I would hope their government would prevent that from happening, but it is something to consider. I also hope every diver would take personal responsibility and not risk infecting others in any situation. If dive operators are willing to lower capacity and forego financial gain, surely we can put our desire to dive in the backseat and let responsibility drive.
How will you manage high touch surfaces and rental gear?
All of the operators have protocols in place to sanitize rental gear after every use and to clean surfaces. Sea Saba will also have everyone use hand sanitizer prior to getting on the boat as well as having bottles for use before, after, and between dives onboard.
Where does this leave you and me, and when can we go on a great dive trip?
I think this is still in the air. The news is saying we are going to have a second wave here in the USA. All of the operators through which I have scheduled trips have agreed to allow postponement. If I went on a trip and one person contracted the coronavirus I would be beside myself. Yes, I realize everyone is an adult and makes their own decisions. However, life is far too important to sacrifice for a dive trip that can happen later. As much as I want to be underwater I do not want it to be my last dive. So, like my mother used to always say, let’s wait and see. In the interim, I’ll fill my bathtub and pretend.
One more thing:
Divi Flamingo, Bonaire - Sea Saba/Juliana’s, Saba – Fish N Fins, Palau - Sunset House, Grand Cayman - Beqa Lagoon, Fiji - Aqua World, Cozumel - B&B Scuba, Maui - The Galapagos Sky, Galapagos - The Socorro Vortex, Socorro Islands