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.

Monkeying around in Cambodia: Flight of the Gibbon


 

The only gibbons we saw were caged in a wildlife rescue center.

The gibbons we saw were in a wildlife rescue center.

flight-of-the-gibbon-logoIn 2007, a group of friends were enjoying one of their frequent rainforest walks in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai, Thailand, when they came across a pair of Gibbons (a type of lessor ape – no monkey – found in the tropical rain forests of Southeast and South Asia) locked in a roadside cage. They had been abandoned to die a horrible death from starvation and dehydration. Shocked and outraged, the nature lovers immediately rescued these rare, officially endangered animals. While slowly nursing the pair back to health, this group of activists started to develop a plan to create positive ecological change in our world…and Flight of the Gibbon was born.

12b_banner

Now one of the leading global eco-adventure tour operators in Southeast Asia, Flight of the Gibbon offers franchises in Cambodia and Thailand, all which offer truly phenomenal zip-lines, some of the highest, fastest and longest found anywhere in the world. But it’s not all about thrilling adventures; the organization invests 10% of their profits in primate re-habilitation, re-forestation projects and ecological education programs.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, backscratch for a hairy friend WM

We were not surprised to see that the site in Siem Reap was operated by an Aussie. We arrived very early, hoping to get our morning adventure complete before the oppressive heat and humidity of the Cambodia day set upon us. We arrived so early that we were able to witness just how rigorous their safety checks and “sky ranger” morning brief actually were. As our rangers (guides) told us during our tour, since the jobs created by Flight of the Gibbon pay so well and are considered skilled and “fun,” they are highly sought after. Thus, there is no issue getting the locals to follow the strict protocols for safety, operations and maintenance demanded of such activities.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin and Jody

Likewise, it’s no surprise that the courses were designed and engineered to exacting standards by a world-class international team of experts in Europe. Structurally speaking, Flight of the Gibbon uses the safest zip-line engineering methods used anywhere in the world. At the same time, however, the zip-lines are constructed in such a way to avoid harm to the trees which physically support the course.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, smiles

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, zipping through the jungle 2 WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin hooked upThe group of like-minded thrill-seekers we were supposed to fly with were running very late, and after chit-chatting with our new Aussie friend, he decided that we would go as our own group as soon as morning checks were complete on the course. Not ten minutes later we were gearing up with our own private “sky rangers,” two young men in their very early 20s who spoke fairly decent English. The Sky Rangers are not just there to help ensure everyone’s safety. They also act as eco-tour guides, explaining various aspects and elements of the jungle as you move through the upper reaches of its canopy.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody on the way down WM

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin zipping through the Angkor jungleCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, kiss on the honeymoon lines 2Flight of the Gibbon in Siem Reap is unique in another aspect: it is located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Archeological Park. Located minutes away from the majestic Khmer temple of Angkor Wat and massive complex of Angkor Thom, it easy to combine a couple of hours swinging in the jungle with an afternoon of touring the local pagodas. Your reservation comes with roundtrip transfer, park entrance (if you don’t already have a pass), bottled water, and a rustic Cambodia meal, and is currently $109/pp. That price also includes a full $20 credit to be used in the on-site store, a fantastic marketing ploy. We walked away with two rather high-quality tee-shirts and a couple of drink koozies.

Rest Break high up in the Treehouse!

Rest Break high up in the Treehouse!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody on a long-line WMI have been ziplining around the world, from sites in the American Rockies, to mountain tops in Costa Rica, to Japan (see Zip-a-dee-doo-dah for the experience available on Okinawa). I have more than a few experiences under my belt. The course at Angkor is mid-sized, consisting of ten ziplines crisscrossing over and through the jungle canopy. There are also four hanging bridges, a rest break at a treehouse perched high above the surrounding jungle, and an 150 feet rappel descent at the very end. But what makes this adventure so spectacular is the shear height of the course, most of which occurs well above 125 feet. The view from and cool breeze found at the treehouse is exceptional, and is exceptionally located at what we were told was a full 70 meters off the ground!!

Course Map

Course Map

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, zipping through the jungle WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, high treehouseAlthough new to Cambodia, Flight of the Gibbon was quick to introduce their first reforestation project in Cambodia by planting 5,000 new trees within the Angkor Park in 2015. And they have even bigger plans when it comes to apes: the white-handed gibbon has been lost to the forests of Angkor for decades now. But in 2013, Flight of the Gibbon helped fund the reintroduction of a pair of mating gibbons within the jungles of the Angkor Archeological Park. Their first babies have already been born, the first live, free births in those forests in almost a century. Although the website talks about a chance to see the wild gibbons, don’t count on it. Those apes have no need for ziplines, and no doubt stay well clear of most of humanity.

Off on the Double "Honeymoon" Zipline!

Off on the Double “Honeymoon” Zipline!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Jody bridged WMCambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, kevin bridged WMBut what about those abandoned Gibbons found roadside in Thailand? After their rescue, Tong Lorde (“Golden Straw”) and Tong Dee (”Good Gold”) were rehabilitated and re-released in Thailand, but only after having been taught how to look after themselves in the wild. They too have had their own babies, born free in the wild. And maybe one day soon, we all will be able to hear their calls and even catch a glimpse of them swinging through the rainforests of Angkor.

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, Kevin on the way down

For now, Flight of the Gibbon is as close as we can get. The eco-adventure is well worth the cost and a visit!

Cambodia 2015, Flight of the Gibbons Zipline, peaceful break in the course's treehouse

Contact for Cambodia:

Int’l. Phone: +66 53 010 660

Cambodia Phone: 096 9999101

Email: info@treetopasia.com

http://www.treetopasia.com

Spetacular Spelunking: Okinawa’s Gyokusendo Cave


“The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man.”  ~Stephen Gardiner

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

So, while I’m still med-down from most things I love to do that involve summer-time crystalline waters, swaying palms, sauna-like sun and sea creatures most can only imagine, I’ve had to reinvent how to explore Okinawan waters in different and unexpected ways.  Okinawa offers much more, of course, than the ocean to escape the oppressive heat of summer.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, shisa lion-dogs at the park's entrance

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, Kevin dropping down into the cavesThe Gyokusendo cave is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and largest on Okinawa, and is open to the public…for a fee (of course).  Water streaming through the rock and down various waterfalls has helped form the stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” over the past 300,000 years.  Hand-railed metal stairs and catwalks make strolling the cave a memorable and easy experience.  Motion detector-operated lights offer dramatic backdrops and psychedelic shows of colors.  The soothing sounds of rushing and falling waters are heard trickling throughout the cavern.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, dramatically lit pooling waters

Although the journey can be peaceful, relaxing and quiet (if you let the loud school-children pass you by), the landscape of the cave is foreign at best.  And it’s imposing enough to imagine it a place of other-worldly monsters, so much so that the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla movie was in part filmed here.

elpQArjBfr2GOdZA18cnDA8meVu

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, fantastic pathways through the cavernsAlthough the cave system totals over 5 kilometers of maze-like tunnels and caverns, those accessible by walkway runs for just about 900 meters (about ½ mile).  If you take your time to thoroughly enjoy the journey and take a plethora of photos (like we do), you’ll be in the cave for at least an hour.  And during that 60 minutes or more, if you are like me and find yourself needing facilities in the most inaccessible of places, urinating from the walkway elevated about 3 or 4 feet above the underground stream produces a loud and echoing splash.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, soothing path through the cave

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, this way to adventureHowever, that’s not where the adventure ends; rather, it can just begin there.

 

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin coming under a low passageDuring summer months (July and August), Okinawa World offers a special spelunking cave tour that lasts about 90 minutes and takes you to places not normally seen from the walkway.  It requires some uneven trekking and a good deal of energy, so you adventuresome types will find it tons-o-fun.  While not really “spelunking” as I have always imagined it, it’s probably as close as I can get here in Okinawa.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody smiling in the underground caves

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, navigating through the caveOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, peaceful Jody excited about exploring the cave!It is more of an off-trail guided tour, but it does meander through the more mystical paths of the Gyokusendo caves.  It does traverse over hidden obstacles along an underground river and some parts of the path are narrow and require a healthy measure of dexterity to navigate.  While the water is not deep, often times you have to duck under obstructions, putting you in the 60 degree water up to your waist.  That certainly makes for a cool-cool summertime activity.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

The stalagmites and stalactites are hard not to touch, but when they take up to three years to grow just one millimeter, the slightest touch can destroy hundreds of years of nature’s finest work.  Some of the growths are measured in many meters inside the cave!

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passage

There are some critters in the cave, although we didn’t see any of them other than the small bats that silently fly overhead.  While they often stay at the caverns’ ceilings, there were some surprising near-misses as these winged creatures flew up and down the passages.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, soda straws on the cave's ceiling

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, crawling through low ceilingsOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passageYou’ll need yen for on-site locker rentals, and if you are bringing a camera, it needs to be completely waterproof (housed or amphibious).  Pants and a long-sleeved shirt are required, and for good reason – it will save you from more than a few potential scrapes and contusions.  Footwear choice, perhaps, is the most important decision; I wore waterproof, closed-toed sandals, but almost rolled my ankles any number of times.  Gloves are also a nice touch, since some of the rocks you may grab for footing are sharp and/or slippery.  We wore parts of our scuba wetsuits, but that was overkill; of course since you’ll be wet to your waist or chest, you’ll need a change of clothes and a towel.  There are hot-water showers (with soap and shampoo) offered as part of the admission fee, and parking is free.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody pauses in the cave's passage

If you’re looking for an unusual and unusually-cool (figuratively and literally) adventure on Okinawa, be sure to not to miss this one.  For me, it was good to be back in the water.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin and Jody couples cave exploration

 

Okinawa World

Phone:  098-949-7421

E-mail:  info@gyokusendo.co.jp

Times:  9:00-18:30 (April-October), 1700 closing in Winter.  Last admission 30 minutes prior to closing.

Website:  http://www.gyokusendo.co.jp

The spelunking tour is NOT recommended for people with knee or back problems and pregnant women.  Child must be at least six to participate.  Although we were under the impression that this was only available through MCCS+, you can reserve directly through the caves.