PADI Master Instructor Honors Lives Lost on USS Emmons in Okinawa


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Photo: Kevin King

Written by PADI Course Director, Kenneth Redifer 

Although “hero” is a strong characterization, especially given the ubiquitous military presence that’s found here on the island of Okinawa, Japan where I am currently residing, there is a PADI dive professional here that is worthy of recognition.

Kevin King, PADI Master Instructor, has been singlehandedly instrumental in the successful implementation of the distinctive specialty USS Emmons Diver. Kevin authored the supporting documents for this specialty, had them approved in late 2015, and started offering this specialty in January of 2016. In the first twelve months it was available, Kevin has certified no less than 44 divers, who, almost to the person, rave about its content and his delivery.

You may not be aware, but Okinawa boasts one of the only US Navy combatants sunk in war, but which remains within recreational scuba diving limits. On the night of April 6/7, 1945, the Emmons was struck by no less than five Japanese kamikazes in less than two minutes. Her fate sealed, the ship was intentionally sunk in the early morning hours, but only after 60 crew-members were either killed or missing.

Photo: Kevin King

Her wreck was lost to the fog of war and dulling effects of time, only to be “rediscovered” by American divers in 2001, when Kevin was stationed on Okinawa as a Naval Flight Officer on active duty with the US Navy.

Kevin returned to Japan again for another tour of duty from 2004-2006, and again visited the wreck of Emmons. But it wasn’t until he retired and returned to Okinawa in 2013 that the idea for this specialty started to take root: a need existed for a comprehensive historic overview of not just the death of a ship and its crew, but of their rich and passionate lives. AND, to boot, divers needed more knowledge, skills and abilities to better and more safely handle the various contingencies that are often encountered on this deep wreck in open blue-water Ocean.

Photo: Kevin King

Although the Emmons has remained a popular dive destination since 2001, almost no one who dove her really knew what transpired to bring here to the depths of the East China Sea in 1945. Kevin felt it exceedingly important for those that visit this war grave to know, respect and honor not just those who fell here, but those who survived and carried wounds for the rest of their lives. This is especially true in Okinawa since the vast majority of divers visiting her wreck are or were active duty service members from every branch. Kevin, being a 20-year US Navy combat veteran and a college military history minor provides a rich, detailed examination of not just the ship and her crew, but of the context of the time. The result is an engaging, interactive, and powerful 2-hour historical presentation that peaks and holds peoples’ interest. Kevin provides a detailed student guide with a summary of his PowerPoint-based talk.

Photo: Kevin King

But that wasn’t enough for Kevin. He also realized that many divers had been and continue to be injured diving the Emmons, and more focused knowledge development and training with better efficacy was needed to prepare divers for conditions that are often encountered there. First and foremost, it is a very deep wreck; the ship rests on her starboard side in anywhere from 140-150 fsw (30 meters) to the bottom. Low visibility and very strong, unpredictable currents are often found, and conditions can change radically even during a single dive.

Photo: Kevin King

Given these basic dive parameters, Kevin’s specialty requires DEEP and EANx as prerequisites. He then integrated knowledge and skills from the PADI Self Reliant, PADI Tec and Delayed Surface Marker Buoy diver specialties. The Specialty is concluded by issuing each diver a ship’s coin, which can be brought down to her wreck on two guided dives. Kevin then provides a personalized certification card which he designed and had custom printed, and certifies divers same-day using ePIC online.

Photo: Kevin King

Photo: Kevin King

But that still wasn’t enough for Kevin. Being a US Navy veteran, Kevin feels a special bond to the entire crew of the Emmons, those alive and dead. He decided to return 50% of his proceeds of each certified diver back to the USS Emmons Association in support of their annual scholarship fund, a competitive program that delivers money to descendants of USS Emmons crew-members. In the first year of this distinctive specialty, Kevin was able to directly gift $2,200 to the association.

While Kevin’s Distinctive Specialty is one of the more popular on Okinawa, what matters most is the impact it is having back home. An excerpt from a letter from Mr. Tom Hoffman, Director, USS Emmons Association, highlights this impact:

“I am infinitely grateful to the men and women who use their diving expertise to honor the sacrifices made in the Emmons’ defense of freedom. To know that Emmons’ resting place is in the hands of such caring people is pleasing and fulfilling. Though I cannot visit the wreck myself, my certainty that the divers care deeply for our connection to the Emmons is the next best thing. It is truly spectacular that those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are being honored in the utmost manner.”

Photo: Kevin King

Goodbye!


“Dream as if you’ll live forever……live as if you’ll die today.” ~James Dean

Saying “Goodbye” is important.  Much more than most of us will allow.

In the skydiving world, we say goodbye to each other every single time we jump.  Because it could very well be the last jump we ever make.  It’s not a somber occasion, or even stressful.  No, the goodbyes are said energetically, with beaming smiles and eye contact that says “I love you, brother/sister, and if I don’t see you again, remember me in this moment.”  It’s about embracing life and living it fully and in the moment.  But unfortunately, this jumper’s farewell with a very good friend of mine a week before moving to Okinawa in 2013 was our last.  I am so very thankful that we got to say goodbye to each other.  And, in this case, in our own very unique way.  Read about it in Blue Skies, Black Death.

That story, which recalls my permanent goodbye with Jimmy, instantly makes me happy and warm whenever I think about him, and I do often.  That’s one reason why I take saying goodbye so seriously.  The word “goodbye” used to convey a much more serious sense of finality than it does today in the electronic age of connectedness.  Originally, it was said as a contraction of “God be with ye,” which conveys a blessing of safe travels and life.  “Farewell” comes from the antiquated “fare thee well,” yet another blessing we find today in “be well”.  But these send-offs also can also almost be a plea.  And to those of you that bid me and Jody adieu at our costumed “Sayonara” party, I salute you for coming out to say a fun-filled cheerio.  If you don’t see me again, I plead with you to remember me in that moment!

But now it is time for me to say goodbye to Okinawa.  I may not be back, after living here three different times and for over seven years total.  I’m filled with anticipation and I’m excited:  after living on Okinawa the last 3.5 years, Jody and I are moving, and moving to an area new to both of us (Camp Lejeune).  Don’t me wrong:  we don’t want to go, and we don’t want to go there.  But we have to.  Yes, it’s not what we wanted or expected, but it will allow me a wonderful new opportunity to continue pursuing my passion as a professional scuba diver, this time among the wrecks scattered off the coast of North Carolina.  But the fact remains I have to say goodbye to some people who and places which have come to mean a great deal to me.  Which always makes my heart hurt….

The military-industrial complex is not known for their stable, static jobs.  Active duty people continually transfer in and out through the proverbial revolving door.  Contractors come and go with contracts and sequestration, and even Government Service (GS) employees often relocate with either of these categories of people.  But even so, when the stable instability that is life associated with the military becomes even more unbalanced, what does it all mean?  The roles that people play are in reality easily replaced, but seldom is the person.  Once you know someone, it’s hard to unknow them—you might grow apart, your relationship might change, but if you know someone, have chosen to know someone, you will always know that person’s character.  It’s critical to us all, whatever our social constructs, that goodbyes resulting in significant change be acknowledged.  So we say goodbye, sometimes formally, often times as an expression of intimacy.  Goodbyes, especially among an affectionate cohort, can weigh heavily.  While you may officially say goodbye to such a someone once (or twice), you’ll continue to say goodbye, emotionally and mentally.  It’s a continual process.

So, at great risk of leaving important people off this list (and please take no offense), I say these goodbyes, in no particular order.  Ken Redifer, you’ve been a fantastic PADI Course Director and mentor to me along the way.  You have challenged me to be better at every turn, and trusted me with your students at every level.  I can’t think you enough for shepherding me along the way.  To Jessica Mills, my “Scuba Wife,” I value every moment together, even though as your surrogate Big Brother I probably annoyed you to no end.  You will do fine at the IE and will quickly mature into a kick-ass instructor!  Matt Lewis, you have been one of my closest allies here on Okinawa, and I’m ecstatic to leave both my Adopted Dive Site and the USS Emmons Diver Specialty in your capable hands.  I will not forget those final dives on that serene shipwreck with you.  Darlene Fong, my “Scuba Momma,” thank you for the tec training and 130fsw+ companionship along the way.  I will miss our trips out to the USS Emmons together!   Ben Favorite, a fellow retired flier and brother-in-arms, you have been a wonderful friend and solid dive buddy.  Here’s looking to Truk again in 2019.  Do me a favor and please do work too hard!  Rob and Wendy, thanks for introducing us to Ishigaki and the manta-scramble.  And Rob, my IDC cohort from back-in-the-day, you still owe me lunch!  For our dive industry professionals, including Mark of the Crystal Blue and Tony of Torii Scuba Locker, thanks for your assistance and pirate adventures on the high seas.  To my fellow instructors (including candidates sitting for their IE this coming weekend) and Certified Assistants with whom I have worked or taught – including Jeff R., Dale F., Kim N., Scott H., Gary J., Chris W., Mike H., Matt M., Jose R., Jayce G., Jimmy P., Brian P., Kurt R., Chuck D., Roger, Noorin, Louis, Troy, Sarah, Patricia S., Kim H., Rebecca R., Ben S., Barbara S., Cory J., Ty, Asako and Bruce, thank you for all the laughs and good times in and around the pools, seas and oceans of Okinawa.  And to the Divemasters who elected to train under me still located here (Ben, Jessica, Jacoby, Lewis, Gerardo, Peter and Cory), thank you for your trust in confidence in making your move to the pro side.  Mindy, I couldn’t let your broken foot go without a mention; thanks for all your help with my branding and website.  Ms. Ana, of course, one of my all-time favorite divers and former students, thank you for trusting me to safely introduce you to the amazing underwater world.  Your smile and passion about diving whenever I see you brightens my heart and lightens my day!  And, a special call-out to two individuals who need to become PADI Instructors:  Rich Kearney and Gerardo DeLucia.  You both have exactly what it takes, and I see you as perfect fits in our tribe.  Don’t put it off; I waited about 30 years too long….

Goodbye, to each and every one of you.

I no longer struggle with goodbyes.  Saying a heartfelt goodbye forces us to recognize a change in our path, an acknowledgment that we’re choosing (or sometimes being forced) to change the vector of our lives.  The very reason goodbyes are hard for so many people is the very reason we actually need to do them, and do them well:  because they matter.

Imbibing goodbyes is as much a part of the human experience as breathing.  Let them serve as goodness in your life, helping you to leave better, whole, and more loving.  All goodbyes contain a blessing.  Use them to make each goodbye count – even if you are just ducking out to the corner store.  Each fleeting goodbye can turn out to be a goodbye forever.

Blue Skies & Happy Bubbles, Kevin, Okinawa 2017

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Okinawa’s Hedo Point: Go North, Young Man


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa's Hedo Point

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa’s Hedo Point

A drive north along Okinawa’s rugged coastline mimicked by Highway 58 can be quite refreshing, at least once north of Nago, having left behind the hustle and bustle red-lighted, gridlocked traffic of southern Okinawa in the rearview mirror.  But sometimes, contrary to the cliché, it’s not really about the journey after all; this long drive north is just a pleasurable expedition to a must-experience destination:  Hedo Point.  While the view from this Cape may be captivating, it’s the serenity of hearing the rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves lapping at the shore from our campsite on the beach that compelled us on this visit.

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo (辺戸岬 Hedo-misaki), or Hedo Point, is the northernmost point of Okinawa Island.  A narrowing spit of land jutting out north from the island’s tip, it faces the South China Sea on its west flank, and the Pacific Ocean on its east.  Hedo is part of Okinawa “Dai Sekirinzan Quasi-National Park,” a prefectural nature preserve first established in 1965.  This landside park is worth the travel alone, but that wasn’t the intent of this particular trip.  No, this time my friends and I were off to camp and scuba dive at our gentlemanly leisure in this place of known jagged beauty, above and below the waves.

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As one of the island’s most prominent landmarks, the area and adjacent park attracts visitors who come to enjoy their sheer beauty and challenging environment.  Offering a mixture of luscious green temperate rain forest, craggy cliffs scattered among high hills, and a seemingly ever-present ocean breeze, people arrive to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of Okinawa’s island life.  Even Commodore Perry, full of the bravado characteristics of his “gun-boat diplomacy” of the time, couldn’t resist its charms and visited (but recorded it as “Cape Hope”) during his expedition to Japan.  For our group, however, it was all about the near-virgin diving found here, and, when not diving, an opportunity to camp on a beach mere meters away from high tide!

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Be forewarned:  the point doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, except for maybe the most basic public toilets, a few stalls that sell food on what appears to be a relatively random basis, and, of course, Okinawa’s ubiquitous vending machines.  None of which are anywhere near the beach.  You can’t even expect a convenience store, which seem to dot every other square kilometer of Okinawa much further to the South.  If you plan to spend any time here, come prepared!

Paved Access Ends Here

Paved Access Ends Here

Camping here is rather unique and particularly refreshing, since you can camp right on the beach.  In fact, you can DRIVE your supplies directly to your campsite, located on a rather expansive crescent-shaped beach, complete with easy-to-get firewood and stones to act as a fire break.  HOWEVER, please don’t attempt to drive here unless you have full 4-wheel drive.  We watched a tourist drive a smaller type station-wagon onto the sand only to get promptly stuck.  Without any tow ropes, we couldn’t offer assistance.  Lucky for this couple, the beach sees visitors from time-to-time, and a Japanese-plated 4-wheeler was able to pull their care to the sanctuary of paved road with a proper tow, but only after a good hour or so of being stranded.

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

One other comment for you brothers and sisters in uniform:  I wouldn’t tell “dad” about your plans to camp at Hedo, at least if you are Marine Corps.  Two of our dive buddies were forced to get a “motel” (and that term is used only in the very loosest sense in this isolated part of Okinawa) about 20 minutes away since, according to the wisdom of the Corps, camping on anything but an “official” campsite is not legal.  Except for and to the Okinawans.  Go figure….  It’s ridiculous restrictions like these that make me lovingly hug my DD-214 a little tighter almost every single night.

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Access to this beach is easily found on overhead imagery anyone can view on Google; it is a short side-street drive from the point proper.  We could find no rules or regulations about camping here, and built fires for the duration with firewood and stones easily collected from within a couple of hundred meters of our site.  We were the only over-night guests, and we only saw maybe seven other people (no divers though) during our entire weekend stay!

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28928401894_f893d3bb29_bCape Hedo offers exhilarating diving as well, but maybe not for novices.  Here the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, one of many reasons that makes this area so interesting to scuba divers.  From the Cape’s observation point high on the cliffs, the undulating underwater terrain can be spied through the area’s clear waters, at least on a calm day.  Which leads to this important tip:  do NOT tempt fate here by diving in the wrong conditions.  Hedo is generally known only as a summer-time dive spot when gentler winds blow mostly out of the south and east.  In contrast, through much of the winter, the northwest winds and seas make this site unsafe to dive.  To complicate matters, strong currents are encountered once offshore, and rips can develop in the tunneling recesses found nearer to shore which make this geography so interesting to now explore.  Hedo hosts particularly unforgiving seas, so take heed and respect the elements.

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28928373444_00ca8390b2_bOn a clear day Yoron Island, the next major land-mass in the Ryukyu Island chain, can be seen on the horizon to the north.  Yoron used to be the symbolic demarcation point between Japan and Okinawa during the days of American Occupation of the latter (the former reverted to Japanese sovereignty shortly after the end of WWII).  Reversion activists frequently gathered at Cape Hedo to set watch fires, answered in turn by similarly minded people on Yoron.  A fact to which most Americans remain complete unaware (even those stationed here in the Military), control of Okinawa reverted to Japan only in 1972.  A monument, erected in 1976, to this the reinstatement of Okinawa’s sovereignty now stands tall overlooking the sea to the north.

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28930706873_a092030870_bWe camped in the fall, hoping to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of high summer.  Even though temperatures were moderated by a fast-approaching tropical storm, It never really cooled off at night.  I had assumed that between the breeze and temps in the low 80s, we would sleep well.  I assumed wrong.  What I didn’t factor was having to close up my tent due to rain.  Without that ventilating breeze blowing through my temporary domicile, I sweated way too much to sleep well through most of the night.  Between that and laying on undulating beach sand (should’ve leveled it more carefully!) without the benefit of any type of bedroll or padding all made for a very rough night of sleep indeed.  Luckily, we were planning a dive just after sunrise, with breakfast to follow.

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

29473209771_ac56798459_bThe inlet formed by the inward-bending crescent of the beach is chock full of crevasses, providing the opportunity to explore some unique underwater terrain.  There are huge, labyrinth-like landscapes here found almost immediately after dropping under the waves.  A note of caution about entries; there are some very deep and narrow crevasses that are quite masked by what appears to be a relatively flat, stable and shallow shelf.  Falling into one unprepared can be quite a shock at best, and potentially dangerous at worst.  Watch your footing, and watch the wave breaks, especially at night.  Trek the reef here with a BCD inflated to comfortably support you and your kit should you be surprised.  Moving to the “center” of the beach were a wash from the shoreline can be seen offers the earliest and perhaps the easiest entry, but a long walk at low tide.  And like all areas with such washes, this is also prime areas where rips can occur.

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We camped for two nights, which provided us 1.5 days to dive.  We elected to bring six tanks each, and arriving late afternoon on the first day we spent our time setting up camp, cooking dinner, and drinking by the fire until the rain chased us off.  The next day saw four dives in almost perfect sea conditions, while we only dove twice in the morning of our departure day.

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One of the funniest things to happen while we were there was the unexpected growth and quick approach of a tropical depression, which made a run at Okinawa from the south.  We had checked the weather prior to departure, but once on-site, our weather became a simple matter of looking at the ocean, 20 meters away.  Although we did note that the winds had increased, and rain showers started here and there, we thought little of it because the seas in our crescent bay were completely protected from the somewhat gusty southerly winds.  In fact, on our last day, with the winds picking up even more, the seas actually got calmer since the wind was, in effect, countering what little waves were coming in from the north.

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On our surface interval on our last day, one of our buddies, a retired Army pilot and contractor here on Okinawa, got a call from a coworker asking what we were doing up there diving in “Danger”.  Of course hearing only a one-sided conversation, all I heard was Ben replying, “What are you talking about Danger, it’s beautiful here!”  There wasn’t much more to the phone call, and I think most of us dismissed that comment as a jealous someone trying to ruin our fun with a rather low-brow prank.

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Well, he wasn’t pulling our leg after all!  We had expected to enjoy one of Okinawa’s gorgeous sun-sets over the East China sea during our drive home south along Highway 58.   But that was not to be.  As we excited the protected northern-facing bowl that our campsite sat in and crossed over the slight ridge to get back to the coastal highway, we were met with angry skies, gusting winds, and growing seas.  During the roughly three-hour drive home, the weather became downright nasty.  The storm hit us that evening.

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So, having been deprived of that sunset, I’ll have to plan this trip all over again.  Except this time I’ll bring a bedroll, more scuba tanks, and perhaps check the weather a little bit more closely….

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Diving Against Debris:  For A Cleaner, Healthier Ocean Planet


“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

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dad-interactive-mapdad-jan-2017I decided to host my first Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” event here on Okinawa at the turn of the New Year, and I must say, it was a smashing success!  At a local dive site called “Kadena North Steps,” almost 40 scuba divers were successful is removing 198 pounds of submerged debris from the ocean, amounting to over 635 separate pieces of trash polluting our coastal underwater environment.  Check out our full Kadena North Steps report here.  A big shout-out to all those who came out in support of this worthy effort!

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The SAD and DEPRESSING Underwater view of Kadena North Steps

 

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If you are not aware, our oceans are under siege.  More than 250 MILLION tons of plastic is estimated to make its way into our ocean by 2025.  Our everyday trash is entering the seas at an alarming rate, and it has created a clear and present danger to the ocean’s ecosystems.  But a global community of proactive divers is beginning to fight back against this onslaught.  And I decided to become more an active part of the solution than a passive participant in creating the problem.

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What is amazing is that all it takes to create grass-roots activism is to provide just the seed, although with creating an environment where that seed can germinate and take root.  What do I mean?  Make it “an event.”  Advertise.  Provide collection bags.  Offer donuts and coffee!  And take care of the debris after the divers have removed it….  Real and sustainable global change is only empowered through such grassroots action.

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Marine debris is, simply put, deadly to marine life, often hazardous to human health, and costly to our economies.   Animals, especially marine mammals, become entangled in debris and even mistake it for food – both often with fatal results.  Toxins can enter our food chains, resulting in sickness for an individual, and detrimental depressions in local and national markets.

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dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-counting-collected-trashThe event I hosted was a formal Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” (DAD) survey.  That means we not just collected trash, but weighed, categorized, and reported the data to a global database.  I also offered training and certification, for those divers so interested, In PADI’s “Dive Against Debris Diver” specialty.  Eleven divers completed this course of education and training that morning!

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-morning-diver-fueldive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-kevin-event-organizerDive Against Debris® is Project AWARE’s flagship citizen-science program.  DAD is the first and only marine debris survey of its kind which utilizes scuba divers to report types and quantities of debris found on the ocean floor.  If you’re a certified diver, you can collect and report important data while removing marine debris during your dive.  With your help, Project AWARE can use the information you report to convince individuals, governments and businesses to act against marine debris.

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dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-trashed-bottom-3However, Project AWARE goes even further.  Not only does the organization work to reduce underwater impacts of marine debris, but to prevent trash from entering the ocean in the first place.  Through “Partnerships Against Trash,” Project AWARE works with businesses, NGOs and governments to advocate for long-term solutions and influence waste management policies at local, national and international levels.

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Since my experience running this event was so positive and down-right run, I have decided to take my activism to the next level.  Ultimately, the most dedicated Dive Against Debris leaders across the globe are increasing commitments to the fight against ocean trash through another program called “Adopt a Dive Site™” (ADS).   Leveraging enthusiastic dive instructors, and concerned dive centers and resorts, ADS ensures ongoing local protection and monitoring of our underwater playgrounds.

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captureMy dive business Dive the Blues Scuba and I have adopted Kadena North as “my” dive site to care for.  This means I have committed to executing monthly Dive Against Debris surveys and then reporting types and quantities of trash found underwater each month from that same location.  To support this effort, Project AWARE will be supplying some additional survey tools, and will provide a yearly report on the state of my local dive site.  ADS is focused on removing debris on a sustained basis to ultimately improve the health of local ecosystems.

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You can view “My Ocean Profile” at Project AWARE to see these local actions, and see the details of my first Dive Against Debris survey.  Finally, you can see my first Adopt a Dive Site event where you can determine if you too want to come out and become an active part of the solution, rather than be a passive part of the problem.

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And don’t forget to come out and support my February 2017 Dive Against Debris survey this President’s day, February 20th, starting at 0900 local at Kadena North Steps.  Together, we can work toward a cleaner, healthier ocean planet.  One dive at a time.  And ultimately, we as a global nation of divers will be judged all the greater for it.

Dive Against Debris Lesson Guide


For those divers interested in qualifying for the PADI Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” (DAD), please review the below PowerPoint briefing .  For any questions, please contact me thru Dive the Blues Scuba on Facebook.  Thanks for your interest and involvement in helping to care for our oceans!

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Water Safety Stand-Down, or Punitive Stand Around??


“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  ~Aristotle

Okinawa, as well as the wider Pacific basin (Korea, Japan and Hawaii, in terms of the Marine Corps at least), is going through a temporary ban/prohibition on recreational water activities.  Due in part to the drowning deaths of two Marines this past weekend, but certainly exacerbated by other deaths and numerous serious permanent injuries from earlier in the year.  The Commanding General here in Okinawa says it isn’t punitive – but it is.  And the stand-down is supposed to be about “resetting” the force to help improve water safety so that we all can better and more safely enjoy the water sports for which Okinawa is famous…which it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong:  these deaths are tragic, and tragically preventable.  I am not belittling any person’s life, nor calling into question that something needs to be done to help keep similar mishaps like these from happening in the future.  But hey Navy-Marine Corps Team:  you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s what happens when the military powers-that-be on Okinawa ban or prohibit some activity because there is an issue.  First, the literally tens of thousands of people that enjoy the waters around Okinawa on a weekly, and for some, almost daily basis, are marginalized, ignored, and otherwise lumped en mass with the few who are cause for concern.  There is NO DOUBT that preventable deaths are a sad, unnecessary and tragic occurrence.  But for the common Marine, Airman, Soldier or Airman, to take away their access to the water though no fault of their own is, well, punitive.  All it takes is a scan of the Facebook comments to see evidence of this conclusion firsthand.  In fact, the people that actually are doing everything RIGHT – the vast number of people affected by this order I argue -are lumped into the masses, and made to suffer some attempt at remediation.  We will get to how badly that remediation is being implemented in this case down below.

Second, subordinate commands can jerk the chain even further.  For instance, for MCCS Scuba Programs, even pool events/training were placed off-limits during this stand-down, with the explicit threat of immediate termination if a student was allowed to enter the water, any water, for any reason.  Are pools really the issue?  Are people getting hurt in the pools?  Are we worried about the safety of pools or the events that take place there?  Some people on this island have to make special arrangements to take a scuba diving class.  Some take leave.  Others have to clear duty schedules.  Still others have to coordinate work releases and/or baby-sitting.  Canceling the ability to train, specifically in a setting where a real difference can/could be made considering the subject and intent of the stand-down, is, well, punitive to some and counterproductive to most.

Further, MCCS Scuba was required to do an immediate 100% accountability recall of rental gear, a requirement expressed to staff and contractors with some sense of urgency.  The fact was made very clear that the shops were required to account for every single regulator and buoyancy control device.  Was this the Commander’s intent?  Whose “good idea” was this?  I’ve read the Commander’s intent, and nowhere is this type of reaction warranted, or required by any sort of evidence-based practice.  Are we really that worried about people sneaking off to go scuba diving?  If so, what about all those people with their own tanks and gear….

Then there’s the stand-down “training.”  It is, of course, a PowerPoint.  And of course it was created in mere hours, based on existing (and lame) water safety products already readily available.  If you haven’t reviewed this training brief, please do so now.  Actually, although I have the brief, it is classified “For Official Use Only,” and while not a “real” classification, it would be in very bad form to place it in this public domain.  So, my apologies, but you won’t be able to see what all of Okinawa will be forced to view.  This particular briefing is one which is being promulgated on the “Green Side” (US Marine Corps), and it simply and completely misses the mark.  In retrospect, I’m actually happy you the reader won’t view the training – saves me the embarrassment.

So, let’s cut to the chase…and get right to the point.

Preventing these fatalities and other water-related mishaps are NOT a matter of sitting through yet another poorly conceived and even more poorly constructed PowerPoint briefing, delivered poorly by someone lacking the requisite knowledge and expertise to speak intelligently about the very real and very serious issues at hand.  IT IS A MATTER OF CHANGING THE CULTURE OF WATER RECREATION SAFETY ON OKINAWA.

I’m not saying that a safety stand-down is unwarranted or inappropriate.  Quite the opposite; we used them effectively in Naval Aviation when I was a flier.  What I am saying is that in the modern age of intrusive military leadership, documented training in a CYA-mode along with additional layers of micromanagement and oversight, such unfocused and irrelevant “training” is counterproductive.  Judgment is an exceedingly hard thing to just “train” into people.  Paradigm and cultural shifts take a level of effort orders of magnitude beyond more GMT (general military training).

The training provided, from an examination of its content, focuses primarily on THREE things:  Okinawa “Sea Conditions,” dangerous marine life, and rip currents.  That’s right – little about experience, almost nothing about wearing of personal flotation, no push for training and certification (not just for divers, but snorkelers as well), and finally, almost nothing on how to mitigate and handle growing anxiety and near-panic in the water….

Having been a diver on Okinawa now for over seven years, and being a PADI Professional for about six of those years (and a diver for 25), I can tell you that I have only heard of (but cannot confirm) one American fatality from dangerous marine life, and that was due to anaphylactic shock from a sea wasp sting, and not from drowning (I believed this occurred on/about 1999).  This brief would have you believe that Moray eels and even Barracuda are out for blood.  Fully seven of the brief’s 30 slides – ¼ of the brief when you take out the intro and ending slides – are dedicated to marine life, which to my knowledge, have absolutely nothing to do with serious water-related injuries or fatalities this year…or in the last three.  Talk about detractors???  Again, what is causing the water-related deaths and injuries on Okinawa?  What are the chains in these mishaps that we can keep from being broken??  MOST CERTAINLY NOT DANGEROUS MARINE LIFE.  Oh, and marine life is only potentially  dangerous, mind you….

Second, there seems to be a concentration of content on rip currents (8 of 30 slides).  I’m not sure the genesis of this focus.  If there was/were rip currents involved in recent fatalities, THEN SAY SO.  I, for one, find this hard to believe, although it cannot be ruled out.  Again, being an experienced diver on Okinawa, with something like 1,000 dives throughout the island, I have found VERY FEW true rip currents here.  And even those, like ones at the “old” Onna Point, Sunny’s Sunabe, Water Treatment, and Hedo Point are dependent on tide phase and change, along with various aspects of sea state (wave height, direction and period).  Training people on what to do if caught in a rip current is not a bad thing, and in Southern California or parts of Florida, a necessary thing.  However, are the photos of the purported rips in the brief even from Okinawa???  Remember, undertow and surge are NORMAL aspects of increased surf, and should not be confused with rip currents….

Finally, the long, verbatim discussion on Sea Conditions (4 of 30 slides, extremely wordy) begs people to yawn and check Facebook on their cell phones.  Let’s be honest:  there is a rampant lack of respect for Okinawa’s Sea Condition, the people who set it, and the criteria that it’s based on.  I cannot even begin to numerate how many times the meteorologists have jumped the shark when it comes to actual water conditions versus published condition.  It is a common joke across the island.  Sometimes they under-report how bad things really are; other and maybe more often, they over-restrict access to the water when completely unwarranted.  I feel so strongly about how ineffectual Sea Condition is that it has its own dedicated blog; see Surf Nazis Must Die!  Keep in mind that most mishaps happen when in “all clear” or “caution,” sea conditions that do not preclude any in-water activity.

Where is this discussion in this training on the absolute necessity of personal flotation, not just when scuba diving, but when snorkeling, especially in water too deep to stand, REGARDLESS OF SEA CONDITION?  Where is the emphasis on gaining proper experience?  But that in and of itself still isn’t enough:  where is the much needed discussion on MAINTAINING PROFICIENCY??  Having insider information on recent events on Okinawa, I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that lack of PFDs combined with inexperience and lack of proficiency were direct contributors to very unfavorable outcomes….

Where is the discussion in this training on whether the mishap persons in question inflated their flotation or not (if they were even wearing any)?  Was gear in place – mask and snorkel?  Where regulators used during questionable surf entries/exits?  Did the mishap scuba diver inflate their BCDs?  Did the mishap scuba diver drop weights?  Did those attempting a rescue ensure positive buoyancy for the victim and themselves?  Did rescuers drop the mishap scuba-diver’s weights?  Was emergency oxygen available and utilized?  These are all critical elements which could (but not necessarily so), improve the chances for a more favorable outcome.

Where is the discussion in this training that it’s not enough to have the appropriate gear, but to wear and use that gear?  When encountering any questionable surf on entry or exit, mask must be on and reserve air in the scuba cylinder should be utilized by using the kit’s regulator.  Further, how many divers really understand that in moderate-to-heavy surf on scuba that at times it is much better to DEFLATE completely to keep surge from throwing divers about?

Where is the discussion in this training on how important it is to calm yourself the moment you begin to feel anxiety in the water?  About being familiar and experienced enough with your gear (assuming you are wearing it) to utilize it when it is absolutely necessary?  Panic is a killer in the water, even at the surface, and as far as I can tell, these last three fatalities all happened at the surface, and were almost certainly preceded by full-blown panic.

Then there are the training’s misguided “Takeaways.”  From the brief one would assume that rip currents and dangerous marine life would be highlighted.  But they aren’t.  Instead, one takeaway incorrectly says to “go with your instincts”!  Instinctively people will go into water which they are not prepared for!!!  Only training and experience can overcome “instinct.”  Another points out that alcohol and water activities don’t mix:  IS THERE SOMETHING WE SHOULD KNOW HERE??  Or, is this just yet another plug to “not drink and [fill in the blank]….”  Yet another take-away is adherence to the buddy rule, always a great idea, but did a loose interpretation of the buddy team concept result in or contribute to one of these mishaps???  These are the things that we all need to know.  In the brief’s defense, it does on the final slide talk about training and equipment, but only in summary.

What are my takeaways, and what would I tell people if I had an audience, or were even invited to have input in water-safety training?  I would say this:

  • There is absolutely no substitute for comprehensive, quality training, for boating, personal watercraft, snorkel, scuba, and swim.
  • Training & Experience win over instinct every time.
  • There is absolutely no reason to disregard required equipment.
  • There is absolutely a need to build personal first-hand experience, both in numbers (repeated exposure) and over time (exposure to a wide variety of environments/conditions).
  • There is absolutely a need to maintain proficiency; swim, snorkel and scuba skills are perishable, especially for novices experiencing a long lay-off.
  • Emergency Procedures must be practiced in order for them to be effective, especially with new and/or unfamiliar dive buddies.
  • The “10 Second Rule” is not enough: waves come in trains, and ten second is not long enough to properly assess a situation.  A decision NOT TO DIVE can be concluded within 10 seconds.  However, if after 10 seconds the conditions seem okay, continue to monitor the site for a FULL MINUTE.  Only then can wave trains be properly accounted for, along with wave period and extent of surge.
  • Utilize all gear when in moderate-to-high surf, which includes keeping masks on, and having a mouthpiece in mouths (preferably a regulator/air source).
  • The moment increased anxiety is felt, STOP & BREATH; focus and get control of your breathing before thinking about necessary actions. Loss of breath control contributes quickly to panic and water aspiration, a combination that is deadly.
  • There is absolutely a need to change the culture of assumed personal invincibility over the oceans to one of exercised personal responsibility for your own safety – your safety is your responsibility, yours and yours alone.

Finally, in order to change the culture of water safety in Okinawa, it’s going to take engagement with all those that have the most impact and the most visibility:  swim coaches and instructors, snorkel and scuba instructors and store staffs, and even boat/watercraft renters and operators.  From my standpoint, and here I believe I may speak for many, there is almost zero engagement with the wider community of professionals, who all stand willing, able and ready to help make a change.  Outside of a few select individuals from a couple of the military dive shops, the community of professional divers is largely unleveraged in this regard.

What can be systemically done?  Push for additional training.  One way would be subsidies to bring the cost of relevant training down, training which could/may include snorkel/skin diver certifications through the dive shops, Advanced Open Water dive training, and even Rescue dive training.  Another business model could use additional revenue generated from a price increase for entry-level dive programs that would be used to offset these other courses.  Currently, only 7% of my annual certifications are for Rescue.

For me, personally, the best I can do at this point is through each and every class that I instruct, and each and every dive that I lead or attend.  I have, in the last year, added buoyancy and mask skills to every single class, and in the last months, have added an increased emphasis on sea state/ dive site evaluation and entry & exit safety.  Because, based on my own root cause analysis of mishaps (albeit based on very little and all unofficial information since little is shared with the wider community), these elements are exactly that critical.

Until there is a more reasonable, grounded and holistic approach to improving water safety, by engaging all stakeholders and customers alike, we will seldom make progress given the status quo of punitive restrictions and yet another ineffectual PowerPoint briefing.  “Are we done yet,” I hear you say as you yawn and put down your cell.  Yes, yes we are.  Now hopefully you can be done standing around and finally go back in the water.