Trouble in Paradise?
by Gina Mission
A recent spate of diving deaths in the Philippines raises many questions – including why the industry's safety issues aren't openly discussed.
Learning to dive was, for Julie Monteron, a dream come true. It took the 27-year old accountant from Mindanao years of planning and convincing her parents that she wouldn't kill herself before she finally got the chance to do a course and get into the water. But then, like many divers, the exhilaration she felt underwater was almost indescribable. At least, while it lasted: Monteron completed her course, but not long after that she was about 10 minutes into a straightforward dive when an “equipment problem” resulted in her passing out underwater, then undergoing emergency evacuation to the nearest medical facility for treatment.
She was one of the lucky ones: she survived -- which is more than can be said for some other unfortunates involved in diving accidents in the Philippines last year. Mr Jessie Bautista, chief of Recreational Sports & Development at the Philippines Commission for Sports and Scuba Diving (PCSSD), disclosed that his office recorded the deaths of six recreational divers in 1999: three in Camiguin, one in Boracay and two in Puerto Galera. In a separate interview, Kitoy Mercado, Technical Assistance chief in PCSSD's Cebu office, revealed that from 1998 to 1999 the Cebu decompression chamber treated 56 local divers and 13 foreign divers -- and three of those divers “had expired.” In addition, PCSSD Manila treated 66 scuba diving accident victims from 1995 to the present.
Even that is only part of the story: there are three other recompression chambers in the Philippines – at Subic Bay, Cavite and Batangas – which are not under the PCSSD and therefore do not report accident figures to the commission, or the media. There's no way of knowing how many divers were treated by them – even died – during the same period of time, nor of finding out about unreported accidents and divers who never made it to the chambers, particularly from the more remote dive destinations in the country. There are also rumors of concealment of accidents, especially by operators nervous about negative publicity.
Despite the toll, a web of silence seems to surround accidents in the diving industry: dive operators and industry staff will rarely talk openly about accidents, or ask about them, or reveal what they know. Robert Dario, an in-house PADI instructor with Aquaventure --considered one of the best dive operators in the country--points out that the diving community in the Philippines is small and its members “respect each other.” But now insiders are starting to ask just how long dive  professionals can remain “respectful” to each other, how many more diving accidents must happen, before diver safety becomes a legitimate, openly-discussed industry issue. Even Dario admitted that last year's number of diving fatalities – for a “safe sport” – is simply unacceptable. “Whether one death or seven deaths, somebody still got killed,” he said.
Mike Kingery, a dive instructor who used to operate a dive shop in Sarangani Island in Mindanao, is more direct. “It's bad for business,” he said. Diving in the Philippines is a booming tourism industry, so it's not surprising that nobody wants to talk about accidents.
The silence makes it hard for anyone to work out what's going wrong, and how to prevent future accidents. It's not always obvious what the root causes are: even a cursory investigation of the situation reveals a few unexpected answers. For example, according to Dr  Jojo Bernardo, Officer-in-Charge of the recompression chamber in Manila, his experience is that most recereational diving accidents involve experienced divers -- including dive masters and instructors -- rather than novices. Several experts interviewed for this article – including, Dario, Dr Michael Francis Perez, a specialist in hyperbaric medicine who has treated several diving accident patients, and Alex Santos, founder of Philippine Technical Divers – agreed, saying that at one point or another, a diver gets “over confident” and violates even the most basic safety measures such as checking air, depth, and physical or medical fitness. “But in most cases,” the doctor added, “they simply stay too long underwater.”
Another major factor in many accidents – and one that receives far too little attention – is the failure of the pick-up boat to find divers after they have surfaced from the dive. Heneage Mitchell, publisher/editor of The Philipppine Diver, wrote in an article, Practical Information on Diving in the Philippines, that “there are awful (true) stories of divers being dropped into water supposed to be of a known depth and location only to find themselves being swept away by currents that simply aren't supposed to be there, heading out over bottomless abysses of featureless water, then coming up to find themselves lost and alone in the water for hours on end.”
According to Bautista, the three diving deaths in Camiguin last year were partly due to poor coordination between the divers and pick-up boat operators. Even Dr Perez himself has experienced a situation where the pick-up boat was waiting for his dive group in a location far distant from that originally agreed by both parties.
Also common as an underlying cause behind diving accidents is dive masters taking too many divers at the same time. While our group of experts agreed that the ideal ratio is four divers to a dive master, Dr Bernardo said he has seen a dive master take up to ten divers at one time. Explaining the danger of such a situation, Dario remarked: “The more divers the dive master takes, the higher risk for accidents there will be.” But as Mike Kingery commented: “Who can refuse the money?”
As is the case for most diving destinations, the Philippines doesn't have an agency regulating the industry. Standards on safety and training are left to dive certifying organizations such as PADI and NAUI. But Santos cautions that while each dive association has its own programs and safety standards, it's not entirely unheard of for an instructor to take short cuts during training sessions, or for divers to fail to internalize the disciplines the sport requires. Because of this, Santos added, “diving associations should look at the programs more closely.”
Another dilemma, according to Dario, is that there's a very thin line between diver responsibility and operator liability. For example, divers are taught to follow “dive tables” -- which clearly define the amount of time that can safely be spent at a given depth, and the time that should be spent on the surface between dives. But they are told very little of the reasons why, or the consequences of ignoring the tables. So what happens when the individual diver starts to cut corners and crib on the tables -- maybe sneaking a little deeper than he should on a regular basis, cutting down the intervals between diving and ignoring “safety stops” – and it leads to a case of decompression sickness. Is the operator at fault for not policing the diver more closely? Is the diver at fault for being irresponsible? Or is the training agency at fault for not placing a greater emphasis on safety in the course?
Perhaps it's time to consider the wish of Dr. Bernardo: that the Philippines establish a controlling body that has real power to regulate the industry and address some of these major issues of safety.