A small, but confrontational, number of Blacktip Island scuba divers are refusing to wear facemasks while diving. (photo courtesy of Christopher Mendoza)
A group of scuba divers visiting Blacktip Island this week sparked controversy by refusing to wear masks while diving, island tourism officials said.
“It started with one person, then exploded,” Chamber of Commerce president Led Waite said. “Right now, a third of the divers on our boats are flat-out refusing to wear masks. They can’t see squat underwater, and the salt has to burn their eyes like crazy, but they’ve dug their heels in.
“They say it’s their personal choice, and asking them to mask up violates that,” Waite said. “Problem is, they keep bashing into coral and the bottoms of the boats. Dive staffs are running out of first aid supplies.”
Divers say the masks stifle their breathing.
“Diving maskless is the natural way to breathe, and no divemaster’s gonna make me wear an underwater choke plate,” Buddy Brunnez said. “Our ancestors swam without masks or goggles for eons. Why should we change something that gave us such healthy lungs? Plus, looking at things through a glass lens just weakens your eyes.”
Others cited religious reasons.
“If God wanted us to dive with masks, we’d have been born with them on our faces,” Suzy Souccup said. “Who am I to question what God wants? I don’t care what the Pope said. They try to make me wear a mask, they’ll get one upside the head. That’s what Jesus’d do.”
The island’s dive staffs continue to encourage mask use.
“We can’t make anyone wear a mask, any more than we can make them wear a wetsuit,” Eagle Ray Cove divemaster Marina DeLow said. “We insist their masks are on when they giant stride in, but they take them off as soon as they’re underwater.
“The issue’s enforcement,” DeLow said. “We can’t spend all our time underwater scolding yahoos. And when we do, they act like they can’t see us. We’ve started taking them to sites with tons of fire coral, and stopped giving them Band-Aids, but that’s cutting into our tips.”
The island’s Marine Parks department is taking more aggressive action.
“We’re fining divers who contact coral,” spokesperson Val Schrader said. “But we can’t be with every group on every site every day. We’re citing people left and right, but they just blow us off. Or scream in our faces.”
“In the meantime, they’re tearing up the reefs,” Schrader said. “We requested more officers from Tiperon, but they’re dealing with the same problem over there and can’t spare anyone.”
Divers say they’re not concerned with the fines.
“We’ll take every one of these citations to court,” Brunnez said. “The Man don’t have the time, or money, to fight every one of us. It’s my nose and face, and I have the right to smash then into the coral if I want.”