27 March 2009

Dear PADI

Dear PADI,


Having traveled the world working as a PADI instructor I have fallen in love with diving and the underwater world.  Starting my journey in Roatan, Bay Islands of Honduras I was eighteen years old and did not have the slightest idea of what diving was all about except for the fact that I knew I would love it.  I spent sixteen months in Roatan accumulating masses of dives, working for various shops, encountering all types of underwater creatures from Blennys to Whale Sharks and progressed to become a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI).  I grew up at the beach surfing and have always had an immense amount of respect and love for the outdoors and a special passion for our aquatic realms.  I have great respect for the level of instructing, safety and environmentally friendly diving practices that most of the dive shops advocate and abide by in Roatan.  These rules are simple and make a lot of sense and on paper concur with what PADI stands for, to name a few general rules; "leave only bubbles, take only pictures", "do not touch anything",  and "no feeding the fish".


After becoming slightly bored with the relatively bland diving in Roatan (when compared to the tropical Indo-Pacific), my partner and I decided to fly to the Pacific and found ourselves in Guam.  Whilst working at Guam Tropical Dive Station (GTDS) an accredited "PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre" I encountered a different sort of diving culture which left me in shock and awe.  As an instructor at GTDS my job included, leading fun dives, doing Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) and other courses, guiding the snorkel tours and helping with the banana boating.  My least favorite task was instructing the DSD experience GTDS style,  this includes walking across coral reef that extends out 200 metres to a waste high depth where I would then brief my students, the four students would then grasp my dive float as I literally pulled all four out to the feeding site, each DSD would then come down the rope and kneel on the bottom at which point the instructor hands out frozen hot dogs and a feeding frenzy would ensue.  This obsession with feeding the fish was not a personal choice, it was a job requirement, when I expressed my dismay about feeding the fish I was told I had to do it, feeding the fish is a GTDS obsession.  GTDS also offers fun dives ("fun" is an interesting way to describe it), in which the boat is loaded with fourteen "fun" divers, most of whom have no diving experience other then the OW course (at least on paper) or the DSD "experience", these fourteen novices were only guided by two dive masters on a good day.  Watching the swathe of Japanese tourists attempting to put their gear together was scarily amusing, it was common to see people thoroughly confused when trying to figure out what went wrong with the set up, with my ever lasting PADI patience I would show them that they had their BCD upside down and backwards and usually the same was wrong with their regulator.  I say "scary" because we are about to do a deep dive through "Blue Hole" which goes down to 130 feet plus...way plus, one could descend into the bottomless abyss of the Mariana Trench (deepest trench in the entire ocean) as it literally lies 10,911 meters or 35,798 feet or 6.78 miles below the dive site.  With my own eyes I have seen the long time Dive Master (DM) at GTDS taking DSD divers through the Blue Hole at nearly 140 feet, it is of sheer amazement to me how none of these divers have ended up at the bottom of the trench nearly seven miles below (one or two probably have).  After going through the "Hole" I realize that the circus is only beginning and that things are obviously getting very boring and we need to do some fish feeding.  Watching Moray Eels swim from about 100 feet away through an entire group of novice divers on the scent path of a hotdog in the DMs pocket is convincing testimony to Morays astronomical sense of smell,  when considering how sharp Morays teeth are, how keen their sense of smell is, how poor their eyesight is, and most importantly how similar a human finger looks to a hot dog, then one can only picture the hazard to the feeder.


Now the second dive is when things got really fun.  Picture a once amazing, now mediocre and significantly damaged seamount of coral reef about 200 meters wide by 300 meters long in a big oval at about 18 meters depth.  This reef was encircled with reef balls, not for the purposes that are usually attributed to reef balls which usually consist of; reconstructing damaged coral reefs, providing a dive site for a desolate sandy bottom, or to provide homes for poor homeless fish who have been evicted out of their homes due to the recent housing crisis.  No the sole purpose of reef balls in Guam is to provide a convenient mooring for floating mesh bags which one can fill with "fish food" a.k.a. chum (which attract massive Jacks who were known to have become aggressive biters), probably consisting of frozen hot dogs and any discarded human fingers found from the previous dive.  Incidentally the reef balls also make perfect homes for the Giant Moray.  We all descend onto the reef, then the "divers" who do not really know how to swim (much less dive) proceed to do the reef crawl and grasp healthy corals and crawl their way along the reef following the ring master, I mean dive master, who then stops at a reef ball and with his magic metal wand puts pieces of hot dog on the end and antagonizes the Giant Moray into snapping for the hotdogs, then after feeding him a few pieces and pissing him off properly goes ahead and decides that its a good idea to pick the Moray up and lay him across his shoulders, like its his very own pet Python, you can imagine the look of amazement on the fourteen Japanese coral crunchers.  At this point I am throwing up in my mouth with disgust at the sheer and utter lack of respect for an amazing eco-system which is literally disappearing in front of our eyes all for the sake of impressing some inept Japanese sponge smashers for a few seconds.  This is not all folks, I come up from the dive to find Nemo a.k.a. a Clown Fish in a bucket which the other DM had caught somehow, have we learned nothing from "Finding Nemo".  The boat captain and mate are seen spear fishing whilst we are doing our safety stop, with their catch tied to their wastes (this is a regular occurrence which happens at every opportunity and is very hush hush, did you know the vast majority of shark attacks on divers happen to spear fishers, which has happened in Guam more then once), need I say more!!!  This is all coming from a "respected accredited PADI Five Star Instructor Development Center".  This place turns out lots of instructors and it makes me sick to my stomach to think what kind of example they are setting for their students around the world.  Its not just GTDS either the other PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center on the island is just as bad.  



Feeding fish angers me because it upsets the natural balance of things, you are feeding fish hot dogs who usually eat algae, reeking havoc not only on the fishes digestive systems but also on the coral life itself.  Coral is in constant competition with algae, if the algae grows over the coral then it can not produce food from the sun (most corals receive 90% of their nutrients from the sunlight), if the fish are not eating the algae then it grows out of control and suffocates the coral it smothers.  Have you ever seen an algal reef?  Ever seen a thriving coral reef?  Then you should know why feeding fish is an atrocity (unless you are blind or brain dead), not to mention the potential for lost fingers (which has happened in Guam), and the increased risk of shark attack as your invoking a feeding frenzy which naturally attracts larger and more potentially life threatening predators in their feeding mode.  I love sharks and have seen hundreds in the water at a time whilst working in Palau onboard the Palau Aggressor, however its totally different when you see a shark by natural occurence and when you see a shark because it has been attracted by frenzied feeding and an empty stomach.  Feeding fish also makes the fish relate humans to food, I have been full on attacked by schools of Chubs in Roatan because they were expecting a free meal and I did not have one to give.  One can only wonder how long it takes, if ever, for the fish to go back into normal feeding patterns.  Now I am only talking about hot dogs and Butterflyfish, when you take it to the next level to Tuna heads and Bull Sharks you are on another level that is wrong for the exact same reasons but indefinitely more hazardous and potentially life threatening, not just to the ill deserving humans, but to the healthy existence of a species, in this case the already severely depleted species of sharks as a whole. 


Now the Captain of the boat spear fishing with the mate whilst divers are in the water is especially disconcerting, what happens if the anchor goes loose and the dive boat goes adrift?  What if your spear fishing attracts nearby Tiger Sharks?  What happens if the Captain accidentally mistakes the Japanese DSD for a Trigger Fish?  PADI, its about setting the example for a safe, sustainable, healthy relationship between humans and the underwater world, by letting dive shops such as GTDS use your name and also allowing them to teach future instructors under the PADI name shows that you are no better then the host dive shop, the buck stops with you and you should take responsibility.  I cant believe that in your OW video you have an Instructor holding a Sea Urchin which is a poisonous spiny animal and at the same time tell your students "do not touch it if you do not know what it is", how about you tell them not to touch ANYTHING!!!!  I know what a Touch Me Not sponge looks like but does that mean its a good idea to pick it up only to go into anaphylactic shock!  Your pictures in PADI dive magazines never cease to amaze me either, why in the world do your dive models insist on breathing off of their conspicuously marked alternate air sources?  Why are their gauges always hanging out?  Why are they always touching the marine life?  Please I beg you as a PADI diver, clean up your image and do some policing of the shops you endorse because the situation has gotten out of hand, a good place to start would be Guam Tropical Dive Station (www.gtds.com), next stop Canary Islands, then I would suggest doing a full tour of Thailand.  In three months I will be available to become your first PADI Police officer (although I would prefer to police Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea), my wife would gladly join me as well.  We are not looking to shut operations down or to decrease your revenue, we are looking to enrich your image in the name of environmental sustainability and safety and to provide insight and education to errant dive shops.  We will even work for free only expecting all of our costs to be covered.


  Thankfully my wife and I implemented our beliefs and diving practices while working at GTDS (in fact in every shop we have ever worked in, across the globe) and proved that you do not need to feed fish and that you can actually teach your DSDs how to dive for themselves rather then dragging them about the reef and still make money, funnily enough the customers always had rave reviews about us and went away happier, more confident, more knowledgable, and more likely to continue there diving careers when compared to learning by way of the GTDS diving doctrine.  I know we will not be able to enforce good diving practices on every shop in the world, how about we start with all PADI 5 Star IDC Centers.  I know that most shops set a fantastic example for their customers but many as I have shown do not.  I would ask you PADI, do you agree?  I have had similar experiences at other dive shops all over the world which host Instructor Development Courses, it is atrocious to see that you do not police your organization better.  Your name is being smeared in the mud by dive shops such as GTDS.  I would suggest that you hire people such as myself to travel the world diving with suspect operations to see if they project the PADI image properly by way of sufficient environmental and safety standards.  I look to you PADI, to clean your act up and to get the basics down.



Happy Bubbles,


Fontaine Denton PADI OWSI #192474

8 March 2009

Recent Activity and Future Plans


Dear Friends and Family,

A lot has been happening lately in our newly formed family.  For the past three weeks we have been on holiday on the North Island of New Zealand.  Initially I was not meant to go with Maxine, Lilly and Maxines mother, Julia, to New Zealand, instead I was supposed to go back to Virginia Beach to work with Seaward Marine Services maintaining the Navys ships to make some cash to pay the bills.  I left Maxine and Lilly on the first of February in London to head back to VB to work, stayed with Katie and Kyle for a lovely superbowl night in DC then headed down to VB.  When I checked my email that day I was delighted to see three emails with the subject "URGENT JOB OFFER" from the instructor of my weld inspection course in Scotland.  The year before hand I had been feverishly sending out CVs and calling companies all over the world to try and land a job like this one so you can imagine my delight at the news.  After some emailing and phone calls I received an official job offer from Euroflow Designs Limited which is a Nigerian company that specializes in Inspection of offshore oil platform installations, they have ongoing contracts with Shell. 

The job I am doing is a standard inspection job of a pier at the Liquid Natural Gas Terminal on Bonny Island, Nigeria.  The job entails inspection of all anodes and measurement of their depletion and effectiveness, and close detailed inspection of all important welds.  Every 5 years they have to do inspections such as these to please the insurance companies.  I will be staying on a "luxurious" expat camp with golf courses, bars, restaurants etc.. where all the expat workers stay, all heavily secured and safe.  I just met with the owner of Euroflow yesterday for lunch and he left a great impression on me.  There are definitely some companies and areas you nor any foreigner especially white Americans would ever want to work due to high risk of kidnap, however where I am working there has never been an incident and after talking with many people who live in Nigeria and also Security experts I am confident I will be fine and am not worried.  I dont have any exposure to Nigeria except for the airports and the LNG Terminal itself as it has a landing strip and I get flown straight from the airport to my work site.  I am very excited and due to fly out on Saturday night.  The company wants me to come out for the duration of the job which is 90 days so I will be missing Maxine and Lilly loads but will be able to see them everyday on Skype.  Afterwards I plan on taking three months off to make up for lost time.

After confirmation of this job I thought it wise to spend some of my money before I earned it and joined Max, Lilly and the extended family in New Zealand for a nice holiday and quality time before heading off to Nigeria.  At this moment in our lives we are searching the globe over for a suitable nesting spot where we can live, and have been for the past three years.  It is not an easy quest but we think we may have finally found our destination with New Zealand.  This is the long term plan anyway and we wont be in any mad dash to get settled in New Zealand as I may soon be on a one month on, one month off rotation for work and cant be going half way around the world every four weeks.  New Zealand is amazing, its not as warm as we like but that and distance are the only downfalls we can imagine.  The surfing is amazing with unlimited potential, the diving is good, its on the door step of the best diving in the world in South Asia and the South Pacific, healthcare is high quality and free, education is of a high standard and its a fantastic place to raise children, not to mention world class snowboarding and it is an outdoors paradise.  In NZ I met Maxines extended family who are all lovely, explored some different areas, did some extreme outdoor activities in Taupo including Jet Boating in a river and extreme acrobatics, did as much surfing as possible and dived the famous Poor Knights.  

Lilliana is five months old now and will be getting her first taste of solid food tomorrow in the form of mushed banana, we dont see it as being a particularly challenging feat as everything she gets her paws on goes straight into her mouth and promptly chewed to bits.  She can stand up quite well when holding onto something and even manages to take real numerous steps forward and back when we hold her hands and balance her, she should be walking in a few months and will immediately be put on golfing, surfing and scuba diving lessons, with snowboarding and skateboarding being optional.  She gets cuter everyday and we are loving being parents, we are blessed to have such a lovely, well behaved, travel friendly baby.

In other news I have progressed my interest and passion in underwater photography by getting some placings in a couple underwater photo contests and also my proudest accomplishment of managing to get a cover shot on London Diver Magazine, they used my picture for the cover and did a full page feature of my photos as well as a few other underwater photographers, all of which you can check out on www.londondivermagazine.co.uk.  I also managed to get a couple of my pictures in Intrepid Magazine which is a sporting magazine in New Zealand, luckily my dive buddy was a freelance writer for the magazine and needed some pictures to go along with his article.  None of which have made me any money but every bit helps to add to my CV to one day become a professional UW photographer which is what I plan to do during retirement.

In short the plan at the moment is to go to Virginia Beach for a couple weeks after Nigeria in June, then go set up camp somewhere tropical in the western hemisphere, probably in the Caribbean until we are ready to make the move to NZ.  Like any good plan this is highly flexible and likely to change.  Maxine, Lilly and myself hope to see you all and miss you all very much, we hope to see you when we are in the States and wish you all the best!