It's Saturday morning, my first real chance to hit the water since leaving for Canada nearly a month ago. I need to get in and breathe! I don't really care where and finally decide on the Grotto. It will be a camera free dive, I don't want to do anything except enjoy the tranquility of being down there.
Standing on the rock ready to stride in I notice the water is calm and the tide very high. Nice, an easy exit too! Time to step off the edge. - (Insert splash here) - Ahhhhhhh the cool refreshing feeling of being submerged, no one around, no worries just my breathing and the sounds of the underwater world.
The dive itself was pretty uneventful. I headed out hole 3 to the outside and ventured down deep enough to feel some narcosis and the effects of depth. Slow, exaggerated movements and breathing - meditation at it's best. As always there were some great photo ops, bristle stars sprawled out on large sea fans, cracks and crevices with light rays bouncing in and out catching my eye here and there. No, I won't let myself go down the road of "should have brought the camera" - back to enjoying the moment, the feeling is difficult to put into words but, I'm at peace, this is my special place and all is good in the world!
As I began to make my way back up towards hole three I stopped to untangle about 30 feet of fishing line from some pristine coral. It takes some time, I was deep so the deco clock starts to add up. No worries I have plenty of air and hanging out at 30 feet near the mooring line turns out to be the most unbelievable part of my dive.
Here the tranquility abruptly comes to an end and I am left to reflect, in complete disbelief, on what I've just witnessed!
It began as any other safety stop, a group of divers beginning their descent down the mooring line with the instructor the first one down. While hovering a little deeper than the oncoming bodies he used hand signals to ask those who followed if they where ok. He began to motion the divers over to a rocky ledge next to where I was hanging out so I moved off a ways not wanting to confuse the issue with an extra body. As I watched the group I couldn't help but notice a lot of loose hoses. Everyone, including the instructor, had their octopus and air gauges hanging free rather than clipped or tucked into their BCD. It also became apparent pretty quickly that this was a very large group with none of the divers seemingly all that skilled. There was plenty of hand flailing, erratic fin movements, wide eyes and even a few rapid descents followed by vigorous kicks toward the surface and renewed attempts to equalize ears. All the divers seemed to be very much over weighted.
As I watched I began to count. Sixteen divers in total not counting the instructor. I also notice that all have gloves on and 10 of the 16 have cameras, many frantically trying to snap pictures as they descend to the meeting area. Here the instructor, now also with a camera, is arranging the group on the bottom with hole three in the background - the perfect photo op!
Imagine a pyramid of divers, those on the bottom destroying whatever may be there while the others attempt to hover above without whacking their tanks, fins or gauges on the heads below. At this point a final diver comes in from the top just in time to take up a horizontal position along the bottom row. Perhaps this could be a second instructor or divemaster but I can't tell for sure. The instructor with the camera begins to snap away. The photographer in me recognized the problem immediately - bubbles, bubbles everywhere especially directly in front of those not on the bottom of the pyramid. Apparently the instructor also recognized the issue as he scribbled on a slate and swam to the group showing it to them all. Soon the bubbles stopped, everyone was now holding their breath. The instructor quickly returned to his position and managed to snap a few shots before the inevitable exhalations began.
At this point the instructor seemed to signal to the group to swim in the area around the mooring line and so they began to disperse. The one I thought could be another instructor took up a position next to another diver and did not leave her side. Perhaps they were only a buddy team after all.
For a moment I thought - OK, it's just one big photo op and now they'll get to do a "dive" in the shallows before returning to the surface. No major harm done right, a big group just wanting to get a photo inside the grotto before heading back to Japan - wrong!
Just as I was giving the instructor the benefit of the doubt he turned and headed towards hole number two, the deepest of the three it bottoms out at over 80 feet. All sixteen customers followed. As they moved away form where I was the expanse of hole two filled up with divers. For a moment a couple of them obviously had problems as they headed up towards the ceiling of the cave before slowly returning to the bottom all the while the instructor continued out towards the open ocean never really looking back at his group.
Now I wished more than ever that I had my camera. I could not believe what I was seeing. Even if there was a second instructor in the group that's still an instructor to customer ratio of 8:1. And these were definitely not seasoned divers with plenty of experience. These were novice divers at best. I'd even hazard to guess that a few of them were on their second or third open water dive EVER. Gauges everywhere, nearly vertical swimming techniques caused by too much weight, an overhead environment and a maximum depth of well over 60 feet, not to mention holding their breath for the photo op.......
WTF. I mean seriously, peoples lives are at stake! Then of course there's the fact that another death at the Grotto is not something our tourism industry needs to deal with. By now if you're like me you're probably asking what dive shop? Who was this guy working for and how did he become an instructor? The answer, Blue Horizon Diving an NMDOA affiliated dive shop and I don't know.
I waited in the parking lot long enough to determine the shop and to see that everyone made it back ok, - this time. Next time everyone may not be so lucky. I would have loved to have pulled the instructor aside and started the conversation by saying WTF but, I thought better of it only because in the eyes of his customers he had done nothing but show them a good time.
Tomorrow I'll be headed down for a chat with the VP of NMDOA as they tout themselves as an organization with tough standards for all their members. I'm interested to hear what steps will be taken to ensure this spectacle does not happen again.