About my World Record Quest
Dive the World
It was on a rough patch of the Indian Ocean enroute from the Seychelles to the Chagos Islands in 2005 that I got the idea of combining my twin passions of diving and globe trotting. I sat in the cabin of the Indian Ocean Explorer trying to stave off sea sickness and started talking with David.
Most of the passengers were British retirees interested in the bird life on these uninhabited islands.
But David, a Dubliner who runs a successful chain of furniture stores in the Emerald Isle, was going to the Chagos Islands because he is a country collector. David is a member of the Los Angeles-based, Travelers Century Club and he wanted to get to all 321 of the separately administered regions that the club counts as “countries.”
The UK forbids anyone except passing yachtsmen to visit the BritishIndian OceanTerritories, which the ChagosIslands are part of. In return for discounts on Polaris submarines, Britian leased Diego Garcia to the US so they could use it as an airbase. The US insisted that the local inhabitants had to be removed, and the islanders were forced from their homeland to Mauritius by trickery and then force. Several English courts have ruled in favor of the islanders’ right to return to their islands, but England’s highest court, the House of Lords found against them by a narrow margin. The islanders, represented by the same lawyer that represented Nelson Mandela, are now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. If they are granted the right to return home, diving and tourist trips to the Chagos Islands may become possible. Until then, these islands can only be visited by passing yachtsmen who get advance permission. The islands are one of the most difficult places in the world to get to, and anyone who succeeds in getting there, gets instant status in the rarified world of extreme travelers. Diving there gives one even more bragging rights, since diving the islands is strictly forbidden (even for US military) unless you are a member of a research expedition.
“Stamp collecting takes me to these places”, David explained. “I don’t consider I’ve been to a country unless I send a postcard from there. I have to research the addresses and opening times of the post office in every country I plan to visit. It’s a challenge but I love it. I come from a very poor family and left school at 15. Traveling and stamp collecting have been like universities to me, opening the door to history, culture, geography and people.”
Hmmm. If David could visit countries to send postcards, why couldn’t I combine country collecting and diving? Intrigued, I asked David to go through the list of countries he had stored away in his Palm pilot, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had been to over 100 countries and was thus qualified to join this elite travel club.
Hitherto, I’d only dived in about thirty countries, but having made the decision to try and dive in every country I visited, I quickly racked up new dive destinations. No matter what the season, I would tack on a few days at the beginning or end of every business trip and dive in a nearby country. This sometimes meant I was diving countries like Iceland in the dead of winter, so my dry suit skills sharpened. I looked for opportunities to dive numerous neighboring countries at the same time and found “quick” hits in the Caribbean, Arabian Gulf and Europe. I scoured the web for details of dive destinations and dive operators. I pleaded with clubs doing a dive to let me join them even though I wasn’t a member. I chartered dive boats just for myself when the operator wouldn’t go out without other passengers. I contacted the Guinness Book of World Records to stake a claim for diving in the most countries, but sadly they weren’t interested–they wanted “most hours under water.” I pointed out to them that this record could be set in a swimming pool and the record I was after required diving in ice, caves, wrecks, reefs, lakes, etc. to no avail. (So this record category is open for you to claim!)
I decided that when I had dived in a hundred countries I would set up a web site and claim the title. Seven years after my fateful meeting with David, I achieved my goal. I now fantasize about quitting my job and flying a compressor, tanks and scuba gear into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and writing about my experiences. It’s so much fun I can’t stop! I love getting e-mails every morning from distant countries I have yet to visit with their local greetings: the hearty “Bula” from Fiji, “Talofa” from Samoa and melodic “ia ora na” from French Polynesia. So exotic and inviting.
What have I learned about the state of diving? Firstly, divers the world over are invariably switched on people who care about the environment and are anxious to pass on their love for the aquatic realm with newbie divers. We immediately share a bond despite our different genders, countries of origin, professions or the socio-economic groups we come from. You have to be motivated to become a diver: it’s not a sport that’s immediately accessible, there are academic prerequisites and it’s not cheap. While dive operators may bemoan the fact that they will never attract the hordes and get rich, this does have the advantage of largely filtering out most of the annoying segment of the population. Thus, even when the diving conditions are not optimum, pleasant social discourse almost always ensures an excellent day out.
Next, we need to do a better job of protecting the aquatic realm. Whether due to global warming, over fishing or pollution many places have less fish or healthy coral than they did even a decade ago.
Thirdly, making a living in the dive industry is tough. The cost of a day’s diving has stayed remarkably consistent around the world during the 15 years that I have been diving, while the cost of living has naturally risen. Still, most dive operators could do a better job of servicing their customers. I’m always amazed that so many operators go to the trouble of setting up a website, but then don’t return calls, respond to e-mail inquiries or take a casual attitude to firming up logistics to go diving. “Call me when you get there” doesn’t work for divers at the other end of the world who need to firm up travel arrangements, have limited time in a location and want to assure themselves of a dive. Incredibly, many blessed with seas teeming with wrecks on their back doors don’t offer diving when the waters require a dry suit. Instead, they content themselves to selling equipment and conducting pool training for divers they refer to dive centers in warmer climes for check out dives.
Finally, few dive professionals are willing to get off the fence about their favorite dive locations either because they don’t want to start an argument or they fear discouraging a potential customer from going to a particular destination. Also, many dive magazines rely on dive resorts for advertising revenue. That is why you read about the same places year after year, and why it’s all favorable. Off the beaten track destinations don’t advertise, so rarely rate an article. Also, dive magazines have a tendency to have a limited geographical remit: the Asian dive magazines
cover Asia; the US magazines focus on the Caribbean and other locations popular with US divers; and Australian dive magazines feature destinations close to Australia. Only the German dive magazines seem to have a truly global reach. But even they don’t run “you don’t want to dive here–it’s a pain in the south pole!” articles.
I’ll make a deal with you though. I’ll stick my neck out and give you my suggestions of where the best and worst dive spots are. I promise that I didn’t accept one freebie from any hotel, dive operator airline, etc. in coming up with my list. In turn, you agree to take my suggestions below as subjective opinions only. Deal?