Dive operators are offering scuba as a socially distanced activity — it is a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, after all, and divers can swap their masks from fabric to glass and blow bubbles close to their buddies. Some shops are scheduling private charters and shore-based group dives at coastlines and lakes. And scuba training agencies are providing e-learning instruction for aspiring to advanced divers.
As the novel coronavirus spread, a tsunami of travel cancellations wrecked independent shops, live-aboard boats and resorts. For Merial Currer, owner of Patriot Scuba in Occoquan, Va., the biggest challenge was a lack of water. The pool and quarry her shop uses for training closed during the initial shutdown.
Both facilities have reopened with restrictions, but “we’ve definitely had fewer customers,” she said. Some can’t schedule around the reduced availability, and others are nervous about jumping in.
“Being in the water isn’t as much of an issue,” she added. “It’s all the surface stuff around the water that’s the concern.”
To help prevent viral spread, her staff disinfects equipment before and after use and totes sanitation materials to pools and open-water sites. Students complete a covid-19 screening questionnaire before beginning socially distanced classes, usually limited to four people. Instructors and customers wear masks, and the retail shop arranges private appointments.
“I won’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do,” said Currer, who was diagnosed with asthma in January. “I want to be okay, and we want to be certain everyone else is okay.”
Douglas Ebersole is a Florida-based diving instructor and volunteer consultant for Divers Alert Network (DAN), a recreational diver association that provides medical emergency assistance and promotes dive safety. In late March, he contracted covid-19 from a patient in his cardiology practice.
“Students want to make sure we’re not putting them at risk or exposing them to something that could put their children, parents or grandparents at risk,” he said.
Many divers are concerned about placing rental breathing equipment in their mouths. Now, Ebersole said, operators are disinfecting gear with products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use against the coronavirus.
“Dive shops and instructors are accustomed to meeting lots of other health and safety regulations,” Ebersole said. “This is just one more layer.”
Dive masters are already responsible for keeping people alive underwater. In 2011, I watched Jeff Leicher, co-owner of Jack’s Diving Locker on Hawaii’s Big Island, save a diver who had a heart attack 30 feet down.
“We need to make sure people can breathe and that they don’t hurt themselves,” Leicher said.
Pre-pandemic, Jack’s Diving Locker’s five boats made half-day dive trips up to twice a day. During the initial shutdown, the trips stopped. Now, a boat goes out every couple of days. Capacity doesn’t exceed 50 percent, which allows small groups, often families, to stay six feet from others. Divers typically wear masks in case they do come within six feet of others or until they don their diving mask and air supply. Masked staff maintain distancing, wipe down surfaces, sanitize rental equipment and provide coronavirus briefings in addition to usual safety briefings. Once or twice a month, a household or social bubble books a private charter.
“We’re at about 35 percent of our normal capacity, and that’s mostly because our local dive community is supporting us,” said Leicher. “Since the pandemic began, they’ve driven nearly all of our business.”
The shop has gotten creative, taking on essential maintenance of about 90 commercial moorings in Kailua-Kona. Thanks to a Cares Act grant, the shop is offering scholarships to certify young people as marine-life ambassadors or open-water divers. The assistance is also funding the shop’s partnership with the Nakoa Foundation to teach kids cultural traditions and practices associated with the wa’a, or traditional Hawaiian canoe.
“Hopefully we’ll bounce back in time to stay alive,” Leicher said. “In the meantime, we’re pulling rabbits out of our hat to last a few more months.”
Like other shops, Patriot Scuba and Jack’s Diving Locker offer classes adapted to the moment. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), a scuba training organization, has introduced 50-plus digital courses that students can take through their local dive shop. Current divers can learn new skills, including rescue diving and underwater photography. Divers-to-be can complete coursework remotely, then continue in-person pool work and checkout dives individually or in a small group locally, or at a destination once it’s safe to travel. Students have a year to finish the process.
Not ready to test the waters? Virtual tours allow everyone to dive in from home. Landlubbers can swim with hammerhead sharks and descend into the deep sea with National Geographic. Plunge into the Poor Knights Islands with New Zealand Geographic. Splash around the world with Google Earth. On a National Marine Sanctuary System tour, restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys, explore shipwrecks in Lake Huron and frolic with a sea lion in the Channel Islands. And journey with David Attenborough along the Great Barrier Reef.
Kristin Valette-Wirth, chief brand officer for PADI, stressed that even landlocked divers have nearby options. Coastal environments are obvious shore-based dive locales, but islands are sometimes just a ferry ride away. Divers are also discovering lakes, rivers and quarries.
“Divers can find just as much adventure and joy locally, rather than depending on long-haul travel,” she said. “We like to say that wherever there’s water, there’s diving.”
PADI’s global interactive map provides current information on dive operation openings, guidelines, restrictions and precautions. Its PADI Adventures app enables local diving and snorkeling bookings, and its international destinations are planning fodder for the future. Divers can stay engaged with resorts and live-aboards on social media and can consider taking advantage of flexible cancellation policies to schedule a post-pandemic trip.
Ebersole recommended dive and trip insurance and noted that many international dive destinations aren’t ideal places to get sick. “You don’t want to catch covid on a plane and start showing symptoms in a remote location,” he said. “If you require medical treatment, that’s a real factor.”
Before deciding to patronize any dive operation, he suggested talking with the business about what precautions it is taking, as well as checking social media, reviews and forums. Familiarize yourself with state and local mandates; businesses must adhere to them and may implement additional safeguards. In addition, DAN and training agencies such as PADI have outlined risk reduction steps, such as forgoing diving if you’ve been exposed as well as mask etiquette in and on the water.
Little data is available about possible diving-related complications from the virus, Ebersole said, but “the vast majority will likely be able to return to diving.” Since his recovery, he’s back in the water.
The Belgian Society for Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine recommends that divers with asymptomatic covid-19 wait one month before diving; symptomatic divers, at least two to three. Divers hospitalized with the virus should wait at least three months, undergo pulmonary function tests and imaging, then consult with a diving medical doctor.
Leicher is optimistic that some visitors may return after Oct. 15, when Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine requirement will lift for travelers who test negative. Currer postponed her 2020 trips, including live-aboards in Grand Cayman and Tanzania and Zanzibar, until next year. Her 2021 Galapagos trip has moved to 2022.
Valette-Wirth recommended connecting with the dive community as we all hold our breath. Many dive shops are organizing “fins-off” activities such as virtual movie nights and community cleanups.
While we’re struggling on land, some dive sites are enjoying a respite. “For the most part, our reefs are challenged more by warm temperatures, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a rest in terms of the number of people,” Leicher said. “And we appreciate it more because we don’t get to dive as often.”
Williams is a writer based in Nevada. Her website is erinewilliams.com.